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The Leiden Connection - screenwriter Gerard Soeteman looks back

Gerard Soeteman (1936) created a furore as a screenwriter of films that became classics (Dutch films: Turks Fruit, Soldaat van Oranje, de Aanslag), but personally he is much more attached to his critical documentaries for television. He studied Dutch in Leiden. How did that help him?

Gerard Soeteman as a first-year student.

Why did you decide to study Dutch in Leiden?

‘I love language and when I was at high school I often went to the cinema and the theatre. I chose Leiden because I already knew the work of two Leiden professors, Minderaa and Stutterheim, who wrote and talked about language with so much wit. Besides, Dutch was a practical choice because it meant I could work in education later.'

What did you think of the programme?

‘It was good. In all honesty, I didn't work all that hard, but I made sure I passed my exams because, if I didn't, I would have had to go into military service earlier. I specialised in plays because that what what I was most interested in, and I also did English as a minor. I went to the theatre or cinema as much as I could in Leiden. Being a member of a corps or other kind of association was not for me. There were a lot of students from Rotterdam, where I also came from, and we had a really good time in that Rotterdam circle in Leiden.' 

Soeteman, second from right, in Cannes for the NOS.

What did you do after you graduated?

‘I taught Dutch for a while, then I had to do military service. I was promised there would be a new teaching job for me afterwards, but that never materialised. Then I happened to see a job vacancy as a translator for the NOS, a second television network that had just been launched. I thought television was fantastic, so I applied straight away. I had to do a very strange test - translating a Donald Duck film - but luckily enough I knew the interviewer; he had also studied in Leiden - astronomy, no less. We exchanged memories about Leiden and I got the job.' 

Rutger Hauer in de series 'Floris'.

How did you become a screenwriter?

‘The powers that be decided that there should be a good youth series. I provided some ideas and, because I had been a teacher and had an idea of what children liked - knights battling with swords - my idea went down well. The series was directed by Paul Verhoeven. I recognised him because I had sat opposite him in the University library for two years. Not that we went around together then - in fact he didn't recognise me at first - but it did mean we had a connection. Floris was an immediate hit, obviously because of Rutger Hauer in the lead role. After that, I was asked to do the film script for 'Wat zien ik!', a somewhat Dutch  controversial film that was a roaring success with enormous queues at the cinemas. Paul Verhoeven and I eventually made thirteen films together.'

Soeteman with Jan Wolkers in 2003, celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the premiere of Turks Fruit.

You have written scripts for films that have won Oscars. In 2017 you were awarded the most prestigious Dutch film prize (a Gouden Kalf) for your work. What's your personal high point?

‘These are not the kinds of films (Red: Turks Fruit, Soldaat van Oranje,de Aanslag) that people tend to sit and watch blindly. I actually think films aim to mislead people, to see whether the viewers fall into the trap. And I'm not at all keen on the acting world with all these 'me too' affairs that are going on. My personal high point is my far less well known work: making critical social documentaries for television. Somewhere deep inside me there must be a teacher pointing a warning finger. Over a period of forty years I wrote the texts for the commentary for documentaries, on such subjects as whaling, and the war of independence in Indonesia. 

‘The one that made the most impression was the documentary about the striking miners in the Andes and their atrocious working conditions. The broadcast, in the early 90s, sparked off a spontaneous collection campaign, with thousands of viewers donating money. It's wonderful to see just what effect words and images can have. At the moment I'm not writing any scripts because I've had enough of begging for funding to produce films. I still adore writing, so at the moment I'm working on a novel.' 

Top photo: Soeteman receiving the Gouden Kalf award for Film Culture.

Who : Gerard Soeteman (1936)
Programme: Dutch Language and Literature, with English as a minor.
Favourite spot in Leiden: the whole historical centre, particularly the area around the Pieterskerk with those houses hidden away in the narrow alleys.  


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