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In October 2010, Taiwan International Documentary Festival welcomed Heddy Honigmann as their special guest. eRenlai & TIDF interviewed her under the watchful eye of her own camera.
Born in Peru to Polish Jewish immigrants, Heddy Honigman moved around the world a lot before eventually settling in Holland. She went from literature, to poetry, where she realized she was writing her poem though a series of images and that what she really wanted to do was make films. Yet even in film Heddy has alternated between fiction and documentary. Added to the various languages she speaks, her lifestyle has always had a nomadic touch: “It sounds cliché but I am from everywhere. If I had been in Taiwan and young, I would become Taiwanese. I can root anywhere; I call it a gift for film”. For Heddy, film is closely related to memory. Her family members were great story tellers, especially the women. Her mum said “the world is full of horrible things,” but that “you can’t cry about everything in life”. You have to approach everything with a degree of humor and irony. “You have to live and smile a little, or die.”
Heddy says: "When you are making a film, leave the window open." The art of improvisation is more important when your making documentary. You have a dialogue, not an interview. For example when asked: How do you capture their inner reactions? She retorted: How do you kiss a woman? It’s different every time. It either works or it doesn’t. For example the former Bosnian War soldier in Crazy. He had sweaty hands. He kept looking down. He told me once that he had tried to commit suicide. He was willing to tell me this. Why? I was talking to him like I talk to a person, I only film people, I had tears running down my face because of some of the stuff he told me. Of course I stopped myself making any sounds. But I was listening to him because I was genuinely interested in him and what he was telling me.
Do you observe people for a while before deciding to interview them? Have you already built up a relationship with your subjects?
It depends. Most of the time, I research. I make sure the supporting pillars are in place. I make sure the film is possible. I then search for 3 or 4 characters that are so strong that they will always remain in the film, even if it gets difficult. I might find them in the street, or the cemetery; it’s intuition. I am looking for ‘film characters’. Some people may have interesting content but when they communicate there is no emotion. Some of the people in my films rival Robert De Niro. For example in Crazy, it was very important which music the soldier was listening too; I maintained a veto on Mariah Carey. I dream up my characters. In my dream they would be playing Janis Joplin’s Summertime. In a way it is at type of casting, but the process is open and while filming you can find many new beautiful characters. For instance, in Forever, I randomly encountered a woman in the cemetery. We were eating apples in the tree shade, she walked by and said “bon appetit”, so we caught up with her and asked her for an interview. In it, she revealed that her husband, who was twenty years younger than her, had died from a bee sting, just three years after their marriage. It was a very strong story. All I knew was that she had been visiting a tomb; my intuition told me there was a story there. I am very curious by nature; I never have a complete plan. I hate documentaries where you feel the questions are already prepared. For example the interviewee says her father is dead and then the next question you ask is: “How long have you been in Taiwan?”
In the work Crazy, you ask the interviewee to play a song, which seems to be an emotional medium to trace back through their memory. Meanwhile you continue filming them until near the end of their song. If I were filming you about your life or a memory, what would be playing?
The film would definitely be full of Bach. He is a master, a genius in joy. Wherever I go, Bach is my home in exile. Also, recently when I was frustrated and all was going wrong, I opened an old file about 10 years old. It had Madonna, George Michael, and the Rolling Stones. So now I have a cocktail of music on a file, which always brings my sprits back and makes everything better.
How do you deal with strong emotional reactions from your subjects? In Oblivion for example you persisted in questioning the shoeshine boy despite his apparent discomfort.
With the shoeshine boy, reality was giving me a slap. He had no dreams, nothing, it was blank. So in a natural way, you respect the moment, the silence, but you know you have to continue – you cannot leave the person alone with his problems. For instance with the women whose husband died, there was no second thoughts; I reacted in the most natural way possible. I said “C’est terrible” because it simply was horrible. In the end, she looked at me and I looked back. She understood that it was the end and simply left. It was a beautiful moment. When the soldiers in Crazy hear the music they love, some would eventually look at me in a way that says “Please, stop the torture” and as soon as I see that, I immediately turn off the camera. I just have to stop. Sometimes when you film, you trespass over the frontier. You see that you went too far. I’m very much aware, that when you make a documentary, you use people. So you need to respect them a lot, you can’t squeeze them.