Heddy Honigmann’s people

Among the 13 documentaries defining the various shades of international terrorism, ranging from Greece’s November 17, the attacks of 9/11, Italy’s Red Brigades and the dividing line between liberation struggles and terrorist campaigns, a Dutch filmmaker presents her own «Images of the 21st Century» at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. Perhaps no less violent, her images focus on human pain and the cost of loss. Besides, Heddy Honigmann is much more than a competent documentary maker. Her art is not confined to the way she chooses or shoots her subjects. Born in Peru to Jewish parents, the 53-year-old director studied in Italy, before permanently settling down in Amsterdam in 1978. Since then she has built an impressive, award-winning career, while critics such as Travis Hoover refer to her as one of the most prominent women documentarists in Europe. Currently unfolding in Thessaloniki, the Sixth Documentary Festival offers visitors a chance to become acquainted with Honigmann’s work. What makes it unique is the way she goes straight to the subject’s heart. She uses images, poems and music in order to open the floodgates of memory and draw stories from cab drivers in Lima («Metal and Melancholy»), widows in Bosnia («Good Husband, Dear Son»), illegal immigrants in Paris («The Underground Orchestra») and United Nation soldiers stationed in security zones («Crazy»). With a sense of humor as well as compassion, Honigmann casts light on courageous lives, people who would otherwise get drowned in the uniformity of statistics. As an honored guest, the director is also coming to Thessaloniki to pick up a honorary award for her contribution to the world of documentaries. (The ceremony will take place this Friday at the Olympion’s Pavlos Zannas Hall at 8.30 p.m.) Though the festival’s central issue is «Terrorism: the Politics of Violence,» the Dutch filmmaker will undoubtedly receive considerable attention for her unusual portraits, such as the «Metal and Melancholy» taxi drivers, for instance. «Peru’s cab drivers survive in a most creative way. They belong to a middle class, which, due to the financial crisis, is forced to drive taxis in order to earn a living. They have a good sense of humor and sarcasm and are forced to deform reality in order to deal with it,» said Honigmann in a recent interview with Kathimerini. While the director’s lens captures the faces and their stories, it also takes a look at the city. Daily, everyday images of the streets of Lima are shot through the taxi windows. Honigmann’s presence is a friendly one. Seated beside the driver, she elicits answers by asking direct questions, as a friend would, out of interest and compassion. What is more important when you shoot a documentary? Your duties as a professional or your interest as a human being? Of course it’s a personal need, directly linked to my preference for «real» people. I’ve said it before: My films are not about issues, but about people. People I think about before I even begin doing research on: all kinds of survivors, of nationalities and professions and so on… Have your experiences with human suffering given you some kind of answers on human nature? Perhaps just one thing: When faced even with the most atrocious loss, people choose to survive… Do you believe that documentaries are more powerful in presenting reality than fiction? Inspiration for documentaries has no boundaries. On the other hand, the subject matter of fictional films seems more limited and predictable. I don’t agree with you. Inspiration behind the creation of a documentary has its limits. In «Metal and Melancholy,» for instance, a taxi driver might consider himself lucky because his car is so worn out that nobody is going to steal it. The reality of the situation, however, is that the car is a wreck. In fiction, you can replace the old car with a Ferrari, but you have to invent a character, the cabbie’s role, with his spirited and clever remarks. That’s a hard thing to do. Perhaps only a director of the caliber of Billy Wilder could manage. Sometimes during a shoot, you might miss a great scene going on right behind your back. Inspiration might be endless during what we call a «moment of magic» in real life. But it doesn’t last long. In fiction, on the other hand, this moment may last for as long as you like. Perhaps because reality cannot be foreseen, the director’s «real-life perception» must be precise and his or her reflexes have to be as quick as a tiger’s when attacking its prey. I believe that a good documentary – just like a good fiction film – always brings us face to face with something new. In both cases, if we don’t see it or don’t allow ourselves to be surprised, then we’re just bad directors.

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