Heddy Honigmann on her Top 10

    • Festival
    • November 5, 2014
    • By Ronald Rovers

    Peruvian-Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann, whose Around the World in 50 Concerts opens IDFA this year, selected her Top 10 favorite documentaries.

    We join Honigmann at her home in Amsterdam to discuss her selection. Why these 10 films? Honigmann looks at the first title on the list: And Life Goes On by Abbas Kiarostami, in which a director and his son travel through the devastated area of Gilan in Iran after a massive earthquake. “Naively, I thought it was a documentary when I first saw it,” Honigmann admits. After all, it brings the reality of the destruction into clear focus. But Kiarostami used a fictional story to show it.”

    This connects to Honigmann’s own way of working, she says. “When I’m filming, I try to create situations in which my subjects are comfortable. I’ll give them something to do, so they forget the camera’s there. People think, ‘Why are those people so chatty with Heddy? Did she tell them what to say beforehand?’ But that’s not the case at all. People just notice that I’m actually curious.”


    “Johan van der Keuken’s The Flat Jungle really moved me. There’s a scene in which Johan – I use his first name, as he was a friend – talks to a union leader. Johan is filming himself, and simultaneously holding a lively conversation. He could look and listen at the same time. I require the same of my camera operators. Sometimes I see my cameraman reach for a zoom lens, and I’m thinking: ‘No, don’t!’ I once fired a cameraman for using a wide-angle lens to film a small Japanese man in a park. He turned the guy into a figurine, with no respect for who he was.”

    Is it the inquisitive nature of his films that drew her to Van der Keuken’s work? And if so, why not select his Amsterdam Global Village, which – like two other films in her Top 10, Racetrack and The Lion Hunters – is seeking structure. “Amsterdam Global Village is too cerebral for my tastes. I have a more personal and political way of looking, which shines through in all my films. The social realities of Peru are woven into Metal and Melancholy and Oblivion, for instance. You can see the same thing in Jean Rouch’s The Lion Hunters. By the way, that film has a scene that could only be filmed because the filmmaker has the complete trust of the entire tribe. There’s no other way. You find that in some of my work as well: that total trust that can only come from curiosity and love. I love the people I film. One of my producers once told me I should learn to film horrible people. But why should I? Enough filmmakers are doing that. I want to film nice people. That’s why the motto for my master class is ‘Try a Little Tenderness.’”

    That tenderness can be found in most of the films she has selected for her Top 10, Honigmann says. “That’s especially true for The Gleaners and I, the film I feel most connected to. The respect and the interest that Agnès Varda has for her subjects is almost tangible. It reminds me of the mastery of filmmakers like Billy Wilder or Ernst Lubitsch, who had the gift of making a minor character unforgettable with just a single line of dialogue. Varda has that gift, too – she’s disarming. She is... no, not my alter ego, but she could be my mother. My mother who taught me how to make films.”


    “I saw Frederick Wiseman’s Racetrack a long time ago. In my recollection, you see a horse’s enormous penis in the opening scene, you see how it’s washed and then inserted to inseminate the mare. Then Wiseman follows the life of the foal. In this way, he maps out the entire surroundings of horse racing: the horses, the caregivers, the owners, the gamblers. Starting with the birth of that foal, he creates an entire world. That’s a brilliant idea.”

    Next up is José Luis Guerin’s 2001 film Work in Progress. “You can see he really loves Barcelona. The film shows life in a neighborhood where an old building was torn down to make way for a new apartment complex, and he shows how many beautiful people live there. He’s a true cinephile. When Sight & Sound recently asked me to send them a list of my 10 favorite documentaries, I couldn’t remember the title of one film I wanted to include. So I called José Luis, knowing they had asked him as well, and told him about this fantastic film. It had really made an impact on me when I was young, but now I could only remember that it featured a group of children who live in poverty, and suddenly spring to action when a train passes, perilously running along as it races by. So he says, ‘That’s Tire dié! That’s in my top 10 as well!’ Turns out there were two more shared entries on our lists: Quince Tree of the Sun and the epic Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks.”

    Honigmann has included both of these films in her IDFA Top 10. “It’s really remarkable how that Chinese film manages to create an enormous amount of intimacy with these workers, isolated in the metal jungle of a gigantic industrial area with no one but each other. That’s something these 10 films I selected share as well: intimacy. I’m less inclined to select cerebral films. It’s not that I don’t find them interesting, but I’d rather see films that touch my heart.”

    And Life Goes On

    • Abbas Kiarostami
    • 1992
    • 91 min

      Set in the aftermath of the 1991 earthquake in Iran, this road movie is a testament to perseverance and the will to survive.

      More info

      The Flat Jungle

      • Johan van der Keuken
      • 1978
      • 90 min

        In 1978, Johan van der Keuken documented how emerging industries were rapidly transforming the Wadden Islands, the “flat jungle” of the Netherlands.

        More info

        The Gleaners and I

        • Agnès Varda
        • 2000
        • 82 min

          A playful, affectionate ode to gatherers of food, including illegal grape pickers and a chef with a Michelin star.

          More info

          The Lion Hunters

          • Jean Rouch
          • 1965
          • 77 min

            Five Malian hunters prepare to confront a superpower of the African wilderness: a huge lion nicknamed “The American.”

            More info

            Quince Tree of the Sun

            • Victor Erice
            • 1992
            • 133 min

              Every autumn, a Spanish artist tries to capture the light on a quince tree in a painting; a subtle game of observation and staging.

              More info


              • Frederick Wiseman
              • 1985
              • 114 min

                This masterpiece by Direct Cinema icon Frederick Wiseman is about life at Belmont Park, the world’s most famous racetrack for thoroughbreds.

                More info

                The Reading Lesson

                • Johan van der Keuken
                • 1973
                • 10 min

                  Generations of Dutch children learned to read from a board illustrated with pictures and words. In 1973, a school in Amsterdam updated this method.

                  More info

                  Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks

                  • Wang Bing
                  • 2002
                  • 554 min

                    A nine-hour meditative masterpiece about the decline of China’s biggest and oldest industrial area, and the consequences for the remaining workers.

                    More info

                    Toss Me a Dime

                    • Fernando Birri
                    • 1958
                    • 33 min

                      A short social critique on poverty in the Argentine city of Santa Fe by the founder of New Latin American Cinema.

                      More info

                      Work in Progress

                      • José Luis Guerin
                      • 2001
                      • 125 min

                        A layered, philosophical, often associative discourse on the impact of urban renewal on the residents of the working-class El Chine neighborhood in Barcelona.

                        More info

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