Film Review: Oblivion

Like all of Heddy Honigmann&#8217;s films, <i>Oblivion</i>, set in her native Lima, Peru, obliterates any previously held notions we might have had about the subjects she confronts, which, in this case, are intentional forgetfulness and the forgotten of L

Heddy Honigmann’s documentaries are about lives that most of us don’t lead—like those of subway musicians, taxi drivers or U.N. soldiers. If we are moved to distance ourselves from Honigmann’s subjects, the impulse doesn’t last because the subway musicians, for instance, turn out to be exiles, the taxi drivers are professionals battling Peru’s inflationary economy, and the U.N. soldiers do what many of us do to escape the harsher side of life—they listen to music.

In Oblivion, Honigmann returns to her native city of Lima, Peru, to speak to restaurant workers, craftsmen and street jugglers, all pushing against the pathos that threatens to engulf them. In the subtext of the film, there is Honigmann’s hallmark critique of irresponsible political and social institutions, but this documentary, unlike the others, seems to settle mostly in that hollow part of each of her subject’s souls. What we see are personalities formed around a fragile shell of heedlessness, which is inborn and original to Peruvians, an “oblivion” that is their destiny. For explanation and history, Honigmann turns to every society’s social scientist, the bartender: Jorge Kanashiro opens the film by mixing and serving a Pisco, a blend of lemons and sugar cane syrup, the national survival kit in a glass.

Piscos, we soon discover, sustain only the well-heeled; the rest of Lima can barely afford its ingredients. Honigmann, characteristically, seeks out those whose options don’t include anesthetizing themselves, like the restaurant workers who regularly serve the cocktail, and child acrobats and jugglers who perform at Lima’s busy intersections. The latter live on pennies a day, and sometimes they don’t survive their childhood at all. Unlike Honigmann’s Metal and Melancholy, also set in Peru’s capital city, Oblivion offers a picture not of conscious survival but of lives built upon an ability to forget. Decades of poverty, abandonment and isolation have apparently crystallized to form a nation where memory is deferred. When Honigmann encounters a 14-year-old shoeshine boy who tells her that he never dreams, she finds the consummate expression of that spiritual “oblivion”—and defies any abstract or oversimplified notions we may employ to explain it.

In the final sequence of Oblivion, we see a young man juggling small, clear balls in busy evening traffic. The balls appear hollow, but their reflective quality—they glisten in the headlights of the stopped cars—lends charm and magic to their appearance and to the boy’s performance. The balls are a metaphor for that crystallized core of inattention and hopelessness which characterizes Lima: The lights and the camera brought diversion, and even ignited the spark of life and humor that remains in the city and its people, but when they’re gone, Lima disappears. It’s swallowed up in the vortex of South America which, for most of the world, is a jumble of dictatorships, poverty and disappearing rain forests. If Oblivion is a little less engaging than Honigmann’s other documentaries because rather than having heart it seems to slowly lose heart, it nevertheless provides a glimpse of previously unseen lives—people who have endured disenfranchisement for so long that intentional forgetfulness is almost instinctual.