Documentary maverick celebrated in Beijing

08:52, December 17, 2009      

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Heddy Honigmann speaks at Beijing Film Academy.

Known for her elegant cinematic language and uncanny power to capture emotional truth on film, acclaimed Dutch documentarian Heddy Honigmann is being honored by the inaugural Beijing International Documentary Forum underway in the capital this week.

The event opened with Forever by Honigmann on December 12, followed by a series of master classes and workshops presented by the director.

"Forever was fi lmed in 2006 in the worldfamous Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris," recalled Honigmann. "It's a film where we try to explore the power of art and the relationship between the living and dead."

The documentary features the consoling beauty of Père- Lachaise, where some of the world's most celebrated artists are buried, including Frédéric Chopin, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Maria Callas and Jim Morrison.

Every day, the cemetery receives visitors coming to visit the graves of their beloved families and friends, or paying tribute to famous artists by leaving a personal message or a flower. Gradually, the graveyard has evolved not only as a final resting place for the dead, but as a source of peace and inspiration for the living.

"With the tranquil beauty of Père-Lachaise in my mind, I simply had to make a film that celebrates love and offers a serene perspective on death. A film about how beauty can console, forever," Honigmann explained.

The film drew unparalleled enthusiasm from Chinese filmmakers and art students at the Beijing Film Academy where the documentary made its Chinese debut.
"This is an astonishly beautiful and peaceful fi lm, just like Chopin's nocturnes," exclaimed Chinese audience member Huang Jian. "It sheds new light on the old theme of art, life and death."

"It's hard to see works like this in China because in a country where life is busy and often restless, filmmakers are more inclined to pursue commercial success in their works," Huang added.

In addition to the beautifully composed imagery in her films, Honigmann is known for her ability to establish emotional connections with the people in her documentaries.

"I don't do interviews. I make conversation," she has often said.

In Forever, the director captured the moment when a young man left a box of cookies on the tomb of French novelist Marcel Proust, best known for his monumental novel A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).

The cemetery visitor told the director in broken English that he came from South Korea to visit Proust's tomb for the sheer admiration of his novel, in which the remembrance of a tea cookie brings back a flood of other lost memories.
Because the work provided great spiritual sustenance to the South Korean, he left cookies as a symbolic gift to the legendary novelist.

"I asked him if he wanted to make a fi lm about the cemetery and the power of art and love. He said absolutely no," the director recalled. "I had to beg him many times, but he still refused. Later, I said maybe you could just use English in the beginning and then talk in your own language, and he agreed. And then he silently put the cookies on the tomb for the shooting and left quickly."

"Many people asked me how do you come so close with your characters. Most often it's because I'm very curious and people feel that," Honigmann added. "I always approach them as a person, not as a subject."

Born in Peru in 1951 as a child of Holocaust survivors, Honigmann was trained as a filmmaker in Rome. She has been residing in Amsterdam since 1978, although her cinematic career has been taking her around the world.

"My parents are survivors of the Holocast," said Honigmann. "I grew up with a father who was somewhat destroyed by his stay in the concentration camp. He told me not to trust anybody."

"But in fact, my fi lms are just the contrary. The power of memory is always the theme of my fi lms, as is the plight of exiles, love and music, poetry and art. I take art as a path to a little happiness."

The theme of memory infuses most of Honigmann's works, from Hersenschimmen (1989), her first fictional film about a man who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, to her latest documentary Oblivion (2009), which explores the life of the invisible, lower classes in the director's hometown, Lima, Peru.

"By showcasing the best documentary productions, for instance, Forever by Honigmann, we aim to demonstrate to the filmmakers and cinema goers in China that truly great documentaries can be positive, inspiring and humanistic," said Zheng Qiong, founder of the Beijing International Documentary Forum.

Meanwhile, her body of work has been exhibited at art institutions worldwide, including the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and MoMA in New York.

Source: Global Times

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