In the summer of 2015 the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp was approached by a US wholesale buyer, who had found sixteen 16mm film tapes at an estate sale in Illinois, on the subject of the world cruise that the Red Star Line ship S.S. Belgenland made in the winter of 1927-1928. Upon closer examination by the Red Star Line Museum, the team found that it was one of the first 'home movies' made by a participant of the cruise, 'home movies' being a very relative term for that era. The amateur filmmaker was one William Olsen, a 53-year-old wealthy citizen of Chicago, who made a trip around the world on the S.S. Belgenland with his wife Emma and their daughters Mabel and Hortense. From New York to Shanghai, from the Pacific to Egypt, everywhere he went he took his amateur camera with him. He was thus one of the first tourists ever to film a trip around the world.
From 1924 to 1931 the S.S. Belgenland departed seven times for a wintry world cruise of 133 days. However, the ship was originally built for the transportation of emigrants. In 1923, when it docked in Antwerp for the first time, the whole city was in an uproar. But due to immigrant quotas in the 1920s by the US Government, the transportation of emigrants across the Atlantic Ocean collapsed.
The Red Star Line ventured into the tourism market and refurbished the ship into a luxury cruiser for wealthy British and American tourists and business travelers, with amenities such as luxury suites, dining and dance halls, both a classical and a jazz orchestra, a clay pigeon shooting range on deck and a beach with sand from Ostend. Most days they spent at sea, but highlights were the shore excursions at the landing places of the ship.
A cruise departed from New York and sailed to Cuba, where they would stock up on liquor (due to the American prohibition). Then it went through the Panama Canal to Hawaii, the Far East, India, the Mediterranean Sea and back to New York.
The trips were a unique experience but often quite stressful: distrust of the locals, poverty, confrontations with beggars and also the typical disenchantment of the tourist who finds something that does not correspond to the images from the brochures. Fortunately, there was always the familiar S.S. Belgenland as the ultimate refuge.
Flat Earth Society and Peter Vermeersch
The Red Star Line Museum bought the film reels and forged a partnership with Cinematek Brussels to restore these unique reels, digitize them and ensure their long-term preservation. Peter Vermeersch, composer and clarinetist of his brainchild Flat Earth Society (FES), was asked to get cracking with the film material, similar to what he had done in 2005 with 'The Oyster Princess', a silent film by Ernst Lubitsch from 1919. Vermeersch re-edited and composed the S.S. Belgenland home movie entirely according to his own understanding and with a healthy disinterest for the documentary and historical value of the images. He composed superb music on the film and the show premiered at a sold-out Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp on October 1, 2016.