Basel, May 23, 2022
Heddy Honigmann (1951-2022)
“I’m interested in stories about survival,” says filmmaker Heddy Honigmann, herself a child of Holocaust survivors (1951-2022). The Peruvian-Dutch filmmaker has created a rich body of films that tackles the complex themes of resilience, exile, memory, and love in a compassionate yet never complacent manner.
Our tribute presents two of her distinctive documentaries in combination with two feature films that celebrate further facets of her skills. Harry Bos of the Centre Pompidou in Paris honors the director, who has influenced generations of documentary filmmakers, in an essay.
Tributes to the Dutch-Peruvian filmmaker Heddy Honigmann rarely include her fiction films.
The reasons are obvious: While directing mostly fiction at the beginning of her career, Heddy became a familiar name in the international field through her 1993 documentary Metal and Melancholy – she even considered this as her “first real film.” And since her fiction feature Goodbye (1995), she has only directed two short fiction films. All her other work is documentary.
This is no coincidence. In a 2002 American interview, she acknowledged that she deliberately chose to make documentaries because she felt more free, free to improvise, free to interact with her characters.
Yet it would be unfair to ignore her fiction films. Heddy’s oeuvre is a coherent ensemble. Goodbye and Mindshadows (1988), the two feature films presented at the Bildrausch Filmfest, are certainly not minor films and deserve to be appreciated more. Heddy herself insisted that both films be included in the special Heddy Honigmann in focus DVD collection edited in the Netherlands ten years ago.
Heddy Honigmann was born in Lima, Peru, in 1951 as the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Europe who escaped the Holocaust before meeting each other in Peru. In Lima, Heddy went to a French school, started studying literature and biology, and then left for Mexico to study film, since no real film school existed in Peru at that time. Afterwards, she moved to Europe and studied film at the prestigious Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome. There she met fellow film student and future husband Frans van de Staak (✢ 2001). They settled in the Netherlands and Heddy became a Dutch citizen in 1979, after having shot her school film, a documentary about a nomadic people in Israel fighting the dispossession of their land, L’Israeli dei Beduini (1979).
In Amsterdam, she started (co-)directing films in tune with the experimental environment of her husband Van de Staak, who was close to the famous documentarist Johan van der Keuken. But in 1988, she surprised many by adapting a famous Dutch novel for the silver screen in her first major film production. J. Bernlef’s tale Hersenschimmen (Out of Mind) is the monologue of an aging man progressively losing his mind – and his language – due to dementia. Heddy chose celebrated Dutch actor Joop Admiraal to play the leading role, without knowing that he had just finished acting in an acclaimed solo performance about his mother suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Honigmann and her cameraman Goert Giltay managed to translate the very literary universe of the novel into a visually convincing and dramatic film set in wintry Canada while scrupulously respecting the original text.
Heddy’s next important project was an original story about an impossible love affair between a young woman and a married man, which took place in Amsterdam. In 1989, while visiting her native Peru for the first time, Heddy discovered a country shattered by economic downfall and political corruption. Throughout Lima, she saw part-time taxi drivers – accountants, policemen, even actors – desperately trying to survive in a ruined country. “I’m interested in stories about survival,” she said later. Her plans for the fiction film – that eventually became Goodbye – were put on hold. First, she had to make a film about these peculiar Lima cab drivers, and it was supposed to be a documentary, Metal and Melancholy (1994).
She started researching the film by taking taxis constantly for a whole month. During this casting process, she talked with more than one hundred drivers. She used a crew while filming and did not handle the camera or do the sound. Her role was to be present (mostly off-camera) interviewing her characters, she herself thus becoming a character in her own film. Sometimes, she even asked them to do a specific scene. The magic, of course, is that, despite all these supposedly non-orthodox techniques for a documentary, Metal and Melancholy never becomes a hybrid film with artificially fictionalized elements. The talent and vision of Heddy is that she manages to create a truthful and spontaneous atmosphere through careful preparation of every single scene while never abandoning her intuition to get the unexpected “right moment” while she was filming. The “Heddy gaze” was born, a touch that was immediately recognized worldwide.
Like her parents before her, Heddy Honigmann is an immigrant. She does not consider herself as a Peruvian and, despite living in the Netherlands for more than forty years, she remains an outsider, she even claims that this position is an important part of her identity. Many of her films are set abroad: in Paris (The Underground Orchestra, Forever), in Lima, of course, (Metal and Melancholy, El Olvido), Bosnia-Herzegovina (Good Husband, Dear Son; Crazy), and New York and New Jersey (Dame la mano). For several films, she traveled across the world (Around the World in 50 Concerts, 100UP, No hay camino). Maybe the best way to describe Heddy Honigmann’s citizenship would be “cosmopolitan.”
But despite this self-chosen position, she never stopped filming in her new homeland, some of her best work is even specifically set in the Netherlands and handles very Dutch themes.
An excellent example of this “Dutchness” is the aforementioned fiction film Goodbye (1995) In the first scene, she films a couple meeting at an ice-rink and flirting while on their bikes. Strangely enough, no Dutch filmmaker had ever done this before, maybe out of fear of falling into a cliché? With Heddy Honigmann, there is no cliché; on the contrary, it becomes wonderful visual cinema. Even almost 30 years later, the Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege and Flemish actor Guy Van Sande seem amazingly fresh in these few silent minutes. In this scene, as in the rest of the film, they just seem to improvise, and that is exactly what they did not do. Heddy rehearsed and re-rehearsed extensively with the two actors, convinced as she was that real spontaneity only comes through elaborate preparation. Just like what she did for Metal and Melancholy. For her, the two films are like “brother and sister.” Her newly acquired international stature also gave Goodbye a more international audience than her previous fiction films: the film won an award at the Locarno International Film Festival, and Johanna ter Steege won the prize for best actress.
After two foreign documentaries set in Rio de Janeiro (O Amor Natural, 1996) and in Paris (The Underground Orchestra, 1997), she returned to Holland to make 2 Minutes Silence, Please (1998), which is about how the Dutch remember their victims of the Second World War – through two minutes of silence observed by the entire Dutch population every May 4 at 8 pm.
Yet her most significant “Dutch film” was still to come: Crazy (1999), a poignant portrait of several Dutch United Nations peacekeeping veterans who served in conflict zones like Rwanda, Cambodia, Lebanon, and Bosnia. The starting point is stunningly simple: What was your favorite piece of music you listened to during your experience as a soldier? That is the question Heddy asked. Art in general and music in particular play a major role in most of her films, but here it takes a particular dimension because it is through music that the characters of the film, usually not accustomed to showing their emotions, reveal themselves. Heddy’s favorite themes and her compassionate but never complacent relationship with her characters come together in a documentary considered by many as her best piece of work. Crazy also struck a special chord in the Netherlands due to mounting political controversy about the failure of the Dutch United Nations’ soldiers in Srebrenica to protect Bosnian civilians from the Serbian militia, who executed thousands of them, an important episode in the film. The scandal would eventually lead to the resignation of the Dutch government in 2002.
Since Crazy and despite her declining health – she has been suffering from multiple sclerosis for years – Heddy continued making internationally acclaimed films and has been honored by many festivals all over the world. In 2013, she received the Living Legend Award at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). Only Frederick Wiseman had won this honor before her. In 2016, she was awarded the prestigious Oeuvre Prize of the Dutch Prince Bernhard Cultural Fund. She is recognized as being the most important female Dutch filmmaker.
In 2021, facing terminal illness and aided by her son Stefan, Spanish filmmaker José Luis Guerín, and Belgian writer Kristien Hemmerechts, she directed her cinema testament, No hay camino (There Is No Path), a last voyage to places and people that have been important for her. In this moving document, Heddy Honigmann is, for the first and the last time, the main subject of her film. Heddy passed away on May 21.
About the author:
Harry Bos is a documentary film programmer working for the Centre Pompidou in Paris. For more than twenty years, he has programmed and promoted Dutch cinema in France. In 2011, he co-organized Heddy! in the Pompidou Center, the most important retrospective of Heddy Honigmann’s documentary work ever held in France.