Born in Lima, the child of Polish Jewish refugees, Heddy Honigmann studied film in Rome, lives in Amsterdam, and has made documentaries in Paris, Rio, and Union City, New Jersey. With the provocatively titled Oblivion, the 58-year-old cosmopolitan (and Film Forum favorite) returns to her hometown for the first time, at least cinematically, since Metal and Melancholy, her 1992 portrait of the city’s resilient taxi drivers.
Oblivion is firmly rooted in Peru’s sprawling coastal metropolis. It’s a casual city symphony that, like Metal and Melancholy, focuses on ubiquitous yet invisible urban types. That the Spanish for “oblivion” is “olvido” suggests a connection to Los Olvidados, Luis Buñuel’s corrosive vision of Mexico City street kids. Oblivion is similarly populated by such impoverished “forgotten ones,” albeit here oddly hopeful in their largely hopeless attempt to extract a few nuevos soles from drivers and passersby by juggling or turning cartwheels in the street. These antics recur throughout the film, punctuating Honigmann’s interviews with members of Lima’s service class—most of whom work around the city’s colonial Plaza Mayor.
Haunting shabby, genteel posadas, the filmmaker engages middle-aged bartenders in conversation, never failing to ask these courtly gentlemen if they ever waited on El Presidente (“Oh, yes”) and if they were ever treated badly (“No, never”). Out in the street, an illiterate shoeshine boy tells her that he hasn’t any memories, happy or unhappy, and, even more obliviously oblivious, an impoverished mother sends her children out to play in the traffic for pennies. (There used to be four, but one was killed by a car.) As if to suggest the local Lethe in which the city drowns its misery, Honigmann opens with a bartender mixing up Peru’s national libation, the pisco sour—best known to us as the tart, frothy, easily-knocked-back drink with which George W. Bush publicly fell off the wagon at the APEC Summit last summer.
In its engagingly roundabout way, Honigmann’s documentary is a history of perpetual economic downturns, endemic underemployment, and corrupt, autocratic leaders. The result is a tender, poetically aimless movie by someone who no longer dwells among these stoic people, but feels like she might be the only one who remembers them.