UNDERGROUND ORCHESTRA, THENR
Heddy Honigmann's latest documentary, The Underground Orchestra--originally envisioned as a portrait of the underground musicians of Paris who perform on the trains and the platforms of the Metro--became a moving portrayal of exiled musicians above and below ground when she was refused permission to film on the Metro. Honigmann's subjects are from Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia and the former Soviet Bloc countries. Some came to Paris because they no longer had a country, others for political asylum, and still others because there was and is no work at home. Among them is a Venezuelan harp player, Mario; a violinist who once played with the national orchestra in the former Yugoslavia; a Romanian family who earn enough in a few months to survive the rest of the year at home, and a singer paying 2,600 francs (about $450) for a closet-sized apartment because, she says, she's African and that's what Africans put up with in Paris. Mario, who also makes harps, is about to be displaced from his apartment, the victim of urban renewal. When the film ends, he still hasn't found another place to live, and the authorities seem unsympathetic. 'Sometimes I cry so I don't kill, and laugh so I don't cry,' he says, expressing the sentiments of all the displaced musicians in The Underground Orchestra.
At first, you're swept away by the sheer artistry of these street musicians. Like the Algerian, a musician himself in a Paris orchestra, who pauses on the street to tell a countryman how well he plays a native instrument, you're surprised to find such talented people on street corners and subway platforms, and at street fairs. When Honigmann asks them why they emigrated to Paris, you're struck by the dignity of these survivors--none of them is bitter. Even when the African singer alludes to the racism that prevents her from finding a better apartment, or that marginalizes her talent, she does so without a trace of anger. She's doing better in Paris than she would be in her native country; she's able to make a living doing what she loves best. A violinist from Sarajevo admits to being a deserter, and to encouraging his brother, who's also a musician, to desert and seek political asylum in France. What he doesn't say about the army or the circumstances of his desertion speaks more loudly than anything he admits to feeling as a political refugee. A cellist from another former Eastern Bloc country talks about not being able to find steady work in Paris but staying there so that his son, a violinist, can get a good musical education.
Honigmann's great achievement in this beautifully scored film is to place us squarely in the experience of exile. Most of the people she portrays in The Underground Orchestra arrived in France not speaking the language and not knowing a soul. Many were forced to leave their countries, like Argentinian pianist Miguel Angel Estella (the film fails to identify him by name), who was tortured for his socially conscious music, others for reasons they're reluctant to discuss. Most have no working papers and are forced to make their living on the streets, yet every single one is grateful for even that meager privilege. Their courage and dignity, not their past sorrows, are the real inspiration for Honigmann's remarkable tribute.
Some might accuse Honigmann of a kind of haphazard editing that often leaves you wondering if you'll ever learn the name or the nationality of the artist she's interviewing--although some subjects are introduced by their music, we meet others, like Estrella, in an interview. One or two times we're not sure what instrument we're listening to. It's a niggling complaint, a bias we've all developed from watching too much CNN. We want it all, right now, up front and live. As Honigmann makes clear, in this and in her previous film, O Amor Natural (about the erotic poetry of Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade), life doesn't impart truth that easily. On first acquaintance, or even after knowing someone for a lifetime, we rarely guess at the depth of their sorrow and fear. That these artists betray some sorrow and openly confess their fears, as well as their loneliness, to Honigmann, is no small miracle. That they carry on because there is no other choice but to carry on is, in the end, despite their painful exile, so life-affirming that it enriches us all. Their individual identities aren't as important as their collective spirit, their stubborn refusal to accept a fate that would separate them from their music.