Dogme, Deception, Desperation, and the Dutch Drama ‘Little Sister’

Part of our ongoing Videotheque Vault series, Isabella Miller brings us Little Sister (Zusje) (1995), Robert Jan Westdijk’s handheld feature that challenges Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s standard of filmic truth as outlined in their Dogme 95 Manifesto. 

In 1995, Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg co-wrote the Dogme 95 Manifesto and signed their vows of devotion to spartan aesthetics in response to Hollywood’s excess and bourgeois corporatism. That same year, Robert Jan Westdijk released his first film, a micro-budget feature shot almost entirely on a handheld video camera called Zusje (Little Sister).  Although Zusje does not adhere to all of the rules set by the Manifesto (the film was, after all, shot before the Manifesto was published), it shares the low budget, D.I.Y. ethos espoused by von Trier and Vinterberg’s doctrine.

But while the Dogme followers produced their minimally affected films out of a sense of philosophical conviction, Westdijk produced his film out of a sense of economic necessity that young filmmakers, for the most part, share. While the aesthetic purism promised by the Vow of Chastity produced arguably somewhat lackluster films, Westdijk used his cheap technology to construct a spellbinding tale of abuse and obsession that is inextricable from its form.

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Zusje is almost entirely shot with a small camcorder attached to the hand of Martijn (Romijn Conen), a twenty- or thirty-something Dutch man who, after having lived abroad in England for the majority of his adult life, has returned to the Netherlands to visit his younger sister, Daantje (Kim van Kooten). When he’s questioned and ridiculed for his earnest obsession with the camera by Daantje and her friends, Martijn purports to only be interested in capturing moments of his estranged sister’s life. Martijn’s peculiar attraction to his sister develops swiftly, but we get the sense that he does not film only for his own voyeuristic delight: Martijn has returned to the Netherlands and to his sister for closure, to find some truth in a childhood memory, or perhaps a childhood trauma—at least that is what Martijn would like for himself (and for us) to believe.

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There is tension between truth and bias present in Zusje — what is, what seems to be, what is merely a fiction — that becomes more fraught as the film progresses. Even though Martijn means to use his videos as a document, we quickly realize that we cannot fully trust what we’re seeing as truth. When the camera switches hands, so do our impressions of the characters and their motivations.The brand of authenticity sought by Dogme 95 is questioned in Zusje multiple times over. The notion that it is even possible to create a film in which the technology does not manipulate the filmed subject is subverted — there is no art without artifice, and ‘truth’ rests in the hands of the cameraman.

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Part of what makes Zusje so remarkable is what little attention it has received outside the Netherlands, where it won the Golden Calf for Best Feature in 1995.  The density of Kim van Kooten’s performance and the effortlessly woven dialogue make it difficult to believe this was the work of first-timers, and that, even after its release, the found footage faux-doc form has remained almost entirely closeted in the confines of the horror genre. Zusje is a film that makes you feel like you’re watching it for the first time your second time around, which makes you realize that, in fact, you really did watch it for the first time, for it is unlike any other drama that preceded it.

Author: Isabella Miller is a second-year at Oberlin College where she studies Cinema and Comparative Literature. This summer she is the Facets Label Sales, Marketing & Publicity intern at Facets.

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