In Memory: Honigmann's 'Forever' Explores the Cinema of Exile
Heddy Honigmann is a name woefully under-recognized in our American doc culture. We might find a reason for this exclusion in her relatively un-American themes--chiefly, memory and exile. While
memory may seem relatively neutral, exile is a theme commonly oppositional to a national philosophy espoused by The Melting Pot. America has a reputation that relies on diversity as much as it does assimilation, and to this end, exile is only a transitional state. For Honigmann, exile is far from transitional; rather, it connotes cultural communion and fiercely maintained traditions.
Honigmann's exploration of exile is rooted in her family history: Now based in The Netherlands, she was born in Peru to a Polish mother and an Austrian father, who themselves found each other as exiles from Hitler's Third Reich. Today Honigmann, who earned her degrees in Paris and Rome, states, "Holland is too abstract: Peru and Amsterdam are my homes."
Honigmann's most recent film, Forever, which opens September 12 in New York
City through First Run/Icarus Films, continues her thematic investigations. Filmed primarily in Paris'
legendary Père-Lachaise Cemetery, home to such artists as Chopin, Méliès and Proust, Forever follows visitors who come to the tombs of both lost loves and beloved artists. Each visitor Honigmann meets shares with her, in various languages, the gifts given by these artists, and loved ones. We experience this reverential universe through Honigmann, as the mourners and celebrants generously open their worlds to her-a testament to the filmmaker's storied kindness and open-heartedness.
This past spring, Honigmann was honored with the Outstanding Achievement Award at Canada's Hot Docs and the Persistence of Vision Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival. IDA sat down with the filmmaker in San Francisco during the festival.
IDA: Your parents were exiles from World War II. Is this why you've made a number of films that deal with recovering from the war?
Heddy Honigmann: No, I don't see my films that way. I think what the story of my family gave me is the theme of exile. This goes through almost all the movies since my first big feature
fiction, Mind Shadows (1988), which was about a Dutch couple living for 40 years in Canada, and the guy loses his memory. In that way, he's an exile. I remember one of the last sentences in the film, because it's about Alzheimer's. He says, "I'm the only survivor of my own language." For me, he was fighting against death. You are composed of all the memories you have, and if you lose them you're gone. He's an exile in a world that's disappearing slowly. The
people of Metal and Melancholy (1994) are exiled in their cars; the people of The Underground Orchestra (1998) are exiles in Paris, who keep on making music; the UN soldiers in Crazy (1999), especially in the part about Bosnia, have post-traumatic stress, so they're really exiles; Dame La Mano (2004) [features] Puerto Rican exiles in New Jersey; and in Forever, they're exiles in the cemetery, the dead and the living coming from all over the world.
IDA: How is memory entangled with exile?
HH: If you don't keep your memories, you die; you don't keep your attachment to the country in which you were born. Memories form you. In this little town where my mother was born,
something like 70 percent disappeared. They had to leave memories behind, and I remember as a little girl, hearing these stories about people who were not there anymore, and people I'd never met. So I grew up with a kind of melancholy, and with the consciousness that memory is very important and that you need to hold onto it. Keeping your memories makes you you. The
Iranian man in Forever says it best: "I'm a taxi driver, but what keeps me alive is singing traditional Persian music. It's kept me alive in the 18 years I've been away from Iran."
IDA: Tell me about the role of your voice in your documentaries. In Forever, you keep your subjects talking, and that seems very important.
HH: Since Metal and Melancholy, I've been an off-screen character in all my films. I would like to cut out little questions, but because [I conduct] conversations and not interviews, I always [include myself] without thinking. You feel my attachment to the characters through the questions and my curiosity to know them, to have a core of their character. But it's not only in Forever; it's in all my docs that I'm behind the camera speaking to the people.
IDA: What came first: the idea to film in Père-Lachaise Cemetery or the idea to
explore how art affects life?
HH: How art affects life came first. The two came together casually. Let's say you have a subject for a film and there is a moment where everything comes together and becomes a film
idea--not only an idea but also a film idea, which is different. In Forever, it was two visits to cemeteries that made the film idea come together. One was a cemetery in Andalusia, Spain; they didn't have tombs but walls where they put the ashes and places for flowers and pictures of the
people buried there. I was visiting the cemetery because I like visiting cemeteries. From a distance I heard a woman singing. She was sitting in a little chair in front of a wall, directing her eyes to the wall as she was singing and smoking a cigarette. It was beautiful. When she finished, we walked
to the exit and I asked her, "What was that music? It was beautiful." She said it was a song by an Andalusian singer called La Parala, and her husband adored the music. She said, "It's such beautiful lyrics, and I'm sure he still loves it when I sing it for him." And I asked, "And the cigarette?" because, you know, it's not common in a cemetery to smoke, and
she said, "I always smoke when I am with him." This encounter stayed with me. She was giving music to her husband. She believed he would love this music and in a way the music was also important for her because when you console somebody you are also consoling yourself.
The second [encounter] was at Père-Lachaise. The first tomb I visited was George Méliès, founder of cinema, papa of George Lucas and Spielberg and father of all special effects. There were very old dried flowers and a little photograph of a girl and written on the back was, "Merci." I went walking through the graveyard and saw the many tombs of artists and some, like Chopin or Piaf, always have flowers. And the kisses and cards on Oscar Wilde's tomb! It had funny visiting cards from dentists and lawyers! And then others that said, "Finally, we can
meet on a sunny day in this cemetery." People feel like they're having a liaison with their artist.
In some tombs there was nothing, and in that way both things came together: Art-the music this woman sang to her husband--and all the people visiting their artists in Père-Lachaise. Art is an
important thing in life, beauty is an important thing in life, and both came together in these two cemeteries. In Père-Lachaise, with these big names and also these forgotten names, there's always someone putting a flower or a stone on the graves.
IDA: Your characters really let you into their worlds. My favorite has to be the blind
cineaste club. They let you enter their home! There is something about what good is happening to you that we're a party to as well. Were you trying to get your audience to experience through you?
HH: No, this is just how it has to be in my films. If you are having conversations with people--not interviews--if you are getting close to them, so close that they let you also be very [physically] close, if you don't show respect and real curiosity, they won't tell you their secrets.
I remember this Armenian woman. I just met her at a water pump at Père-Lachaise. It was very warm, so there were more visitors coming to water the plants or clean the tombs. This woman was at the water pump talking to other women, and she had something special. There were no sad feelings. I asked her what she was going to do, and she said, "I'm going to clean the tomb of my father." And I asked if I could film and she said, "Of course, come now." And she was scrubbing the tomb hard and I asked her some questions and she said, "This is an Armenian cross and it's been almost 20 years since he's died." And suddenly, who knows why, maybe because she was so eloquent, I asked, "Do you talk with him?" and she said, "Of course." Like it was the most common thing. And this happens because you ask the question, because you show you are curious; that's why it happens. I don't have to do something
special, it happens...
I have made the same films many times.
Sara Schieron is a freelance film journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.