OBLIVION (El Olvido) A-
Netherlands France Germany (93 mi) 2008 d: Heddy Honigmann Official site
Heddy Honigmann, a child of Holocaust survivors, was born in 1951 in Lima, Peru, where she studied biology and literature at the University of Lima. She left Peru in 1973, traveled throughout Mexico, Israel, Spain, and France, and later studied film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome. Since 1978 she has been a Dutch citizen and presently lives in Amsterdam, although her filmmaking career has taken her around the world. As the child of exiles, it’s not surprising that the plight of exiles and outsiders is a recurrent theme in her documentaries, as is memory, music, and love. Her subjects have included cab drivers in Peru, immigrant musicians on the Paris Metro, senior citizens in Brazil, and Cuban exiles in New Jersey. In addition to the elegantly composed imagery of her films, Honigmann’s most often recognized talent as a documentary filmmaker is her ability to make an emotional connection with the people she films, an empathetic ability to listen and to elicit surprisingly intimate responses from them. As Honigmann has described her approach, “I don’t do interviews. I make conversation.”
From the outset, the audience is treated to a wonderfully told story filled with the most graciously expressed, eloquently understated personal outrage by a bartender as he explains what he’s making as he prepares a Peruvian national drink, a pisco sour, blending and shaking it to perfection as he speaks, describing how he has personally served it several times to different Peruvian presidents, as the presidential palace in Peru’s capital city of Lima is nearby. This gentleman may as well speak for an entire nation, as one common element of nearly all the persons populating this film is a blisteringly low view of its nation’s leaders, who can be seen in succession in archival footage taking their vows of honor, promising to fulfill their duty for all Peruvian citizens. Instead, for the last 25 years Peru has been caught up in a cycle of corruption, bribery, and large scale inflation that has devalued whatever little money people might have earned, creating a permanent underclass living on the margins of society. Using her camera like a surgical instrument, Honigmann has a Louis Malle documentary style, which is to say her camera’s intrusion into people’s lives is impassive, used strictly as an outside observer, respectfully listening to and responding to total strangers, where her role is to authenticate her subjects in their natural environment, whether it be roaming dogs on the street, or jugglers or street children performing tricks while cars stop at red lights hoping to persuade motorists to offer them a few coins, a distinguished waiter proudly and respectfully serving his table guests, or people returning home to their ramshackle huts built in the slums on the side of a ravaged hillside, where instead of handrailings a rope can be used to offer support as people climb up endless stairs carrying their groceries up a dirt hill that seems to rise into the horizon.
This director lets the viewer gaze and decipher for themselves what they think, where Godard might over-intellectualize, and Herzog over-dramatize, but in Honigmann’s hands, her moving and intimate portraits of shoeshine boys, child acrobats, a leathergoods repairman, a bartender, a distinguished waiter, a man who has handmade presidential sashes for decades, a frog-juice vendor, street singers, or proud yet mournful mothers become a quiet, understated reflection of life in this city, where begging for money may seem common, but a family of five or six living off the proceeds is the grim everyday reality. Much of this is heartbreaking because of the matter of fact way so many lives have been permanently affected, where there’s little to hope and dream for, where some of these kids can’t even remember when they were happy, or had a good or bad memory, or when they were in school. As far back as they can recall, they’ve always had to work—this from a young teenager who works from dawn til dark and earns only pennies a day. Yet none of these subjects asks anyone to feel sorry for them, or that they’re victimized. One man who lost nearly all his savings due to record levels of inflation has tears well up in his eyes, not of sadness or regret, but because he knows he would have been lost without the help of his family for which he was eternally grateful and appreciative. Rather than being perceived as one of the lost or forgotten ones, like the troubled criminal infested youth depicted in Buñuel’s LOS OLVIDADOS (1950), they are thankful to be among the living, still proudly having a chance to work. When the sounds of Chopin add an entirely new dimension to what we’re seeing onscreen, there’s a hauntingly quiet reverence for human dignity, even in these marginalized lives, which the camera eloquently visualizes with a profound sense of unsentimentalized clarity, perhaps deserving the same company of some of the better documentary works of Chantal Akerman, which are provocative, unsparing, quietly unsettling, and poetically dense works.