[27 April 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Dogs bark as Lucia Ruiz leads Heddy Honigmann’s film crew inside her home on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. “Please come in,” she urges her guests, while instructing her mother to leave the dogs tied up. The big one, she notes, is a Rottweiler they saved from starving. “They make really good guard dogs,” she explains, above the yowling and growling off screen.
As Lucia and her mother Dulovina sit on a sofa to be interviewed in a small, cramped room, the camera offers a brief glimpse of a painted portrait hanging on the wall above. They’re posed together here as well, their faces round and stylized, their expressions blank. In person, that is, in the documentary Oblivion (El Olvido), mother and daughter are tremendously expressive, careening between polite conversation, displays of mutual affection, and utter despair. Honigmann doesn’t press for any particular answer, but asks a series of questions she poses for most of the interviewees in this film: Do you have good memories? Do you have bad memories? Do you have dreams?
Lucia’s story is common, but that doesn’t make it easy. She’s lived with her mother since her husband left her, but even before then, she says, the family never had the “financial means” to move up. Her husband had a job, but she was the primary breadwinner, waiting tables at the Hotel Bolivar from 1974-2003. When she and her fellow workers tried to “defend our rights,” occupying the hotel for three weeks, her husband—never named—came to the hotel to tell her, “Enough is enough,” and demand a divorce. Asked if she has any good memories of her marriage, Lucia tears up: “He said, ‘Thank you for the son you’ve given me, but it’s over now.’” at least, she continues, she and her mother have each other, and her son. “It makes my life worthwhile,” she insists, unable to stop crying.
As its title suggests, Oblivion is about forgetting—the deliberate sort committed by officials and ministers in Peru, and the painful sort sought by victims of poverty, betrayal, and corruption. Respectful and poignant, the film offers some tearful interviews (a mother who has lost her street-performer daughter to a car accident, a leather worker who has lost all his savings to hyperinflation), but doesn’t sensationalize such moments. Rather, Oblivion submits the anguish and resilience of its subjects as evidence that forgetting, no matter how methodical or traumatized, is impossible.
Recognizing the problem, the street vendor Toño offers up his frog soup—a renowned memory aid—as one solution. Presidents who forget about the poor should queue up to buy his soup, Toño nods, as should “All those crazy soldiers [who] go around killing families, they forget they also have a family.” The violence Toño describes—economic as well as militaristic—is ongoing in Peru. Bartender Jorge Kanashiro sums up the most recent instance of the abuse this way: in a figurative choice between AIDS and Hepatitis B, “We Peruvians chose Hepatitis B, otherwise known as Alan García, the very man who ruined the country between 1985 and 1990. Now he’s in power again.” While speaking, the bartender demonstrates how to make his signature drink, the Pisco Sour, listing ingredients in between events of the last 50 years: “(Pisco, three ounces.) We’ve done everything we could to be a true South American country: scandals, (cane syrup), a dirty war between the army and various guerrilla movements, towering inflation, banknotes that were of more use as toilet paper.”
The film underlines the continuity by inserting repetitive oaths of office taken by a series of Peruvian presidents, each donning the grand red and gold sash, each pledging to honor the people who voted for him. Shot for television, these scenes are similarly framed and focused, including García (1985-1990, and again in 2006) and Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000). During Fujimori’s third oath-taking in 2000, just before he fled to Japan as result of corruption charges, audience members can be heard yelling, “Dictator!” (In 2009, Fujimori was convicted of human rights violations, and sentenced to 25 years in prison.)
These repeated images are set alongside another set of similar shots, these showing children performing in traffic for coins. As they juggle pins and fire sticks, cartwheel and backflip energetically, the kids look less desperate than exhausted by their routine. Tiny girls approach cars with their hands out, the camera following just behind. Once or twice a window rolls down and a driver hands over a coin, but mostly, faces inside vehicles remain obscured, as they look away or put their hands over their eyes—working not to acknowledge the children, the poverty they embody, and the camera.
The essential case made by Oblivion is this, that the limbo (“el olvido”) is a way of life in Peru. Whether they are themselves forgotten or manage their own forgetting by repressing, ignoring or dismissing, Honigmann’s subjects indicate again and again that they are left without recourse. In turn, she never presses for answers (Honigmann’s return to Lima, her birthplace, comes after years away: she studied film in Rome and is now a Dutch citizen, living in Amsterdam; her previous documentaries have observed a variety of lives around the world). When she asks waiter Luis Cerna how he responds to being treated badly, he says he has never had to contend with it (“They treated me well because I did what I was told”). At the same time, he notes the increase in Lima’s population (from four or five thousand in the 1930s to some eight million today), as a sign of small hope. They travel from the mountains, he says, “Because there’s no future where they come from. They always find a way, they’re very inventive people.”
One of these “inventive people,” Henry, is a 14-year-old shoeshine boy, living with uncles in the city while his mother remains in Piura, some 15 hours away. Framed in closeup as he speaks, the boy’s impassive face reveals no angst or anger, only resignation, as do his black-stained fingertips. When he asserts that he has no memories, good or bad, the camera pans left for a moment, showing a woman on the street behind him. Asked whether he has dreams, Henry takes the question on its face, looking into the camera and smiling, barely, when he says, “I hardly ever dream.”