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Female Gaze: Esther Duysker

The ‘blond bombshell’, the ‘femme fatale’, ‘sirens of the silver screen’. For 125 years now, we have been seeing women on cinema screens, but they were seldom in charge behind the scenes. Luckily, things are finally changing. In this series of interviews, female filmmakers talk about their own work on the basis of film excerpts from other women’s films. In this, the first interview, scriptwriter Esther Duysker talks about director Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust.

By Gina Miroula07 October 2021

Painted portrait of Esther Duysker by Kiki Weerts
Portrait by Kiki Weerts

Esther Duysker comes up the steps at the Eye Filmmuseum. “Shall we grab a coffee first and get acquainted?” suggests Esther, smiling. She’s wearing an African headscarf, its colours echoed by her golden-yellow trainers. “I like a preamble instead of diving head first into the personal straight away, don’t you?”

Photograph of Esther Duysker on the stairs in front of Eye Filmmuseum.
Photo by Anna Meijer

Her work (she writes scripts and (radio) plays) often centres on discovering your own identity. Esther’s characters aim to elicit recognition, thereby providing comfort. She chose Daughters of the Dust (1991) by director Julie Dash – the first major cinema release by a black female maker – as the main thread for this interview.

Aged eight, Esther moved from Amsterdam to Bovenkarspel (NL). She inherited her love of language from her Surinamese mother. And she wrote her first stories in the latter’s study. “I remember the crowded bookshelves, including all seven parts of Voskuil’s Het bureau and a great deal of anthropological literature. Things happened in silence among her effects.”

After completing the Writing for Performance study programme in Utrecht (NL), Esther worked on a variety of projects including texts for theatre such as A Raisin in the Sun, Othello and De blackout van ‘77. She also adapted H.H. Monkau’s novel De kleurling [the coloured person] into a radio play and wrote the children’s book TROBI with Brian Elstak. Buladó, her feature film debut as a scriptwriter, opened the Netherlands Film Festival in 2020. The film won a Golden Calf for Best Film.

You chose Daughters of the Dust. What is it about this film that moves you?

“The story is told entirely from a female perspective – amazing right?”, beams Esther. “An important theme for me is spirituality. This is apparent in the power of the water surrounding Ibo Island. The Gullah came across the water and are baptised and bathe in it. The presence of water demonstrates its importance without this being explicitly discussed.”

“Take, for instance, the scene in which three female leads (Yellow Mary, Trula and Eula) survey Ibo Landing. They exchange ideas about being a woman and concerning men: do we or don’t we need them? During the conversation the viewer is sucked into a flashback of an expanse of beach with two lovers running across it. The women’s lines would have been enough, but suddenly there is the sea. In Daughters the sea symbolises the burial ground of black bodies that wanted to swim back to their birthplaces.”

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The fragment that Esther Duysker chose from Daughters of the Dust.

Which role does spirituality play in your films?

“The day my mother was supposed to turn 65, a peacock butterfly flew into my study. I was putting the finishing touches to my first feature film: Buladó. Simultaneously, one of my sisters [presenter Sosha Duysker] was asked to join [Dutch Prime Minister] Rutte to discuss racism. That day, both our careers moved forward. The butterfly felt like a visit from my mother who came to tell me how proud she was of us. In Buladó we try to convey the feeling I got when the butterfly flew into my room.”

This happens when the lead character Kenza visits her mother’s grave for the first time. It’s as if an iguana shows her the way. She lies down on the tombstone and watches the clouds float by. She momentarily seems to lift above the grave.

“She has a sort of revelation that helps her and her father recognise death and its role in their lives. Spirituality can be a realistic, meaningful and comforting part of life. I enjoy passing that on to viewers. And, as far as the butterfly is concerned: it died on my windowsill after a few rescue attempts. I mounted it with a friend. Now it has pride of place on my shelf alongside my Golden Calf badge.”

Was there room to explore your identity during your study programme?

Well… I lacked examples like Julie Dash. Everything was primarily Western, white and male. For my debut film, the NTR KORT! [short] DAG (2011) the lead was originally conceived as a white Dutch boy. My producer asked: why isn’t he Surinamese? So I re-wrote the story. Now it’s about two different cultures. How the Surinamese deal with death and celebrate life. That producer opened a door in my work to a world that didn’t always resemble mine. A world in which I could add more wide-ranging opinions, experiences and perspectives in contrast to during my study programme.”

Before Esther’s film career accelerated (in part due to Buladó), she did a lot of work for the theatre and she still does. “My rewording/adaptation of Othello for Het Nationale Theater gave rise to much contemplation about what it means to me to be black. Who am I? What is my identity? Plenty of people will say: ‘You make works for white audience that explain what it is like to be black’. During the first performance I sat next to a friend, a POC. When racist comments made the white audience laugh, I was mainly trying to explain something to them. I could see my friend shrinking and wondered: who on earth did I make this performance for? I think I currently offend people who I identify with. What does that say about me as a maker and person? How does my being a maker define my identity and vice versa? My black identity is very important to me, but I can only approach it from my own perspective, and therefore never fully represent it. I would like to get more from what I know. Moreover, there is an audience for this. As Julie Dash was doing at the time, I am working on finding my own voice.”

“Recognisability is comforting.”

Esther Duysker

What would you like your films to evoke in audiences?

“Comforting recognisability. I want to make stories for people like me. They don’t necessarily have to be limited to a culture or colour. An acquaintance recently apped me about a short story of mine they had read in AfroLit about the sexual awakening of children in a family. The woman thanked me. The subject had never come up, neither at home, nor elsewhere. It is at times like this that I realise there is demand for this type of story and that you give people something that makes them feel less alone in their experience.”

The perceptions of young children are often highlighted in your work. This is the case in your debut DAG and also in Buladó. Why is that?

“I was 18 when my mother died. At the time, my parents were divorcing. I needed them but neither of them could be there for me. As the eldest of three sisters I felt very responsible. I have beautiful, nostalgic memories of the period preceding my mother’s illness. I cherish that little girl that I suddenly had to stop being. Untarnished children have this look of innocence in their eyes that gives them another perspective on the world. The same applies to the past: it plays an important role in your life and identity. We should cherish this, just like being a child. This unconsciously slips into my work.”

As a scriptwriter, how do you deal with the adaptation of your stories?

“I outline a framework. At a later stage this is trimmed into shape by a director, actor or art director. As makers, we share the same fascination with the same theme, however our perspectives on or our experiences with the theme are different. It is therefore always the question how a text or scene will be expressed by an actor or director.”

Can you give an example from Buladó?

“In a particular scene, Kenza and her father are in a boat. They argue about the fate of grandfather Weljo and, as a result, their own futures. Ultimately, the girl jumps overboard and swims off underwater. The scene is about deciding to take your own path. The father and daughter distance themselves from one another, to later be reunited. It was necessary for the actors to play this scene, but later – during editing – it no longer proved useful. The director Eché Janga did well to spot that. He called me from the editing suite to tell me the scene had been cut and provided substantiation. I felt taken seriously as he involved me in his decision. As a scriptwriter you sometimes take a back seat during the run up to the final product. In this case, the opposite was true.”

Esther thinks the increasing attention paid to scriptwriters and playwrights in the media in recent years is “a great development”. “Scriptwriters are often overlooked by the outside world even though, nine times out of ten, stories start with them.”

What is your new film about?

The Lake in January (working title) is going to be a late coming-of-age film. About the spectre of myself, as a 50-year-old woman, if I don’t manage to change the current dynamic with my father. For the longest time, I yearned for his approval and recognition. To such an extent in fact that I was unable to enjoy anything I do or have achieved. When people become overly fixated on the wellbeing and recognition of a parent, they can almost forget to live themselves.

“My latest film was inspired by real life. This primarily becomes apparent in the language used. Recently, out of nowhere, my father said: ‘My past with you cannot be disregarded’. Such statements haunt me. They are revealing when it comes to shaping my character, but also for understanding my father and what that retrospectively entails for me.”

Which is why she refers to her most recent film as a late coming-of-age film. “You are never too old to start another life. To gain insight and to allow yourself to live life to the fullest.”

Esther looks outside, sees a freighter passing. Massive, cumbersome and on its way elsewhere. “On the other hand, I wonder whether life might not consist precisely of this endless search for meaningfulness. It is one of the reasons, if not THE reason that I keep writing.”

Still Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash)
Still from Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991)

Watch Daughters of the Dust online

You can watch Daughters of the Dust (until 1 November 2021) in Eye's online cinema on Picl.

Watch on Picl