The 100-year-old doctor in the movie 100UP still works at the hospital. Documentary maker Heddy Honigmann (70) asks him why he gets up every morning. “To go to the hospital,” he says without hesitation and perhaps somewhat surprised at the question.
Honigmann laughs when she thinks about it. “Yes, I immediately thought: why didn’t I come up with that myself? Of course, he has to work.”
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We live, as good and as bad as we go. But what makes it worth it? No one can give the definitive answer, but many have ideas or even strong feelings about it. In this series we ask artists, painters, poets, musicians and scientists.
For her it is natural, even if someone is over a hundred. She herself is sometimes in a wheelchair because of her MS, but that does not mean that she thinks that it is no longer necessary for her. Although she doesn’t like it. “It’s very gradual, isn’t it. First you walk a bit more difficult, then a bit more difficult, then you sometimes need a walker and then you can hardly walk at all and you always need a walker.”
She does miss it, the feeling she used to have about her body. “I could run really fast and jump really far and high, I was small but I went like this…” She gestures with her dainty little hand of something that flies up and lands much further away. That was her.
We’ve been talking for a while, about Peru where she’s from, about her father, about her movies, when she says a little worried: “You haven’t asked me about my plans for new movies yet.”
As if I’d think she didn’t have any. Did I think so? I know she has cancer, but I’ve also seen those movies of hers that always seem to revolve around vitality, zest for life. Not only that of the people she films, it is also the power of the maker herself that you feel in it.
She says she wants to make a film about homeless people. “I can’t imagine what it’s like not to have a roof over your head. If you can’t get in from the cold, if you don’t even have a very small room of yours with a bed and a warm blanket.”
When she was installed at the table in the cafe in Amsterdam-West where we met, she said bluntly: “I forgot my last film. How does it start again?”
With two violinists from the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Liviu Prunaru and Valentina Svjatlovskaja, playing for you, I say. And right after that, you’re on a tour boat with your colleague José Luis Guerín, who says he thinks you make movies to get answers to your own life questions.
“And do I answer?”
Actually, that applies more or less to every filmmaker, she thinks. “You can’t figure things out just by asking questions, so you try to answer some of the questions you ask yourself through a movie. That doesn’t always have to be a personal question, it can be a question about the world, about the now, about why things are going so badly. It doesn’t have to be: why am I sick, or why has fate struck me so, not at all.”
So she is sick. But she is really looking forward to making a few more films. “And I would really like to see my son grow a little older. I am in love with my son, he is such a nice boy, he has such beautiful blue eyes, he got that from his father. And I don’t want to miss my husband so soon. There are some things that really make me want to live.”
Do you know in advance which questions you want to see answered in a film or do you notice this gradually?
“Both of you. With Metal and Melancholy, a film about taxi drivers in Lima, I wanted to have a picture of that city, with the drivers as the main character and the city as the second person who constantly drives along. I knew that beforehand. But for example with eh… name a movie?”
‘Framed wedding’ for example?
“We were very curious why people got married, why do you decide to commit your life to one person. If you ask me now, I do have an answer, but this is my second marriage. My husband Henk is, yes, he is the most beautiful person I have ever met. I really enjoy talking to him about books, about film, about the news, about what we experience every day. I can have a lot of fun with him. He is also very caring for me. You can sometimes feel that someone finds it annoying to do something for you, in this case helping with the wheelchair. Then I ask, “Would you mind or find it difficult?” – new.”
She herself is the subject of her latest film, No Hay Camino. The film was made as the title says: ‘there is no road’, it is already being made. “I thought: I would like to do something with Johanna (ter Steege) and Kristien (Hemmerechts) and certainly with my son. I have to go to the hospital, maybe it would be a good idea if he takes me, which he often does. That’s how it was built. You don’t know what the shape will be yet, but you feel that there is material in it to make a film out of. What I didn’t want was a kind of revelation of all sorts of secrets – which I don’t have that many, anyway.”
Normally you hardly see you in your films.
“Just on the back, or a hand or something. A much more pleasant position than in front of the camera. Because then you also think: is my hair good, am I walking well with my walker or a bit crooked, am I wearing the right sweater or does it have too many squares for the camera? With other movies it’s easier, but with this one – how did you say the movie starts?”
With the musicians.
“Yes, I think it really started with that. Liviu and Valentina were so sweet to come and play all morning. Then you know you have a good start that will go somewhere. I like music a lot, so I’ve already positioned myself that way, I’m sitting there listening.”
You can’t figure things out just by asking questions
Every now and then a pigeon enters the cafe and Honigmann wants the music a little softer and the doors closed for the trip. Do you feel like an Amsterdammer? I ask her.
“I have loved the city from the first time I came. I walked along a canal to the address of my first husband, Frans van de Staak, and I thought: yes, I could be happy here.”
She begins to describe her walk, how she walked, how she stopped to look at the houses, at the people, at how the light fell on the canals, how a bridge opened. “It was sublime. I’m walking, I thought, in my future city. No one said hello, but the city said hello.”
And does she still feel at home in Lima, where she comes from?
Everything about her begins to glow. Yes! Certainly! Arriving in Lima is delightful. And again she begins to describe what she then sees.
If you now think that it is about the pain of emigration, then that is a misunderstanding. For her, this discord is mainly wealth: there are two places in the world where she feels completely at home.
Although that is less now that her mother, who lived in Lima, is no longer there. She tells how nice it was when her mother was still alive, how beautiful she was, ‘a candy’. How she once took her to a concert by Willem Breuker in Amsterdam, which she was enthusiastic about to Heddy’s surprise, and how she began to recite a piece from Sofokles’ Ajax in the middle of Dam Square in the drizzle, she was once a stage actress. And then it’s about her sister and her Jewish father who was in Mauthausen concentration camp before coming to Peru, where he became a famous cartoonist. She had a difficult relationship with him. He taught her to shoot, she says, thought she was cool, and there was one time when he thought there was a puma – “Look, that’s how those stories go with me.”
As she talks about her past, I think, I say, of a scene in 100UP where two very old sisters are talking and one, Shirley, says to the other, “Today is Mother’s birthday.” Her sister doesn’t want to hear about that. It’s “wasted time,” she says, thinking about the past. “Why should we think of that? That is over.”
“I thought that was a very beautiful scene. I think Shirley was more balanced than her sister, she really erased the past. Shirley is still alive, she will now be 107. I can see her, she will definitely want to stay at home and if she can’t walk anymore, she goes with her walker or wheelchair to the cafe on the corner to meet people.”
That’s what drives people, she says. “It’s about nothing and it’s about everything. The point is that you still think it’s wonderful, alone or with the help of someone else, to get dressed, to walk to the cafe on the corner and meet people there, even strangers. I like that myself, you can see that in my films. You can put anyone in front of me and I’ll have a conversation.”
Do you ever feel embarrassed to ask for something?
“If I’m embarrassed, you’ll hear it in my voice. Then I’m going to repeat that question, say, ‘Um, yes? And how did it go?’ With O Amor Natural (a film in which she asks people to read the overtly sexual poems of the Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade) it certainly was the case. That was all very precarious. Every morning when I woke up in the hotel I thought: how am I going to handle it today? I speak to the lady, she is someone from a slum, so I can be a bit more open, they talk much more easily about sex and love. Every time I go to talk to someone, I ask myself: what is it that I am looking for?”
And? What are you looking for?
“That depends on the film, but with O amor a kind of truth. Discovering something I don’t know myself, using the poems as a crowbar. In that film I speak to two old men and they spontaneously start talking and I ask one: ‘Do you still do that?’ ‘And you?’ , I ask the eldest, ‘do you still do that?’ That was very nice. The conversation flows and you know you want to ask a certain question, but you’re not sure if you’re going to ask it or when. It should come naturally.”
It’s about discovering something I don’t know myself
Her characters show her a lot. Taxi drivers in Lima show their wrecked cars, street children their tricks, someone takes her to his poor house to show her his wife and children.
Do you ever feel sorry for your characters?
“No, I already learned with my first film: you should never feel sorry. Then you are missing someone. And I was born there in that country, that also makes a lot of difference.”
A man who works in a restaurant, in El Olvido, takes you home and you ask his wife: ‘Have you ever eaten in his restaurant’…
“And then she says, ‘No.’ They are sitting on the bed in a very small house. I knew she was going to say no somehow – then I had a hard time asking.”
But you keep asking.
“Yeah, how come she never ate in that restaurant. It was a really good restaurant with nice colleagues and also a nice boss, they would have liked it. I thought that was a really painful moment.”
One of the taxi drivers, who has a daughter with leukemia, says at one point: ‘Life is hard, but beautiful.’ Do you feel that way too?
“Yes,” she says with great conviction. “That sentence has been a topic of discussion between me and my first husband for years. He did not believe in that, in that it is beautiful when it is so hard. I do.”
Is it even a question for you whether life is worth living?
You just think it’s worth it?
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A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on November 30, 2021 A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 30, 2021