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Director Jonathan Blank on the rise of the alt right, climate change, and ‘Sex, Drugs, and Bicycles’

A frank talk with Jonathan Blank.

Sex, Drugs, and Bicycles is something of a spiritual sequel. In 1994s, director Jonathan Blank’s Sex, Drugs, and Democracy looked to explore the differences between America and the Netherlands. Over twenty years later, Blank went back to see what had changed. Blank talks about what he discovered, his new documentary, and what the future holds.

AIPT: How would you describe Sex, Drugs & Bicycles?

Jonathon Blank: I’d say that it’s a movie that exposes the nightmare of paid vacations, no fear of homelessness and universal healthcare. I think it’s a movie that tries to have some fun and be provocative, but show people the benefits of having a society where many of our basic needs are taken care of. And that has some basic principles of ensuring a certain level of equity within the society, but doing it in a lighthearted way and acknowledging that there are all kinds of issues still with this.

But the idea that if you give everybody healthcare, America will turn into Venezuela or something like that. I think it’s ridiculous, and I wanted to show people how successful a society can be, that takes care of its people.

AIPT: You mentioned it being lighthearted. The documentary provides a lot of information and covers a lot about the Netherlands, but it is done kind of tongue in cheek at times. Why did you decide to use that format?

Johanthan: Well, I was working on the editing and I had well over a hundred hours of footage and interviews, and I was just working to organize it and I like humor, and I thought this whole situation is really kind of absurd in a way, because if you are telling people that providing people with healthcare is some kind of road to authoritarian nightmare, which is what a lot of people in the US say.

And how do you look at something like that, that’s so over the top crazy? And I started thinking there should be an element of satire to this, and then I thought well maybe make it a little bit like Monty Pythonesque, and that’s when the whole idea came to me.

And then after that, the editing just all sort of came together. And the idea for the animations in the movie came from that because, I didn’t want to get to be super heavy and I didn’t want to be just laying out boring facts that people would just kind of, their eyes would roll up in their heads after a certain point. And I think everything is better with humor. So obviously certain subjects don’t lend themselves to humor, but I thought that this one did.

And I was having a lot of fun with the interviews and Dutch people have a good sense of humor and they don’t take themselves too seriously. So it was possible to interview senators and members of the parliament and make jokes with them, and they enjoy doing that.

Whereas I think in some places it’s hard to joke around about serious subjects because people get offended or they don’t know whether you’re going to try to make them look bad or something like that, but it didn’t happen here. And so people went along with the whole vibe.

AIPT: Did you ever worry about there being an information overload in it?

Blank: It was definitely a consideration, but I felt like I’ve got 90 minutes and I’m going to give people… And believe me there’s a lot that’s not in there. So there’s quite a bit that didn’t make it in, that I wanted to put in, and it just didn’t fit in the structure of the film. But yeah, I think it was definitely a concern, but I tried to keep it light, have a good pace and moving along. And so hopefully I succeeded on that front.

AIPT: Were you kind of surprised at how deep rooted some of the fears are?

Blank: Yeah. I had made a version of this movie 20 plus years ago. And at that time, Holland was even more liberal than it is now. What I saw is that 9/11 and the war on terror really created this environment where a lot of bad actors around the world saw an opportunity to leverage fear that was legitimate, that people don’t want to get blown up.

But they leveraged that fear to turn it into fear of the other within your own society. And so these very right-wing political movements gained a foothold that they never had before. And really, on the one side in Europe, in Northern Europe the far right, for instance, is very different than our far right, because they all support the basic pillars of the social welfare state.

So there is nobody running in Holland or in Northern Europe on eliminating the universal healthcare. Universal healthcare is just seen as a fundamental part of society that cannot be undone. But on the other side, you see all this anti-Islam and anti-immigrant feeling that’s leveraged by these unscrupulous politicians. And as a result, they’re pushing other right-wing ideas into the mainstream, that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

And so it would be nice if the whole world was progressing faster, especially when it comes to things like climate change. And what happens when you have these right-wing fear movements, they tend to unite with business interests. And the business interests are fighting, making changes around things like climate change.

Back when I made this movie in the 1990s, the Dutch were the most environmental country in the world, I would say. And now they’re not anymore. Now they’re far down the list, and that is all a result of these right-wing parties getting a big boost through the war on terror. And then they unite with the big business interests

For them, climate change is not just an existential threat, it’s a direct threat, because I believe off the top of my head, I’m not remembering exactly, but I think it’s 27% of the land is below sea level. If the oceans rise, which they are rising, they’re going to be possibly submerged

AIPT: How important was it for you to show that other side of Holland?

Director Jonathan Blank on the rise of the alt right, climate change, and 'Sex, Drugs, and Bicycles'

Blank: Well, I think it’s very important, because it’s a big part of the society. And if you’re working towards creating a better society, you have to look at all of your faults. And I would say racism is, like in America and in many other countries, but in Holland, in particular, because of their role in the slave trade, racism is an original sin. And they had these colonies that are filled with brown and black people.

I didn’t want to create a false impression that the Netherlands isn’t a utopia, it’s just a very well functioning social democracy.

AIPT: So what future projects do you have in mind? Are you going to complete this trilogy?

Blank: I never thought of it as a trilogy, but now that you mentioned it, maybe I need to. I’m not exactly sure what the third one would be, but I’ll have to kick that around. I am working on a new project about animals and I was going to shoot it last year, but because of COVID I didn’t basically really leave my house in the last 10 months. So maybe this year things will finally open up with the vaccine and better testing and everything. And we’ll see about that.

I have a proposal to turn this moving into an ongoing TV series that would look at different countries around the world and how they’re approaching the big issues of our time and addressing problems like climate change and gender equality and the financial industry and so on, but doing it also like this, with humor, with fun animations, making it something that turns politics and issue oriented documentary, still make it into something that can also be funny and hopefully uplifting.

Sex, Drugs, and Bicycles premieres on PBS February 26

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