Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Metal and Melancholy

Thursday, May 31 at New York City's Spectacle Theater

Flowing like a wide river of pleasure and pain, Metal and Melancholy examines late-20th century Peru through the eyes of Lima cabdrivers. Most had other, often white-collar, jobs before the collapse of the economy forced them to put the family car to work, and many were piecing together a patchwork of part-time jobs to supplement what little they earned behind the wheel when writer-director Heddy Honigmann talked to them in the early ‘90s, yet none waste any time on self-pity or bitterness. Instead, they draw on what appear to be deep reserves of fatalism and tenacity to do what it takes to support themselves and their families.

The documentary starts with a montage of shots of Lima’s streets as seen through the windshields of a series of makeshift cabs, the sound of energetic radio broadcasts, the chaotic clamor of the Lima street, and the rattles and ragged purrs of aged engines introducing us to a world in which nearly everything seems to be held together with duct tape and faith.

Then one of the drivers starts talking, and from then on the talk almost never stops as Honigmann and her editors slide from one story to the next, knitting the narratives into a seamless whole with deft cutting and almost-still formal portraits of drivers and their cars that sometimes serve as transitions.

Shooting in her hometown (her Polish Jewish family moved to Peru just before Hitler invaded, so she grew up in Lima, though she moved to the Netherlands and became a Dutch citizen as an adult), Honigmann fits in with a warm familiarity that puts the drivers at ease, chatting with them from the passenger seat while cameraman Stef Tijdink shoots from the back seat.

The understated beauty of Tijdink’s compositions is the visual analogue of the unshowily fluid storytelling, dusty reds and blues and greens managing to look intense and yet muted at the same time. Just as soundman Piotr van Dijk captures the sounds of the city and the groans of the decrepit cars without ever losing a syllable of the splendid talk, Tijkink shows enough of the surroundings to keep the context in the forefront while nearly always focusing on faces. In one particularly striking sequence, he starts with a medium shot of a child vendor at night and then pushes in close on the boy’s face as the child describes himself, with a mixture of defensiveness and pride, as “a tradesman.”

Honigmann mostly remains unseen, but her calm, kind voice is often heard off camera, asking the questions that get people talking. Like the great Agnes Varda, she has a gift for eliciting confidences, uncovering moving stories and surprising connections everywhere she goes. The artful fluidity with which she cuts it all together and the matter-of-fact way she includes herself now and then, not to pump herself up but, on the contrary, to ensure that she and her subjects remain on equal footing, is also reminiscent of Varda. So is the way Honigmann neither patronizes nor glorifies the everyday people she encounters, simply (or maybe not so simply, since it’s so rarely done so well) letting them speak for themselves.

The country’s economic sinkhole is experienced as much through images as words. We see the broken-down old cars the drivers are babying along and the complicated maneuvers with which they protect them from the thieves who run rampant, now that honest work is so hard to find. And now and then, like when a drunk reels in a crowded street, railing against the politicians that “keep us poor,” the camera shifts from the driver to show us the view out the window.

But mostly, we stay with the vivid parade of personalities that are the drivers she encounters. There’s the woman who takes Honigmann to a communal grave on All Saints Day, pausing at an open pile of unburied bodies; the fading beauty who breaks into a dazzling smile as she talks about dancing to keep up her spirits; the proud family man who welcomes Honigmann into his tiny apartment and shows off the lightbulb he’s wired to the radio, to provide a little light during blackouts. And there’s the man who became a cabbie to pay for medical treatments for his five-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with cancer at age two or three. As he talks about nurturing her strong will to live, he says: “Life is hard, but beautiful.”

In another context that would sound clich├ęd, but here it feels like hard-won, poignant wisdom—and a fitting tagline for this tough but tactful film.

Written for The L Magazine

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