Monday, November 9, 2009

El Olvido

Oblivion is first of all a state of forgetting or being forgotten. It is an eternal present in which the past is erased, and the future along with it. It is not the end of history but the complete suppression of it. It’s not forgetting where you put your car keys—it’s forgetting you own a car.

But oblivion is also a place. And in Heddy Honigmann’s documentary El Olvido (Oblivion in English), this place is found on the streets of Lima, Peru, in the crosswalks where children do cartwheels and then beg for spare change, behind the bars of the nicest clubs where the bartender smiles through his contempt for the rich and powerful who he must serve. This is a place forgotten by history, and it’s everywhere you look, as long as you care to see it.

Fortunately, our guide to this land of amnesia—where a bandit can become the president for an hour and people drink frog juice to restore their memory—is someone with so sensitive a touch as Honigmann. The film is tender and lyrical, suffused with sorrow for these people who live their lives outside the walls of history. Outrage grows from empathy, but Honigmann’s anger at the many problems of Peru—which include hyperinflation, dirty wars with guerrilla groups, and corruption and incompetence in the halls of power—arises naturally from these very personal character studies, ideas flowing from observations, not the reverse. This is more poem than polemic.

Focusing on a motley collection of characters, ranging from shoeshine boys to street performers to waiters, Honigmann sketches out the lives of people who exist on the fringes of national history, granted only the role of spectators or, at best, servants to the powerful men who have caused so much despair and damage. We meet a tailor, for example, whose father created the presidential sash worn during inauguration. One day, the government came looking for the man’s father, declaring that he had botched the job: no one could see the emblem because the sash was inside out.

No, the old man simply explained, the president just put it on wrong. Flip it over and the problem is fixed.

It seems so blindingly obvious—after all, how does one make a sash inside out? All you have to do is take it off and put it on the opposite shoulder. But to punctuate this episode, Honigmann shows footage of the inauguration, during which the president puts the sash on incorrectly and then looks down in confusion at the covered emblem, fidgeting awkwardly with the sash as people applaud.

It’s a funny episode, but with a chilling undertone—the president would just as soon blame the maker instead of risking a sliver of embarrassment by acknowledging his own mistake. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the service workers in the film, mostly bartenders and waiters, take a bemused view of their leaders, acknowledging personal niceties (“He was a good tipper”) while laughing and sighing about “semi-democratic elections” and other farces of power. One bartender takes great pride in his story of slipping vodka into an unsuspecting president’s orange juice, causing the man to grow tipsy enough to stumble at a big public event later that same day. “My own coup d’etat,” the man beams.

But the most remarkable moment of all might be when a jovial waiter, a self-described clown who smiles through any insulting customers and forgets their offenses immediately, takes us on a tour of his humble home. He has served the wealthy and the powerful, and yet his house is cramped and dirty, his wife unable to afford to eat where he works. But he is a proud and welcoming host, and when he tells the camera he wants to play a song from his native province for us, you expect a buoyant folk tune, or maybe a sentimental old ballad.

Instead, we hear a fierce protest song, lamenting innocent villagers being gunned down. “The blood of the people,” a woman sings, her voice enflamed, “has a rich perfume…” The man tells of how his sister was murdered by "special forces," a term that seems to include rebels and the police, as no one is quite certain who was responsible for the slaughter.

One wonders how anyone in this situation could even bear the sight of the country’s president happily gorging himself on fine food, let alone pouring the man a glass of wine. Smiling through the insults, indeed—who could function in his position without occasionally accepting a momentary amnesia? Oblivion is also apparently a way of life in this melancholy city.

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