Michael Leendertse was a teenager when the Boeing of the Israeli company El Al crashed into the Groeneveen and Klein-Kruitberg flats in the Bijlmermeer on October 4, 1992. At least 43 people died, but the lives of many hundreds of residents and aid workers changed that night. They suffered from mysterious physical complaints: chronic respiratory infections, pains, impotence, stomach and intestinal complaints.
Residents and media continued to search for years for the answer to what the exact payload of the disaster flight was. Even a parliamentary inquiry did not bring the answers victims hoped for. “Certain elements are etched in the memory of my generation,” says Leendertse. “The burning flats, the desperate people. And all the questions about the ‘men in white suits’ and the missing black box.”
At the Film Academy he read a reconstruction de Volkskrant. Since then, the plan has settled in his head to make a series about this black page in recent Dutch history. He contacted Fidelity-journalist Vincent Dekker, who for years tried to get the bottom stone out. “The story had everything for a blood-curdling thriller, from conspiracy theories to great human suffering. I was very surprised that no other creator had come up with the idea of a series before.”
Also read a background article about how the Bijlmer is portrayed in films and series: With the camera on safari in the Bijlmermeer
Leendertse chose Dekker and his Volkskrantcolleague Pierre Heijboer as main characters. “You want to take the viewer into amazement at everything they discover,” explains the writer. “The core of the story is what happened after the disaster. A government that may have covered things up, but at the very least remains stuck in numbers, statistics and rules.”
He spoke with countless relatives and victims and decided to bundle their stories into one character: Asha Willems, a resident of the Bijlmer who loses her fiancé in the disaster. “I’ve put all kinds of heartbreaking stories I’ve heard from relatives in her” Asha is played by actress Joy Delima, who was involved in the project from an early stage. Delima was given all the space to develop her character herself. “As a writer you can only empathize to a certain extent in a certain world”, Delima thinks. “Of course someone can immerse themselves in a multicultural community such as the Bijlmer. But it then threatens to quickly run into caricatures: with a Surinamese family, there is always roti on the table in films.”
She grew up in Rotterdam; her father is from Curaçao, her mother from Suriname. “It’s the little nuances that make the difference. That we always tell you to people who are older. Or how you approach people in times of mourning.” The actors in the series have the same background as their characters as much as possible. Victims from the Ghanaian community are played by people with Ghanaian roots. They were given the space to fill in details themselves in ‘their’ scenes.
The core of the story is not the disaster on October 4 itself, but especially the aftermath, Delima thinks. “A lot of frustration among residents came from the fact that they felt completely unheard in the years after the crash,” she says. “I hope it never happens, but if a plane had crashed into the canal belt, the reactions of politicians and government would have been different.” This has not only to do with the skin color of most of the victims, emphasizes the protagonist. “The Bijlmer disaster was more about class difference. The series shows very clearly that there were also many white people among the victims.”
The makers hope that the series also contributes to ensuring that the accident is not forgotten. “I’m 28, so I was born after the plane crashed,” says Delima. “I never heard anything about it in history class.”
Scriptwriter Leendertse also hopes that policy makers and politicians might look and realize how little has changed in three decades. “Look at the big files that now dominate the media: the allowance affair, gas extraction in Groningen, the energy crisis. All situations in which the government views citizens as statistics. And the politicians are partly the same as in the late 1990s.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 21, 2022