On November 2, 2004, Dutch film director Theo van Gogh (his great-grandfather was Vincent van Gogh’s brother, Theo) was killed in broad daylight by Dutch-Moroccan Mohammed Bouyeri. Van Gogh was cycling to work, and Bouyeri shot him eight times, killing him, before stabbing him in the chest and trying to cut off his head. 06/05 was van Gogh’s last film before he was killed. It is a fictionalized account of the May 6, 2002 assassination of controversial Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn.
The violent deaths of both Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh confirmed the faultlines that had already been threatening to derail the usually peaceful and tolerant Netherlands. Overrun by North African immigration, the country’s social services were straining to handle the influx. This was deeply painful for the culture – the Netherlands prided itself on its liberal policies and its peaceful atmosphere (and, conversely, was haunted collectively by its WWII behavior). But the immigration numbers were astronomical (surely a compliment to The Netherlands: so many people want to move there) and while it was clearly an issue, nobody quite knew how to handle it. It was a social no-no to say anything critical about immigration, or about the fact that the immigrants were not assimilating themselves into the liberal culture. Pim Fortuyn strode right into the center of that debate and spoke out strongly, saying at one point, “The Netherlands are full.” He created his own party. He was seen as overwhelmingly right-wing, although some of his policies contradicted that. He was openly gay, and during one televised debate with a Muslim cleric he “queened” it up on purpose, drawing the wrath of the traditional Muslim who called him horrible homophobic names. Fortuyn pointed to that episode repeatedly afterwards, saying, “This is the attitude we are letting in to our country. This is a Trojan horse, people.” He inspired hatred and revulsion on the one side, and also passionate love on the other side. During a press conference, someone threw a custard pie at him. It was a media circus. Fortuyn was killed just weeks before the 2002 election, again in broad daylight, right outside a radio station where he had just given an interview. Volkert van der Graaf, an animal rights activist and environmentalist, was the killer, and he said he killed Fortuyn because Fortuyn was turning Muslims into “scapegoats”, a common refrain at the time. We have problems in our society, yes, but let us not blame it all on the outsiders. Because isn’t that what we did in WWII with our Jews? Let us not go down that path again. The murder of Pim Fortuyn ignited The Netherlands (but the worst was yet to come). People poured into the streets to mourn him, to watch his funeral motorcade go by. A leader had never been assassinated in their country before. The news anchors were openly baffled: “This is not who we are … what has happened to us …”
Naturally, in the wake of Fortuyn’s death, conspiracy theories erupted about van der Graaf. He was said to have murdered someone else as well, although there was little proof. People wondered if he was in the employ of Dutch intelligence services, who had a vested interest in keeping Fortuyn out of power. (Ironically, in The Netherlands, you cannot remove someone off the ballot so close to the election, so Pim Fortuyn was still running for office, posthumously.)
Immigration is clearly a hot topic. We see how controversial it is here, and it was certainly true in The Netherlands, a much smaller country. I remember talking to a guy in Ireland during the Celtic Tiger boom, and he was saying that for the first time in Irish history, people were moving THERE to pursue opportunities. For the first time in Irish history, they had to deal with people of other cultures coming to their nation. It was not an easy transition. There was racism, resentment. Are immigrants taking our jobs, etc. Most of the Irish people I talked to took a positive view of the new development: it was good for Ireland, it meant Ireland was standing on its own two feet financially (well, THAT was short-lived). “Immigrants bring with them a lot of energy,” one guy I talked to said. “Just like the Irish people brought a lot of energy to America. So I don’t think it’s a bad thing.” Still: these are potentially ugly topics, and xenophobes can hijack the conversation, and it is difficult to talk about things rationally. Pim Fortuyn crossed that boundary, referring to Islam as “backward”. He wanted no part of that backward culture influencing the liberal and open and tolerant country that he loved. He would say, “I’m gay. Only in The Netherlands could a gay man rise as far as I have.”
All of these political issues interested Theo van Gogh, a film and TV director, known for railing against the political correctness that had infiltrated his culture (he was a notorious chain smoker among other things). He wanted to say what could not be said. He saw which way the wind was blowing, in his mind, and he went at it through his art. He was vocal, loud, writing op-ed columns about immigration and Islam and tolerance. He befriended Dutch-Somali politician and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She had a harrowing childhood in Somalia, and her family had fled, living in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Kenya. She sought political asylum in The Netherlands in 1992. She was a feminist and activist, creating women’s organizations, and spoke out against Islam. She made some friends, she made more enemies. Her background was such that she brought the authority of experience with her, including female circumcision. She’s written books (I highly recommend all of them – she’s incredible). Like Pim Fortuyn, she strode right into the center of the immigration debate in The Netherlands. Although she had benefited from the openness of the Netherlands’ asylum policies, her critique was with the immigrants who refused to Westernize and assimilate. She would berate women who wore the veil. She called people stupid. She could be imperious and tyrannical in her attitude: you were either with her, or you were against her. She loved the West, it had saved her. She would say that The Netherlands could not afford to allow in giant numbers of immigrants who benefited from the social services but refused to accept the Western way of life. Hirsi Ali was not just an activist. She ran for office, and was elected a member of the House of Representatives in 2003.
In 2004, Hirsi Ali teamed up with van Gogh to make Submission, a short film critical of Islam’s treatment of women. She wrote the script. In the film, you see images of beaten women, violence against women, alongside passages from the Qur’an justifying the vicious treatment. In the most controversial image, there is a woman in a see-through burqa and she has Qur’an passages written on her visible skin. The film provoked outrage (as it clearly was meant to do).
Van Gogh was murdered after Submission was shown on television, and Hirsi Ali received death threats (although for her that was probably nothing new). The murderer had left a note on Van Gogh’s body which basically said, “Aayan Hirsi Ali, you’re next.” Hirsi Ali went into hiding.
Ian Baruma wrote a book about the murder of Theo van Gogh, which I highly recommend: Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.
These events have changed The Netherlands forever. It has opened up a conversation (at the very least) about who they are, what they want to be, and what they don’t want to be. But it’s a wound, a national wound. They are now a country where such horrible events have occurred. Ian Baruma’s book is really about the struggle for the soul of The Netherlands. Whether or not you agree with Pim Fortuyn’s views, it is certainly not “cool” that a man could be killed for his views. And the brazen murder of Theo Van Gogh was, in many ways, worse. Politicians expect a certain level of danger. Artists should be protected. This would be like someone stabbing Aaron Sorkin on a Soho street at 10 in the morning because they didn’t like the message of a West Wing episode. It was horrifying, on a national and spiritual level. Even if you were more “liberal” than Van Gogh, even if you disagreed with his views, it was absolutely outrageous that he would be murdered for them. Again, the refrain: This is not who we are. No. This is not who we are.
Ironically, the murder of Theo van Gogh in many ways ignited the opposition against immigration (primarily against North African immigrants – anyone else was welcome to come). “If this is how you people behave in our civilized country, get the hell out.” It’s ugly. It remains unresolved, something to be fought out in the courts. Those horrible years, however, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, is a wound, a break with the past, an abyss. Once you cross that line, things can never be the same again.
Van Gogh’s film 06/05 is a political thriller (with a kick-ass opening), and a fictionalized account of the assassination of Pim Fortuyn. In Van Gogh’s version, shady CIA guys with New York accents meet with members of the Dutch intelligence agencies, discussing who should follow in the wake of Fortuyn. The main issue is the development of the JSF (Joint Strike Fighter). The United States (in 06/05) is looking to build the plane, and have reached out to The Netherlands to be their main contractor. This has caused a lot of controversy with the people of The Netherlands: nobody wants to be in bed with the Americans, and nobody wants to participate in the military-industrial complex. It would tarnish the soul of the nation, etc. Pim Fortuyn, in Van Gogh’s version, was AGAINST the JSF deal, and it is suggested in the film that that was why he had been assassinated. Successors were chosen by a joint-committee made of CIA Americans and their Dutch counterparts, based only on whether or not the candidate could be made to go along with the already-developing very lucrative JSF deal.
This is the background. These scenes are filmed in a breathlessly hothouse conspiratorial manner. At one point, after the Dutch guys basically say to the CIA guys, “This is all about money for us. We want that JSF contract”, one of the CIA guys says to his colleague, “I thought we were supposed to be the bad guys.” The script leaves something to be desired.
06/05 is a personal story as well. There is a photographer, Jim, (played by Thijs Römer, who is wonderful) who happens to be taking photos of a TV actress outside the radio station on the morning Pim Fortuyn is assassinated. His photos of the TV actress contain all this evidence, of cars, and shady individuals strolling by in the background. (Isn’t that convenient!) He is a paparazzi photographer, looking for a break into the news. He starts to feel that something fishy was going on there that morning. Why was the SWAT team right there, the second after the shooting? Doesn’t this mean that somehow, someone high up was in on it? Jim has a complicated love life, with ex-girlfriends and an ex-wife, and a teenage daughter who lives with him on his houseboat on occasion. He’s a bit of a loser, but something about this Pim Fortuyn thing doesn’t seem right to him. He stares at the photos of the TV actress, zooming in on license plates and faces in the background, trying to put it together.
He is the lone wolf investigator, and in this 06/05 is reminiscent of the great paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, with one man of integrity up against a corrupt conspiratorial world.
His photographs lead him to Ayse Him, a Turkish-Dutch woman, who has a shady background. She works for the Green Organization (implicated in Fortuyn’s death), and it turns out she flew to Istanbul on the morning of Fortuyn’s death. What could that mean? Ayse, played by Tara Elders, a beautiful and natural actress, is the other lead of the film. Her boyfriend is a fellow Turk, Erdogan Demir (played by Cahit Ölmez), and the two have a shared culture, but also a shared disdain for the people of the Netherlands. They are sweet and polite to the nosy Dutch next-door neighbor, but behind closed doors they speak dismissively of the people in the country: “They are believers with no God. They are the worst,” says Erdogan. The suspicion goes both ways. The next-door neighbor is sweet and smiling on the surface, but the second Ayse and Erdogan walk out of earshot, she refers to them both as “the Turks” to her husband, in a tone that leaves no doubt as to her feelings.
Jim’s investigation is dangerous and brings him all kinds of trouble. He is followed. His teenage daughter is attacked. His boat is ransacked. He gets threatening phone calls. All of this spurs him on.
Theo van Gogh uses actual news footage throughout. The screen is crowded with voices, the chattering classes on every television, agonizing over these events. People huddle in bars watching the televisions, tears streaming down their faces (or, conversely, laughing uproariously). We see Pim Fortuyn’s press conferences, and television interviews. We see him hit with a custard pie. We hear his comments. He is allowed to speak for himself. There isn’t much talk on the ground-level, with Jim or Ayse or anyone else, about what Pim Fortuyn meant. We see the tortured news casts following his death, with anchors and op-ed people struggling to make sense of what has happened. It’s a collage. Theo van Gogh worked with collage a lot, in his other work. As a photographer and film-maker, clearly the IMAGE of things was interesting to him. How do we put the images together? There are many shots of Jim just staring at his computer screen, sucking on a lollipop, squinting closer, zooming in, pondering, contemplating, trying to understand. A collage is not meant to be literal.
Part of the problem of 06/05 is that it is not meant to be literal, and yet it is filmed in a very literal way. It’s gripping, and there are some terrific sequences (the opening is one of them, with Jim photographing the young TV actress, as giant events conspire around him), but this is not really about the murder of Pim Fortuyn, although it is purported to be such. I suppose you could say that it is similar to Oliver Stone’s JFK (a movie I admire, although I do not take it as truth). It comes from the mind of a conspiracy-theory nut, who senses vast political movements in shady dark rooms, moving people around like chess pieces based on whether or not they are useful. It is an attractive attitude, it somehow lessens one’s agency in events: “Look, you can’t fight such corruption. They’re bigger than us!!” But Pim Fortuyn’s assassination is fascinating, in and of itself. It would have been interesting to see Theo van Gogh stick to the events as they occurred. There are times when 06/05 plays like an episode of Criminal Minds. At the very last second, numerous times, someone shows up to divert (or create) disaster, through an almost-psychic putting together of the clues. There were a couple of times when I rolled my eyes. Of course the daughter leaves a message on her father’s voice mail saying her boyfriend made a CD-Rom copy of the incriminating images at the very moment that the bad guys happen to be at Jim’s house, ransacking his life, and searching his computer for the images in question. And of course the daughter gives her boyfriend’s address in her voice mail message, so that the Bad Guys can immediately go to that address. There’s a lot of that in the film. It detracts from its power.
Because it is powerful.
It’s worth it to see the opening, filmed in a quick-cut fashion, with Gabriel Rios’ “Broad Daylight” playing over it. Jim and his TV actress have a sexually bantering photography shoot, but we see a man in a red cap walking with purpose down a sidewalk, we see an intense man waiting in a nearby car, we see cars pull up all around, there are two men standing randomly on a sidewalk chatting, but it seems that they are waiting for something. This sequence goes on for some time, and it has a lot of energy and tension. The editing is an important part of its success, the juxtaposition of images, the putting-together of separate characters, similar to the collage-effect of the Pim Fortuyn footage throughout the rest of the film. Once we get down to business, after the opening, and we have to listen to Ayse and Erdogan talk, or we have to watch Jim deal with his teenage daughter, the film deflates a little bit. The secret meetings of the CIA ops and the Dutch intelligence ops come from the mind of a breathlessly paranoid man, and they don’t work. They scream, “LOOK AT THESE VILLAINS.”
There is still a film to be made about the assassination of Pim Fortuyn. 06/05 remains interesting because it was the final film in Theo van Gogh’s career, but its problems detract from the message. Van Gogh was reckless in many ways, but, similar to the immigrants who used the openness of the society in order to pursue their own goals, Theo van Gogh pushed the boundaries of what his country would tolerate, because he believed in freedom of expression. He would not be bullied, persecuted, or silenced. Of course, he was silenced, by the gun of Mohammed Bouyeri. I suppose his murder proved the point he had been trying to make.
It is a terrible situation. 06/05 is not a perfect film, by any means, but it is certainly worth seeing (as is the rest of Theo van Gogh’s work). This was an artist, killed, as Gabriel Rios sings over the opening sequence of van Gogh’s final film, in “broad daylight”. Outrageous.