The idea that death is the great equalizer only seems true in the narrowest sense. As with life, it takes all kinds: romantic deaths and pointless ones, iconic casualties and anonymous mortalities. One might fairly expect a documentary about Paris’s Pere-Lachaise Cemetery to be a macabre portrait of death cults, given its status as a tourist trap. But Forever, the latest film by Heddy Honigmann, finds solace in more introspective rituals. It’s no surprise, then, that Honigmann forgoes Jim Morrison’s grave, though a Doors fan does wander by during an interview with three widows – one clucks that her husband will never be lonely with Morrison around and returns to her reverie.
For all the guru talk about the benefits of being in the moment, there is a different kind of heightened consciousness that comes with the temps perdu territory where memory and sensory detail intersect. Pere-Lachaise is of course famous for its artists, and so Forever is specifically concerned with the way art prompts this transubstantiation, though Honigmann casts a wide net in her interviews. Equivalences emerge between the way we internalize great art and how we carry forward memories of parents, lovers, and homelands. All the film’s conversations are about communion, and as such, subjects frequently blur: a concert pianist’s devotion to Frederic Chopin turns on her memories of her father; a woman explaining her husband’s death ends up reflecting on being forced out of Francisco Franco-era Spain; a former art student’s passion for Amedeo Modigliani’s transformative portraiture inspires his work as an embalmer.
For a documentary about a cemetery, Forever is remarkably attuned to the living; more surprising still, it avoids oppressive gloominess. This is partly a matter of the way Honigmann punctuates her interviews: with the pianist’s performance of Chopin, close-ups of carvings and notes left graveside, and carefully observed shots of women tending to the stones and watering the flowers. The cemetery footage is awash in daylight and spring; ambient sounds of birds and wind mean the frame might be sometimes lonely but never lifeless. Such poetic naturalism certainly softens the film’s light touch, though it’s only support for what is fundamentally a matter of disposition. The film spends a lot of time at Marcel Proust’s grave, and one admirer (dedicated to rendering In Search of Lost Time as a graphic novel) evocatively rhapsodizes about the author’s concept of involuntary memory: when a sensory detail takes us back in a way that supercedes ordinary recollection, we are in two places at once, overwhelmingly and truly.
This is the mood – ebullient, reflective – that Honigmann is after, and while it arrives naturally enough in these interviews, she’s not afraid to push her subjects to connect the dots of art, memory, and self. She also asks the questions that matter to her personally, which, as a Peruvian-born, Netherlands-based itinerant daughter of Holocaust survivors, have a lot to do with homeland and exile. She’s trod this ground before – especially in 1998’s The Underground Orchestra – and here she finds immigrants both buried and alive. When a reticent Iranian Frenchman describes author Sadegh Hedayat’s accomplishments in exile, Honigmann wonders aloud, "Why did you leave your country?" The taxi driver’s answer – that he was tired of the people around him – is wrenching in the context of the quiet cemetery, but Honigmann’s larger point is clear: one’s homeland can take on the same qualities as the dead, of being at once not there and so very there.
It’s a tricky thing Honigmann is doing, engaging people about a profoundly internal process with a documentary technique that’s necessarily obtrusive and spoken aloud. Her gift as a filmmaker lies in the moment-by-moment flow of interview and observation. Patience and curiosity: these are the stuff of Honigmann’s persistence of vision. An interview with a South Korean Proust admirer is exemplary in this regard. The young man struggles to answer Honigmann’s questions in English, and the filmmaker, sensing that language is acting as an unnecessary impediment of expression, asks her subject to tell her what he admires about the author in his own language. She doesn’t understand a word, and neither will most of the audience, but we get something greater in his effusive speech and gesture. Where there are ghosts so too is there spirit, over and over again in Forever. *
FOREVER May 2, 7 p.m., PFA
GOLDEN GATE PERSISTENCE OF VISION AWARD: AN EVENING WITH HEDDY HONIGMANN Includes a screening of Forever. Tues/1, 8 p.m., Kabuki