Joris Ivens

Appointed Film Commissioner of The Netherlands East Indies on 28 September 1944, in September and October of the following year Joris Ivens directed Indonesia Calling (1946), a film which was anathema to Dutch colonial interests. Employed to produce propaganda endorsing Holland’s liberation of Indonesia from Japanese occupation and its post-war plans for limited Indonesian autonomy under the Dutch crown, Ivens instead created Indonesia Calling. Only 22 minutes long, the black-and-white 35mm film recreated the campaign to prevent Dutch-chartered vessels loaded with troops and military supplies from leaving Australian ports for Indonesia. (1) The short film caused a political furore, with the Dutch pressuring Australia’s Chifley Government to prosecute those involved in the making of the film. Ivens had risked arrest or deportation by directing the film. (2) What spurred a colonial film commissioner to produce such a controversial political film?

Prior to Indonesia Calling, Joris Ivens’ work reflected his interest in recounting historical events through film. He attempted to illustrate that extraordinary events involve ordinary people. The historical films of Ivens included a protracted Belgian miners’ strike, the first Soviet Five-Year Plan, the Spanish Civil War and the Chinese resistance to Japanese invasion. (3) Ivens was not simply a documentary-maker, as his interest in the composition of different images and sounds produced both dramatic and artistic results. His most frustrating period as a film director occurred in the last years of World War II, when Ivens worked in Hollywood as adviser to the producer of The Story of GI Joe (William Wellman, 1945), which was eventually released as a fictional film. (4)

Hollywood proved a disappointment for Ivens. Nevertheless, he became involved in its cosmopolitan left-wing community, which included playwright Bertolt Brecht, composer Hans Eisler, philosopher Herbert Marcuse and atomic scientist Robert Oppenheimer. Ivens’ involvement in planning a film depicting the war’s impact on Norway’s merchant shipping was abandoned when Greta Gabo refused to work with Hollywood’s radicals and communists after being warned there would be repercussions on her future acting career in America. Ivens’ association with communists and Marxists allowed the FBI to classify him a “dangerous Communist” who was “strongly suspected of being a Soviet espionage agent”. The FBI provided an adverse security report on Ivens to their counterparts, The Netherlands Forces Intelligence Service, in which he was described as “one of the most dangerous Communists in the United States” and a member of the Communist Party in both Russia and Germany. The report did not accuse Ivens of espionage. Ivens was informed when he later applied for a re-entry permit to the United States in February 1945 that if he left the country he would be refused re-admittance. (5)

Ivens was offered the position of The Netherlands East Indies Film Commissioner by Charles Van der Plas, the Dutch delegate to the Allied Supreme Command in the Pacific and the emissary of the Lietenant Governor of The Netherlands East Indies government in exile. (6) Van der Plas told Ivens that the post-war Dutch East Indies would promote unity in diversity, equality and a high degree of self-determination for Indonesians in domestic affairs. For whatever reason – his lack of creative work in Hollywood, a belief in the ideals of the Atlantic Charter being implemented in colonial Indonesia, or an acceptance of American Communist leader Earl Browder’s ideas of capitalism and socialism peacefully collaborating to build a better post-war world – Ivens accepted the position. (7)

Indonesia Calling

Ivens was commissioned to film the Dutch liberation of Indonesia from Japanese rule and to establish a colonial film production service. The Netherlands East Indies had been conquered and occupied by the Japanese during World War II, but, as the war was ending, the Dutch sought to re-take their colonial possession. However, having endured colonisation and war-time occupation, the Indonesians were unwilling to see their islands return to Dutch control. (8) The American bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic weapons ended the war in the Pacific. The Japanese surrender unleashed the struggle for independence in Indonesia. In the ensuing chaos, British armed forces moved into areas around Batavia, Java, to secure post-war Indonesia on behalf of The Netherlands. Skirmishes between the British troops, Dutch units and armed Indonesian youth escalated. Indonesian Independence was declared on 18 August 1945, scuppering The Netherlands’ hopes of a peaceful resumption of colonial rule. (9)

Following his acceptance of the position, Ivens had flown to Australia to assemble a film crew and to await the Dutch re-conquest of its occupied colony. (10) Once the film unit was established, Ivens planned to make a five-part film about Indonesia’s liberation. Refused entry to Indonesia because of adverse security reports, Ivens could not make any film of its ‘liberation’ on behalf of Dutch colonialism. Under an order from General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Pacific, Ivens was banned from all war zones. Prior to this ban, Ivens had arranged for the American Army and Hollywood film companies to ship war footage and film equipment to Australia for the film unit’s use. American and Dutch security sabotaged Ivens’ plans by reassigning the footage and equipment to a Dutch freighter which sailed to Batavia in the first days of the boycott. (11)

Stranded in Sydney, unable and eventually unwilling to make films for the Dutch government in exile, Ivens witnessed on Sydney’s waterfront the repercussions of the Indonesian independence movement. The turmoil of World War II had left many Indonesian seamen marooned in Australian ports. With the war at an end, these seamen tried to prevent the re-colonisation of Indonesia by refusing to work on Dutch-chartered ships bound for the archipelago. Many Indonesian soldiers mutinied by walking off Dutch troopships in Sydney, demanding their freedom, and independence for Indonesia.

It was not only the presence of Indonesian seamen that made Indonesian independence an immediate and electric issue in Australia. In the exigencies of World War II, the Australian government provided The Netherlands East Indies government in exile with its own extra-territoriality over military camps, barracks, administrative offices, hostels, airfields and workshops in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Fremantle. In 1943, the Dutch re-established a prison camp near Casino, New South Wales, for Indonesian political prisoners transported from Tanah Merah Digul, west New Guinea. (12) When the war ended, the 300 Indonesian prisoners held at Casino demanded to be repatriated to Indonesia. Indonesian guards serving at the Casino prison echoed this demand and they too were incarcerated. A food strike staged at the Casino prison led to one prisoner being killed and another wounded by Dutch guards. (13)

Australian trade unions launched a campaign in support of Indonesian independence, imposing black bans on Dutch-controlled ships bound for the Indonesian islands. The ACTU and thirty trade unions led by the Waterside Workers’ Federation and the Australian Seamen’s Union enforced and supported the bans. The bans ensured that Dutch-chartered ships would not be loaded or manned, and halted temporarily the Dutch attempt to regain Indonesia by force. (14) Indonesian seamen and Australian trade unions were joined in their boycott by Australian-based Chinese, Malay and Indian seamen, who also refused to crew Dutch-controlled ships.

Knowing little about what was happening inside Indonesia because of Dutch military censorship, Ivens was deeply moved by the solidarity of the struggle for Indonesian independence in Australia. He felt betrayed by Dutch officialdom and its subsequent actions in Indonesia. Ivens believed that the Indonesian liberation struggle was to be supported unconditionally. His position as a colonial film commissioner had become untenable. Between late September 1945 and November 1945, Ivens retained his official title even as his subversive film work advocated Indonesian independence. (15)

Marion Michelle and Joris Ivens

Ivens assembled a film crew that included American photographer Marion Michelle, Canadian cameraman Donald Fraser and his wife, Joan Fraser, who was one of the film’s editors. A former Indonesian political prisoner of the Dutch, John Sendoek, who had worked on a Dutch radio station in California during World War II, was Ivens’ sound technician for Indonesia Calling. An Indonesian who had been a soldier in the Dutch colonial forces before fleeing to Australia after Japan invaded Indonesia, John Soedjono assisted Ivens with the sound and other film equipment in the making of the film. As a child and youth, Soedjono had been a dancer at a Javanese court. He performed in the dancing sequence featured in Indonesia Calling. While in Brisbane, Ivens met Soendardjo, a veteran Indonesian political prisoner and Soeparmin, the Indonesian seamen’s union’s secretary. The conviction and courage of Soendardjo and Soeparmin inspired Ivens, and they joined the film unit at Ivens’ insistence. (16) The narration for Indonesia Calling was scripted by Catherine Duncan, an Australian actress, playwright and radio scriptwriter. A communist and New Theatre League member, Duncan was deeply committed to the project. With this little company, Ivens proposed to heed the call of Merdeka for Indonesia. (17)

By choosing Indonesian independence before the interests of Dutch colonialism, Ivens would be viewed as a pariah by The Netherlands and its state representatives in Australia. With the limited equipment provided by the Dutch state, Ivens and John Heyer (an Australian cameraman with the newly-created National Film Board) shot the departure of the Esperance Bay. Aboard were 1,400 Indonesians being repatriated to Surabaya, the sole Javanese port held by the Indonesian Republican forces. This footage became the opening sequence of Indonesia Calling. The Esperance Bay’s leaving of Sydney was the only time the Dutch state equipment was used by Ivens. (18) As film commissioner for The Netherlands East Indies, Joris Ivens could not be seen to be directing the film. Most of the subversive film was shot not by Ivens, but by Marion Michelle. (19) Ivens and Michelle devised the scenario of the film, which depicted the shipping boycott, in their rented Elizabeth Bay flat between the 24 and 27 October 1945. The film was shot at moment’s notice without reference to a pre-meditated script. The film was literally created by Ivens and Michelle in the cutting room from Michelle’s film coverage of enacted events. (20) From this period until the film was first publicly screened, the Ivens flat was open to those who took part in or supported the making of Indonesia Calling.

Apart from members of the film unit, Australian wharfies, Indonesian, Chinese, Malay, Indian and Australian seamen, dissident Dutch soldiers, and former Indonesian political prisoners gathered nightly to discuss the boycott campaign, the travails of the Indonesian independence movement and Dutch intransigence. (21) With borrowed film equipment, and only 2,400 feet of black-and-white film, donated largely by Australian servicemen returning from Borneo, Ivens told “the story of the ships that did not sail” (22). Catherine Duncan wrote more than 20 versions of the script before Ivens finally approved its narration by Duncan’s colleague, the Australian radio actor, Peter Finch, in a one-hour hired studio session. (23) The commitment of the Waterside Workers’ Federation to the cause of Indonesian independence made the various re-enactments of the film on the wharves and in the harbour possible.

Sydney’s waterfront was still under war-time security. The wharfies, with bands of Asian seamen, often numbering 60 or more, acted out events which had occurred only days or weeks before. (24) Michelle shot film of the troop ship, Stirling Castle, breaking the boycott as it sailed through Sydney heads for Indonesia. It was harassed until reaching the open sea by a small boat of Indonesian supporters who appealed in Dutch and English to the Dutch sailors and soldiers aboard through a loud hailer. Their call for international solidarity was answered with expletives, empty bottles, rotten vegetables, and bits of wood and iron. (25) This scene was re-enacted by Indonesian, Chinese and Australian seamen before Michelle’s camera, as was the walk-out by ten of the troop ship’s British crew members who supported the Indonesian cause. (26)

Most of the film was shot with a 35mm Kinamo camera, which Ivens had used to film his documentary, Regen (Rain, 1929). (27) The film supplier, Kodak, refused to sell film to Ivens or the production company he had formed to make Indonesia Calling. Although film stock was in short supply, Kodak did not deny it to other commercial buyers. It seems that Kodak executives may have been informed that their stock should not be supplied for an illegal film which threatened The Netherlands’ national interests. In a security file on Indonesia Calling, an undated scribbled note reads, “Kodak agreed not supply Mr Ivens with film footage.” (28)

The Australasian Film Syndicate, Ivens’ production company, consisted of a chairman, Eddy Allison, an ex-RAAF clerk, a communist and actor in the New Theatre League, and the directors: Joris Ivens; Bondan, a former political prisoner, leading Indonesian activist and secretary of the Australia-Indonesia Association; John Nally, a small metals manufacturer at Granville in western Sydney and communist sympathiser; and J. T. Lee, a Chinese barrister and legal advocate for the Chinese Seamen’s Union. (29) The syndicate was to finance, manage, sponsor and distribute Indonesia Calling. Its paid-up capital of 1,000 pounds was amassed largely from collections by members of the Chinese Seamen’s Union and the Chinese Youth League in Sydney’s Chinatown and at wharfies’ smokos. (30) None of Ivens’ salary as colonial film commissioner was expended on the film. (31) All of this money was spent on processing, printing and hiring editing equipment. All labour was given freely by the Ivens group and the many extras involved in the re-enactments. (32)

The Dutch intelligence service believed Ivens was behind the making of the film, which remained unnamed until it was completed. Throughout the film’s long gestation, Ivens remained colonial film commissioner, even as he subverted his role creatively. If it were proven that Ivens was its maker, he faced not only dismissal from his post but possible arrest and deportation to Holland. Ivens knew that Dutch security were monitoring his every movement through Australian intelligence wire-tapping his telephone conversations. Months of intense surveillance and the making of a film on the run without money ruined Ivens’ health. He suffered from chronic bronchitis and constant asthma attacks. (33)

On 21 November 1945, after most of the footage of the illegal film had been shot, Ivens resigned from his official post. In his resignation, Ivens denounced the actions of the Dutch government in Indonesia. After his resignation, Ivens was accused of using Dutch equipment and material to make the illegal documentary. Despite lingering suspicions, an audit of the film unit’s books proved that there was not “anything wrong with the financial side of the Unit” (34).

With Michelle, Ivens repaired to Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, to recuperate. Six months elapsed before Ivens returned to Sydney to shoot the unfinished film’s climax of the Patras steamship’s return to Sydney. Indian crew members aboard the frigate had been forced at gunpoint to break the waterfront blockade. The ship, laden with ammunition, sailed out to sea before the Indian seamen stopped the engines. Their act of mutiny forced the ship’s return to Sydney harbour. Once this scene of defiant solidarity was re-enacted, all of the shooting was complete. Ivens and Michelle finished the picture editing of Indonesia Calling in one night.

Indonesia Calling

After its final script was narrated by Finch, the film was first screened in the Newsreel Theatrette at Kings Cross before an audience of Indonesians on 9 August 1946, a few days short of the one-year anniversary of Indonesia’s declaration of independence. The screened film listed no credits to its makers. For a week, the film was shown three times daily to packed houses of workers and supporters of an independent Indonesia. The film was immediately denied an export licence by the Commonwealth Censorship Board because its commentary offended Dutch imperialism. In Federal Parliament, an Opposition front bencher, Harold Holt, demanded that the film be immediately banned because it was communist propaganda which harmed Australia’s relationship with The Netherlands and undermined the Dutch effort in Indonesia. The film was eventually passed for export in December 1946. Prime Minister Ben Chifley stated that the film “did not express the views of the government […] and the government was not responsible for it” (35). The Communist Party newspaper, The Tribune, described Indonesia Calling as “Australia’s first labour film […] it gives the feeling of tension and history being made by the working people.” (36)

In October 1946, the film, with a Malay text, was taken through the Dutch blockade by Ted Roach, a member of the Waterside Workers’ Federation delegation to Jogyakarta, the Indonesian Republican forces stronghold. According to Roach, the film was shown endlessly to captive audiences during his weeklong stay. (37) In Paris in 1952, Catherine Duncan recalled the memory of the making of Indonesia Calling:

In my case, there was also the double responsibility of expressing the real sympathy of the Australian working people – these people who, for the time, took possession of the screen. […] We have been paid the profoundest compliment an artist can receive. Our work has been “needed”. Finished, the film had become ‘theirs’, an arm they could trust and use in their fight for independence. (38)

After the first screening of Indonesia Calling, Ivens noted in his diary:

It’s not a personal story, but personal photography. […] The strength of these quiet Indonesian people as they stand before the KPM building, refusing to sail, to work, to do anything. The masses fully in step with the Tanah Marah heroes, with the French and Russian Revolutions. […] Never before have I been so aware of the renewal of the link between artist and audience. We were on trial that evening, and our testimony would be judged, not only by the small group of 25 witnesses, but by the whole Indonesian people. Before such an audience there could be no excuse [for the] lie, the half truth, or the failure to comprehend the struggles and aspirations of a nation occupied for more than 300 years. (39)

In Australia, Ivens had become the director of a film of which he officially could take no part – where “some actions happened at night and couldn’t be filmed; some were missed, some were created, some initiated” (40). After its screening, he could not return to The Netherlands or America. Indonesia Calling had made him an apostate. As the Cold War gathered, only Eastern Europe offered an entry point for the Dutch filmmaker.

This article has been refereed.


  1. Over a four-year period, the shipping ban in Australian ports held up a total of 559 vessels, which included 36 Dutch merchant ships, passenger liners and troopships, two tankers and other oil industry craft, 450 landing barges, nine corvettes and seven submarine chasers. Three Royal Australian Navy vessels and two British troopships were also black-banned. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Commander-in-Chief of British forces in the Far East, travelled to Sydney in January 1946 to persuade the Australian maritime unions to end their boycott on Dutch shipping. Mountbatten’s efforts failed. See Rupert Lockwood, Black Armada (Sydney: Australasian Book Society, 1975), passim. The ultimate success of the selective on Dutch shipping depended upon the Chifley Labor government’s refusal to intervene in the dispute. Australia was largely unaffected by the ban as there was virtually no trade between Australia and war-ruined Holland. Had the Federal government attempted to break the ban, Australia’s maritime trade would have been threatened by industrial action. These questions are barely considered by most accounts of the boycott campaign. See W. J. Brown, The Communist Movement and Australia: An historical outline – 1890s to 1980s (Haymarket: Australian Labour Movement Publications, 1986), pp. 164-6; Ralph Gibson, The Fight Goes On: A picture of Australia and the world in two post-war decades (Maryborough: Red Rooster Press, 1987), pp. 65-7; and Margo Beasley, Wharfies: A History of the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia (Rushcutter’s Bay: Halstead Press in association with the Australian National Maritime Museum, 1996), pp. 127-30.
  2. IVANS, Joris (IVENS), A6126/XMO, 18, 1945-1949, National Archives of Australia, Canberra.
  3. Rosalind Delmar, Joris Ivens: 50 Years of Film Making (London: British Film Institute, 1979); Carlos Boker, Joris Ivens, Film-maker: Facing Reality (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1978).
  4. See the magisterial study of Ivens’ life and work by Hans Schoots, Living Dangerously: A Biography of Joris Ivens (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2000), pp. 179-93.
  5. Schoots, pp. 188-92.
  6. Copies of appointment as Film Commissioner, 1944, Item 143, 2.1.143, Joris Ivens Archives, European Foundation Joris Ivens Municipal Archives, Nijmegan, The Netherlands.
  7. Schoots, p. 195. Schoots’ conclusion that “Browderism” influenced Ivens remains speculation. Nevertheless, Browderism exercised a marked influence over American and Australian communism during the Pacific War and early post-war years. See Alastair Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia: A short history (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1969), pp. 157-9.
  8. Malcolm Caldwell and Ernst Utrecht, Indonesia: An Alternative History (Chippendale, Sydney: Alternative Publishing Co-operative Ltd, 1979), pp. 61-8.
  9. Caldwell and Utrecht, pp. 67-74; Anthony Reid, The Indonesian Revolution, 1945-1950 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1974), pp. 23-47.
  10. Schoots, pp. 194-197.
  11. Gerda Jensen-Hendriks, “Bersiap: Joris Ivens and the early Indonesian revolution”, European Foundation Joris Ivens newsmagazine, Issue 9, November 2003, p. 21.
  12. Rupert Lockwood, “The Indonesian Exiles in Australia, 1942-1947”, Indonesia, 10 October 1970, p. 37.
  13. Ibid, pp. 37-56.
  14. Lockwood, Black Armada, passim.
  15. Schoots, pp. 198-200.
  16. Ibid, p. 198.
  17. Ibid, pp. 197-8. Extensive security ‘information’ on Duncan and the Indonesian members of the Unit is found in “East Indies – Film, Indonesia Calling”, A1838, 401/3/9/1/4, National Archives of Australia, Canberra. See also Catherine Duncan’s security file: Duncan, Catherine, A6126, 17, 1937-1949, National Archives of Australia, Canberra.
  18. Schoots, p. 200.
  19. Catherine Duncan, “In Relationship with Paul Strand and Joris Ivens; The legacy today”, European Foundation Joris Ivens newsmagazine, Issue 9, November 2003, p. 19.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Oral History Record No. 226112, Allison, Edmund, National Film and Sound Archive Office, Woolloomooloo; Schoots, p. 200.
  22. Oral History Record No. 226112.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Lockwood, Black Armada, pp. 225-8.
  26. Graham Cutts, “Indonesia Calling and Joris Ivens”, in Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan (Eds), An Australian Film Reader (Sydney: Currency Press, 1985), p. 354.
  27. Cutts, “Indonesia Calling and Joris Ivens”, p. 356.
  28. “East Indies – Film, Indonesia Calling”, A1838, 401/3/9/1/4, National Archives of Australia, Canberra; Cutts, p. 356.
  29. Oral History Record No. 226112. See also Allison’s security file: ALLISON, EDMUND CHARLES, B883, NX21097 (1939-1948), National Archives of Australia, Canberra. Encouraged by Ivens, Allison directed the film, Coaldust, for the New South Wales South Coast Miners’ Federation in 1946. The mines on the South Coast had the worst record for miners with ‘dusted lungs’ of any region in Australia. Later he shot a film on May Day for the Sydney May Day Committee. It was followed by Words For Freedom made with Cecil Holmes. This film traced the history of the working-class press in Australia. See Bob Gowland’s obituary to Eddie Allison in The Guardian, No. 1223, 13 April 2005.
  30. Arthur Gar Lock Chang, interview with Drew Cottle, Haymarket, Sydney, 11 November 2003. Arthur Gar Lock Chang, a welfare officer of the Chinese Seamen’s Union and a member of the Chinese Youth League, also helped striking Indonesian seamen find food and accommodation within Sydney’s Chinese community.
  31. Oral History Record No. 226112. Copies of resignation as Film Commissioner and related papers, 1946, Item 147, 2.1.147, Joris Ivens Archives, European Foundation Joris Ivens, Municipal Archives, Nijmegan, The Netherlands.
  32. Cutts, pp. 358-9.
  33. Schoots, pp. 200-1.
  34. Ibid, p. 205.
  35. Cutts, p. 351. See also the security file: “Netherlands: protest at film, ‘Indonesia Calling’”, A1067, IC 16, 46/49/7 (1946), National Archives of Australia, Canberra. In answering questions about Indonesia Calling, the Prime Minister had to assure parliament that the Australian National Film Board (ANFB) had not been involved in the making of the film. A number of those who helped Ivens had joined the ANFB. Catherine Duncan was among them. It was suspected that a member of the ANFB was reporting to the security service on the political activities of other ANFB staff. See Albert Moran, Projecting Australia: Government Film since 1945 (Sydney: Currency Press, 1991), pp. 34 -5.
  36. Tribune, 13 August 1946, p. 3.
  37. Ted Roach, interview with Drew Cottle, East Hills, New South Wales, 2 June 1989.
  38. East Indies – Film Indonesia Calling, A1838, 401/3/9/1/4, National Archives of Australia, Canberra.
  39. IVANS, Joris (IVENS) AG126, 18, National Archives of Australia, Canberra.
  40. Cutts, p. 359.

About The Author

Drew Cottle is a senior lecturer in Politics at the University of Western Sydney. He has an abiding interest in the worldwide struggle of workers and liberation movements. His most recent book is The Brisbane Line: A Reappraisal.

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