A decade ago in Lima, as portrayed in Heddy Honigmann’s documentary Metal and Melancholy (1993), an economic crisis made freelance livery one of the few remaining options; soon professionals found themselves slapping TAXI stickers onto personal vehicles and hitting poverty-stricken streets. Honigmann tagged along as just another fare, coaxing bittersweet remembrances from her drivers. “Pain and poverty made us hard as metals,” explains one cabbie, “and melancholy because we are tender too, and wish for the old days.” The film’s title equally describes the cars: Jerry-rigged to prevent rampant auto theft, doors falling from hinges, these beaten-up but not beaten-down machines chug along with the same timeworn tenacity as their owners.
Evoked with similar persistence throughout her works, Honigmann’s grand project is the delicate exploration of memory’s emotional contours. Sitting down with subjects in cafés, living rooms, or backyards, the off-camera director prods them gently, with a conversational ease that is nevertheless empathetically insistent. Many tales revealed are traumatic, whether due to world-historical tragedies, as with the post-war Sarajevans of Good Husband, Dear Son (2001), or on a relatively small scale, as when a Dutch man recalls being mugged in the theft-themed Private (2000). But Honigmann also allows her subjects to revel in happier topics. In O Amor Natural (1996), she hands a book of erotic poetry to senior citizens in Brazil. As they recite bits of steamy verse, they begin to spin tales of long-gone loves and sweaty trysts with vigorous, ribald candor.
A Peruvian-born Dutch citizen, Honigmann gravitates toward displaced individuals. Often, memories are both triggered by and expressed through music, as in The Underground Orchestra (1997), her look at Paris’s immigrant subway buskers. Looser and more effective is Give Me Your Hand (2003), a visit with the exiled Cuban habitués of a New Jersey restaurant that doubles as a nighttime rumba club, transforming into a spangled scene of celebration, nostalgia, and embodied history. But nowhere are Honigmann’s deft techniques put to better use than in her masterful war portrait Crazy (1999). Interviewing Dutch soldiers who served in UN peacekeeping tours, Honigmann asks them about one song that consoled them during their often harrowing missions abroad, then plays it over home videos and mute portraits. Seal’s “Crazy” floats through images of Yugoslavian carnage; “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” wails down an artillery-shelled alley. The powerful result is equally humanist and pop: the universal language of loss and longing.