El Olvido (Oblivion)

I watched “El Olvido” for two reasons. First, because my parents really wanted to see a “Dutch film” during Hot Docs and were willing to drive for two and a half-hours to accomplish that goal; second, because I wanted to see Lima. 

In a sense, my parents didn’t get a Dutch film, but a film set in Peru directed by a Dutch filmmaker. Who was born in Lima. And returned to Lima after many years to reconnect with the city of her youth.

My parents are so cute, wanting to see Dutch films. Is it because they emigrated in their early 20’s and miss the Netherlands? Probably. I am the child of immigrants and I’ve never lived outside of my birth country. I’ve been to Holland, sure, many times. But I am itching for more…. of the world. Perhaps this is why I was interested in seeing this film. Take me somewhere, Heddy Honigman, I wished. And very competently, she did.

“El Olvido” means oblivion, a place where director Honigman believes Peru to be stuck. It is a country largely absent from the world’s consciousness except for Macchu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas. Yet it is a country of stunning beauty from the Andes to the Pacific Ocean, pulsating with rich and vibrant Amerindian, Mestizo and colonial European cultures. This I don’t know firtshand – only through the lore of friends’ experiences.

All I know of Peru with my own eyes is what Honigman showed me through the lens of her camera: Lima, the nation’s capital, population 7.6 million.

Lima is not an easy city and many of the characters in this film tell their stories framed by decades of political corruption. Politics play a role in this film – they provide the context for life in Lima – but its Honingman’s limited focus on two sets of characters – smiling service staff and circus-performing street kids – that provides deeper insight.

How do you tell the story of a nation’s capital in a little over an hour? Honigman let her characters do all the showing and telling. And she chose them wisely – from the master bartender who has shaken piso sours for a legion of presidents, to cartwheeling sisters performing for coins in the middle of frightful Lima traffic. We follow these characters from classic colonial restaurants to home-life in the barrio.  They are at once lonely lives, and lives rich with memory, all captured by an intimate, natural filmic style unusual to documentaries.

This is not a film about Peru. It will not take you to the spiritual hights of the Andes. It is a frank look at a gritty city. But I think that’s why I like it. I like cities. Now Lima no longer exists in oblivion for me.

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