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Far Away, So Close

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

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.

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.

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":

 

  • 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!'"

Honigmann describes Good Husband as the most difficult film of her career. Asking widows to talk about mementos of the departed on camera--a stopped watch, a cleaned T-shirt, apples--was a far cry from passing around Drummond's book or playing a song. "I met the widows and I heard the whole story for hours about exactly how their husbands and sons were killed," the director says. "But then came the very difficult moment to explain to them that nobody in the world wants to listen to those stories. What I was trying was to tell something very special about the husbands and the sons, so that people will remember them forever. And they understood."

After her initial interviews, Honigmann returned to town to find people waiting for her bus. "I was adopted by the widows," she says, laughing. "I got so much confidence that I was even [saying to] them, 'No, no, no, no, no, you are not telling me the truth. Or: 'This is not good for the film because you are crying too much.'

"[They'd say,] 'Oh, yes, Heddy, I am so sorry.'

"'I know. Let me cry with you and then we will do it again.' They knew that if it's crying, crying, crying, you cannot watch it anymore. You see only tears and you cannot get to the persons who died."

When Rouch and his hosts finally caught up with the lion, the exultant villagers exorcised its spirit. For Honigmann, raising the dead is her living art.


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