‘The Empire Project’: One of the Best Parts of the 2013 New York Film Festival is Available Online

Empire Project 2

The most interesting selection of the New York Film Festival this year isn’t a feature. It isn’t quite a short film either, not really. It’s interactive, and the best bits of it are available for you to watch at home, right now.

Once upon a time, there was a Dutch Empire. It wasn’t particularly large, but that’s relative to behemoths like the British and French colonial spread. Setting out from the Netherlands in the 16th century, the Dutch East and West India Companies would end up with a trading empire that has left its mark on twelve different nations. Filmmakers Eline Jongsma and Kel O’Neill went to ten of them. The result is The Empire Project, a curated collection of vignettes taken across the globe and united by simple visual juxtaposition and creatively interactive web design.

The simpler of the two films is Cradle, shot entirely at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam. When it’s shown in a gallery setting it requires two separate screens, placed back-to-back. On one side is the exterior, the fences where planespotters gather to watch the runways. The emphasis is on the enormous amount of traffic and the multiplicity of points of origin. Amsterdam, once the cradle of empire that the title of the film references, is now filling up with immigrants from around the world. Jongsma and O’Neill interview one young boy watching the planes whose family came to the Netherlands from South Korea, whose perspective would not have been possible just a century ago.

The obverse film, playing simultaneously, is a brief documentary about the morgue at Schipol Airport. Bodies are being prepared for liftoff, final journeys to scattered resting places across the globe. The deceased are citizens of myriad countries, and of all different cultures. The morticians must accommodate a wide variety of rituals and rules, emblematic of Amsterdam’s status in the newly globalized world.

In the gallery setting, viewers had to physically walk from one side to the other in order to catch the doubled quality of the film. The online incarnation simplifies it to the scroll of a mouse, flipping the image instantly. Yet there is but one soundtrack, allowing the two locations to influence one another even if one were to spend the entire duration of Cradle watching the morgue scenes. This is cinema of simultaneity, now helped out of the art gallery and into a more accessible setting.

Empire Project

The second of these documentaries, Legacy, is a bit different. Rather than playing two locations at the same time, it assembles footage from four separate nations. Jongsma and O’Neill gather an old synagogue in Indonesia, a Dutch graveyard in India, a whites-only community in rural South Africa, a replica colonial village in Sri Lanka and other odd emblems of the former empire. The web version is completely interactive, combining the connections that the filmmakers draw between these places and the specific interests of the audience.

As you watch the film, links between the different locations will present themselves. A mention of the South African lion’s extinction will open up a path to Sri Lanka, where the last remaining descendants of Dutch Burghers are coming to terms with their inevitable departure from history. That’s just one example of the many lines that can be drawn between these varied locations and unique communities. The interactivity of the film allows engagement that would not have been possible in the darkened cinema.

Cradle and Legacy allow us to glimpse an entire world in miniature, a unique perspective on what Jongsma an O’Neill called the “unintended consequences of colonialism.” Check them both out on the Empire Project website.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.