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.
It’s really remarkable how you are able to draw these stories out of the people you interview, to make them talk about things they would usually never discuss with anyone. How do you do it?
I get asked that question a lot. First of all, I can’t film people I don’t like. I have to care about the person. Secondly, I am very curious. And thirdly, I try to film people while they are doing something else, to take their minds off the interview and make them less nervous. In the film you see that one soldier is making coffee for the film crew while he’s talking to us. People expect me to start questioning them immediately about something completely terrifying. So I might start by asking them about their house, how long they have lived there. “Were you already here during the time you were stationed in Bosnia? Then this house must be full of memories for you…” You see? Often I discover things that are more interesting than what I was originally looking for. This method also prevents me from being too nervous myself. I don’t have to worry so much about what I’m going to ask or how to start the conversation.
Wasn’t it hard for the soldiers to forget about the camera, especially when they listened to the music?
It was the most difficult part. We tried to create a very relaxed atmosphere before shooting. We decided that, when they were listening to their music, the camera would stay on the soldiers’ faces the whole time, but we kept our distance: for the closeups we used a zoom lens. We wanted them to sense that we respected their space. I was actually surprised at how quickly the people gave themselves over completely to the music. They were really taken by it, and forgot all about the camera. You can see it in the look on their faces.
The ending of the film is very moving. We see young recruits about to leave for Kosovo on their very first mission and we know that the tragedy is going to continue. Did you know from the start that you would end the film this way?
Yes, I had planned it as an epilogue. But it also introduces another kind of “crazy” with the Patsy Cline song: the way people are separated from each other. It’s also about the ones who are left behind, who say goodbye their loved ones, and hope that they will return in the same condition as when they left. You know, the last line of the film is “I love you!”
Did you expect to find this love motif in the stories?
I looked for it! When we heard about the young guy who fell madly in love with a Muslim girl in Bihac and got married in the middle of the war, we knew we had to have him in the film. Love is a theme throughout the film. At the end it’s about the love between those who are leaving on their missions and those who are staying behind, but it’s also our statement to the people in the film: “We love you!” My opinion of soldiers changed a lot during the making of the film. I got rid of a lot of preconceptions. At the start I had said: we need intelligent soldiers, but how will we find them? As it turned out, many of these people chose the army because they didn’t have a lot of education, but they are all intelligent, and very sensitive and articulate. In Holland people call the soldiers “our boys.” And for the film team, the people we interviewed became “our boys.”
Ultimately, Crazy is also a rather pointed critique of the UN peacekeeping missions.
In listening to the soldiers’ stories we discovered that, from the first UN peacekeeping mission in Korea in 1950 up until today, the troops were badly prepared, with the wrong equipment or the wrong clothes. The same contradiction kept coming up: how do you send a peace mission to a place where there is war? The soldiers’ hands are tied. Often it’s forbidden to intervene, to use force or try to do something to help. It’s ‘mission impossible’. So the UN operations are also “crazy.” And they often happen too late. We can see that clearly in the events in the former Yugoslavia. The massacre at Srebrenica didn’t have to happen. A lot of deaths in a lot of places could have been prevented if the interventions had happened sooner and had been more effective.
Heddy Honigmann was born in Peru and attended the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome. She has been based in Amsterdam for 22 years. Her films include the documentaries *Metal and Melancholy, O Amor Natural, The Underground Orchestra and 2 Minutes Silence Please, and the fiction feature Tot Ziens/Au Revoir.