On May 21, the lauded documentary filmmaker Heddy Honigmann passed away at the age of 70. Her body of work, for which she received the Living Legend Award from IDFA in 2013, revolved around intimate encounters rooted in a deep bond of trust. She was known for her socio-political engagement and her tender approach, which she was able to make tangible in a very unique way in her films.
Peruvian-Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann (Lima, 1951) lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1978, where she made one film almost every year — both documentaries and feature films. Music frequently played a major role in her films, such as The Underground Orchestra (1997) about musicians in the Paris metro, Crazy (1999) in which Dutch soldiers tell about their favorite music during peace missions, and Around the World in 50 Concerts (2014) about the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The latter was the opening film of IDFA 2014, during which Honigmann was the festival’s Guest of Honor, where she presented a Masterclass, a retrospective program and Top 10 of her favorite documentaries. In 2015, she became a member of the Academy of Arts of the Royal Dutch Academy of Science, and in 2016 she received an oeuvre award of the Prins Bernhard Culture Fund. With some of the money she received together with the award, she supported a number of IDFA Bertha Fund film projects in the following years, including the Russian film Where Are We Headed by Belarusian filmmaker Ruslan Fedotow. Fedotow won the IDFA Award for Best First Feature for this film in 2021.
In a feature written for IDFA in 2014, film journalist Ronald Rovers characterized Honigmann as someone who could look and listen very precisely:
"Few filmmakers get as close as Heddy Honigmann. Between filmmaker and person portrayed there are always obstacles: the camera itself (that thing that distracts people and makes them stiffen up), the wrong questions an interviewer can ask, the defensive attitude of people who find it difficult to talk about pain and setbacks, the failing memory. Honigmann makes those obstacles disappear by watching and listening very precisely. You see it in the gaze of the camera, which always has an eye for telling details, and you hear it in the questions she asks. Always genuinely curious, always respectful. But most of all you hear it in the answers people give. There is peace at the other end of the lens and you notice that people forget the camera, because they trust the interviewer and because Honigmann takes them to another place and time. ln all her films Honigmann makes the invisible visible. And not only because with her searching, patient camera she brings out memories that become visible on those beautifully drawn faces, but also because they are often the memories of people to whom history does not listen. Voices lost in the maelstrom, the melancholy undertones of the world, voices that, thanks to her, are not forgotten for a while yet."
Introducing the Top 10 Honigmann compiled for IDFA 2014, she spoke about her social-political engagement and the tenderness in her films:
"I love the people I film. Producer Pieter van Huystee once said to me that I should learn to film nasty people. 'Why should I?', I said, 'Plenty of filmmakers already do that. I want to film nice people.' (...) When I film, I also try to create a situation where people feel comfortable. I give them something to do, so they forget the presence of the camera."
Heddy Honigmann was awarded the IDFA Living Legend Award in 2013. On that occasion, she referred to a quote by Peter Wintonick, the documentary filmmaker and inspiration to many at IDFA, who died a few days before the ceremony: "He once said that you should drop tears into a cup of tea and pour it out over a plant. And that's what documentaries are supposed to do too," Honigmann stated in her reception speech.
Honigmann primarily made feature films in the early days, such as Hersenschimmen and Goodbye, in addition to documentaries. Her approach to both didn't differ much, she divulged to film journalist Geoffrey Macnab in 2013.
"I will continue to do both. I don't see that much difference. If you talk to experienced documentary filmmakers, they don't emphasize the differences either. Even in documentaries, directors sometimes do mise-en-scène. You could say that I directed people to be more themselves. So there is mise-en-scène in documentaries. You have so many choices. Reality is so complicated that you have to simplify to understand it!"