Reviews Short Narrative

Doe Eens Mens (2023) – 4 stars

Director: Sando Heijnen

Writer: Hanna Fleer

Cast: Marley Verbeem, Mijke van Rijn, Mathil Weich, Vincent Rodenburg

Running time: 8mins

One of the things that has become very clear watching Sando Heijnen’s shorts is that he is not a filmmaker who is happy to compromise on what he is doing. If the audience feels uncomfortable or confused by what is going on in his films, they are going to have to deal with it. That obviously has its drawbacks, but it also ensures his work manages to carry its core themes through every part of production.

In Heijnen’s split-screen thriller COMPLEX, he played with our learned obsession with seeing digital life from every angle by showing us two perpetual screens, using that to ratchet up the tension when the futility of having to watch two different shots at once becomes apparent. The holistic production refuses to waver from this premise, leaving many of our cinematic expectations unfulfilled – but it is better for it, leaving us feeling less like viewers than security guards, spinning our heads to keep up with the goings on in our own hellish panopticon.

Similarly, by the end of Doe Eens Mens – a short in which a strange and dispassionate race of aliens puts humanity through needlessly cruel experiments for no discernible reason – I was left wondering whether I had watched a narrative fiction film at all. At least one produced by an Earthling. Everything about it manages to be strange and distant – its lead performances, its mise-en-scene, its writing, its editing – to the point it feels like it is itself an experiment, created by a species unfamiliar with human conventions, keen to see if it can crack the code of our entertainment.

Illustrating this, even before the arrival of their visitors, Noa (Mijke van Rijn) and her son Bo (Marley Verbeem) cut an odd and estranged pair of figures. A strange, emotionless conversation about whether they should have sugar with tea suddenly jolts into concerns about the delegation which will arrive soon.

In the moment which comes closest to a hint of actual emotion in what we would understand to be a very tense moment, when Bo is told his preference to tea is similar to his father, he bluntly notes “Yes, but Dad is dead.” Noa responds to this by reminding Bo repeatedly of the mantra, “Be obedient, be not afraid” – a motto which he murmurs repeatedly as he hugs her in the warm yellow light of the room. As noted in my review of Le Trajet, which centred on an explosive mother-daughter argument, familial arguments are a powder-keg, often in which people’s closeness means they are willing to go places they would never dare while arguing with a stranger. But in this sterile encounter, it feels as though the dialogue and performances come from a totally alien perspective, unaware of these timeless truths.

Shortly after, the esteemed guests arrive. Bo and Noa live on a house boat – that’s not the narrowboat you might assume if you live outside the Netherlands, but essentially a giant wooden cube which floats on a canal. This also gives their ‘normality’ a strange sense of otherness while Dr Jo Isaacs (Vincent Rodenburg) and Lien Schulp (Mathil Weich) arrive via canoe. Usually, this genre of cinema would deploy the most ham-fisted clichés of normality to contrast our human characters against the otherworldliness of their visitors, so to have them in this place feels out of step, as though an alien filmmaker once visited the Netherlands and thought, “yep, that’s how they all live – better stick my normal human characters in the floating wooden cube, or the audience won’t be able to identify with them.”

The ‘experiments’ begin – with the doctor – resembling Martian imagining of a chartered accountant – and his assistant – an eerily polite female punk – staring at various household items, and playing with a hairdryer perilously close to a filled bathtub. Things are obviously not looking good for Bo and Noa – but the interesting thing is that when things do take a turn for the worse, it is in the flattest way possible. Moments of impact are deprived from us, with shocks, snaps and explosions occurring between cuts or off-screen. This denies us the closure and even satisfaction were have been primed to experience by decades of other ‘alien wreaks havoc on Earthling’ plot-lines – and by doing so, Heijnen again makes it feel as though this might have been produced by another life-form who caught a stray transmission of The Thing or Independence Day, and free of the context of human history, decided to try and make its own version without really knowing which aspects of such productions actually resonated with us.

All of this means there is also a very subtle undertone of comedy running through the film. Its title, which becomes one of Dr Jo Isaacs’ most chilling commands, roughly translates as “do a human” or “do it ‘human’” – and he reads it phonetically at them every time they do something which does not fit with his preconceptions of them.

As far as the doctor’s understanding goes, people sit in hot-tubs all day, commenting on the water temperature. They do not trouble themselves with questions such as “How long will this interplanetary traveller be subjecting me to strange and violent examinations”. But while he might not think asking such questions is really doing it human, querying weird existential threats is one of the things that comes quite naturally to us. There’s also a layer of self-parody here, of course, because as absurd and narrowminded as we might find Dr Jo Isaacs, our own species has spent centuries mistreating other creatures further down the food chain in the same way.

I enjoy all of this retrospectively, but I can see why this distinct brand of anti-cinema might leave other people feeling slightly underserved by Doe Eens Mens. It is certainly a film which is more fun to think about than it is to actually watch – but in a world where cinema so readily babies its audiences through even the most standard plots, it’s nice to have a film like this so steadfastly refuse to hold your hand, while being so unapologetically weird.

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