My country, my country

Pub date September 30, 2009
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

FILM We go to documentaries to learn about the lives of others, but rarely are we put in touch with the patience, sensitivity, and grit required of listening. Heddy Honigmann’s films privilege the social aspect of these encounters and are the emotionally richer for it — I’d bet her hard-earned humanism would appeal to a wide cross-section of audiences if given the chance, but her documentaries remain woefully under-distributed. Oblivion is her first set in Lima since 1992’s Metal and Melancholy, still my favorite film of hers. Honigmann, who was born in Lima to Holocaust survivors but left the city to study and work in Europe, made that first film to clarify the everyday reality of Peru’s economic ruin. Instead of submitting a top-down exposition of the situation, she interviews taxi drivers. This was an ingenious maneuver for at least two reasons: it admits the contingencies of her inquiry and floats a matter-of-fact portrait of the people’s despair on the motor-mouthed musings of actual people. Their informal testimonies are too flush with colloquial wisecracking, cynical tirades, idiosyncratic performances, amateur ingenuity, and tender confessions to qualify for pity.

In Oblivion, Honigmann reverses angle, following children and adolescents as they flip cartwheels for stopped traffic, the crosswalk their stage. She also zeroes in on the more established service class, from a stunned shoeshine boy up to a dexterous master of the pisco sour. Slowly, we realize Honigmann’s interviews are an exercise in political geography: she talks to people in the near proximity of the presidential palace, the long shadow of Peru’s ignominious political history framing their discreet stories. Oblivion exhibits both class consciousness and formal virtuosity in its coterminous realizations of an Altman-numbered array of characters. As ever, Honigmann’s ability to transform the normally airless interview format into a cohesive band of intimate encounters is simply stunning. History consigned them to oblivion, but as Honigmann adroitly shows by periodic cut-aways to past presidential inaugurations, personal memory often outlasts the official record.

OBLIVION opens Fri/2 at the Sundance Kabuki.