‘They Call Me Babu’ : the politics of visibility and gendered memories of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia

The 2019 documentary film They Call Me Babu utilises historical film footage including the home movies of one Dutch family with a voiceover in Bahasa Indonesia to narrate the fictionalised experiences of a former female domestic worker in the colonial Netherlands East Indies in the closing decades of Dutch colonial rule from 1939 to 1949. By centring the experiences of ‘babu’, women who worked as nannies and nursemaids for families holding European status, the Dutch-Indonesian director Sarah Beerends endeavours to make these women visible and to narrate their viewpoints.



In this paper we argue, however, that the director’s aspiration to centre the women’s stories is haunted by the spectres of the colonial matrix of power. This leads to the unintended replication of nostalgic images of, and tropes about, the colony that has characterised earlier Dutch memory work. The film does not offer a critical engagement with colonial violence and the colonial structures of power are instead positioned as contributing to the nanny’s gendered emancipation. Furthermore, we reflect on why, in the context of recent vociferous debates about colonial violence, a film which serves to soften images of Dutch colonialism, was generally well received.

Ana Dragojlovic, Katharine McGregor | 2022
In: Women's History Review ; ISSN: 0961-2025
Online ahead of print DOI: 10.1080/09612025.2022.2090709
Colonialism, Critique, Domestic Workers, Dutch, East Indies, Females, Gender Issues, Indonesian Revolution, Indonesians, Netherlands, Political violence