"Nessun Dorma," the glorious aria from Puccini's "Turandot," has been moving listeners since the opera's 1925 premiere, and whether your taste runs more regularly to Limp Bizkit or Stockhausen, it'll still get under your skin. It's what we casually call "evocative." But of what? Well, it could be any number of things. A first date, if you happen to take dates to the Met. Or Luciano Pavarotti's performance in Central Park in 1993. Or Aretha Franklin's at the Grammy Awards of 1998. I have an English friend who can't hear "Nessun Dorma" and not think of the Italian World Cup of 1990, because British TV used it as the theme song. For the first soldier we meet in Heddy Honigmann's "Crazy"--his story introduced against the sound of Pavarotti and the image of a scrambling military helicopter--"Nessun Dorma" means the killing fields. Like the other U.N. soldiers who allow their souls to be strip-mined in Honigmann's documentary, this particular Dutchman used a particular piece of music to get himself through the horrors of a particular "peace action"--in his case, Puccini and Cambodia. For others, it was U2, Seal or the Stabat Mater--in such hot spots as Kosovo, Somalia or Sarajevo. In short, music didn't just soothe these people; it saved them. The Peru-born Honigmann is a longtime Dutch citizen, and her internationality seems to enable her to make easy ethnographic connections while also connecting art to life; her recent efforts have included "O Amor Natural," about the lingering effects of Brazilian love poetry, and "The Underground Orchestra," which concerned emigre musicians in Paris.
Nothing I'd seen, however, prepared me for the emotional car wreck of "Crazy," or the high-wire act Honigmann pulls off: At no time is the suffering of any war-zone native made subordinate to the "characters" in her film, nor are those characters seen as anything but sincerely, guardedly wounded. The "talking heads" cliche of so much documentary filmmaking is exploded, too, by Honigmann's camera: Left lingering on the faces of subjects while their favorite song is played, it captures much more motion than most conventional motion pictures. Maybe it was because I watched the film at the Sarajevo Film Festival, surrounded by people who may have actually walked away from the market bombing being shown onscreen (to the sound of Seal's "Crazy") that brought me to tears. Real tears, not critic's tears ("I laughed, I cried ... "). Likely, it was also the knowledge that the shared experience I was having with the rest of the audience was so precious and rare, and that my own association with "Nessun Dorma"--and "Knocking on Heaven's Door" and "Sunday, Bloody Sunday"--was forever to be someone else's recollection of Cambodia. And Bosnia. And the screams of Muslim women being raped by Serbian soldiers.
The point? Not that you can see "Crazy" anytime soon, or anywhere close: Fly to Barcelona and you can catch a Honigmann retrospective that starts today. Or wait a year or so for the Museum of Modern Art's own show. On Thursday, however, the 26th annual Toronto International Film Festival gets underway, and among the 300-odd movies being shown is a brand new Honigmann ("Prive"). A great lump of the world's media will be dropping into Canada this week; an equally potent mass of the world's publicity machine will be coming, too. Toronto has become such an important film festival that the studios have, of course, co-opted much of it, holding huge junkets for their upcoming features and monopolizing the time of a lot of journalists who might otherwise be seeing films by people like Heddy Honigmann.
But the point is, really, that although a festival like Toronto has its glitz and glamour, it also provides a showcase for movies that might otherwise never be seen. As the mainstream movie industry makes more and more movies that occupy screens for less and less time, there is an entire universe of film and filmmakers who seem to exist solely on the festival circuit, and therein are quite often the movies not just of substance but of genuine emotional impact. I head off for Toronto thoroughly convinced of finding a masterpiece or two. At the same time, another "Crazy" might just kill me.
John Anderson is a film critic at Newsday, a Tribune company.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times