Opening at the Film Forum in New York tomorrow, Heddy Honigmann’s “Oblivion” (El Olvido) is a penetrating study of poverty in Peru, particularly its impact on children who scrape by as shoeshine boys, jugglers, gymnasts, and musicians on the busy streets of Lima. They are like the children you can spot selling candy in New York subways or flowers on the streets of Los Angeles, but with much greater odds against them. Despite the grimness of the topic, the documentary is often very funny as well as always lyrical.
Honigmann, a child of Holocaust survivors who was born in Lima in 1951, got the idea for the movie from a waiter:
A few years ago it was a waiter, at work in a fancy restaurant, who was the inspiration for the rediscovery of my city. This waiter, whom I recognized after many years away from Peru, told me how he has survived the humiliation and hardship by smiling. Others manage to hold up their heads by silently making fun of the class that oppresses them, remembering with pride that they have survived both economic crisis and political terror from both sides. And some survive by entertaining car drivers with acrobatics, hoping for a few coins.
All my characters are first-class actors. Hardly any of them have ever been in a museum. Nor have they heard of Marcel Proust or Maria Callas; yet all the people you’ll meet in Oblivion are born poets.
The characters in “Oblivion” are either like the waiter, adult veterans of decades of misrule who are reflective about Peruvian realities, or the children who are barely old enough to understand what is happening to them.
Honigmann interviews the waiter at the restaurant where he points out the table that Alan Garcia used to sit at. Notwithstanding the fact that Garcia as a good tipper, his presidency was regarded by the waiter and all other adults in the movie as a complete disaster for working people. This includes a bartender who whips up a Pisco Sour, a kind of national cocktail. As he mixes together the brandy, lime juice, egg whites and native brandy, he reflects on the greed and treachery every president in his lifetime has demonstrated.
She follows the waiter home to his modest home where she continues to interview him and now his wife. She asks her if she has ever been to the restaurant to enjoy the meal that Garcia favored. No, they could not afford it. After a while, the waiter puts on a tape of a local singer from his province in the North, a place he was forced to leave because of a lack of jobs. (Lima has grown 16-fold since the 1950s because of economic hardship in the countryside.) The singer’s lyrics tell a tale of army-inflicted terror on villagers, an obvious reference to the dirty war conducted by Fujimori and something deeply personal to the waiter, two of whose cousins were murdered in his native village.
By coincidence, the movie arrives at the Film Forum just 8 days after former president Fujimori was convicted of crimes against humanity, as the Washington Post reported:
Former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori was convicted Tuesday of “crimes against humanity” and sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in killings and kidnappings by security forces during his government’s battle against leftist guerrillas in the 1990s.
The verdict, delivered by a three-judge panel on a police base outside Lima where Fujimori has been held throughout the trial, marked the first time that an elected head of state has been extradited back to his home country, tried and convicted of human rights violations.
Human rights activists called it a precedent-setting verdict that upheld the ideal that violent abuses cannot be ignored under the banner of fighting terrorism.
“This is a sentence for all the innocents killed in the dirty war,” said Gisela Ortiz, whose brother was among a group taken from a Lima university and executed in 1992 by a military death squad under Fujimori.
While nobody would gainsay the need for punishing Fujimori for his crimes, true justice would require a social and economic transformation of a Peru that has condemned its children to work as beggars in its streets by the thousands. Death by malnutrition or disease is as permanent as one brought on by a soldier’s bayonet.
Despite their hardships, the children in “Oblivion” put on a brave face and do the best they can to survive, if not enjoy their crafts. Clearly, they juggle balls or perform cartwheels in the streets partially for the same reason that other children do so for play. Wearing a big smile, one young girl tells Honigmann that she has dreams to be an Olympics gymnast one day. Perhaps the greatest crime of the permanent Peruvian government that rules on behalf of the white upper classes is that it effectively prevents such dreams from being realized.
I watched “Oblivion” last night after spending an hour preparing a scanned version of José Carlos Mariátegui’s out-of-print “Seven Interpretative Essays of Peruvian Reality” that will eventually be uploaded to the Mariátegui Internet archive. Although Mariátegui was politically active in the 1920s, his critique of Peruvian society would be the same as the waiters and bartenders in Honigmann’s movie. In the 1929 essay titled “Anti-Imperialist Viewpoint“, Mariátegui wrote:
In Peru, the white aristocrat and bourgeois scorn the popular and the national. They consider themselves white above all else. The petty bourgeois mestizo imitates their example. The Lima bourgeoisie fraternizes with the Yankee capitalists, even with their mere employees at the Country Club, the Tennis Club, and in the streets. The Yankee can marry the native senorita without the inconvenience of differences in race or religion, and she feels no national or cultural misgivings in preferring marriage with a member of the invading race.
In contrast to the “white aristocrat and bourgeois”, Honigmann demonstrates her affection for and solidarity with the “popular and the national”. For a glimpse into Peruvian reality that rates about as high as any political documentary that I have seen on Latin America, a trip to the Film Forum to see “Oblivion” is very highly recommended.