With Heddy Honigmann’s latest portrait in resilience, Oblivion, opening at the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki this Friday, it’s a good time to celebrate one of documentary’s most engaging storytellers. Honigmann is not without accolades—she won the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award at the 2007 San Francisco International Film Festival and has had retrospectives in Berlin, New York, Paris and elsewhere—but one still wishes the ongoing doc boom would have done better by her. Watch Oblivion, and you’ll see a master in full stride, gracefully handling a subject (class inequity and political disillusionment in Lima) that would turn to putty in lesser hands. The film is a deceptively smooth ride—we only realize the tremendous moral sense required to coordinate so many different stories into a common circuitry of experience and expression in the afterglow of Oblivion’s final notes of solace.
Central to the Honigmann touch is her centering of that documentary commonplace, the interview. Recent years have seen a surge in stylized, philosophical takes on film interview—consider Standard Operating Procedure, Tyson and 24 City, all from 2008—making Honigmann’s humanist refinement of the format all the more relevant. Comprised of social encounters, her films follow poetic designs. In Metal and Melancholy (1993), she flags rides with cabbies in Lima, uncovering a few secrets of amateur auto repair and economic survivalism along the way; in The Underground Orchestra (1997), she circumambulates the Paris Metro to interview refugee street musicians; in O Amor Natural (1996), she discusses love’s lingering moods with seniors in Rio de Janeiro by having them read from poet Carlos Drummond’s erotic verses; in Forever (2006), she’s in Paris again, this time at Père-Lachaise, meeting people who regularly visit an artist’s grave (Jim Morrison’s thankfully omitted); in Crazy (1999), she accesses Dutch veterans of U.N. peacekeeping missions by asking them about the music they associate with their military tours; and in Oblivion, it slowly emerges that her conversations with Lima’s service class (which itself has its own class separations) maps the immediate vicinity of Peru’s presidential palace, an absent center if there ever was one.
Born in Lima to Holocaust survivors, Honigmann traveled to Italy to study filmmaking before eventually settling in Amsterdam. This personal history helps account for her films’ multilingualism, their fixation on mobility and those who live as exiles, and the pride of place given to the act of remembrance. But it hardly explains the joie de vivre of Honigmann’s rhythms, her fascinating ability to limn reverie in plain sight of social reality. She asks great questions, certainly, but the vibrant presence of her encounters goes deeper than that: she never submits her characters to superseding voiceovers or interruptive cutaways; she talks to people while they work and play, so that both mind and body are engaged; and she includes her introductions and farewells, shoring up all that is communicated in manners. Exposition flows from the interviews, not the other way around.
In a scene repeated in all her documentaries, a character encountered in the streets welcomes Honigmann into his or her home. The transition from public to private is central to Honigmann’s interest in the performance of everyday life. Another common scene: The camera lingers on a person’s expression while they remember, often coincident with music. In Honigmann’s films, memory is a look, a gesture, a funny story, a physical demonstration, a tear, a shake of the head, a singalong. Her constitutive interview process shucks off the visual trope of the talking head—that is, the interview as requisitioning of information, a disembodiment of knowledge. This is the legacy passed down from the law, confession, and the hiring process. In Honigmann’s films, by contrast, listening is something more than simply countenancing a person’s speech.
(The author wishes to thank Irina Leimbacher for her assistance.)
Icarus Films distributes four of Honigmann’s titles on DVD. More at icarusfilms.com.
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