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2007 Outstanding Achievement Award: Heddy Honigmann

Supported by the Royal Netherlands Embassy

Heddy Honigmann is a true master of the documentary form. With a career spanning more than 25 years, her body of work amounts to more than 20 documentaries and fiction features. Internationally acclaimed and respected, her work has garnered awards from festivals and praise from critics around the world.

Her films take us on journeys to Peru, France and the former Yugoslavia; they explore themes as diverse as war and remembrance, theft and crime, and the power and vitality or art and music. Most importantly, they intimately acquaint us with fascinating and memorable characters from all walks of life. Visually, her films are marked by beautifully composed images and elegant structures. But what makes Honigmann’s work truly sing is her astonishing ability to capture moments of profound emotional honesty.

Born in 1951 in Lima, Peru, Honigmann is the daughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors from Austria and Poland. After studying literature in Peru she moved to Italy in 1976 to study film at the Centro Sperminetale di Cinematografia. Since 1978, she has made her home in the Netherlands, often travelling to her homeland in South America, and elsewhere, to make films.

Metal and Melancholy (1994) is one such film, a festival favourite that introduces us to the smart, funny and philosophical cab drivers of Lima, Peru. These cabbies wax in a forthright and poetic manner about their economically devastated country and their personal lives – all the result of Honigmann’s ability to form bonds with the people in her films.

Preferring to call her subjects “characters,” Honigmann develops unique relationships with them, akin to that between trusted friends, or as some have said, between therapist and patient. In this way, Honigmann eschews the vérité approach to documentary filmmaking and situates herself clearly “in” her films, though she never appears on screen. Instead, we hear her well-paced, sensitive questions or her perceptive and sometimes humourous observations, such as when she tells one cab driver in Melancholy, “The rattling in your car sounds like salsa music.”

In her latest film, Forever (2006), a look at the famous Peré-Lachaise cemetery in France, and at the visitors who seek solace and inspiration from its deceased inhabitants, Honigmann asks a man resting at the grave of a famous Iranian writer to sing something for them. When he replies that he cannot, she simply says nothing. Seconds later, the man says, “What would you like to hear?”

A compassionate listener and an astute observer, Honigmann manages to make her characters forget that the camera is there, or cease to care that they are being filmed. In O Amor Natural (1996), elderly citizens of Rio de Janeiro are asked to read aloud from a book of erotic poetry by Carlos Drummond de Andrade and comment on it. They do more than that. Many are inspired to candidly share their own sexual exploits and favourite erotic acts with joy and unusual abandon.

The power of art and music to provide solace and inspiration is a common theme in many of Honigmann’s films. In the award-winning Crazy (2000), she takes an unusual approach to the subject of war and remembrance by asking Dutch UN soldiers to talk about a song or musical piece they listened to while on mission. The question opens a floodgate of memories from the battlefield that are inextricably linked to the music. The soldiers are moved to share experiences they would just as soon forget.

Honigmann’s style of shooting is deceptively simple and straightforward. She has an eye for beauty and metaphor, and will often shift the camera away from her characters to film an image that gives expression to the emotional nuances she is capturing. For example, in The Underground Orchestra (1998), a journey through a community of international musicians who perform in La Metro de Paris, her interviews with the musicians are seamlessly interwoven with shots of Paris rooftops accompanied by the music they play. The film itself becomes like a piece of music, fluid and evocative.

While Honigmann has traveled the globe to film different cultures and various subjects, she is most interested in those stories that illuminate the human condition. Her boundless curiosity, compassion and cinematic artistry have yielded an incredible body of work where the universal experiences of her everyday characters – heartbreak, loss, longing, joy, triumph and sorrow – are revealed for their true and inestimable value.

Shannon Abel

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