Heddy Honigmann's Oblivion is a vital glimpse into the working class of Lima, Peru. A combination of historical documentary and personal portrait, the film introduces and examines the city's residents through their remembrances of the past. As in many Latin American countries, parts of Peru's history have been traumatic, marred by corruption, exploitation and violence. If the story of New York City takes a 14 and a half hour PBS miniseries to explain, then Lima could easily fill twice that. But Oblivion's 93 minutes don't bother with the textbook stuff. The film's subject matter is the people who reside in it today; this snapshot of their existence, as composite characters who have lived through past into the present and future, is also a history lesson.
To that end, Honigmann takes her camera to Lima's streets and shops, and into the homes of its people. She seeks out children working on the streets: They put in 12-hour days before school, if they attend at all. Asking for money from cars in traffic, performing magic tricks -- their future prospects are bleak, and they know it. That attitude, Honigmann seems to argue, is an inevitability that stems from something in the country's vast roots.
In exploring this idea, the director contrasts his young subjects with older interviewees, on whom the past still weighs heavily. Many are still working service-sector jobs because of the country's years of hyperinflation. They speak wearily of the past, having lost their savings, relatives, spouses, and youth. Most blame Peru's corrupt leadership, which reigns from Lima's lavish city center. The inauguration ceremonies of Peru's presidents, who have historically transferred power frequently and often unpleasantly, are marked in the film by secondhand video recordings. Short as the clips are, the rulers' glimmers of incompetence (one mounts his sash incorrectly) and unrest (another is met with jeers) serve as visual apéritifs to the full meal of the Peruvian psyche.
Honigmann digs into the consciousness of her wage-earning subjects with just the right amount of tact and persistence. An elderly leather smith brims with joy as he describes the pleasure of mending a broken item, then suddenly pauses and looks away. One woman tearfully recounts her husband leaving years ago, after she went on strike to protect her job. Another man, a waiter in an expensive restaurant, is forced to explain why he's never taken his wife to eat in the place where he's loyally worked for decades. His wife smiles politely as he makes excuses. Such subtle tragedies speak of deeper wounds in the soul and spirit; minutes later he recounts the fate of his cousin, killed in the night by rebels (or maybe the police). Experiences like that call from the past to the present and future. But it's not all bleak. There is also joy-- in family and a job well done. In that, Honigmann and her subjects find at least a glimmer of hope for the future.