The Driving Force of A Community:
Laaste de Mohikanen / Last Of The Mohicans
By Milo Farragher-Hanks
The last few months of social distancing and lockdowns have given us all cause to think more about the nature and value of community. What exactly is a community, how do they form, what benefit do they bring us? Screening online on August 9th as part of the CINETOPIA:DOC – Love Your Local season of films on community and the local, Max Ploeg’s documentary Last Of The Mohicans offers a poignant examination of such questions.
Tonneke ‘Tonny’ Steenis, the subject of Last Of The Mohicans, is the kind of person who always seems to form and maintain communities—determined, grounded, and empathetic. With her severe face and large glasses, she could be a veteran schoolteacher; instead, she presides over a more unconventional institution. In Tilburg, the Netherlands, she runs a shop on wheels, a van stocked with food and drink, which she drives all around the city to see to various customers.
Last Of The Mohicans does not attempt to graft narrative or meaning onto Tonny’s life; it is a patchwork of incidents illustrating the rhythms of her existence and her role in the community. Some scenes observe Tonny at work, others depict her domestic life in a beer-can-and-food-wrapping-strewn house shared with her partner and business associate Kees. A jazzy score by Sebastiano Terzuolo provides mood and momentum, mixing sunny, upbeat pieces with moody passages worthy of Elevator To The Gallows or Taxi Driver.
There’s a surprising aptness to invoking those noir nightmares in relation to this genial, gentle film; those classics both give a vivid sense of moving through a community, encountering the numerous lives all unfolding within it—which is the mission of Ploeg’s film. It is a study of Tonny, but also a document of a place and its people, through the prism of a person and institution that have become so central to them. Ploeg (who also shot and edited the film) bookends scenes with shots of various Tilburg locales and of the van advancing through the streets, conveying the vastness of the community united around Tonny and her enterprise. One sequence plays audio of a TV interview wherein a Tilburg resident discusses Tonny’s shop over a montage of houses and streets, visualising the idea underlying the whole film; an entire city talking to Tonny.
The film is dotted with inauspicious moments of connection; in its most joyous sequence, Ploeg’s camera drifts between Kees behind the wheel and a group of partying youth in the back of a tram as they exchange gestures. Through such images, the film makes a timely plea that we appreciate the little affirmations that come from being attentive to the people around us. The film also has an affectionate eye for the moments of absurd humour found in everyday life, like an old man berating a quietly exasperated Tonny for the lack of beer in stock, or a close-up on a woman’s stunningly gauche Christmas jumper.
For all its warmth, however, the film is unsentimental. Having survived childhood with an abusive foster family, and founded the shop in order to escape homelessness, Tonny is tough-minded and plain-spoken. Towards the end, she bluntly confesses that if she had known when starting the business how costly it would prove and what a burden the debt entailed would be, she doesn’t know if she’d have gone ahead or not. Many of her customers seem to live similarly precarious lives, haggling over prices and wearing tatty clothes. The community depicted here is one united in and formed out of poverty – the title perhaps referring to Tonny’s status as part of a dying breed, of marginal communities taking care of their own.
Community is not idyllic in the world presented by Last Of The Mohicans, and participating in it comes with risks. And yet, as Tonny tells the camera that she’ll be happy as long as she can keep running the shop, you’ll probably find yourself sharing her sentiment. Tonny hasn’t given up on the value of community in troubled times – so why should we?
Love Your Local is also supported by Film Hub Scotland, part of the BFI’s Film Audience Network, and funded by Screen Scotland and National Lottery funding from the BFI.