Theo van Gogh

Controversial film-maker

The film-maker Theo van Gogh, who was shot dead in Amsterdam on Tuesday, will be remembered as a controversial figure who delighted in provocation and had a penchant for portraying difficult subjects on screen.

Theo van Gogh, actor and film-maker: born The Hague 23 July 1957; (one son); died Amsterdam 2 November 2004.

The film-maker Theo van Gogh, who was shot dead in Amsterdam on Tuesday, will be remembered as a controversial figure who delighted in provocation and had a penchant for portraying difficult subjects on screen.

Theo van Gogh's name was known around the world. He shared it with his great-great-grandfather, the brother of the artist Vincent van Gogh. But in the Dutch film community he himself was well known: he was regarded as the Netherlands' Michael Moore. He displayed a charming mix of arrogance with skilful argument in the frequent television interviews he gave, wearing his trademark scruffy clothes and chain-smoking his favourite Gauloise cigarettes.

Van Gogh considered himself to be a misunderstood visionary. His website, " De Gezonde Roker" ("The Healthy Smoker"), was filled with harsh criticism of multicultural society. He said this was sorely needed as the Netherlands was experiencing a social turmoil that threatened to turn it into a "type of Belfast" in a few years.

An award-winning film-maker, television producer and newspaper columnist, van Gogh could be scathing. He once mocked a prominent Dutch Jew, referred to Jesus as "the rotten fish" of Nazareth and called a radical Muslim politician "Allah's pimp". In his passionate efforts to stir public debate, he branded imams as women-haters and ridiculed the Prophet Mohamed. Many Jewish organisations branded him an anti-Semite. Others called him an extremist and Muslims said they found his work insulting. But he was also hailed as a champion of free speech, as the Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, pointed out in a statement to the nation following his murder.

Van Gogh probably made more enemies than friends in his patchy film career. His recent English-language film Submission was made in conjunction with the Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali - a Somali refugee who is an outspoken critic of Islam. The film, a protest against domestic violence in Islamic cultures, outraged the Dutch public when it was shown on television in August. It features four women in see-through robes showing their breasts with texts from the Koran painted on their bodies talking about being abused. For that, he received death threats and was placed under police protection, much against his will.

He later rejected the surveillance that could have prevented the shots that killed him as he cycled along an Amsterdam street. In a radio interview only last Friday he said he wasn't concerned about being the victim of an attack. "If it happens, it happens," he said, adding that he didn't believe in the goodness of man, but reckoning that his ego was too big to accept a bullet would be meant for him.

Theo van Gogh was born in 1957 and grew up in The Hague. He studied law in Amsterdam but dropped out to take up acting, directing and writing. He made his début in 1981 with the feature film Luger. His films were regularly nominated at the Netherlands Film Festival, where he won five awards. His 1994 film 06, about a young woman who advertises her services for phone sex, became one of his best-known works. It was renamed 1-900 (Sex Without Hangups) for the US market. Blind Date, two years later, featured a bartender listening to two customers talk, and Cool!, which came out this year, was about the rehabilitation of a gang of young criminals.

Van Gogh also found success making television programmes. Among his highlights was Najib en Julia (2002), a modern reworking of Romeo and Juliet that saw a Dutch girl fall in love with a Moroccan pizza delivery boy. His directing was more successful than his acting but he used his famous name in 2002 when he appeared alongside David Carradine in Wheatfield with Crows - which brought Vincent van Gogh into the modern music industry.

His most recent project was 06-05, a fictionalised version of the events surrounding the assassination of the Dutch populist politician Pim Fortuyn two years ago. Based on a novel by Tomas Ross, the film is due to be released next month.

Theo van Gogh was an anti-monarchist and prominent member of the Republican Society. He admitted he was overweight at 300lb and that he led an unhealthy life style. He said he had intended to change it to set an example to his teenage son: "So I have to stop overdoing the drink and lose 100 pounds."

Geraldine Coughlan

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