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?