Tropical Amsterdam is a story about many things. Using the platform of the few remaining Dutch in Sri Lanka, a hangover from colonial times, Alexa Schulz tells a poignant tale of a community on the verge of extinction. Most of the “Burghers” were children during colonial times, and now, as adults, appear to struggle somewhat with shifting power paradigms.
Steven Labrooy embodies the belief that the colonisers of old retain power on the island. He is often mistaken for a foreigner as his Sinhalese is limited. Clear here is the difficulty experienced re-integrating into a post-colonial Sri Lanka. Schulz said that her purpose was to “probe some universal elements of colonialism” but it seems that Dutch remnants in Sri Lanka are sparse, and that the Burghers were readily assimilated into the British ruling class.
It has often been asked, then, with whom the Dutch in Sri Lanka identify – with the colonisers or the colonised? The film raises this question through portrayal of daily life and ritual. It is clear that some everyday tasks are challenging for the Burghers, not because of linguistic or cultural barriers, but because of an inherent belief that they are from a different world. The Burghers embody a different lifestyle despite their own recognition and awareness that “They [the colonisers] came here with their colonial ideas of religion and changing the culture here … They were not admirable … they did a lot of brutal things.” Once a privileged class, the Burghers now have no power to change the deeply ingrained Sri Lankan culture; they must instead adapt to it, and cultural assimilation, being a stranger in a strange land, is what Schulz addresses here.
A parallel that jumped out at me was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Highly critical of colonialism, it is somewhat ironic that he himself wrote in English, a language he only acquired in his twenties after moving from his native Poland to “the west”. But perhaps that is more a clever quirk of his writing than an irony. I’ll add that it is an advancement of ethnographic film that it has moved on from filming the “other” to showing that Western presence is not necessarily beneficial to a society.