For ten years, Michael Leendertse brooded on a drama series about the plane crash in the Bijlmer. It resulted in a multimillion-dollar project that will be on television on Thursday. ‘During my research I had goosebumps up to my neck.’
It starts to drizzle at the monument where 43 victims of the Bijlmer disaster are commemorated. Screenwriter Michael Leendertse hides under ‘the tree that saw everything’, a sturdy poppy that survived the plane crash and was nicknamed because of the eye-shaped pattern on its bark.
It will be thirty years ago on October 4, in Amsterdam-Zuidoost, that an Israeli plane crashed into the Groeneveen and Klein-Kruitberg gallery flats. Half of the Netherlands sat with the board on their lap in front of the TV and saw how Studio Sport was interrupted for an inserted news with Gijs Wanders. Leendertse was ten years old, living in Zwijndrecht. “I remember that my mother called my aunt in Amstelveen very emotional. Was she still alive? Something terrible had happened in Amsterdam. Later that evening we saw the images of burning flats in the Bijlmer and the despair of the residents. That made such an impression.”
Near the memorial, a large part of his drama series disaster flight Hospitalized. The set – with debris, ‘wounded’ and ambulances driving back and forth – seemed so lifelike that Victim Support was ready to assist residents of the Bijlmer if necessary. “Of course that is very sensitive, but the residents we spoke to also said: if our story is told, then preferably here,” says the screenwriter, known for series such as From God Lose, Feuten and Flying Dutchmen.
The five-part series follows the young veterinarian Asha from the Bijlmermeer and two journalists from competing newspapers, who go in search of answers. After the disaster, there was great uncertainty about the contents of the – as it turned out later – military aircraft, the missing black box and the unexplained health complaints of survivors. Men in white suits were spotted in the rubble. Who were they? All those questions led to conspiracy theories. It was not until six years later, in 1998, that a parliamentary inquiry was held.
“All the great events in this series are true. You can find that on Google. But it remains a dramatized interpretation of reality,” Leendertse emphasizes a few times.
For example, the vet is a fictional character, an amalgamation of various inhabitants of the Bijlmer that he spoke to. His research spanned ten years. At that time, he read everything about the disaster, spoke to relatives and former politicians, but also retired journalist Vincent Dekker from Fidelity, who got into the case and on whom one of the characters is based. “During my conversations with Vincent, I had goosebumps on my neck. He talked about the international interests of the Netherlands, Israel and America to cover up this accident – I say deliberately accident, it was not a conspiracy. At one point, he found a pack of Israeli brand cigarettes in his yard. Was the secret service Mossad monitoring his work or was he getting paranoia?”
After a walk through the former disaster area – the Klein-Kruitberg gallery flat was completely demolished and is now part of the park – Leendertse settled down at a halal butcher, which also functions as a community center annex coffee shop. Over a cup of steaming coffee: “Despite all the research, I still remain an outsider in this multicultural district.”
While writing the script, he asked for help from Joy Delima (28), a Rotterdam actress and writer with roots in Suriname and Curaçao. “She was not yet born when the disaster took place, but because of her origin she knows much better how Surinamese and Antillean people feel about life than I do as a white man. Because of her input, her character Asha came to life.”
Except for the drama series disaster flight the KRO-NCRV also releases a documentary, podcast and a digital reconstruction with the same title. The TV series cost millions of euros. This was partly due to the special special effects, which – as far as we know – have not been used before in the Netherlands. For example, the scenes of the parliamentary inquiry were shot in front of giant LED screens that run completely around the set and rotate with the camera. The big difference with the well-known green screens is that actors are in the middle of a digital environment, which looks lifelike and spectacular.
In recent years, Leendertse has done so much research that he probably could have made a documentary, but he preferred to make a thriller series in which fact and fiction are mixed. “That gives me more room to choose a perspective. For me, this series is not only about the plane crash, but also about the Netherlands today. In thirty years, the gap between politics and citizens has not narrowed: just look at the gas drilling in Groningen or the allowance affair in which citizens are still seen as numbers. They are not heard, because larger, often economic, interests are involved. The system fails time and again.”
If the viewer pulls out that deeper layer, that’s a bonus, he says. “I especially hope that the viewer will soon say: what a fat, gripping cover-up thriller. Then my mission is really successful.”
Disaster flight can be seen daily from Thursday 29 September at KRO-NCRV at 9.30 pm on NPO1.