“Youth documentaries invariably follow the same formula,” says Martijn Blekendaal. “They last no more than fifteen minutes because children supposedly can’t concentrate for longer than that. And the protagonist is always a child grappling with a problem that is then overcome or accepted.”
Blekendaal wondered: aren’t there other ways of making documentary films for a young audience? That was the question that led to The Man Who Looked Beyond the Horizon (IDFA Special Jury Award for Children's Documentary, 2018), a youth documentary that breaks all the unwritten rules of the genre. The film is almost half an hour long and is about conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, who in 1976 crossed the ocean in a small sailing boat as a performance, only to disappear without a trace: a mystery Blekendaal leaves unresolved.
“You can make something for a young audience on pretty much any topic,” he says. “You just have to think carefully about what you show and what you don’t, and how you show it. My film about Bas Jan Ader is a search for what a youth documentary actually is. Or what it could be.”
“Documentaries with a child as the main character somehow always come across as a bit childlike. But for kids, it doesn’t have to be one-to-one to identify. Just as long as the subject intrigues them. In that sense, the facts of Ader’s disappearance are intriguing enough. I also saw a link between Buster Keaton’s slapstick and Ader’s performances, like when he cycled into the canal or fell from a roof.”
Contextual interviews with art history experts didn’t make the final cut, but a conversation with Ader’s American widow did—and this presented Blekendaal with a problem. “If there are subtitles, kids can spend more time reading them than watching the images on screen. So I decided to tell the story myself in voice-over. I studied thrillers to find out how cliff-hangers work. And I was reading Harry Potter to my kids at the time, so I could try out which tone they found exciting.”
The narrator in The Man Who Looked Beyond the Horizon is not omniscient. In fact, he is flawed, freely admitting to being a coward who would never dare to do the things Ader has done. “This personal layer only became explicit when I decided that I had to include a scene with someone who’s also done something really exciting. I chose artist Joost Conijn, who flew to North Africa in a plane he made himself. But Joost would only agree to be in the film if I went for a flight with him. So that’s how the fear of failure, which at first was just a background element, ended up as a major thread in the film.
“The Man Who Looked Beyond the Horizon is all about constantly trying and failing, then making something out of it. I shot a lot of footage over a period of three years. We even organized our family holidays around the shots I needed. We went to Land’s End, where Ader was supposed to arrive, and to Northern Spain where they brought his boat ashore after it was found. And I filmed the sea between those two places, because of course I had to include that in the film. But the wind was too strong, and everything was moving. Afterward I only had one usable still. But I did lots with it: put it in a smaller frame, mirrored it. That gave me five images from the one shot, and the result was a pretty dynamic sequence.”
Blekendaal’s film received a positive response from the press, but its unusual length meant it didn’t fit into broadcasters’ inflexible schedules and was shown at a time when almost no one was watching. It’s symptomatic of the poor image that youth documentary suffers from, says Blekendaal—who presented a manifesto in light of the issue during a 2021 IDFA industry session on youth documentary. “Youth documentary is wrongly seen as a genre for filmmakers who are just starting out, and budgets are low. But if you’re new to documentary filmmaking and don’t have much money, it's unlikely you’ll experiment with new forms. Which means that the genre doesn’t evolve and remains unattractive for more experienced filmmakers with bigger budgets. It’s a vicious cycle.”
In tandem with other filmmakers, Blekendaal is now expanding the genre further by working on a feature-length youth documentary. “My reason for making The Invisibles is a personal one,” he says. “I’m adopted, and I grew up in a white environment where I always really stood out. I wanted to be invisible. Later, I realized that this desire is a ‘luxury problem’ compared to children who are forced to be invisible because they’re in hiding, being abused, or smuggled across borders. I’m looking for ways of showing invisibility—by wearing a green suit or working with animation.
“I’m still searching for the right tone and form. In The Man Who Looked Beyond the Horizon, I narrated the whole thing; now I’m shooting more scenes that speak for themselves. For example, there’s one about Channa, who can’t stand the color yellow because of the star she was forced to wear on her clothing as a Jew. This wartime trauma erupts again in a confrontation with her son, who accidentally appears wearing a yellow t-shirt. I asked myself, how can I introduce a scene like this using archival material and something with colors?”
As for production status, Blekendaal is unable to say exactly how far along the project is. “I tend to write, shoot, and edit all at the same time. Gradually, it becomes clear what I’ve got. So it’ll also be a surprise for me.”