In Eché Janga’s new film Bulado, a young girl named Kenza is caught in a culture clash between the traditional views of her grandfather and the more Westernized attitudes of her father, a single parent. With touches of magical realism informed by indigenous beliefs, this visually and emotionally appealing drama puts Curaçao on the world stage as it represents the Netherlands as their official Oscar submission. In the edited interview below, Awards Radar spoke with Janga about the personal and cultural significance of the unique project.
Shane Slater: It’s so rare to see Curaçao portrayed on film. How did you get the idea to tell this story?
Eché Janga: Well, I lived with my uncle for about six months. He is from Curaçao, like my father. He’s a very spiritual man, while my father is a very rational guy. They are actually the opposite of each other. And I was always looking for something spiritual in my life and I found it while I was living with my uncle. He was a very good storyteller, like most people in the Caribbean. They have an oral culture. So he was telling me every night about things in Curaçao and he told me the story of a man who wanted to die like the indigenous people did.
The story got to me because it was an old myth from enslaved people who needed hope in their life. This was a five-page story, where a man wants to die and follow a hawk to enter the afterlife. And I was thinking I have to make a film out of it, but it was too short to make into a film. So I had to come up with the other 85 minutes. That took me about 10 years and in those 10 years, I learned a lot about the culture and my own family. I didn’t know them very well because my father didn’t tell me much about my own culture. He was a bit traumatized by his youth.
So due to my uncle, my nephew and my nieces, I learned more about the island. And I went there and made a good friend Esther Duysker. And together we wrote the film.
SS: I love the look of the film. Curaçao is a small country but the way this is shot gives the impression of a vast, epic landscape. What was the thought process behind your approach with your cinematographer to fulfill your vision?
EJ: In all my work, I write after I’ve seen the locations. I did a film called Helium, it’s also shot on a Dutch island Texel. And I went to Texel just to feel the atmosphere and feel the vibe over there. Then I started writing.
For Curaçao, I went there about four times before I started writing the film. And most of the time, the location dictates the scene. There are some parts of Curaçao that are more rough. There’s the more Western part, where more of the white and richer people live. Then there’s the more “country” side, called Bandabou, which is the real Curaçao to me. Tourists don’t come there that often. But there’s a really interesting culture. So I went to Bandabou a lot, which is what you see in the film. Some scenes are written on the spot, in the location. So location, atmosphere and scenery are most important for me.
SS: The three main actors fully inhabit their roles. How did you go about crafting those characters and casting those actors to play them?
EJ: Well, the old man is called Felix de Rooy and he’s actually a famous director from Curaçao. He’s a director, performer, painter. He’s an artist. But he’s also a grandfather himself. So it was easy to cast him because he’s basically playing himself. For the father, I was casting men from the Netherlands.
I knew the girl had to come from Curaçao because she had to be as authentic as possible. But I knew I had to direct her in a short period of time because I was only there for three months. And I had to build a relationship with her. So, for me it was important to cast the father in the Netherlands so I could build the relationship with the father and together we could direct the girl. So it was a team with the father. He was born and raised in Curaçao but went to the Netherlands when he was about 10 years old.
She couldn’t speak Dutch. She spoke English, Spanish and Papiamento. I also speak English, Spanish and a bit of Papiamento, but not good enough to direct emotional scenes. So I did three weeks with her and the father doing things like going to the beach, to bring strong relationships. We found her in the schools. I had seen like 30 or 40 girls and she was the most interesting because she was really like a tomboy. A really tough girl. She reminded me of my sister. Kenza in the story is actually my sister. She was also really tough.
SS: The film explores the connection between the Dutch and Curaçaon cultures. How have Dutch and Curaçaon audiences received the film?
EJ: When I showed it in the Netherlands, a lot of Curaçaons went to see it because there’s almost never been a film in Papiamento in the Netherlands. The theaters had Black people from Curaçao and white people from the Netherlands and Curaçao. So there were these different groups. It was really interesting because most white people who’d seen the film loved it because it’s about death and grief. But most people Black people from Curaçao loved it because the spirituality was taken seriously. It was something the father needed to learn and respect. That was something they loved. Spirituality is not taken seriously on the island by the white people or the Dutch government, throughout their whole history. So they really loved it for that.
My mother is white and Dutch, and my father is Black Curaçaon. For me, it’s always normal to have these two cultures in one house. But my house is a small piece of Curaçao.
In Curaçao, they really loved it because they never saw the island portrayed this way. Most films shot in the island are very low budget. We also didn’t have much money but we had much more than they normally have. They loved seeing the island in this cinematic way.
SS: Do you think more people in Curaçao are like the traditionalist grandfather or more like the modern father?
EJ: The younger people 10 or 20 years ago, were only focused on Western culture. But now I think because of Black Lives Matter and the whole movement of knowing your history, now they are turning. So they were really interested in the grandfather. They liked the scene where the girl calls her father “makamba,” which is like a curse word for white man. So they really loved that scene because that is what they are feeling, because they also wanted to know their culture. I got a warm feeling that young people liked it because it’s actually a really slow movie. It’s a “boring” movie for youngsters. But they still loved it because they saw themselves in it.
SS: Now Buladó is representing the Netherlands for the Oscars, which is interesting because it is so critical of Dutch colonialism. Were you surprised that it has been so well received to be chosen by the Netherlands?
EJ: In the Netherlands, the Film Commission was until now a really white organization. But they are really trying to learn how they can be more inclusive. So Esther and I were wondering if they chose it because they liked it or because it was a Black film. But in the end, it was clear that if they only chose it because it was a Black film, it would be dangerous. If the film wasn’t good it would be rejected.
We were more surprised because it was such a small film. That was more of the surprise after the initial doubt. In the Netherlands, there’s change coming. Now, people from Curaçao can apply for money for small film projects. They are really trying to change. I think Buladó helped because it’s such a success.