It might seem strange for a 62-year-old Dutchman to settle down in Colombia, a country that at the turn of the century was mostly making the news because of the ongoing civil war, kidnapping and drugs. But Jan Henk Kleijn has travel and adventure in his blood.
“Under Foreign Skies” is a series of portraits of Dutch people abroad doing remarkable things.
Photos: Eric Beauchemin
Original broadcast: November 12, 2003
When I was young, I had one goal in life and that was to travel and have adventures because like all Dutch kids, I read about Old Chatterhand and the tough sea-faring guys from Holland.
Kleijn’s itchy feet led him to drop out of secondary school.
I felt like I was losing time, so I investigated which professions would enable me to travel. Most of them would have taken years of study, but there were two that didn’t require higher education: writing and photography.
Kleijn chose the latter and eventually wound up as a photographer on the Dutch cruiser, the Rotterdam, and he traveled the world.
A few years later, Kleijn returned to The Netherlands, but he couldn’t stand Holland’s cold, wet weather. He and his wife had already traveled to Asia, Africa and North America, so they decided to head off for a new destination: Latin America.
What I hoped for was a warm climate, fruit trees, flowers and beautiful girls. I mentioned to everyone that I wanted to go to South America, and at a party, an old man told me that he had a son in Bogotá. We had no idea where Bogotá was.
Kleijn arrived in Colombia in 1969.
I wrote to my mother and said within five years, I wanted to become a millionaire because you have to have goals in life. I set up a film production company and a film laboratory. We made hundreds of commercials and industrial films, and I did become a millionaire in pesos, which wasn’t too bad at the time because the exchange rate for one US dollar was seven pesos.
Kleijn spent 10 years in Colombia, but then returned to Europe for his children’s education. In 2001, he and his Colombian wife moved back to Colombia. They ended up in La Mesa or The Plateau, a village he had discovered while shooting an American film, about an hour and a half drive from Bogotá. It’s located in a lush, green valley, where the temperatures remain clement all year round. On the other side of the valley, guerrillas and paramilitary groups are active, but La Mesa is an oasis of peace.
Kleijn wasn’t prepared to retire, so he set up a community television station, called EduTV. His goal was to train local people in making television and also broaden the horizons of the half a million mostly poor and uneducated peasants who inhabit the region.
These people live as if they were in the Middle Ages, and part of our job is to open a window to the world and give them some satisfaction about their region.
EduTV broadcasts daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The day starts with the press review because many people in the area are illiterate or don’t have access to newspapers. (Two-thirds of Colombians tune into community TV stations like EduTV.) The daily output also includes programmes for children and women, as well as programmes about health issues and farming.
One of our most ambitious projects is to provide adults here with a ‘bachillerato rural’ which means a rural high school diploma.
Jan Henk Kleijn is also training school children to make TV programmes.
We started out two years ago with 80 students. First we had to train them to look at television because they were watching all this American bullshit like Bruce Willis and Rambo. We showed them more ‘difficult’ films, and we selected the best of those students and trained them to make real television.
Today, the students are making features and films of such high standards that they could be broadcast on TV stations in Europe or North America. Kleijn is obviously proud of his students, but he remains quite modest.
I have opened doors, but anybody can open doors. The question is whether people are willing to step through those doors. In Europe and the United States, governments open doors for people. Here in Colombia, there are no open doors. But if you offer people the opportunity, they will take it. One of my students even stood in a room for 12 days to get the opportunity to make television. Imagine that! What a hope for a country: just open doors.