In Mother Suriname – Mama Sranan filmmaker Tessa Leuwsha uses impressive, largely colored and sound-enhanced archive material to depict the lives of Surinamese women, such as her grandmother. “I didn’t want the film to be a lesson or a finger-pointing.”
In Mother Suriname – Mama Sranan plantations from the beginning of the 20th century, the Surinamese uprising in the 1930s around Anton de Kom, the Second World War, from which soldiers often did not return, and the Surinamese independence of 1975.
The events form a common thread in Surinamese history, but Mother Suriname – Mama Sranan is primarily a film about ‘grandma Fansi’ on whom the history of Suriname is hung. The Netherlands, as a colonizer, only appears sporadically, but is continuously palpable in both writing and images. This can be seen from Grandma Fansi’s perspective: often loving, sometimes open-minded and certainly critical.
Tessa Leuwsha (56) previously wrote a book about her grandmother, Fansi’s silence (2015). Fansi’s silence is the starting point for the film, but unlike the book, people in the documentary do not talk about Grandma Fansi, but she herself speaks for over an hour – although her words are recorded by singer Denise Jannah (67), who provides the voice -about alternates with beautiful Surinamese songs.
Why did you choose to let your grandmother speak this time?
“Slavery, colonialism: these are umbrella concepts. You read them, but you don’t feel much about them. With a human portrait I wanted to make Surinamese history tangible, without portraying the people involved purely as victims. A lot is spoken and written about Suriname. I thought it was time to let someone from the country speak.”
In 1943, Surinamese people took to the streets with Dutch flags to celebrate the arrival of Princess Juliana. How do you view those images now?
“On the one hand, people were brainwashed. They considered themselves subjects of the Netherlands, learned Dutch history, while the Netherlands saw Suriname as a distant colony. On the other hand, you also see genuine joy in the images. No matter how bitter, despite the situation, Juliana’s visit was a reason to celebrate.”
Earlier in the film, your grandmother wonders why she is even called a “half-breed.” “But how can your blood be half?” she asks. Then she remains silent – no political point is made.
“I didn’t want the film to be a lesson or a finger raised. I wanted you to sympathize with someone who makes you aware of the context in which she lives, and who also experiences her own growing self-awareness.”
The sensitive history is subtly depicted.
“It’s subtle, because my grandmother was not an activist. She was just a woman. A mother who wanted her children to do well above all else. It wouldn’t be fair to turn her into something else afterwards.”
Yet it is clear that she also finds her own way.
“She also chose to walk with the most important demonstration in the late 1940s, while in the 1930s civilians were still being arrested and shot. Throughout her life she increasingly embraces her traditional belief in winsti and ancestors. This put her out of step with the morals of the time, and even now the Winti faith is far from accepted.”
Was it difficult to find the right images to tell the story?
“Because the film is inspired by the book, I knew exactly which elements I wanted in the film. For example, Anton de Kom (1898-1945). My grandmother lived on the Heiligenweg in the center of Paramaribo. She also left home during the uprising on Black Tuesday (1933). For her it was an important turning point that raised her social consciousness. Her eyes were opened there. It was difficult to find intimate images, of falling in love or other small happiness. That was rarely played at the time.”
The film also captures how different cultures live together, for example in and around the small houses where your grandmother lives in Paramaribo.
“It touched me to see that in moving images. I had seen photos, but not that you see everyone moving around the shabby yard. My grandmother also says in the film: ‘Other people watch my children.’ Then you see a Javanese woman and a Hindustani man, while she herself is Afro-Surinamese. The amalgamation of the population took place there. I got that insight when I saw those images for the first time.”
How did you get it?
“The images were made by Wim Bos Verschuur (1904-1985). He was a Surinamese politician who stood up for the rights of the Surinamese. When the Dutch came to Suriname, they filmed what the colony produced, and journalists highlighted the problem sides of the country, but he filmed how people lived from day to day. These are unique images that have never been shown before, just like his images of the demonstration against the Dutch regime in the 1940s.”
The film is also often about your grandmother’s mother, whom she never knew. Was there a lot of pain there?
“I thought it was important to indicate that she led a life where people kept leaving. First her biological mother. Then her foster mother dies. Prince, her lover, goes to New York. When he returns, he chooses another woman. Her children leave for the Netherlands. Being abandoned, being abandoned: it is a strong thread for someone who lives in a colony; people keep leaving.”
Eventually your grandmother came to the Netherlands, the country with vanilla custard in the retirement home, which she jokes about.
“When we went to visit grandma there was that buffet where everything was served. My aunts took good care of her, but she always had the desire to go back to Suriname. The retirement home was lonely for her because she was the only black woman. She also says, “I hope you don’t stick me out here like a potato.” She had humor, a strong woman who made the best of her life.”
Mother Suriname – Mama Sranan can be seen at Idfa, and runs throughout the city from November 13 to 18. Please note: at the time of writing, there are only tickets left for Monday, November 13 in Pathé City 4.