Director Heddy Honigmann’s “Oblivion” is set in her beloved Lima, Peru and turns the spotlight on “invisible citizens.” The film focuses on some of the everyday citizens of the nation’s capital city from the bartender at a swanky hotel who has served a revolving door of presidents, to the street urchins who perform acrobatics in traffic for a few pennies. Honigmann has received nominations and awards from festivals around the world, including a nomination for best documentary for “Forever” (2006) at the European Film Awards. The film opens Wednesday, April 15 at New York’s Film Forum.
iW: Introduce yourself, and share what initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved?
HH: I was born in Lima, Peru to a Polish mother and an Austrian father who escaped the Holocaust. My father had to work very hard to sustain his family, and did not want his daughter Heddy to become a writer – as she wanted – but rather an M.D. In Lima, we had a lot of cinemas that showed B-films and a few arthouse theatres. I was attracted to both of them. I liked to see movies in the company of others, even if there were only three other people in the theatre, and to smell the sweet peanuts that you could buy for a few cents. I started spending all of my pocket money on movies. I tried to see everything I could.
When I was about 18 years old and studying literature at the university, I started writing and publishing poetry. Gradually the poems became short stories. And the stories wanted to become alive, to jump from paper to screen. After seeing wonderful films like “La Terra Trema” (Visconti), “La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc” (Dreyer), and “Death in Venice” (Visconti), I stopped with poetry. But my decision to move out of Peru, where there was no film school, and move to Europe was finally cemented by the magic of Charlie Chaplin cooking and eating his shoe in “Gold Rush.” Mr. Chaplin’s poetry made me overcome my own economic circumstances and the distance to the film school in Rome.
I have made short and long feature films and, lately, mostly long and short documentaries. And all my films spin around the same few themes: the power of memory and the indestructible will to live; art, literature, poetry and music as routes to a little happiness.
This territory is almost endless, so I need more than one lifetime to explore it.
iW: How did the idea for Oblivion come about?
HH: Some years ago, I visited my mother in Lima. We went to a chic restaurant. When the waiter came, I recognized him. He was still working in the same restaurant after forty years. “So,” I asked him, “have you seen many coups, have you served presidents and ministers, and have you suffered because of the continuos corruption, inflation and violence in Peru?” The waiter nodded smilingly and every time he served us he told us bits of what he remembered. And although I was on a vacation, a “film idea” was conceived. There must be many waiters, bartenders, and little shop owners in the streets around the government palace who had been sitting on the first rows of the theatre of history and had much to tell about it, but who had never been invited to do so. “The Word of the Silent One” was the first working title for “Oblivion.”
iW: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
HH: A big challenge in securing money for the project was to let the different parties involved understand what the story was that I wanted to tell. It was not easy to write the script of “Oblivion.” The draft that secured funding from the Dutch Film Fund was not totally clear, they wrote. But happily they trusted me and the belief I had in the project. For the broadcaster, the script was also not clear and they did not want to support it without changes. They wondered what waiters, bartenders and little retailers had in common and were doing together in this script. I tried to explain and opposed the proposed modifications: the script of a documentary is no more than a sketch. It seems that no matter what you have achieved in the past, you have to prove you are not a novice time and time again.
iW: What were your distribution challenges?
HH: It is difficult to find a theatrical distributor in Holland for a documentary. “Cinemien,” which had distributed my other documentaries, such as “Metal and Melancholy” and “O Amor Natural,” was very interested in “Oblivion,” and decided to accept the risk. Anne Even, commissioning editor of the German broadcast network ZDF/Arte, didn’t ask any questions about the script. There was enough stuff in what she read, and she loved my films. Thanks to them and MEDIA, our budget came together.
“Oblivion” became, as I wrote in my director’s statement, a film about poverty and poetry in a country plundered by the powerful. But also a film where the powerless resist being consigned to oblivion.
iW: What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
HH: I have made both fiction films and documentaries. Those two genres are like brother and sister. Both of them pose almost the same, albeit slightly different, challenges to the director.
iW: What is your next project?
HH: My next film will be based on a dream. The dream to love unconditionally. It will be a feature fiction film. A very special love story which features a woman within the obscure world of the Peruvian illegal adoption mafia, which makes her break the boundaries of conventional love.
iW: What advice would you give to independent filmmakers starting out, and what is an achievement from your career so far that you’re proud of?
HH: In 2007 I received the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award of the San Francisco Film Society for 30 years of making the films I wanted to make without concessions. That is probably a good definition of an independent film, also called “film d’auteur.”
There is a lot of advice I could give, but the most important probably is: what you film has to have necessity.
I think I am the most proud of the fact that my movie “Tot Ziens” (Au revoir) – a story about an impossible love relationship – attracted large audiences despite the fact it had no plot, but dealt only with the emotions of the characters involved.