How does it feel to be a 'living legend?' Heddy Honigmann ponders the question. It's been a few days now since IDFA conferred its Living Legend Award on her (along with a prize of €5,000), on the opening night.
Yes, Honigmann was utterly delighted at the honour. "It's not because of the title. It's because of the recognition from IDFA. IDFA for me is my house, my home," the Peruvian-born Dutch doc director reflects. She felt "a bath of warmth" as she went on stage to embrace festival director Ally Derks. "I was so happy you cannot imagine!" And, no, she had had no advance warning she was going to win.
As for being an IDFA legend in her own right, Honigmann says it feels like "having three or four more grey hairs." However, it doesn't mean she is going to stop making new movies. "It has given me such a kick to continue making films. It's the most important prize I ever received."
The morning after receiving the award, Honigmann had breakfast with fellow IDFA 'Living Legend' Fred Wiseman. She was heartened by the 83-year-old American director's continuing energy. He told her he had to leave Amsterdam for Paris because he needed to finish his new doc before heading off – on a skiing holiday.
The director is currently editing her latest feature doc, Around the World in 50 Concerts. Its ostensible subject is the recent world tour of the Netherlands by the Royal Symphony Orchestra. That, though, is only the starting point. "I am making a portrait of the Orchestra, but also of the visitors to the concerts," Honigmann explains. Whether she was in Soweto, St Petersburg or Buenos Aires, she was always on the lookout for unlikely music lovers. "I wanted to get away from the cliché that only bourgeois people listen to classical music. I have very beautiful characters who bring us to the concerts." One of her subjects is a taxi driver. (Her famous 1993 doc Metal and Melancholy also featured cabbies.) Another is a grandmother who suffered grievous family loss during the 'disappearances' in Argentina, and who looks to music for consolation.
Honigmann grew up in Peru. (Her mother was from Poland, her father from Austria. They met in Lima.) As a teenager, she was a passionate cinephile. "All the money they give you as a child, I was keeping it to go to films. I saw everything – war films, horror... Later on, I started going to the few art houses in Lima. Some films touched me so much that they unleashed a revolution in me. I remember Gertrud by Carl Dreyer, La terra trema and Death in Venice by Visconti." The future filmmaker began her artistic career as a poet. Eventually, she came to Europe to study film in Rome.
Early in her career, Honigmann made fictional features, among them Mind Shadows and Goodbye, as well as documentary. Recently, she has returned to fiction. "I will keep doing both. I don't see so much difference between them," the director declares. "When you talk with documentary makers with a lot of experience, they don't put such an emphasis on the difference." In documentary, Honigmann reflects, filmmakers still sometimes do their own kind of mise-en-scène. She cites an example from her own documentary, Dame la mano. One of the characters was a choreographer suffering from cancer. "She was always moving. The moment of the interview with her, I was thinking it would be terrible for her to sit. I went to her and said, 'Now, we will do the talking. What about if you are doing stretching exercises?' She said, 'Oh, Heddy, thank you so much! I was so terrified to sit down.'"
By contrast, on her doc The Underground Orchestra, there were musicians whose characters changed in front of the camera. They became stiff and formal. Honigmann therefore rehearsed with them, helping them to relax and to become more like their normal selves before filming them. "You could say I was directing them (to be) how they really are. There is a mise-en-scene in documentary. There are so many choices. Reality is so complicated that you have to reduce it to understand it!"