Crazy is the latest installment in Heddy Honigmann’s ongoing project of making memory visible – after films like The Underground Orchestra and 2 Minutes Silence Please. For this new doc she hit on a brilliant method for evoking memories in startling and original ways: she asked a series of Dutch UN veterans – from the first UN peacekeeping mission in Korea in 1950, to the recent conflicts in the former Yugoslavia – to talk about the special piece of music that helped them to survive.
In Cambodia, Lebanon, Rwanda and Bosnia it was Puccini, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Pergolesi or the Eurovision song contest that helped keep the “blue helmets” going. Today, back in their comfortable living rooms in Holland, listening to the music brings back a flood of agonizing memories. With gentle persistence and tact, Honigmann keeps the unwavering gaze of the camera on the soldiers’ faces as they listen to their special song. Every twitch or blink speaks volumes. They show us their photos, and the home movies and videos shot by them and their comrades. This material, and their vivid descriptions, bring us as close as we can possibly come to sharing their memories or at least understanding them. “We turned up the music and the fear was gone,” says one soldier. But today he is still haunted by the horrors he experienced, and he knows that will never change.
MG: You have said that the idea for “Crazy” goes all the way back to the taxi driver in “Metal and Melancholy” who played you a cassette of his favourite music in his car.
HH: Metal and Melancholy is a film about survival. Each of the taxi drivers has something to help him get through the day, and for that one man it’s music. When I filmed him listening to that music I saw how he started singing along, he forgot all about us and he was in love all over again. That moment really struck me: it showed me that music can bring back memories so quickly and powerfully.
Then, when I made The Underground Orchestra, there was music again. This time not the listeners but the ones playing it, the professional musicians living in exile. Although they are now playing below their level on the street, or in cafés, they need to make music in order to survive. For a lot of them, I think if they didn’t make music they would have been destroyed.
And in my own life, music is also a kind of survival strategy that provides warmth and comfort. So I asked myself: what would it be like in the worst of all possible situations, war – where you are confronted with the absolute unknown, everything is strange, with the noises, the smell of death all around you? What could music mean in a situation like that? And that was how this project got started.
To give it a certain unity and structure we focused on Dutch soldiers who had served on UN missions in different countries. We placed ads in magazines for soldiers and veterans, and through word of mouth we gradually built up a network. We heard lots of interesting stories, but they didn’t all have music. In the end we narrowed it down to 14 or 15 people, of whom 9 are in the finished film.
So the starting point was music in an extreme situation, not war as such?
No, it was music: what effect can it have on an individual in an extreme situation? And the most extreme situation is war. The point for me was that these people needed music so badly and that they tell very poignant stories. But it’s not a reportage on war. And it’s also not a film about the massacre at Srebrenica, although one soldier was there. Some of the footage from Srebrenica was also used in Leslie Woodhead’s A Cry From The Grave, but it’s used completely differently, because in my film those shots are linked with the personal story of this one soldier and you can imagine that he himself filmed them. In fact they were filmed by someone else in his batallion, but they are also related to his personal story, the way he lost his feelings in the horror of Srebrenica. I didn’t want to make a war film and I hope Crazy isn’t perceived as one. It’s a film about the enormous importance that music has for all of us, and when you see these moments in the film you may think of other moments in your own life.
But at the same time the impression of war and the horrors of war come across much more clearly in Crazy than in other films which set out to document them. When we watch your film we understand what it’s like to be in a war.
Yes, other people have said this too. It’s probably because, from the beginning to the end without exception, the film is told from the point of view of the soldiers. It’s their story, and that is how I was able to succeed at touching a little bit on the horror of war, of what it is like to be there in the middle of it. When you only see things from the outside, like those terrible pictures of burned bodies and so on, it doesn’t affect you the same way. You have to reduce the frame, literally and figuratively, to capture the insanity of war. When we listen to the soldiers’ stories and see them listening to their music, we think we can imagine what they are thinking, but we can never know for sure. You can identify with them, but only up to a point. But through their emotions, you can approach something which would otherwise be completely incomprehensible.
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