January 12, 2013

Playback: Heddy Honigmann's 'Crazy'

I first saw Heddy Honigmann's film Crazy at a retrospective of her work at New York's Museum of Modern Art. I went into the screening expecting a war film, and instead found a deeply affecting meditation on music and memory.

Most of us can relate to hearing a certain song that takes us back to a seminal moment in our lives. Honigmann uses this universal experience to peer into the psyche of soldiers.

In the film, she asks Dutch United Nations peacekeeping veterans to talk about a piece of music that they relied upon to maintain their sanity in horrific circumstances. Using music to trigger sense memories, Honigmann eases them into deep reminiscences about their time in conflict zones like Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia. This deceptively simple approach is intensely emotional-and leaves me shaken every time I see the film.

Crazy is not a flashy film, but its pure humanity is riveting. We meet most of the veterans in the comfort of their living rooms and kitchens as they recount their wartime experiences and reveal letters, as well as photos and videos they shot in the field.

Honigmann's gaze is unflinching. As the veterans listen to their song choices, she holds on close-ups of their faces. Each twitch of an eye and bead of sweat speaks volumes. One man describes driving in a supply convoy in Bosnia through "Bomb Alley," named for the constant shelling and sniper attacks that regularly occurred. Making this journey once would be traumatic enough, but he had to make this harrowing drive 60 to 70 times, losing many comrades along the way. Shaky video footage shot from his truck reveals a twisting mountain road with no escape. How did he find the courage to make that drive when he knew what awaited him?  He did it by blasting Guns N' Roses' version of  "Knocking on Heaven's Door." As the song plays, he explains, "We turned up the music and the fear was gone."

When I watch Crazy, I'm reminded of the importance of authentic curiosity. You can hear it in Honigmann's off-camera voice as she dives deeper with each veteran. In press interviews, she explains, "I don't do interviews, I make conversation." These conversations take hours. Several of them change from day to night and profound revelations result from this patience.

Since seeing Crazy, I've asked some of my own film subjects about music selections that are important to them. So far, none of these moments or music have made it into a film. However, just listening to these tracks has deepened my understanding of their experience-setting an emotional tone that words can't describe.

Crazy also reveals the impossible task of UN peacekeeping forces. In perhaps the most chilling scene, a young soldier describes being part of a 200-man regiment in Srebrenica. He describes their overwhelming powerlessness as they tried to protect 30,000 Muslim refugees from the approaching Serbian army. Video filmed by the soldiers at their makeshift encampment show terrified women and elderly people moments before the Serbs started executing men and kidnapping women. When it was all over, the soldier describes a long "noisy silence" pierced only by a woman's scream. At the end of this haunting story, his song is revealed: U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday." As I watch his face redden and his lip tremble, I can imagine what he sees in that far-away look; I too may never be able to hear this song again without thinking of these images.

Here is a link to Heddy Honigmann's DVD box set, which includes Crazy:

http://webshop.beeldengeluid.nl/dvd/heddy-honigmann-focus-6dvd-boek

Rachel Libert is a New York-based director. Her recent work includes the Oscar® shortlisted and festival award-winning Semper Fi: Always Faithful, and the 2011 IDA Best Limited Series Award-winner, Boomtown Her critically-acclaimed documentary Beyond Conviction was broadcast as a primetime special on MSNBC and was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the TODAY Show.  

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