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‘Simon’, a director’s call for tolerance

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If asked to name three things about the Netherlands, cannabis, euthanasia and gay rights are likely to come to mind. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the Dutch submission for this year’s Oscars, ‘Simon’, touches on all these subjects

Long seen as the epitome of European tolerance, the Netherlands has recently been in the news over problems arising from racial tension. After the assassination of the anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002, the situation further deteriorated, prompting Dutch director Theo van Gogh to make a film about his death. But it was never finished as van Gogh’s short film ‘Submission’, made in collaboration with politician and Somali refugee Ayaan Hirsi Ali criticising the traditional Islamic attitude to women, resulted in his own murder. But this has not put off other Dutch filmmakers from boldly entering the political arena. Eddy Terstall, the writer and director of the film 'Simon', recently proclaimed in an interview with a national newspaper that he will leave the film business to become a statesman. What has happened to our non-committed artists?

Politically engaged

According to Terstall, the world has become a tougher place to live. Nothing has been the same since the attacks of September 11th and the typical Dutch value of tolerance has suffered in this environment. Yet despite his anger about these developments and his political tendencies, the film is lavished with Amsterdam humour, which means it does not take life too seriously. ‘Simon’, which won four Golden Calves at the 2004 Netherlands Film Festival, including Best Director for Eddy Terstall, tells the story of a gay dentist and his friendship with a terminally ill hash dealer, Simon.

In this heart-warming film, Terstall manages to treat political and difficult subjects in a human way. The issue of gay marriage, which has been legal in the Netherlands since April 2001, is treated through Camiel, the narrator and leading character, who marries his boyfriend. His experience reflects everyday life for homosexual couples in Holland, who now have more or less the same rights as heterosexual couples, including the right to adopt children. In Europe, Belgium is the only country to have comparable rights for same-sex couples, although in Spain, Zapatero is lobbying to legalise gay marriage despite facing strong opposition from the Catholic Church.

Drugs and death

Drugs are also a central theme of the film. In it, Simon runs a coffee shop - not the type where one goes to drink coffee, but to smoke hash and weed. Some years ago, pressure from all over Europe was aimed against the Dutch tolerant drugs policy. But now more and more countries are following the Dutch example. For example, in several countries, such as the Catalonian region of Spain, marijuana can be given out on a doctor’s advice. The link between drugs and health is neatly made by Simon’s own battle with cancer and his eventual decision to take advantage of the law, passed in 2002, meaning doctors can no longer be prosecuted for carrying out Euthanasia. Simon’s fear of becoming senile and crippled makes him opt for a ‘dignified’ death; so he sets a day, says goodbye to all his family and friends and goes.

It’s not all doom and gloom

You would expect a film dealing with these themes to be depressing. But although tears are shed, both by the characters in the film as well as by the audience, it is actually light-hearted. And that is its strength. The film is not intended to provoke, or to debate these subjects. Rather, these issues are presented by Terstall as an inevitable part of life. At its core, ‘Simon’ is about friendship; not about gays, drugs or euthanasia. However, it is the threat posed to the legality of these liberal Dutch laws which is what makes a bon vivant like Terstall want to become a politician.