If there's one thing I've learned in the years I've been interviewing artists, it's that you've just got to jump into the fray whether you're prepped or not when a wonderful opportunity presents itself. I would wager to guess, after talking with her, that filmmaker Heddy Honigmann would feel the same. One always has one's agenda in the old back pocket, of course, but there's something extraordinary in those serendipitous moments when life tells you you're participating in something special, perhaps the one and only chance you'll get.
Honigmann's career is filled with those moments and she shared some of them with me when I sat with her on a rainy evening in Thessaloniki, Greece, just a few days ago. She had just arrived from her home in Holland and was quite tired with very little time between her arrival and the first screening of her new film, El Olvido (Oblivion). An extremely gifted storyteller, Honigmann is also an extraordinary listener, no secret to the many subjects that have sat in front of her camera over the course of her twenty-plus year career to share their tragic and triumphant stories. (Photo of Honigmann from the 2006 International Film Festival of San Sebastian, courtesy Getty Images.)
El Olvido was filmed in the city of her birth Lima, Peru, the second film she's done there. She left Peru after university to study filmmaking in Rome at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografie and started shooting documentaries in 1979. I'm sure the prizes and the awards and the adulation she's received over the years are very dear and meaningful to her, but it is the work itself that brings a light to her eyes and a warm lilt to her voice when she relates how she met this subject or that one, and how together they create a cinema of "profound emotional honesty," in the words of Sean Farnel, director of programming for the Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival in Toronto.
I hope this will be merely the first of many conversations we have together. Here is our talk about behind-the-bar stories of terrorism and corruption while shaking up a batch of Pisco Sours:
Still in Motion (SIM): This is a film about your hometown, Lima, Peru.
Heddy Honigmann (HH): Yes, it’s a film about my home, about the city.
SIM: Did it create a different experience for you because of that?
HH: No. Many people might think it’s like that. The only thing might be that I know parts of this particular city and I know a bit more about the way I have to talk to people there, which for a documentary maker—no, for a filmmaker who makes documentaries—is something that you should be able to do anyway, no matter where you are. You must know how to move in New York or Beirut or in India and in Lima. You have to get to know a place pretty quickly. But, in this case, it was a little bit easier to know it because I was born there. But I did go to areas where I’ve never been before, so in a way, it was the same experience as going to a place where I’ve never been. There was exploration.
And the city has changed so much. But I have seen that already; I have been there researching so the surprises weren’t there so much, which is better because the film is not at all about me and my discoveries. But without this initial exploration, you risk just filming the exotic things about a place or things that don’t match with the general idea you might have about the film if it’s the first time you discover it. It would be different if I had wanted to make a film about a city I didn’t know. Then, the amazing surprises and the unbelievable things you see would take a different amount of time; there would be a different sense of time in order to make certain types of discoveries. I went back to the same places; there is a reason why I got to know certain places and I got to know the people much better by going back to those places again and again. That’s another kind of discovery. For me, it was not super special because it was Lima for this reason.
SIM: But was there a deeper resonance for you as you were talking to these people? Your subjects are so integrated into the place itself; they are the place. They embody the history and the memories there. You have an incredible knack for calling out deep emotional memory, a sense of memory that is quite visceral memory, in your subjects.
HH: That’s in all my films.
SIM: Yes, it certainly is.
HH: I remember when I started this project. I had a one page description, which I gave to some television programmers. They were afraid that there would be a lot of [historical] information in it that people wouldn’t understand. I was so angry with these people. I said, sorry, you have produced three or four of my films already; did you ever hear or see anything that was a pure historical or political piece of information? They never answered, of course, because I don’t play the intellectual who knows how things are.
For instance, in the first film I made in Lima in 1993, Metaal en Melancholie (Metal and Melancholy), somebody says, “And when Il Chino won the election. . .,” I said, “You mean Fujimori?” “Yes, Fuji, Il Chino.”
SIM: You clarified the colloquial expression as if you didn’t know.
HH: Yes, exactly. Or something like, “The Shining Path,” in talking about the guerillas, “has caused a general strike.” I asked, “What do you mean?” “I mean, nobody can come out of the house.” The whole city was empty, a void. So, obviously, I know what happened. That was an incredible moment of integrating the people of the city with that kind of historical information by creating a very emotional scene with a subject by the conversations I have with him. It’s because I’m not interested in this “historical” information, in and of itself.
SIM: These people are just living their lives in what are extraordinarily difficult situations and I think that by portraying them in this way, you show the incredible resilience in the face of that. No matter what craziness is going on or how absurd the situation might be (which creates a lot of funny/sad moments), these people are under the thumb of some pretty insane “leaders.” But there is this sanguine quality, nonetheless, because they still have to live under those circumstances and make the best of it. This is what you capture so beautifully, I think.
I want to talk about this bartender in El Olvido, Mr. Kanashiro. He’s our journeyman through this terrain and he’s so smart. His stories are just absolutely brilliant and teach us so much about the country. He's our history teacher.
HH: He’s great.
SIM: How did you meet him?
HH: My core researcher, Sonia Goldenberg, found him and told me about him. He was giving lessons [in a school for service and hospitality workers]. I talked to him in a café, just him and me, and little by little, he opened and talked about things he’s seen and done. I’d already watched him teach these lessons and knew he was a good talker. I also knew that one of the boys we met on the street [David Gutiérrez] was taking lessons from him. So, there was that connection and there was the Pisco Sour everywhere [the “official” cocktail of Peru] in both the high-class and the low-class restaurants, everyone drinks it, all the presidents drink Pisco Sours—that’s what you do in Lima in a good bar; you probably don’t ask for a whiskey on the rocks. Well, maybe an American would [laughs]. And, in my head very quickly, when I was talking with him in the café, he became the character who would come back over and over, behind the bar serving the Pisco. I wasn’t sure if he would dare to talk quite so openly like he did for me in the film. So I asked him very directly, “Mr. Kanashiro, so you agree to film with us?” “Yes, of course. I will make the Pisco.” “Yes, but there are a lot of stories you can tell.” “Mmmm, I don’t know.” But I knew he would do it the day we filmed. He is such an enthusiastic man; I could feel that he really wanted to give me a good story. His teaching sense, his humor, his wit, his sense of irony—all of this comes through.
The first scene, which is a kind of conversation off-screen as he’s preparing the Pisco, I knew would be a great start to the film because I would have Pisco and, also, in a very open and easy way, I would have the history of Peru, the history of South America.
SIM: He’s a member of the service class, as well, that hears and sees everything but remains discreet.
HH: It created a way of editing the piece in a very beautiful way. [El Olvido was edited by Danniel Danniel and Jessica de Koning.] We did it in two takes and I was able to mix them. In one shot, you don’t see his face as he talks. In the other, he is showing us the mixture of ingredients that go into the drink. And he is saying it all even though you may just see him cutting a lemon or something. I continued to shoot as he was making the Pisco. After this off-screen conversation we had, he was so hot to tell these other stories in his particular way. And, in this way, he becomes such a strong element; you are happy to see him and you appreciate his openness and his wisdom because he’s telling you all these bad things that happened in the country, the gravity of the situations there. But his stories are funny and entertaining. That’s what great comedians do.
SIM: But this is also where the character of the country comes through so sharply, as well, a country that’s been through so much and still goes on. Everyone you speak with is like that—deep reserves of emotion but always displayed with great depths of humor--laughter and tears mixed together. Like the Pisco, there is sweetness in the sugar and bitterness in the lemon and then, of course, the wallop of the alcohol.
HH: It’s something you need to have to survive in such a country. And the Peruvians really have it. The Indians in the mountains are much more reserved, but they have it, too.
SIM: This thought leads me to want to talk about another extraordinary subject in the film. There are quite a few heartbreaking moments throughout; but, for me, what cracked mine in two was this 14-year-old boy named Henry. I wanted to ask you about this title of “Oblivion,” because to me, titles are very important, what you decide to call something is key. And so I thought about this word a lot when watching the film. There are many ways of interpreting it; it’s a complex idea, really. When I saw and listened to Henry explaining that he really is just a shell of a human being, at just fourteen years old—well, he was the physical manifestation of oblivion when it’s defined as the condition or quality of being completely forgotten. It’s a lost life.
In your years of making films, have you ever stumbled upon someone like that, someone that young?
HH: No. But I can tell you that I was looking for someone like that. The title existed before I met Henry. It’s not only related to him but I was looking for him, somebody who has no memory, whose life is so sad that it amounted to a zero, nothing. Can you imagine zero?
SIM: It is hard to imagine, but I believed him.
HH: I would have dinner with my crew—just the sound man [Piotr Van Dijk], cameraman [Adri Schover], assistant director [Ester Gould] and me. Most evenings we went to eat by ourselves to unwind. They laughed when I asked the question, “So guys, are we finding the steps that go down to reach Hell?” My intuition was telling me that I would find Henry, that if there was a Kanashiro in that country, a country with centuries of exploitation and misery, then Henry should be there, also. In fact, there are a lot of Henrys.
So why was I asking that question? Because in order to find Henry, to make his presence possible in the film, I myself would have to create the steps to get to him, to that particular hell. Without those preliminary steps, his presence would be too shocking, like inserting a corpse into these [vibrant] surroundings.
We always parked the car in a certain square when we shot in the center [of the city]. One day, there was another person taking care of the cars rather than the regular guy. This was Henry. He greeted us and told us that the regular guy who took care of the cars had to go do something for several hours and had asked him to take care of the cars. When we asked him to take care of the car, he told us that, of course, he would. After we took our shots, he was there still. I don’t know why, but I asked him his name and asked him if he wanted to eat something. He just nodded his head, no expression on his face.
So he came with Ester and me while the guys were tending to the equipment. He walked like an old man. He made a big impression on me, the way he was walking. He went to sit at the table with a lot of reservation. He was looking around and you could see that he was checking to see if he was doing okay, as if he could be punished, telling me that his life hasn’t been easy. Maybe he had been punished by doing the wrong things. He wanted milk. Because he couldn’t decide what to order, the waiter told him that maybe he would like toast with cheese. And then we saw a little smile, the only time I saw that—a smile brought on by toast and cheese. I’ll never forget the way he took the milk. He didn’t drink it, but consumed it with a spoon, one spoonful after the other. It was impressive.
SIM: He was really savoring it.
HH: Yes, exactly. It was heartbreaking. Then I decided to film with him and I asked him if he was always in that square and he told me he was. He showed me his hands. "I clean shoes; that’s why my hands are black and brown." Taking care of the cars was an exception. He told me he was always in the square. I asked him if we came to see him if he would be willing to film with us. He didn’t ask anything about what we were filming but just told me, “Yes.”
So there was an appointment with Henry and the day we came, he still asked nothing. We shot with the tele-lens as he went from client to client and then I asked him to sit in the square and have a conversation with me with him still not knowing what we were doing or why. And that was it. It was very short. I think that he was very sad after the conversation.
SIM: Do you think it was because that was the first time he’d ever really articulated his lack of memory? That it was a discovery for him to realize that? I’m sure he’d never been asked those questions before or thought about those things.
HH: After he stopped talking, he looked directly into the camera for a long time, as if to say, “Why did you force me to say this? Because I’ve never said it.” I was very sad. We were all totally down after that. We had reached a kind of bottom by discovering this young boy with no hope.
SIM: There’s a point in the scene when the camera moves away from him and seems to focus on something else for a moment before coming back to his face. Was that done on purpose? It’s strange.
HH: Yes, that happens only for about ten seconds. I don’t like it very much. The cameraman himself doesn’t really understand why that happened. There is nothing in focus when he does that. He doesn’t understand Spanish, maybe only a few words. Was the sadness of the boy so powerful he couldn’t take it any more? He really couldn’t tell me why he did that. He knows that he shouldn’t have moved the camera away from the boy; there was no reason to do that. It was like he abandoned him. So, we don’t know. I didn’t ask him to do this and he doesn’t understand why he did it.
SIM: You decided not to cut there, though, to excise that little portion.
HH: No, no.
SIM: Well, it’s actually very evocative, in a way, because the scene is really almost unbearable and so it does feel like an intuitive “looking away” from something that’s extremely hard to handle. It works quite well, actually. Your personal gaze as a director is extremely respectful. But it’s also relentless. You will look and look and look, and so we look, as well, even in those moments when we want to turn away.
I also love that people recite poetry for you. They just happen to have a book, or maybe you give them something to read, and they read it out loud for the camera. And they really get into it—it’s dramatic and deeply moving. People reading poetry out loud in public is somehow “unseemly” for a lot of viewers. I’ve had people tell me that watching that is very uncomfortable for them, which is curious, since it’s something I really love—it makes me well up like nobody’s business. You're so unafraid to be unabashedly romantic.
SIM: You celebrate the part of all of us that reacts to certain pieces of music or a certain passage of literature, or what have you, in a very visceral way; we might be embarrassed or shy about those reactions, again because it’s touching such a deep, personal place. The scene of the couple sitting on their bed and listening to the song from his home village in the mountains while the camera watches them listening is so wonderful. Again, it evokes the power of memory that no words can express.
HH: It’s true: I’m not afraid of romanticism; I’m not afraid of pain. I’m shameless, almost, when I film. But I don’t do it as a voyeur. I’m also there with them. Many times, I’m broken. I’ve learned to control this because I remember my mother used to cry a lot and listening to her cry so much makes me comfortable with tears. I can cry a lot too when watching films when there is really anything happening, a death, a divorce, whatever. Or something romantic—when two people finally kiss. So, yes, I’m like that. When I’m filming, my tears can fall, but I don’t want the audience to see or know about it as if it’s some manipulative thing on my part. That’s the last thing I want.
The strange thing is that my subjects don’t seem to notice. I’ve been sitting with someone as close as you and I are sitting from one another, just one meter away, with the camera beside me. For instance, I remember filming the soldier who was in Srebrenica [Crazy, 1999], saying at a certain moment that he had memories of the people who were being taken away by the Serbs asking for help. They weren't saying anything, but just by their faces, they were asking for help and he couldn’t do anything. And he’s like Henry—there is no outward expression of any emotion but the memories are very strong; he’s full of memories haunting him. It must have been so terrible that any outward expression has disappeared, as if it’s almost erased. I think of Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream (pictured). This man’s face is one second after this scream. Everything is gone after such a scream. That was his face and that was Henry’s face. I thought about this afterwards when we were editing. But I was crying in front of this man and he just continued talking. I don’t think he noticed. In fact, nobody noticed. Also, nobody understood that it was roll number nine with him. I had reserved ten rolls [of film] for this guy because I knew that he could never be rushed. He would have to go through every little thing until he reached that point.
SIM: This is a constant search, I think, for you too, to get that moment. Your subjects must also be sensing something in you that is searching for these moments. People want to reveal; we want to reveal ourselves. We don’t want to conceal, really, although we think we do or we try, but we really want to be found out, especially when someone is there and she’s really wanting to know; she’s saying “tell me,” and it doesn’t matter how the story is delivered, whether you cry, whether you don’t. The expression serves the memory in whatever way it comes out, especially after a long period of repression. It’s the “still waters run deep” idea, I guess. That’s what resonates the most for a viewer, as it does for you.
HH: I had another title in mind at the beginning, very early on when I was only thinking about waiters and bartenders. They have heard so many stories. But nobody’s ever asked them anything. It was like it was the "word of the mute." La palabra del mudo. Nobody interviews someone like Henry.
Maybe in a film about women in Lima who work very hard this would happen, but no one would really go with Lucía to her house. [Lucía lives with her mother on a very high and isolated hill above the city in a ramshackle house, working in the city six days a week, twelve to fourteen hours per day.] Nobody would really be interested in Kanashiro and his story about clandestinely putting the vodka in the orange juice to make an important Peruvian politician or general fall to his knees in public because he’s so drunk.
SIM: Yes, his own personal coup d’état was deeply satisfying to hear--an exquisite and very funny story of quiet, anonymous revenge.
HH: Yes, at this moment, it was all I could do not to laugh out loud. I was delighted. I was practically dancing. You are right about what you said, we want to tell. Many times, we are people who are in love and we’ve been left by our partner. Or we are in some kind of terrible pain. We want to tell and tell and tell, ten times, twenty times, the same story, as if telling the story will bring the person back. We have this need to tell stories. But we don’t always have a listener.
Many of these people I meet in all my films, nobody is ever interested in them. And then, suddenly, there is this little lady standing in front of them who is very curious. I’m always asked, “What is the secret of how you get these stories?” Of course, there is no secret. I’m interested in what and whom I am filming. I’m not filming concepts; I’m not filming ideas. I’m filming people. I hate films about ideas.
(Honigmann talking to old men in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, 2006, for her film Forever. Honigmann's US distributor, Icarus Films, will be releasing a special edition DVD of this film on April 21 to coincide with the New York theatrical release of Oblivion--see below.)
SIM: Those people you film are us. That’s what we’re interested in, after all—our own stories, which is what we hear in your films. I have nothing in common with Mr. Kanashiro, this bartender in Lima. But his humor and his strength and his resilience impress me. I like to think I would have those qualities, too, if I were in his place. I would be strong and silent with a smile always on my face as I served Pisco Sours to unscrupulous politicians and corrupt military men. He’s mastered his performance, the one he acts out every day, as he instructs his students to do. And he’s also performing for you and for me and for whoever will watch this film he’s agreed to be in. But he’s showing us also the secrets to that performance because you’re creating an environment and an opportunity to make that a safe thing for him to do. It’s a unique and very enticing collaboration.
HH: This is something natural in me, I think. I made a little documentary in 1978, or something like that, in film school in Rome. The first three days of shooting were really terrible, really bad. When the camera showed up, I got totally frustrated. And I was directing heavily—“If I ask you this, you will tell me that.” And so on. Like directing fiction. I didn’t know what was happening—I was “there” one moment with all these people with these incredible stories and now everything was getting ruined with the presence of the camera. I will never forget that.
And with that thought, her mobile rings loudly, her producer, Carmen Cobos, on the other end of the line telling her she must come quickly to go to her first screening of El Olvido at Thessaloniki.
I look forward to continuing this conversation with her--some other place, some other time.
El Olvido (Oblivion) will open at New York's Film Forum on April 15 for one week only. Tickets will be available online beginning Wednesday, April 8.