‘They Call Me Babu’ Visualizes an Untold Story

The archival documentary filmmaking style is able to take us to times long past that can’t necessarily be recreated with the same sensitivity and grace through mere recreation — as opposed to just seeing footage of the actual subject matter in question. Unlike casting an actor to portray someone else’s experience or reinterpreting events through animation, using archival footage helps to see the real faces that once lived in spaces that no longer exist, to actual haunting, horrifying scenes of war in places where peace now exists. This synthesizes both the preservation of both art and history, because beyond just pinning names to a person on a list, archival footage can help better visualize untold stories and those who lived through them. 

They Call Me Babu is an documentary that composites archival footage to tell the story of Alima, a nanny who worked for a Dutch family in the former Dutch East Indies — Indonesia — during the 1940s. It originally premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) to audiences within the Netherlands. It was also slated to debut and tour in other regions in 2020, if not for the disruption of many events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Affectionately called their “babu,” Alima narrates her life spent with the family and how it has changed throughout the years, shaken by the development of World War II and Japanese occupation, and later the former colony’s own eventual rise to independence from its original Dutch rule. Alima became a nanny to escape an arranged marriage; she narrates her story to her mother long gone from her and at a distance. She develops a deep attachment to the youngest child, Jantje, of the family she works for. 

Throughout the film, she continues to meditate and ponder on the changing conditions around her country, being othered, and her heart torn between being Indonesian and caring for her Dutch family. When Japan eventually occupied the land as war broke out, she became most heartbroken about being torn away from Jantje, of all things, leaving her behind without not only work, but a place to call home. 

A group of Dutch children with their Indonesian nanny, They Call Me Babu, Sara Beerends, Pieter van Huystee, 2019

Alima soon becomes enamored with and becomes lovers with Riobet, a man who works part of the rebellion against Indonesia’s occupation. As history has told, World War II eventually does end and Indonesia finds itself free — at least from Japan’s grasp. Although finally reunited with the family she has always been loyal to, they slight her, expressing their frustration that Indonesia is longer part of the Dutch empire when they do too, later lose hold of the country. At this point, Alima has grown more confident as a self-determined Indonesian woman. Even though his family may have left her on disrespectful terms to return to the Netherlands, she acknowledges Jantje had deeply influenced her and she hopes she had done the same in return. 

Riobet unfortunately dies in a struggle in the midst of Indonesian’s liberation from the Dutch, but not before having left Alima with their own child. In spite of her harrowing experiences, Alima looks back on the younger part of her life, and she addresses her mother that she hopes to pass on strong values to her own future daughter. 

In truth, Alima is a fictional character: through the combination of editing and voice-over, They Call Me Babu creates a narrative that uses the character of Alima as an avatar to speak on behalf of the experience of all babus, both for those who have long past and those still surviving to this very day. She is a product of a series of many visits, interviews, and intensive research across different archives and institutions across the Netherlands, Japan, and Indonesia, conducted by director, Sandra Beerends.

Beerands herself is half-Indonesian and half-Dutch, and she wanted to project her own personal take on this concept of the babu. In an interview with DutchCulture, Beerands discusses how she only learned about this type of caretaking role from a specific time period through her parents’ stories from their own childhoods. She wanted to not only investigate something that she feels has been so little discussed and researched, but it also served as an exploration of her own identity as someone who is mixed race, sometimes undergoing the feeling of being torn and living between two different cultures. 

Although I cannot entirely relate to Beerands’ own personal experiences, I can easily pinpoint parallels through the lens as another Southeast Asian. 

Filipinos can be found in almost every single corner across the world as an ongoing result of generations having migrated away from their home country for the sole purpose of seeking employment. A large portion of these Filipinos end up largely doing purely contracted work, never quite becoming embraced as permanent citizens of the places they end up building careers in, even for countless years — both legally and symbolically. This statistic and specific phenomenon is so huge that it unfortunately became an accepted norm, and this group of Filipinos would be often referred to as Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs).

Similar to the babus depicted in Beerands’ film, many OFWs work as caretakers and nannies to non-Filipino families themselves. Like Alima, some are younger women who choose to displace their lives by sacrificing their own window at a chance to raise their own family to instead help raise another. Other OFWs are already mothers themselves, now occupied with nurturing and nursing someone else’s children while leaving their own kin behind back in their home country. 

A young Indonesian woman looks to the camera as she carries a white Dutch child, They Call Me Babu, Sara Beerends, Pieter van Huystee, 2019

Through They Call Me Babu, Beerands was able to portray the collective experience of many women through one, all while giving us a view into the window of the changing political landscape of a country during a very specific point in time. Although the film harkens to a very particular period and place in time, it also speaks a lot to the many stories that continue within immigrant communities as a result of colonialism’s shadow in many cultures. 

When one typically thinks of archival documentaries, the old guard in many film circles may point towards a film that likely was directed by Ken Burns. Burns has built a longstanding career out of making documentaries on particular subjects, popularizing filmmaking techniques that now pop up in schools everywhere. From covering music genres, biographies of historical figures, and timelines to major wars, every subject the director has ever covered has some sort of obvious significant or substantial impact on American pop culture and history. However, They Call Me Babu does not squarely fit right into any of the categories of what makes or defines a memorable Burns-esque joint. That said, They Call Me Babu is not a Ken Burns film: it is a Sandra Beerends film. It is a film about a woman who finds her own definition of independence during the turmoil her own homeland faces. As they eventually overcome their oppressors and find autonomy, Alima finds her own liberation in dissecting the time with the family she cared for to affirm her own identity as an Indonesian. It is a film that is unlike anything that is considered the “classic” archetypal documentary, honing in on an obscure subject matter to prove that it is a more universal story than one would initially think: it is about breaking free from social restraints.

Although They Call Me Babu may not be a resonating watch for everyone and neither panders to a mainstream view, is is a story that is utterly necessary to be told, solely because it is someone’s. 

One thought on “‘They Call Me Babu’ Visualizes an Untold Story

  1. Thanks for sharing this review! I especially appreciate the last paragraph, that is a story to be told because it is someone’s.

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