Profiles

Then and Forever: The Objectivity of Heddy Honigmann

Assessing the work of the 2007 Hot Docs Outstanding Achievement winner

Of course I have feelings, but I remain detached. I don’t know these people, and I never will. So I feel no connection with them at all.

Of all the many recurrences in the films of Heddy Honigmann, these words are both the most appropriate and the most ironic. Spoken by an embalmer as he dresses the corpse of a young woman in Honigmann’s wonderful new film Forever —nominally about the graves of the famous at Paris’ Père Lachaise cemetery— the same sentiments have been heard before: by a Dutch marine recalling his service on the UN mission to Rwanda in Crazy (1999), and a Peruvian taxi driver in Metal and Melancholy (1994) taking Honigmann to a cemetery in Lima where the bodies of unidentified children are thrown into a pit. It’s when this latter woman claims to not be bothered by this sight that Honigmann, in one of her rare on-camera appearances, states her simple credo: “I don’t believe you.”

Over a 25-year career encompassing nearly as many films, Honigmann has traveled throughout the world to disprove such claims. She’s hardly the Iñárritu of the documentary; however, any universals she speaks to are firmly rooted in place and person, and the connections she uncovers are part of their design, not hers. From the Lima of Melancholy to the Rio of O Amor Natural (1996); the shattered Bosnian village in Good Husband, Dear Son (2001) to the world’s war zones via the UN soldiers of Crazy; to her own adopted homeland of the Netherlands in the sly Privé (2000) and Paris in The Underground Orchestra (1998) and Forever, Honigmann has found a common thematic thread by assiduously detailing how her subjects give voice to the meaning in their lives through the objects in which they invest themselves. A poem, a song, a wallet, a gravestone, and even a detachable gearshift, all speak to the uniqueness of those who use them. They are the totems or talismans by which these people navigate their way through the grief and joys of their lives.

To say that Honigmann’s determinedly eclectic, yet remarkably unified body of work reflects the breadth and diversity of her personal history would be facile and reductive—her work is directly, materially made possible by that history. Born to Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe in Peru in 1951, Honigmann later studied film at the Experimental Centre of Cinematography in Rome. From there, a relationship brought her to Amsterdam, where she claimed citizenship in 1978. Fluent in Spanish, Dutch, French and English, and with a working knowledge of German and Portuguese, Honigmann is uniquely equipped to explore the far-flung locales to which she has traveled, yet she is always revealing the limits of her expertise.

However precise and pointed Honigmann’s films are, however often they return to her familiar geographical, thematic, and stylistic motifs, any answers the films provide come only from their subjects. Honigmann is forever questioning, asking for explanation and clarification, remaining silent so that her subjects can reveal their own thoughts and feelings. The films’ crystalline form and elegant, comprehensive construction are the sum total of their digressions. Honigmann’s initiating design is fulfilled to the extent that however deeply her efforts might temporarily plunge her into the lives of others, there remains a final, unbreachable wall between them and the camera— a wall of silence, incomprehension, or incommunicability. “Speak in your own language,” Honigmann urges a Korean visitor after she asks him to explain why he traveled to the Père Lachaise to pay homage at the grave of Proust. Following his long, passionate monologue, Honigmann replies “I didn’t understand anything you said, but thank you very much.”

This is a considerably lighter moment of inexpressibility, but no less profound for it. Language in Honigmann’s films proves an obstacle as much as a tool, an object to be employed usefully and elegantly by some while remaining cryptic and foreign to others. That Honigmann chooses not to have the Korean tourist subtitled in the finished film indicates both her desire to remain within her own limits of understanding, as well as a reciprocal sharing on her part. Honigmann lends her own medium of communication, film, to convey the subject’s meaning to whoever can comprehend it.

Privé (2000)

Honigmann never views film as a mere window onto the world, but a material appropriation of it: in Privé, one of her first lines of narration is the confession that she “steals images from reality.” If every frame is a theft, then sharing may set the balance right. And the respective objects whose meaning each of these people share with Honigmann’s camera become their means of reconciling the loss it represents—whether of youth, innocence, prosperity, or life—with the world that took it away.

Stealing and sharing is the shaping dynamic that courses through Honigmann’s films, not only in the relation between camera and subject, but also between subject and time. The ‘now’ in
Honigmann’s films is always an interlude, a pause in her subjects’ lives. The moment of interaction is a null zone, a time of stillness—literalized in the interpolated portraits of O Amor Natural and Metal and Melancholy, where Honigmann’s subjects pose in middle distance for the camera—during which they contemplate their past and project it against the unknowable immensity of their future.

O Amor Natural, which promises at first to be a good-natured celebration of sexuality through the prism of the winter years—focusing on the posthumously published erotic poetry of the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, as recited by Honigmann’s invariably elderly interviewees—becomes far more complex than its pleasingly simple concept initially appears. Reciting the same limited selection of poems, the majority of readers react with rapture—but the nature of their raptures leads Honigmann down several different paths. One octogenarian, who has his daughter read the poem to him, begins to boast of his youthful conquests and his regular infidelity to his now-departed, deeply religious wife. While his daughter and grandchildren listen with smiles, Honigmann refuses to let the power imbalance of the relations between the sexes depart from her consideration of sexuality. Talking to old women who dreamily recall their past encounters, Honigmann meets with as many tales of woe as of pleasure. Though the sting has evidently been eased over the decades, remembrances of prime years spent without sexual fulfillment illuminate realities of the present through the lens of the past. Andrade’s poems, recited by numerous parties in numerous different ways, become touchstones by which those common realities can be given individual voice, so that the general can be made personal and thus pass on to the universal.

The Andrade film exemplifies a frequent tactic of Honigmann’s: employing repetition and constancy as the basis from which to collect and order the digressions she obtains. Metal and Melancholy, one of her finest films, sees Honigmann getting into and out of a few dozen cabs in the Peruvian capital of Lima, many of which are driven on their off-hours by people with steady jobs (ranging from government employee to film actor). Here, she simply trains her camera on the drivers, allowing them freedom to express themselves in any way they see fit. Some share their strategies for navigating streets filled with rampant crime. Others tell stories of their personal lives: a driver speaks good-naturedly and movingly about his child’s struggle with cancer; a single mother breaks down crying as she tells of her life with her abusive father, who has never forgiven her for having the child. A third remains silent throughout the journey until Honigmann requests to take his portrait, upon which he graciously thanks her and obligingly poses. Honigmann’s choices and content in Metal and Melancholy approach a perfection of intent and execution that is rare in any film, fiction or nonfiction.

Honigmann transcends what might appear to be the overly neat packaging of her concepts. Many of the films’ premises have a seeming narrowness of conception that could be construed as merely crowd-pleasing rather than truly exploratory. This surely seems to be the case with The Underground Orchestra, a chronicle of the musicians who (attempt to) make their living in the Paris Metro. Yet the abundant musical pleasures to be had—a highlight being the between-stations rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness” by a multiracial trio—are part and parcel of the larger stories the film has to tell. Honigmann does not simply celebrate Paris as a global musical village, but uses it as a point of radiation from which to consider villages around the globe. This is “diversity” not as tourist attraction but as lived—often difficultly lived—reality. Music and politics intersect at every junction. Honigmann and her crew are accosted by subway police who then demand the papers of the black members of the trio; a Romanian cellist speaks of his disillusionment that little changed in his homeland after the fall of Communism; an African singer who is sans-papier tells of her fear to go out on the street in case a policeman should demand her identification. Interviewing the most materially successful of her subjects, the Argentinean pianist Miguel Angel Estrella, Honigmann connects musical craft to political conviction in the most aching of ways. As Estrella tells of having his hands crushed by his torturers, Honigmann cuts to his fingers dancing across the keys, their speed and elegance only accentuating art’s terrifying fragility before the brute exercise of power.

If music does speak the language of the soul, it speaks through the body in which that soul is housed. Consequently, music itself can take on an almost tangible existence. Crazy uses song as the connecting thread for an informal history of the Dutch forces’ participation in UN humanitarian missions around the globe. Veterans from Korea, Lebanon, Cambodia, Rwanda and, primarily, the former Yugoslavia testify to the brutality they could often only witness, as they were unable to respond. The title, and the often vague platitudes of the songs which embody those experiences for the veterans—ranging from Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” to a Korean folk song to Seal’s title tune to the inevitable “Sunday Bloody Sunday”—underline a certain risk of generality, a depoliticization of war to the level of sheer senselessness. Yet Honigmann’s subjects have not simply returned to “sanity” and safety after a brief tour through Hell. The memories the songs hold for them—Honigmann trains her camera on their faces as they silently listen—keep that insanity alive and present (“I want to take it to my grave, that song,” says one). The ability of these songs to be disseminated around the globe, to be heard in some of the world’s most ravaged places, connects the viewer to those sites as well.

Good Husband, Dear Son (2001)

Forming something of an unofficial diptych with Crazy, Good Husband, Dear Son narrows its focus from the former’s broad sweep to the Bosnian village of Ahatovici and a single, horrible experience: the systematic massacre of 80 percent of the village’s men by Serbia’s Chetnik forces in 1992. As Honigmann had focused on Estrella’s hands at their craft to emphasize the ease with which both could be taken away, in Good Husband Honigmann gazes precisely on work left unfinished. Half-built houses dot the landscape, testimony to the hands that can no longer complete them. The present-day serenity of Ahatovici is scarred with evidence of those stolen away. Every street, house and yard contains a small monument to the disappeared: names written in cement; report cards and photographs; the torn and dirty T-shirt in which a teenage boy breathed his last, carefully preserved in plastic by his grieving mother. As the town rebuilds itself alongside nearby Sarajevo, an elderly resident walks through a graveyard full of identical markers, placing his hand upon them and telling something of the person whom it signifies. Honigmann then cuts to a final tableau of a pile of fresh timber upon which their personal talismans are reverently placed. Interpretation is unnecessary.

If these material, and thus sharable, objects retain something of the lives that have been stolen, they are subject to theft themselves: the mother of the teenage boy recalls her horror when her daughter took his T-shirt away in an effort to ease her constant grief. In a much more conceptual way, Privé deals directly with the implications of theft in its many manifestations. Professional pickpockets offer the rather philosophical observation that theft requires a suspension of one’s “respect for one’s fellow man.” Later, a twice-over mugging victim explains how theft has contaminated the area in which he lives, essentially taking away his freedom, while Honigmann cuts to a bevy of public security cameras—protection or a theft of their own? The frame of Honigmann’s inquiry is expanded as she follows the lives of a woman whose extended family “disappeared” at the hands of the right-wing Argentine government as well as a man, haunted by the memory of his sister’s murder at the hands of their father, who goes on to brutalize his own wife and children. Honigmann ends on a perfect grace note, a pension-reliant grandmother who habitually attempts to board the bus for free; it’s a sequence whose casualness and humour draws the film’s potentially boundless philosophical scope into the ambiguous realm of the everyday.

Forever (2006) | © Cobos Films BV

Forever runs similar risks of overreach, though it has the built-in damage control of merely cataloguing the innumerable famous denizens of the Père Lachaise and offering a few platitudes about their lasting influence. As ever, though, Honigmann sidesteps the obvious and allows the film to circle freely through its patterns and themes. This is no Greatest Hits tour. Chopin, Proust, Apollinaire, Modigliani, Wilde, Sadegh Hedayat (author of The Blind Owl), Simone Signoret, Yves Montand and Maria Callas all receive their due, yet Honigmann returns to certain of them through different prisms and people. Proust receives special attention, his own search for lost time seen in Honigmann’s vision, naturally, as stolen time. Those whose monuments receive the greatest attention invariably died an early death, both the famous and their less renowned neighbours: a young poet whose mother had her poetry inscribed on her gravestone, a singer who released only a single album before succumbing to cancer, a young man who died of a bee sting only two months after marrying his May–December bride.

“Forever” is a wound as much as a promise. The (hopefully) eternal beauties of art mingle with the lingering pain at the absence of the departed. In her classic The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry writes that “A state of consciousness other than pain—such as hunger or desire—will, if deprived of its object, begin to approach the neighbourhood of pain, as in acute, unsatisfied hunger or prolonged, objectless longing.” Honigmann’s films are a collective monument to overcoming objectlessness, not in order to overcome pain, but to give it contours and weight, to make it sharable and communicable rather than confined to a formless, unutterable solitude. “You don’t feel that death is here,” says one man in Forever. “Death is elsewhere. It’s everywhere, except in the cemetery. Here it has to be hidden. If we were to show the true nature of cemeteries, it would be unbearable.” The objects upon which Honigmann fixes her camera are the makings by which we strive to ward off the relentless unmakings to which we are subject, the ethereal simply another variant of the material. As Forever ends on a lovely rendition of a Chopin sonata performed by a young Japanese pianist who silently dedicates her playing to her father, dead of overwork, Honigmann reminds us once more that the eternal is bound up in the most fragile and perishable of forms—and that in having form, we are doomed to connection as much as to disappearance.

Andrew Tracy is a contributing editor of POV, an editor and writer for Cinema Scope magazine and a contributor to Reverse Shot, CineAction, and Film Comment.

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