Feature Documentary Reviews

Once Upon Amsterdam (2021) – 3 stars

Director: René Smaal

Running time: 60mins

More information on Once Upon Amsterdam can be found on the film’s IMDb page.

One of the things you realise quickly when you look at the best travel documentaries is that if you don’t get off the beaten track, and speak to the locals about what a place means to them, you learn very little about it. Unfortunately, for every Parts Unknown, there are millions of shows where nobody bothers to move beyond the affluent, sanitised middle-class frontage of a modern city.

Once Upon Amsterdam is still a cut above the likes of Gary Takle – and his vile celebration of gentrification that is United Plates of America – but that ultimately only sees it clear the absolute low-water mark. It struggles to scratch the surface of a city that so many people will only recognise for its touristic Centrum. A far cry from Anthony Bourdain’s towering series, this is more Parts Known, then.

Dutch minimalist René Smaal lives up to his billing here, with the film focused entirely on context-free footage of a stroll he took through the busy streets of Amsterdam some 17 years ago. There is no dialogue at all, while shots seem to stretch on as endlessly as the tram-lines much of the imagery is composed around. People stare, unmoved, for what seems like an age – as streets are uprooted by construction workers, and boats chug and splutter along the canal outside Amsterdam Central, as the historic façade is given another facelift.

It should be noted I am not detracting from the cinematography of Smaal’s work here. The 17:9 material is a gorgeous time-capsule, bringing alive a gentle summer day in 2005. But the problem is, for anyone who has visited Amsterdam, the images won’t present much of a surprise. These are areas tourists frequent – and I suspect that had Smaal spoken to many of the people his ‘fly on the wall’ style has non-consensually captured on film (and even while the shots are used in good faith, the ethics of that might be open to question), he would probably have had to conduct most of his interviews in English.

According to an opening text-dump in the movie’s introduction, re-watching this footage led him to finally edit and release it. In watching it in a more recent context, he realised “how much has changed since, on so many levels” as the images show “a city in transformation, shortly before the digital revolution would speed up the pace of life considerably.” But the areas his camera linger on the most are not demonstrably changed by that process.

The clock at Central’s tower was not replaced with a Casio watch. The trams still grind and screech their way through the cobbled streets surrounding Leidseplein or Rembrandtplein. Long boats still carry flocks of dozing tourists through the central canal network. Those roads that were being torn up have been replaced. On the surface, little is different besides tram stops now having LCD screens informing passengers when the next carriage arrives.

Perhaps the biggest change being hinted at here is a different kind of screen, though. The show unfolds from a time before smartphones – and some people might find that enough of a contrast to find this footage compelling. Nobody is gazing into a glowing rectangle while life passes them by – everyone is living in the moment. But personally, I don’t find that especially remarkable, especially considering the glazed expressions of perennial boredom that are fixed across most of the faces onscreen. Wow, if only we could go back… At the same time, even after the advent of the iPhone, I can testify that people do still cross roads, drive boats and ride bicycles and skateboards through every corner of Amsterdam without being glued to a screen. Thankfully.

The more interesting changes that have occurred, beneath the surface, are absent though. Because Smaal makes no attempt to talk to the people who work and live in that part of the Dutch capital, we don’t know what they are like – what they love about the place, what they fear for in its future – and we therefore have nothing to contrast it with. Like any other major city (particularly one which has been flooded with tourists in the decades since) the Centrum has been commercialised and gentrified to an extent – while the people who made it the incredible hive of activity and culture that it is are being pushed out.

With 180 different nationalities, Amsterdam’s population is one of the most diverse in Europe; but you wouldn’t know that from this film either. As in London, and many other places, these communities are particularly exposed to the expropriation of gentrification; well beyond the limits of the Centrum too. The absence of different viewpoints is only accentuated by the camera’s reluctance to leave what is actually quite a small portion of the city. Amsterdam is a sprawling and amorphous creature; it has been eating up and assimilating smaller communities around it. Now, families who have lived in the city’s periphery for generations are being priced out of old neighbourhoods by the municipality’s determination to expand and create new business districts.

These are the contrasts and stories that really matter when it comes to comparing Amsterdam 2005 and Amsterdam 2022. Sadly, they are not the ones which the filmmaker was at all inclined to discuss.

Once Upon Amsterdam is a pleasant enough slow-watch. It would play very well at an art gallery, or as an installation in an architectural museum, showing the evolving concrete-and-brick infrastructure of modern Amsterdam. It features some beautifully constructed photography, and does enough to provide a warm glow of nostalgia in the stomach of visitors or long-time residents, keen to remember peaceful and happy summers spent on the canals. But as an examination of changing culture, it falls short. It asks the least interesting questions available to it, and unsurprisingly throws up some pretty dull answers as a result.


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