Leslieville Lives; Stories from the ‘Ville – Henk & Yanka Van der Kolk
Meet Henk & Yanka. I was initially meeting to interview Henk, when his lovely wife Yanka answered the door on my arrival at their Leslieville live/work space. Henk was running late, so for the better part of an hour, I learned quite a bit about the talented and fascinating Yanka, so decided to make this ‘their’ story.
The 2nd youngest of 5, Henk was born in Holland. He describes himself as a ‘legal’ draft-dodger and to avoid conscription headed to Canada in the late 1950s, where he lived with a sister in Edmonton. He had trained in architecture and was quickly put to to work by friends of his parents on the Peace River Project in northern Alberta. He befriended and worked with many First Nations people on the project. He reminisces fondly about that experience being not only a true Canadian one, but a perfect introduction to the country he loves and has since called home.
He returned to Edmonton after several months up north and joined Jon McIntosh and Assoc. Architects. After two years, he jumped into his car and headed to Toronto on ‘a whim’. Now in his late 20s, Henk was on the search for a’ beautiful Dutch wife’ and put out the call to friends and colleagues. Unlike today’s dating scene, it was word of mouth then. In short order a friend put him in touch with a farm girl from Orangeville. “It was love at first sight”, he smiles, looking lovingly at Yanka. The two of them of are googly-eyed in love, still, after 55 years together. “She was funny, smart & beautiful. A hattrick!” he grins. She gives him a coy smile. Yanka had moved from Friesland with her family when she was 6, her father, instrumental in starting the Reform Church of Canada. She left the farm and got pregnant ‘accidentally’ shortly after her union with Henk. “It was a shotgun wedding!” They both howl in laughter, but back then it was no laughing matter. “In Ontario, unmarrieds had no OHIP coverage”, they explained, so they up and moved to the border of Quebec and rented a home from artist John Climer, who nearly delivered their first born(s) – twins! That’s another story.
They stayed in/near Ottawa for several years. Hank worked at the University of Ottawa as a planning co-ordinator and later turned his attention to advertising, “for something different”, at McLaren Advertising. Within 8 months he was their Account Exec. and it was there he fell in love with the film industry. Around this time (1964/5) he befriended filmmaker Bill Marshall, who was working on his first feature, Flick. The family: Henk, Yanka, the twins Yolanda and Roland and youngest, Lance, headed to Toronto where Henk worked for free on the film. They later started Film Consortium of Canada. Together they made several documentaries for the Department of Education. “Outside of that, getting people to invest in Canadian films was an uphill battle,” Henk laments.
It was in 1976 things turned on a dime. Their film, Outrageous, based on a short story by Margaret Gibson, turned heads and changed the Canadian film industry. The film went to Cannes and Berlin, and its star, Craig Russell, won a Silver Bear Award. “It was fairly controversial at the time. This was when the bathhouse raids were in full swing in Toronto. And to add fuel to the fire, it was actually set in Toronto.” The irony was that they were afraid to open the film in Toronto, fearing the critics. “The critics were brutal here. They never took notice of Canadian films!” Henk raises his fist in frustration. “Instead, we opened the film in Ottawa, where we got an incredible welcome by Wayne Clarkson.”
Through their frustration and lack of film recognition/production in Canada, Henk, their lawyer friend Dusty Cohl and Bill Marshall, started the Festival of Festivals (today’s TIFF) in 1976. “Damn them”, he said. “I contacted every paper and radio station in Toronto about the festival and no one would give me the time of day, except The Sun. It was glorious though. We got a full page spread. It was Dusty who introduced our films and festival to the US Press, who loved us. We were polite. We never booed!” he laughs. “Dusty put us on the map. The first festival ran 6 days, screened 80 full length films (Canadian and International), cost $6 for a pass and was one grand party.”
The festival has since grown into the powerhouse that it is today – The Toronto International Film Festival or as we all know it, TIFF. Wayne Clarkson came to run the Festival of Festivals in its 3rd year, giving Henk more time to make films like Wild Horse Hank, Circle of Two and Mr. Patman. But it was his collaboration with Tom Headley on the screenplay, The Depot Bar & Grill, that makes Yanka’s eyes grow small. She comes close to me. “Hank let that film go because Tom left for L.A. and he was busy on other projects and guess what?! That film turned into…Flashdance!” I laughed. Then grimaced. “Do you regret that Henk?” I ask. “NO! I said to Tom, I’m off this project. So there. What could I do?” Yanka sighs but then they turn to one another. “Those tulips. Beautiful.” comments Henk. “Only $4.50”, Yanka smiles. They quickly revert back to the doting couple.
I head off any more talk about Flashdance and turn my attention to Yanka, who is putting on her make-up for our photo shoot. I had been perusing her photo album from her modelling days. Quite the beauty, Yanka was approached as a very young mother to model for Judy Welch, the former Miss Toronto and first Canadian Miss World contestant. She was an instant success in Toronto and has worked alongside Ken Bell, photographer and Toronto Star Fashion writer, David Livingstone. She modelled for over 20 years, is a photographer in her own right (with a collection of polaroids the envy of camera buffs) and has acted in several of Henk’s films. She taught Communication and Design with Ken at OCA from the late 70s – late 80s. “I loved modelling, but what I love is being a ‘fashion actress’. All the tricks of the trade are useless if clients won’t embrace their own beauty. Everyone has a preconceived, self-limiting, guilt-ridden view of personal beauty,” she sighs. Her aim is to relieve clients of their fear and help them learn to love what they see in the mirror. She began this first through her video/tape series, Power of Self-Image, and now in her current business, Imaging & Photography, where she coaches clients to see their beauty and then captures it on film.
There’s never a dull moment in Henk and Yanka’s lives. With 3 grown kids and 2 grandchildren, they have the energy and joie de vivre of 30-somethings. They lived in Panama from 2010-2015 where their daughter Yolanda lives part of the year. Henk established the Panama International Film Festival in 2012 and is currently Director & CEO. They are also collectors of art, among the many eclectic pieces, their daughter Yolanda’s painting has pride of place in their living room, and cats: rescues Charlie and Cuqiui from Panama. Henk still sits on the board of TIFF and has taken over as Yanka’s photographer partner where daughter Yolanda left off, after leaving to marry, live and pursue her art in Panama. Last month, Henk was presented with the Bill Hilson Award for Outstanding Service Contributing to the Development of the Motion Picture Industry. It was a particularly special award as he was honoured by his peers. A charming couple, Henk & Yanka love to spar (you can tell they’re Dutch), laugh, finish each other’s sentences and even dress in a similarly eclectic style. ‘Hollywood North’ with personality and staying power.
*Piers Handling Introducing Henk at the Hilson Award
*Henk’s Acceptance Speech
*Additional photos by Hank & Yanka, Getty Images & The Toronto Star