What Becomes a Legacy Most

AFS Doc Tour presents 'Forever'

Heddy Honigmann's <i>Forever</i>
Heddy Honigmann's Forever

Talk about your change of pace: Heddy Honigmann's Forever could hardly be more different from November's Doc Tour, Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself. Honigmann, who's lived in Holland for the past 30 years, grew up in Lima, Peru, the child of Holocaust survivors, and later studied film in Rome. I mention this by way of a predicate for her film – set in Paris' legendary Père-Lachaise Cemetery – and Honigmann's thoroughly European style of documentary filmmaking. Setting up her camera at various grave sites – from the high-tourist-destination final resting places of Frédéric Chopin, Marcel Proust, and Oscar Wilde to those of lesser-knowns, such as Iranian writer Sadegh Hedayat, to that of an unidentified woman's late-in-life true love, who tragically died two months into their marriage from a bee sting – Honigmann waits and watches. Then, off camera, she gently prods the visitors to talk about why they're there and, for those at various artists' graves, what the deceased's art means to them. Meditative and often the filmmaker's stream-of-consciousness, Forever, at 95 minutes long, is a highly constructed yet meandering exploration of what the dead take away and what they leave in their absence.

Honigmann's eclectic previous films have included Metal and Melancholy, a doc filmed in Lima, about the teachers, actors, professionals, and civil servants who drive taxis to live; The Underground Orchestra, about illegal immigrants in Paris, who fled persecution in their own countries and now support themselves as musicians in the metro and on the streets of Paris; and O Amor Natural, in which Honigmann asks various elderly in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to read and react to the erotic poetry of Carlos Drummond de Andrade.

In Forever, Honigmann does a superb job with photographically composed scenes and lingering shots, capturing the unique ambience of Père-Lachaise. The cemetery's tourist-attracting roster of residents – from Jim Morrison and Maria Callas to Amedeo Modigliani – spans the cultural spectrum, and their legacies, still very much with us, emanate from the beyond in a lively, cacophonous cross fire among the graves. But it's still a cemetery, and when Honigmann's camera pauses on a gravestone, with its faded inscriptions, graffiti, faded flowers – the lipsticked kisses on Wilde's grave – we actually feel as though we're standing there, being pulled into each deceased's past.

Forever is in large part about what an artist's legacy means to the living, something Honigmann gets at through her conversations with cemetery visitors, many of whom come to the various grave sites to tidy them up, water the plants, add new ones, scrub graffiti with the bottled water they've brought from home. Interwoven throughout the film is a Japanese pianist who visits Chopin's grave and plays Chopin because of what the Polish composer's music meant to her deceased father. When she plays Chopin, she's connecting to her father. Proust's grave, strewn with quirky offerings from pens and notebooks to madeleine facsimiles, attracts many. Most of them admit sheepishly to having never made it through A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, though one young Korean who did was too overcome with emotion to explain what Proust meant to him – until Honigmann asked him to simply say it in his native Korean. He does, and we simply observe his passion for the French author without the benefit of any translation. Another Proust devotee candidly admits to having hated the book the first time he read it and having returned to it 15 years later in order to confirm his first impression. But that time he loved it and decided what the book needed was illustrating – a task he took upon himself and, driven by "the power of art," created a graphic-novel version of the Proust book.

One of the best segments – and a prime example of the wide-ranging trajectory of Honigmann's conceptual style – is that of the two blind Simone Signoret fans who visit her grave and then head home to "watch" a DVD of one her films, Les Diaboliques. The camera follows them on their way home, obliviously bumping into things as they walk down the busy street. Sitting in front of the television, they have a grand old time, listening to the film's dialogue, guessing (often wrongly) about what's happening on screen, marveling at the soundtrack and the script. Just another example of the unintended power of art – Honigmann's point exactly.

The AFS Documentary Tour presents Forever on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 7pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz. Tickets are $4 for AFS members and $6 for the general public.

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Forever, Heddy Honigmann, AFS Documentary Tour

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