Far Away, So Close

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

These sorts of conversations require something more than a nimble touch with new grammar: Honigmann is, at heart, unflappable. Another way to put it is that she's the Thelonious Monk of film interviewing, bopping along economically, sometimes only briefly puncturing the silence.

Take these samples of her interview "questions":

 

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'

  • To a cabdriver in Metal and Melancholy: "All the loose bits on your car make salsa music."

  • To Drummond's hat maker in O Amor Natural, who remembers the good old days before the military government came in: "You have lovely hands."

  • To a muted Dutch farmer standing in a graveyard in 2000's Privé (8:00 p.m. Saturday, May 18), Honigmann's movie about theft: "A lot of these graves only have a number....Your sister's has a headstone."

 

That last observation cuts short a particularly pregnant silence. The white-haired farmer has just told Honigmann that his sister was murdered by their abusive, fundamentalist father. But it's the director's suggestive comment that opens the gates of revelation. He erected the stone in 1980, he says, "when Diny came up out of my soul and to the surface. Then I remembered that I had a sister. And that I had pushed her aside to survive myself."

Honigmann, who normally uses cinematographers, shot this scene by herself. "I knew I had to be there," she says of the site. "But I didn't know what would happen. You have to follow your intuition."

 

Giving the past a decent burial is a common theme in Honigmann's work. Yet she never claims to be a historian. When Privé aired on Dutch television, the farmer's family contested his allegation. But Honigmann would leave it to journalists to discover "the truth" by exhuming the sister's cadaver; her film was about the farmer's truth and no one else's.

No wonder the director eschews "experts" and voiceover narration. She never even identifies her subjects, whom she calls "characters," until the end credits. That may be one reason why the stories people tell in these movies rarely feel like testimony. Honigmann's version of history is less a tabulation of evidence than a mosaic of memories: What concerns her is the authenticity of feeling.

Her genius is in creating situations that make such genuine responses possible. Consider her 1999 documentary Crazy (8:00 p.m. Friday, May 24), which could easily have been an interview-based historical reconstruction like The Sorrow and the Pity. Honigmann's movie is made up of interviews with Dutch citizens who served as UN soldiers in Korea, Kosovo, Rwanda, and elsewhere--but with a twist. In place of poetry readings she uses a new device here: The veterans are encouraged to talk about, then listen to, songs that sustained them through their traumas. The title is taken from a Seal single that one officer listens to while sitting in an upscale restaurant, flipping through photos. As he wipes his brow, Honigmann cuts to BBC footage of a Serb massacre in an open Sarajevo marketplace.

This is Underground Orchestra turned on its head: music as unwanted memory. The variety of pop songs makes you remember how much soldiers use rock 'n' roll to steel themselves. As a cavalier young peacekeeper who has seen the worst in Cambodia and Rwanda tells the camera, "You have to be able to switch off." But Honigmann's whole purpose is to switch people back on, and the soldier's girlfriend seems to recognize an ally in the director: "I have some photos that might show Niels's feelings," she says, jumping up from the couch. Shuffling through a shoebox full of homemade postcards, he glances at the pictures of himself with detached amusement, like he's looking at another person. His companion reads the back of one aloud: "Stay crazy or things will go wrong."

Honigmann seems to equate sanity with discussing the past--but not everyone is ready to relinquish their silence. "I'd rather not talk about it" is a common refrain in Honigmann's 1998 look at how the Dutch commemorate WWII, 2 Minutes Silence Please (8:00 p.m. May 16). But Honigmann is a wonder. Perhaps only the director of O Amor Natural could have elicited the buoyant remembrance of athletic lovemaking that one woman offers in 2001's Good Husband, Dear Son (8:00 p.m. May 30). The movie allows residents of Ahatovi´ci, a small town outside Sarajevo, to remember the dozens of men who were executed there by Serb militias in 1992. One woman, who still swoons over her late husband's photo, tells Honigmann that they had sex six times a day in the months after their marriage, and every morning and night after that.

"When I met her, she said, 'My husband was a very good husband,'" Honigmann recalls of her initial interview with the widow. "So I asked the translator to ask her, 'What is a good husband?' She said, 'Well, he was very nice with me.' I thought there was something else, so I asked the translator, 'Ask her if she had good sex with her husband.' [He said,] 'No, I cannot ask her, because she's a Muslim woman!' 'Yes, ask her, please.' So he asked, and then, smiling, she said: 'Yes!'"

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