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Documentary maker Wytse Koetse on Ed van der Elsken and street photography

Ed van der Elsken captured Amsterdam on 16mm film. But what makes taking photographs and making films on the streets special, and what role does the medium itself play? Filmmaker Wytse Koetse shares his view.

By Michael Oudman21 December 2023

Filmmaker Wytse Koetse

Coinciding with 100 years of 16mm film, Eye has remastered ten films from the oeuvre of photographer and filmmaker Ed van der Elsken (1925-1990). Van der Elsken liked to use this handy, compact film format which made it much easier for people to go out and make their own films. In his own work, filmmaker Wytse Koetse (1979) is frequently inspired by Ed van der Elsken and other street photographers, such as Amsterdam’s Jimmy on the Run, about whom Koetse made a documentary that is included in Eye's Short Film Pool. Koetse takes us by the mind and leads us out onto the streets.

“Shooting on the streets is addictive; you’re waiting for that one moment that only you saw”

Wytse Koetse

“Shooting on the streets is addictive; you’re waiting for that one moment that only you saw – so beautiful that you want to share it with others; like a really beautiful, unique snowflake that you’ve caught in a box and frozen before it starts to melt, so you can show it to everyone. Van der Elsken’s work is like a time capsule; you can see this by the way people respond to his camera. At that time, seeing something like this on the streets was still new, unfamiliar. He takes us into a different era, captures the spirit of that time with the clothing, the shops and the cars. You look through Van der Elsken’s eyes and suddenly see that perfect picture of someone in a red coat, with a red fire truck in the background; what looks like a momentary coincidence has in fact taken days to capture. There are probably stacks and stacks of useless photos that might be technically accomplished, but where there’s nothing happening. If street photography were easy, it would lose its magic."

'Beethovenstraat 1967' © Ed van der Elsken

"It’s something really special to be able to take an iconic photograph that becomes engrained in the collective memory, like that photo of three women crossing the road that Van der Elsken took in 1976.”

According to Koetse, what gives a particular time its unique, typical feel is the people, the characters you meet on the streets. And it’s in dealing with these people that the street photographer’s next major skill lies, he says. “You can see by how the people he portrays respond to him that Van der Elsken must have been a really cool dude. The same applies to Jimmy on the Run, who I followed for my documentary. He really puts you at ease, he gets very close physically; he’ll take hold of a huge bruiser of a guy’s chin and tilt it to get exactly the right angle for the picture. It’s a really special quality that people will let you do that. As a street photographer, you can’t be afraid – you have to be charming and cheeky. And, within this, you have to be an artist too.”

Still Jimmy on the Run (Wytse Koetse, NL 2016)

Still Jimmy on the Run (Wytse Koetse, NL 2016)

Still Jimmy on the Run (Wytse Koetse, NL 2016)

Koetse himself started editing his own films at an early age, simply by recording snippets of TV films using a film recorder, then zapping to another channel and recording part of another film, creating his own mosaics. Then he found out his father had an unused Minolta VHS film recorder at the back of a cupboard, which set him off making whole films himself: shooting, directing and editing these between the ages of eight and thirteen.

“For me, making a documentary always starts the same way. I meet a character I want to record, because of their humour, or absurdities – someone who inspires me. In Barcelona, I came across a Chinese guy who sorted all kinds of things out for people renting holiday apartments. I met him at a party, and he was making phone calls the whole time. Turns out it was tourists complaining about the neighbours or that there was no hot water. His gentle character was clearly being exploited by the owners of these run-down apartments. That’s why I asked him if I could film him. This became my first documentary, Cola Chicken (broadcast by AvroTros). In the end, filmmaking is always about things that fascinate you as a maker, things you want to share with others. Like the moment Chen Chen hugs a French woman who just moments before was ranting and raving because she couldn’t sleep because of the noise from the bar below the apartment.”

Cola Chicken
was followed by the documentaries De Benen van Amsterdam (2015), about the most old-school bicycle repair place in Amsterdam’s Jordaan neighbourhood, and Tante Iki (2021) about the filmmaker’s aunt, stage actress Sigrid Koetse, which premièred at the Netherlands Film Festival in 2021.

Still De Benen van Amsterdam (Wytse Koetse, NL 2015)

De Benen van Amsterdam (Wytse Koetse, NL 2015)

Still Tante Iki (Wytse Koetse, NL 2021)

Still Tante Iki (Wytse Koetse, NL 2021)

Asked whether Koetse sees himself making a contemporary version of Een fotograaf filmt Amsterdam, he replies in the negative. Nor would he ever take the 16mm format as the sole starting point for one of his films. “I prefer to tell stories from the point-of-view of a single protagonist. That’s what it’s all about, rather than the aesthetics. Then you set about filming in a way that suits the subject. If your subject is a hairdresser with an eye for detail, who looks at every single hair, you’re not going to film with a hand-held camera. And in a Netflix documentary about a serial killer, home video footage could allow you to really ramp up the tension. I really like Frans Bromet’s film Buren, in which he is the cameraman, interviewer and journalist all at the same time. His style makes everything just that bit more shaky and hilarious, which perfectly suits all these people who are squabbling about nothing. If it were shot in a really smooth, professional way, it would weaken the story.”

Koetse is currently working on a new project, and doesn’t yet know how the story will unfold. He is following elderly Frenchman Xavier, who has lived alone in Amsterdam for many years. Here too, his fascination for a ‘character’ was the starting point for his film. “Xavier is a walking cabaret act. All he has to do is make a cup of tea, for example, and I’ve got a scene. He’ll knock something over, start to curse. He’s been looking for a wife for years, but he’s never managed to find love. He might seem lonely, but he’s not. I think the city is his great love. When I asked him what kind of woman Amsterdam would be, he said a passionate mistress.”

What Wytse Koetse, Ed van der Elsken and Jimmy on the Run have in common is that the streets are their treasure chest, bursting with untold stories. “You have to keep on being amazed by normal things, and want to share this with others. Life is one big theatre, with goals that are achieved, intrigues, setbacks. There’s so much to see. Just look at all this beauty! You walk past it every day. I think Ed van der Elsken also often thought: hey stupid, walking around with your head down all day, only thinking about tomorrow – just look at all the pearls right there for the taking. Here, I’ll pick one up for you and polish it.”