Dutch filmmaker Eline Jongsma was enjoying dinner with her father when he suddenly confessed a family secret: His paternal grandfather was a known Nazi collaborator during WWII.
“There wasn’t even ever hints of this being part of my family’s history so it wasn’t a moment of ‘Oh, I see, I figured it out.’ It was a total shock,” Jongsma told Tablet in a Zoom interview from the Netherlands. “I think the reason my father told me then was his father died very recently.”
A decade later, her story sometimes voices itself in metaphor, like falling scraps of aging archival documents resembling cascading fingernail clippings—imagery that embodies a poignant turning point in her groundbreaking documentary, His Name Is My Name. Rather than bury the culpability of her great-grandfather, Jongsma, 42, mines it in the film—in a sequence of three-minute videos living on Instagram, @hisnamemyname.
With Kel O’Neill, 43, her American-born creative partner and husband, Jongsma expertly explores long discarded fragments of her complex history, generational trauma, and hope. Since its July release, the project has been gaining recognition, with 30,000 views and climbing, and installations at Kamp Westerbork, the Dutch memorial at the site where more than 100,000 Jews, Roma, and Sinti people were deported to Nazi extermination camps in Central and Eastern Europe. As a child, Jongsma and her family gathered wild mushrooms there. In addition to beingfeatured in a mural with images and a QR code at Westerbork’s The Memory of Camp Westerbork exhibition, the documentary’s 10 self-contained installments appear on YouTube.
“There was [this] idea, maybe if artists can make something about this ‘perpetrator perspective’ as they call it, we can educate the youth a little more,” Jongsma said. “We were asked to submit an idea and at first, we were not quite sure what to do with this.”
Jongsma explains a complication of visual storytelling is that the filming itself lends itself to glorifying a subject, “which of course was very problematic,” she said. “So it took us a while to think about how to approach this.”
As the heavily researched episodes explain, Jongsma shares her surname with her great-grandfather: convicted war criminal Gekke Gerrit, or “Crazy Gerrit,” a notorious Nazi-aligned mayor of the small Dutch town of Krommenie, north of Amsterdam. Known for his penchant for violence, Gerrit Jongsma sent at least one Jewish family, Esther and Benjamin Drilsma, to be murdered at Auschwitz. He subsequently hunted down their hidden 6-year-old daughter Fien (Adolphine), whom he doomed to death in Sobibor. He may not even be the only perpetrator among Jongsma’s ancestors.
Despite such revelations, Jongsma and O’Neill avoid sap. Jongsma’s 33 minutes of Dutch-accented, English-language narration employ powerful, often poetic phrasing. The project is notable not only for its unusual platform-of-choice and social media shareability, but also its composition. As filmmakers, “Jongsma + O’Neill“ are known for balancing what they term “human-scaled storytelling.” In this case, parts detective thriller and personal visual essay meet technical enterprise. The resulting His Name Is My Name avoids the classic archival documents, black-and-white photographs, and wailing violins typifying Holocaust narratives. It relies, instead, on vividly colored short-form animation by acclaimed Slovenian animator Jure Brglez, augmented reality, and an original synth score.
“Because we are depicting actual events, we also had to be accurate visually,” said Brglez. “That meant researching the maps, towns, and the architecture, document design, which Dutch bank notes were used in the ’40s, patches on the uniforms, color of the wagons … and when you’re doing that you’re constantly surrounded by the horrible imagery of WWII. Some moments were quite heavy and haunting.” Brglez had his own Holocaust-related family lore; his grandparents mentioned their survival in hiding, but the full story nonetheless died with them.
“His Name Is My Name is a product of collaboration between a group of talented teammates acting in the service of one goal: honor Eline’s story,” O’Neill said. “Early on, we realized that the more we collaborated, the more cohesive the project and its voice became. Scripts inspired music, music inspired animation, animation inspired design, and the design inspired us to rewrite the scripts. I find myself using soccer metaphors to talk about the process. We need to pass more, I’d say, or we need more touches on the ball. It’s exciting to work this way.”
This is not the first time Jongsma and O’Neill have produced a successful experiment. Their Emmy-nominated and Webby-honored interactive POV/PBS documentary series Empire dives into the lasting implications of Dutch colonialism across 10 countries. And their virtual reality film The Ark puts users face-to-face with the world’s last remaining northern white rhinos. J+O work also screens at leading festivals (Tribeca, SXSW, The New York Film Festival, HotDocs, IDFA, REDCAT, Rencontres d’Arles, and AFI Docs), landed the inaugural Tim Hetherington Visionary Award, and earned the support of The Sundance Institute, Eisenhower Fellowships, and The Economist Media Lab. My Name Is His Name is part of a joint endeavor exploring perpetrator histories with Germany’s Bergen-Belsen Memorial, Norway’s Falstadsenteret history museum of imprisonment, and the Dutch nonprofit documentary project developer Paradox.
“As a viewer you almost don’t notice that you are being told some facts about the Netherlands in the war,” said Jongsma, a mother of two, who reflects on her family’s revelation, research, and reflection with an unemotional yet intimate, confessional tone.
“I was struck by how she wanted to approach her very personal story in such a head-on manner, and in such an honest and vulnerable way,” said Ben Evolo, aka San Ré, the Amsterdam-based American musician, producer, and composer who created the doc’s soundtrack. “After I read the script, there were a few concepts that I wanted to emphasize—secrets, time, deception, tragedy, and family—to inform the sonic fabric, texture, and music the best way I could, through dissonance, tension and noise.”
San Ré considers Jongsma’s approach “a real breath of fresh air” and an enduring example of “correcting or reshaping a small piece of history.” In that way, Jongsma underscores what San Ré considers a “responsibility to tell a story that ensures a more granular and factual version of that history.”
Award-winning journalist Lisa Klug is the author of the bestselling pop culture titles Cool Jew, a National Jewish Book Award Finalist, and Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe. Her work has appeared in many outlets, including The Atlantic, Forbes, Forward, Huffington Post and The Los Angeles Times, as well as The New York Times, The Times of Israel, and Variety, where she is a stringer. Visit her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @lisaklug.