Peruvian-born filmmaker Heddy Honigmann’s long and accomplished career is filled with works which reference human memory and the ways in which our layered remembrances affect the way we tell stories. Four years ago, I was lucky enough to grab some time with Honigmann one rainy evening in Thessaloniki, Greece, where her ninth feature-length nonfiction film, El Olvido (Oblivion), was playing in competition at the international documentary festival.
El Olvido, filmed in the city of her birth, Lima, Peru, is the second film she’s done there. She left Peru after university to study filmmaking in Rome at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, and started making documentaries in 1979.
El Olivdo explores the brutal financial and psychic toll on the Peruvians over the centuries, its populace persistently cheated, swindled and neglected by its rulers and overseers. In order for this to have been possible, of course, the rest of the world had to ignore what was going on in Peru. Memory and the retelling of personal histories are the only things that keep this forgotten city and its people alive. “Oblivion doesn’t scream, it whispers. Oblivion doesn’t sob; it just cries.”
As Honigmann takes us on a journey through Lima, acting as our visual and aural guide to its deepest, most hidden corners and voices, a bartender called Mr Kanashiro plays guide to the imagination of Honigmann and her quest to uncover, discover and reveal the city’s secrets and its treacherous history. He is a man who has become a fixture, a trusted listener and confidant, industriously schooling us in the ways of the Pisco Sour, Peru’s official drink, while he hones in on the subtle ways in which each one of us is a witness to history, illustrating how it is up to each of us what we do with that knowledge.
Honigmann told me: “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. . . . I knew it 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.”
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
To a person, each of Honigmann’s subjects (and they are always somehow, distinctly, hers when she films them) speaks from a deep reserve of emotion accompanied by great depths of humour. Honigmann notes that this is a skill one needs to survive in such a place, and claims that this is an innate ability in most Peruvians, including the more reserved Indians who live in the mountains that surround the city. Another extraordinary being that appears in the film is a 14-year-old boy called Henry, a true cypher that encapsulates all of the nuanced meanings of the film’s title. When we watch and listen to Henry explaining that he is really just a shell of a human being, he becomes the physical manifestation of “oblivion” when this is defined as the condition or quality of being completely forgotten, a lost life. Honigmann recounts: “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 amounts to a zero, nothing. Can you imagine zero?”
Honigmann has always been quite unapologetic for her unabashed romanticism, insisting on celebrating the part in all of us that reacts to certain pieces of music or a certain passage of literature, in a very visceral way. She is also unafraid of feeling 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.”
She continues: “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.”