Far Away, So Close

With lusty seniors in Rio and hard-driving cabbies in Lima, filmmaker Heddy Honigmann makes her home in the world

Gone in 60 Seconds? Try Not Going Anywhere for Three Days. "This car can't be stolen," announces a Peruvian cabdriver near the beginning of Heddy Honigmann's 1993 documentary Metal and Melancholy. He gestures to his white sedan at the curb, a rusted-out beater that looks older than he is. The Club would be too crude for this home tinkerer: Instead, he has made elaborate antitheft modifications, which he cheerfully demonstrates: The door is rigged to fall off should anyone grab the handle--presumably a useful precaution in crime-ridden Lima. The ignition is a fake. Below the dash are the three wires he touches in sequence to start the car, along with decoy wires installed to fool would-be jackers.

But the real deterrent is the gaping hole in the floor. "Who would want a car full of holes?" the driver says. Anyway, the radiator is broken. "If they steal it, they won't get farther than 30 blocks. That's the advantage of this car."

You can sense a certain race to the bottom behind the notion that if your possessions are just crappy enough, no one will take them away. But this gentle briefcase-toting Sisyphus in a V-neck sweater, one of many such figures in director Heddy Honigmann's break-out documentary, looks like a pragmatist in the marathon of disaster that is Peru's international debt crisis.

As if the total collapse of the Peruvian economy weren't bad enough, he's going to get screwed on the trade-in value:  A last-resort cabdriver in 'Metal and Melancholy'
Heddy Honigmann
As if the total collapse of the Peruvian economy weren't bad enough, he's going to get screwed on the trade-in value: A last-resort cabdriver in 'Metal and Melancholy'

Honigmann is often lumped into the cinema of economic globalism, and her documentaries do rove the world in search of its troubles. Yet Metal and Melancholy, which screens May 15 as part of a rare stateside Honigmann retrospective at Walker Art Center, is a good example of the director's uniquely intimate approach to the Big Subjects: loss, love, memory, survival, auto repair. To portray the newly impoverished middle class of Lima, she zooms in on freelance cabdrivers--mostly moonlighting white-collar professionals. (The armies of the true poor never had a car to begin with.)

Once in the passenger's seat, however, Honigmann looks more closely. Usually she'll strike up a conversation by asking about some object of value to the driver (like that car that's been destroyed for its own preservation). The director has a way of putting people at ease. And slowly, they open up. One cabbie admits that he treats his windowless vintage guzzler as an old friend: "We're a wreck, but we make it." Another weeps when she describes her father's emotional cruelty.

Sometimes Honigmann allows the camera to wander: She can't resist the more surreal signs of class collapse in Lima, such as the dude hawking a fully rigged model frigate. But in general, she literally and figuratively allows her subjects to take her where they want to go: a family's modest flat; a dead relative's fixer-upper; a municipal graveyard.

This willingness to interact spontaneously with her subjects recalls the approach of French cinéma vérité pioneer Jean Rouch, who always saw the camera as a tool for provoking life, not just capturing it. In an interview from her sister's home in Amsterdam, Honigmann identifies Rouch's 1965 ethnographic study of bow hunters in West Africa, Hunting the Lion With Bow and Arrow, as one of her favorite movies. The scene she singles out reveals something about her philosophy. "The tribe he's filming with meets another tribe," she says, "and the chief turns to the camera and says to the other chief, 'I want to present you Mr. Rouch: He's chasing the lion with us.' I'll never forget that moment! He was in. He was totally in."

Like Rouch, Honigmann makes her home in the world. She has filmed in Brazil, Canada, Holland, Israel, Peru, and France. And she seems adept at finding fellow travelers (if you will) within these worlds. Her 1997 doc The Underground Orchestra (8:00 p.m. Tuesday, May 21) explores the international community of buskers who discover both rent money and artistic escape in the Paris metro. At one point, an Algerian sings a love song that might well describe his feelings about the homeland he has fled: "I can't free myself from her/But she hurts me so much."

Art, exile, and longing seem to have shaped Honigmann's own story. Born in Peru in 1951, she is the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Austria and Poland. As a child, she devoured the European New Wave at Lima's French Cultural Institute. After graduating from university, she moved to Rome to study film, and then launched a career in fiction features--her most prominent being 1995's infidelity drama Good-bye (8:00 p.m. Thursday, May 23). (She also plans to return to fiction next year with another tortured love story, Stolen Hours.) A Dutch citizen since 1978, Honigmann now lives in Amsterdam, and she breaks from our phone conversation in English to talk to her son in Dutch, and to her sister in Spanish. (She'll be using English when she appears at the Walker for a discussion of her work on Wednesday, May 22 at 8:00 p.m.)

A facility with language gave Honigmann enough confidence to make 1996's O Amor Natural in Portuguese, breaking the ice with random strangers at beaches, barbershops, and cafés in Rio de Janeiro. The central conceit of the film (which screens 8:00 p.m. Friday, May 17) is a simple one: The director asks older folks to recite, on camera, the graphically erotic work of late Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond Andrade. What's surprising isn't that they comply, but that they take such pleasure in doing so, even spinning a few erotic memories of their own. "When the children were awake," says one grande dame poetically, "the yard was our bed." Another middle-aged woman remembers the sublimity of having hot sex on a seaside boulder.

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