This year, IDFA honors Heddy Honigmann with a retrospective of several of her films. Last year, the Peruvian-Dutch filmmaker was the second director in IDFA's history to receive the festival's Living Legend Award.
There aren't many filmmakers who can get as close as Heddy Honigmann. There are always the inevitable obstacles between her and the people she's filming: the camera itself (that distracting object that makes people go stiff), an interviewer asking the wrong questions, the defensiveness people can have when they don't want to talk about pain and hardship, and failing memory.
Honigmann dissolves these barriers by looking and listening with a great intensity. You can see it in her images, always full of telling details, and you can hear it in the questions she asks. But even more, you hear it in the answers people give her. She's calm behind the camera, allowing people to forget the apparatus, because they trust her and because Honigmann transports them to another time, another place.
Lima, 1993. A taxi driver is telling us about a beautiful Italian woman who came to Peru years ago. She was his great love, but she couldn't stay and he couldn't leave. Italy was too far away, too different. A song on a hissing old cassette tape is the only
tangible memory he has left, and even after all these years, tears well up when he plays it. For a moment he is back with her, dancing as they used to. And for a moment, we're in that car in Lima, feeling the loneliness this driver must have felt all those years.
The scene is from Metal and Melancholy, in which the state of Honigmann's home
country shines through the conversations she has with the taxi drivers of its capital. These men and women were laid off because of the bad economy, and are now trying to make ends meet by scouring the streets in their dinged-up cars, hoping to find someone who has some money left for the fare. Finding that device to bring back memories is not Honigmann's stated purpose, but she will always ask for it. For the musicians in the Paris subway she portrays in The Underground Orchestra, it's music, as it often is in her work. But it can be a recipe as well, as in Food for Love – A Shtetl That's No Longer There, or a poem, as in O amor natural. Creations as time machines: in Good Husband, Dear Son, a father points out the cement in which his two sons inscribed their names when they were young. Ten years later, in 1992, they were killed by the Serbs, like most men in the small Muslim village of Ahatovici, near Sarajevo. Walking along the cemetery, the man remembers weddings, since he sang at the weddings of most of the men buried there. He hasn't sung since the day of the massacre.
So sometimes the music stops, because it would trigger a journey to a place that has become too painful. In those cases, Honigmann has us look at the empty canvasses, the missing memories, as silence echoes. In Oblivion, she asks Henry, a 14-year-old shoeshine boy in Lima, what his dreams are. He has no dreams, he says. She asks whether he has any good memories. No, no memories at all, he says. There is no light in his eyes. His emotions are turned off, in self-defense.
Honigmann makes the invisible visible, The New York Times wrote in its review of the film. The filmmaker herself says she's looking for how people find the strength to wake up every day and face life. It's an almost banal, but no less important question, she says. The powerful thing about her films is that Honigmann almost always manages to find that strength, which must have made it all the more heartbreaking for her when she didn't find it in Henry.
That other place and time where Honigmann tries to bring her subjects is not always a nice place. In Crazy, she talks to Dutch U.N.soldiers about what they encountered during their missions, and tries to lay bare the psychological tolls it took. It's a sequel of sorts to her Two Minutes Silence, in which she has people remember World War II on May 4, Remembrance Day in the Netherlands. But in that film, she asks questions and uses silence to get people to talk. In Crazy, music does the work for her.
Music as a key to memory: perhaps the idea already came to Honigmann 10 years before, riding in the back seat of that cab, listening to the driver hum along to the song and remember his Italian lover. The music she employs in Crazy isn't random: she asks the soldiers for songs that have meaning to them. Songs that take them back to a market square in Sarajevo, where grenades hit the crowd as they were shopping. Back to a market in Phnom Penh, where one of the soldiers was offered young child for sex. As they listen, we look at their faces. Honigmann only has to ask one or two questions.
Oblivion isn't the only film in which Honigmann makes the invisible visible; she does this i all her films. She unearths these memories, which we see manifested on the weathered faces she portrays in her seeking, patient images. But it's also the memories of people who have been forgotten by history. Voices that were lost in the crowd, the melancholy undertones of the world. Voices that, thanks to Honigmann, will be remembered just a little bit longer.