Heddy Honigmann, Whose Films Told of Loss and Love, Dies at 70
Heddy Honigmann, the Peruvian-born Dutch filmmaker whose humane and gently paced documentaries of Parisian subway buskers, Peruvian taxi drivers, disabled people and their service dogs, Dutch peacekeepers and the widows of men who had been murdered in a tiny village near Sarajevo, were stories of loss, trauma and exile — and the sustaining forces of art and love — died on May 21 at her home in Amsterdam. She was 70.
Jannet Honigmann, her sister, confirmed the death. She said Ms. Honigmann had been ill with cancer and multiple sclerosis.
In the economic chaos of Peru in the 1990s, when the government nearly bankrupted the country and inflation soared, many middle-class people began moonlighting as taxi drivers, slapping a “Taxi” sticker on their Volkswagen Beetles or battered Nissans to signal that they were on call.
Ms. Honigmann collected their histories in the 1995 film “Metal and Melancholy,” riding in the back seat of more than a dozen cabs whose drivers included a teacher, a police officer, an actor and an employee at the Ministry of Justice. (She took more than 120 taxi rides to find her subjects.)
The stories that unspooled included a devastating tale from a man whose 5-year-old daughter had leukemia and who was driving to pay for her costly medical care. When he tells Ms. Honigmann that he encourages his daughter, whom he describes as a fighter, by saying “Life is hard, but beautiful,” it’s a maxim not just for this film but for all of Ms. Honigmann’s work.
In “The Underground Orchestra” (1999), musicians busking in the Paris metro — including a disc jockey from Zaire who has escaped a forced labor camp and an Argentine pianist whose torture at the hands of his government nearly destroyed his hands — describe the refugee odysseys that have brought them there. Stephen Holden of The New York Times called it “an open-ended celebration of human tenacity and life force that builds up a compelling personal vision in an offhanded, roundabout way.”
Despite stories of terrible trauma, the movie is also a celebration of the culture these artists have left behind — a “world-music primer,” as Mr. Holden put it, “featuring some astonishingly beautiful sounds.”
The cultural critic Wesley Morris, in his Times review of “Buddy,” Ms. Honigmann’s 2019 film about people with disabilities and their service dogs, called Ms. Honigmann a humanist who “listens to the ignored, sympathizes with the lonely and can ask questions so leading that when her subjects give her a skeptical look before trying to answer, she has to laugh, almost out of embarrassment.”
But she was more of a gentle interlocutor than an insistent interrogator. There were no narrators in her films, no propulsive music or quick cuts to tell viewers how to experience what they were seeing. Her pacing was almost languid; she allowed her subjects to tell their stories in their own way and in their own time. And she hated the word “interview.”
“‘Interviews were for subjects,’ she would say,” said Ester Gould, who was a co-writer, researcher and assistant producer on many of Ms. Honigmann’s films. “‘I have conversations with people.’”
In an interview at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2002, Ms. Honigmann said: “I think the only rule for me is that when I hear the stories, if they keep my attention, they will also keep the attention of the spectators.” She added: “I lost myself in conversations. And conversations, if they are interesting, they are never boring.”
Ms. Honigmann was primarily a documentarian, but she also made narrative films — notably “Goodbye” (1995), about the doomed, highly charged affair between a young preschool teacher and a married man.
In “O Amor Natural” (1997), Ms Honigmann invited older Brazilians to read aloud the erotic poetry of the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, all of which had been published after his death in 1987 because he worried that they would be seen as pornographic. Ms. Honigmann’s readers took to their roles with gusto and often confided their own erotic histories. Graphic, sensual, tender and at times very funny, the film is a rumination on desire, memory and age.
Ms. Honigmann’s films have won awards at film festivals all over the world and been shown in retrospectives at the Walker Art Center, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Paris Film Festival, among other venues.
In 2013 she was given the Living Legend Award at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. Yet she may be the most famous filmmaker Americans have never heard of, according to Karen Cooper, the longtime director of Film Forum in New York, which has presented the premieres of many of Ms. Honigmann’s movies.
“As Americans, we live in a bubble in terms of film, because Hollywood is so dominant that documentary filmmakers don’t get the same kind of attention that narrative fiction film receives,” Ms. Cooper said in an interview. “In this country, among documentary filmmakers, Heddy was a star. In Europe, she was a superstar. In the Netherlands, she’s a national treasure.”
Heddy Ena Honigmann Pach was born on Oct. 1, 1951, in Lima, Peru. Her parents were European Jewish refugees.
Her father, Witold Honigmann Weiss, an artist and illustrator who created a popular comic strip, was born in Vienna and had been interned at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria before he escaped in 1942, making his way to Peru by way of Russia and Italy. Her mother, Sarah Pach Miller, an actress and homemaker, had left Poland with her family for Peru in 1939. (In Peru, it is the custom to use the surnames of both parents. Heddy dropped the name Pach as a filmmaker.)
Heddy studied biology and literature at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú in Lima. Her father wanted her to be a doctor. She first wanted to be a poet — she loved Emily Dickinson — but decided filmmaking was a better medium for her. She left Peru to study at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, and she did not return to her home country for nearly two decades.
An early marriage in Lima to Gustavo Riofrio ended in divorce. In the 1970s she married Frans van de Staak, a Dutch filmmaker she met in Rome, and the couple moved to Amsterdam; she became a Dutch citizen in 1978. Their marriage also ended in divorce.
In addition to her sister, she is survived by her son, Stefan van de Staak; her husband, Henk Timmermans; and her stepson, Jaap Timmermans.
One of Ms. Honigmann’s most harrowing films was “Good Husband, Dear Son” (2001), about the women left behind in the village of Ahatovici, just outside Sarajevo, after Bosnian Serb forces had murdered the men and burned the place to the ground in 1992. Ms. Honigmann captured the women’s loss by drawing out their memories of their loved ones, and by showing the photographs and belongings the women had saved as mementos.
She said she tried to show that the most terrible thing about war is not the numbers of the dead, which she called an abstraction: “The catastrophe is, for instance, seeing that a whole town has lost all the craftsmen, that people who were in love were separated forever, that children who loved to play football and loved music cannot hear it anymore.”
“When you are born from immigrants you are educated in melancholy,” Ms. Honigmann said in her 2002 talk at the Walker Center. “You hear all the time of stories of people leaving. That’s in my films. People are left, or they are leaving, or losing their memory.”
When Michael Tortorello, her interviewer, asked her what her life might have been like if she had stayed in Peru, she answered promptly: “I would have a been a taxi driver.”