It’s a bleak postscript to the political murder mystery The Sixth of May that director Theo Van Gogh was assassinated in 2004, the same year the film was released. Prior to his assassination, Van Gogh was better known as a creative descendent of the famous painter, and he only gained international notoriety as a political filmmaker after his short Submission, which challenged Islamic attitudes towards women, was broadcast on Netherlands TV: as a consequence, he was shot dead by an Islamic Dutch citizen.
The Sixth of May focuses on the real-life assassination of right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn but while an interest in Dutch politics would increase the appeal of the story, it is most definitely not a pre-requisite to enjoying this relevant, compelling and at times very funny film. The mystery unravels through the eyes of Ayse, a young Turkish immigrant, ex-con and former member of the far-left Green Offensive, and Jim, a white middle-class Dutch photographer with an estranged wife and a kid to support. The pair provides two disparate perspectives not only on Fortuyn’s murder, but also on Holland’s wider political landscape. The assassination awakens panic and casual racism (‘Ring the papers, dear – a Turk’s going back to Turkey!’), which had been lurking below the surface for some time.
Through The Sixth of May, Van Gogh proves his prowess as a director: he not only handles the political material and complex plot deftly, but also garners genuinely warm, naturalistic, and occasionally funny performances. Jim’s transformation from cynical paparazzi photographer to driven, would-be investigative journalist is handled realistically and develops organically. Tara Elders, playing Ayse, is muted and knowing – her unpredictable shifts from passivity to strength carry the film. Van Gogh’s greatest success, however, is in his attention to detail: from the characterisation of Van Dam, the liptstick-wearing political mastermind with a farcical horse-neighing ringtone, to the intense, almost incestuous relationship between Jim and his daughter.
The pared-down visual style, however, does not do justice to the superb performances. Shot on video, the film looks like a made-for-TV doco, which may put some viewers off: it is not until the underlying sex and violence intensify and the richness of the characters become apparent that the film’s power is revealed. The minimalistic soundtrack is unusual: the opening song adds a hint of ‘cool’ but the music that accompanies the kids’ water park sequence pushes an already bizarre chase scene into the realm of the surreal.
The Sixth of May is certainly original. It avoids any kind of historical re-telling and it makes no attempt to define where the truth ends and the embellishment begins. It deflates dramatic tension at moments where other films would have exploited it, focuses on political enemies in love with each other and has the villain provide comic relief. In someone else’s hands, these key elements may have spelt disaster. However, Van Gogh’s obviously intimate knowledge of the story and clear sense of purpose save the film. The Sixth of May shows him off as a passionate filmmaker who fervently believed that this story should be told. And he did it, just in time.