Metaal en melancholie
directed by Heddy Honigmann
directed by Heddy Honigmann
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover Where has Heddy Honigmann been all my life? Hidden amongst the well-intentioned sheep and voyeuristic wolves that usually crowd my stays at the Hot Docs documentary festival is her ferocious intelligence and shattering compassion--which, when combined, results in wrenching, haunting films that stand alone and put most other documentarians to shame. Like no other filmmaker, she shows people caught in the crossfire of forces beyond their control, and like no other filmmaker, she captures the creative ways in which people adapt to the environment created by those forces. Furthermore, there isn't a shred of liberal self-congratulation anywhere to be found--there is no distance from the pain of her subjects, and there is no escaping the surge of confusion at the situations in which they find themselves. Her films are direct, unpretentious, and highly articulate in their evocation of the people and places they describe.
Take, for example, her Metal and Melancholy (Metal y melancolia). The hook is simple: interview taxi drivers in Lima, Peru and show how the middle classes, in the wake of the country's economic crisis, have been reduced to hacking to make ends meet. A normal documentarian would have let it stop at basic facts about the crisis, letting the talking heads describe what we already know: that they're not happy at the squeeze that's been put on them. But Honigmann's approach is more complex. She instead asks them about their other lives--such as that of the actor who's appeared in several prominent Peruvian films, or the policeman who had to infiltrate a group of activists when he could still make a living at it. Skilfully, she puts lives and faces to people who would normally be statistics, showing how vast economic forces have cornered Lima's citizens into doing things they might not have chosen for themselves.
Honigmann is a genius at evoking the unpleasant circumstances that would greet these people if they resisted. Out of the windows we see scores of itinerant street vendors, hawking anything they can to eke out an existence; the proper merchants (such as the hapless guy selling taxi stickers) blur with the people selling whatever extraneous possessions they have, and the message is clear: the drivers are one step away from being these car-less and thus helpless individuals who vend for a pittance. This is all hugely important information, but Honigmann never speaks a word about it--she's more for experiential address, plopping you in the driver's seat of a makeshift taxi and flooding you with the visual information that informs their decisions. The juxtaposition of the world outside the cab and the personality within it shows you the enormity of the choice these people have made, and obliges you to consider how you might feel if faced with such odds.
Crazy, meanwhile, has its own juxtaposition: the terrible violence experienced by Belgian peacekeepers and the music they used as succour. An array of soldiers, from commanding officers to general infantry, describes the most traumatic experiences of their tours of duty. One woman remembers being offered a baby for sexual favours, another of losing a colleague driving down "bullet alley" in Yugoslavia. And we hear the music that they used to survive it: Everything from Puccini's Turandot to Guns n' Roses' "Knocking on Heaven's Door" to, yes, Seal's "Crazy" can be used to avoid, deny, and resist the mounting chaos faced by the soldiers. There's no hard and fast connection between the stories and the tunes--and there are no simplistic homilies about the power of music to uplift, et cetera, et cetera. It's simply a record of people who have taken refuge in music after enduring terrible punishment.
Again, a standard documentary procedure might have really screwed this up: the hook of the music could have easily overpowered the feelings of the soldiers, setting up a meaningless structure that shoves the square peg of its participants into its ill-fitting round hole. But Honigmann is too smart for this. She allows her subjects to ruminate and remember events before springing the music on us, and thus makes us treasure it as much as her subjects: we feel the reflected horror of combat and its environs, and thus are grateful for the meagre escape offered by the soundtrack selections. We are at once confronted with the power of music to soothe, and its powerlessness to do much more: After one soldier gives his greatest hit, he reveals that he tried to kill himself by setting fire to his house. As with Metal and Melancholy, we are placed in numerous chaotic situations and asked how we would cope with them; Honigmann is that rare director who can combine overarching conceits with the mundane trials of life, showing equally the vast machinery at work and the people who are caught in its mechanism. If I were you, I'd buy my tickets to Cinematheque Ontario's retrospective of her work posthaste. Originally published: November 14, 2003.