IDFA review: They Call Me Babu

IDFA review: They Call Me Babu

In the Netherlands, as awareness of its colonial past is growing, more stories from that past are being told. They Call Me Babu adds a previously unheard voice – one of an Indonesian young woman growing up in exciting and dangerous times during the 20th century. A mesmerising journey through space, history and emotions, carefully and lovingly crafted from found footage.


They Call Me Babu brings back to life a world that no longer exits, seen through the eyes of an intelligent, sensitive, inquisitive young woman, who in voice-over addresses her dead mother. From the very beginning the stunning footage and the hypnotic voice, subtly yet effectively supported by sound and minimalistic music, immerses you into her thoughts and life. A life filled with tragedies, from the moment she and her mother are disowned by her father, because he’d wanted a son.


First time director Sandra Beerends, from mixed Dutch-Indonesian origin, distilled the story from extensive research into the experiences of indigenous nannies in Indonesia, working for Dutch families. They were called babus, a term invented by the Dutch (‘as if they want to say two words at once: ba from miss and bu from mother’) and they were considered an indispensable part of the household or even the family. They Call Me Babu follows the nanny on her travels to the Netherlands, back to Indonesia, the Japanese occupation during WWII, the liberation and declaration of an independent Indonesia, the consequent war waged by the Netherlands in an attempt to regain control over their colony and the final re-instatement of Indonesia’s sovereignty. But it does so much more.


We follow Alima in her attempt to make sense of the world, observing and carefully describing everything that is new to her (the white skin of baby Jantje, the way the Dutch family lives by the clock, the way the Dutch everywhere ‘behave as if the whole world belongs to them’, snow, or as she calls it ‘magical white sand’).


At the same time she depicts the intricate relationships between coloniser and colonised: when she tells about how she rehearses new Dutch words on board ship at night, she casually mentions she sleeps on the floor next to Jantje’s bed. In the Netherlands she comments on a parade with Indonesian characters: ‘that’s how belandas (the Dutch) like to see us best: like an exotic curiosity’. 


At the same parade she encounters young Indonesian students who tell her that ‘in the future those Dutch families will no longer rule Indonesia’ and ‘sovereignty has to do with freedom’. And as she blossoms into a young woman and finally catches the attention of men around her, she hears about babus being assaulted by their tuans, their masters.


The film is exemplary for the understated but at the same time impactful way Beerends weaves the personal experience around the dramatic historic events, which all have a profound impact on her life and the things and people she genuinely loves, such as baby boy Jantje. The Japanese occupation, which by many Indonesians was considered a liberation from the Dutch, means she’s separated from the family. The Indonesian battle for independence against their occupiers tears her lover away from her.


Beerends has managed to create a perfectly balanced film: all of the elements elevate and support each other. The footage, which for a great part is supplied by one family, who filmed a lot of the interaction between their nanny and the family, seamlessly fits the voice-over which in turn gives depth and meaning to the images. The music adds drama but also lightheartedness, the sound effects makes the sense of immersion even more profound. 


It is an astounding piece of cinema combining personal stories and history, teaching us new perspectives and universal truths and engaging all our senses, including the heart.