March 5, 2011

European film shines spotlight on Merced County's own little Amsterdam

AMSTERDAM -- It's easy to miss Amsterdam among the almond orchards and ranches of northern Merced County, but the rural roadway, located on Oakdale Road just east of Highway 59, is getting a starring role in a European documentary.

Belgian filmmakers Rob Rombout and Rogier van Eck are traveling around the United States, collecting stories from residents of every community with the Amsterdam moniker.

The documentary, called "Amsterdam Stories USA," features Rombout and van Eck in something of a cross between a buddy film and a road flick as they visit residents in each of the 16 Amsterdams throughout the United States.

"If you draw a line connecting each of the communities, you'll see that we're crossing the 'unknown' places of America -- not only unknown to ourselves but for many Americans, too," Rombout said.

Some of those communities aren't much more than a dot on the map. But the filmmakers say size doesn't matter. Each of the towns, whether a village of 20 in Indiana or city of 20,000 in New York, has produced compelling interviews.

There's the 19-year-old Starbucks employee in Montana who dreams of volunteering in Africa. Or the Idaho man who suffered brain damage while serving in Iraq. Or the Montana woman taking care of the family car dealership. Or the man who left his hometown as a rebellious youth to live in South America, returning years later to work as a pastor.

"We're getting amazing stories," Rombout said.

In Merced County's Amsterdam, Rombout and van Eck visited Nicholas Calf Ranch, a sprawling property on Amsterdam Road owned by Peter and Rochelle Koch.

Peter Koch met Rombout five years ago, when he stopped near the ranch to take a photo of the scenery.

"He told us he was going to film a movie, but then he left and I never thought I'd see him again," Koch said.

Rombout called Koch a month ago to arrange an interview. They'll also meet with several others during their four-day stay in Merced County, including a secretary who works at the ranch and an 87-year-old resident.

The documentary had its start in the mid-1990s, when Rombout and van Eck, working as instructors at a film school in Brussels, discovered locations around the world bearing the Amsterdam name, from an island used for scientific research in the middle of the Indian Ocean to an Arctic island populated mostly by seals and polar bears. They visited a number of the locations for their first documentary.

For their follow-up, they wanted to focus on the United States from a European perspective.

The filmmakers are taking special care to shoot each interview in the same way, isolated in a dark room. The technique helps create an intimate feeling for the audience, according to producer Trevor Cohen.

"It's done in a way that puts each interview subject on a level playing field," Cohen said. "We're using the same techniques with each interview to bring the American story together."

In Merced County, they rented a boom truck from Turlock's Acme Electric to get a better perspective of the blooming almond trees and snow-capped Sierra peaks.

"Amsterdam Stories USA" will be shown on television in Belgium and several other European countries. The best chance for locals to see the documentary could be when it hits the film festival circuit in several years.

Online editor Brandon Bowers can be reached at or (209) 385-2464.

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