Concerned with the everyday lives of the Peruvian capital’s service class, broadly including impoverished or homeless kids who juggle or do handstands amid traffic, as well as bar and restaurant workers, documentarian Heddy Honigmann’s Oblivion asserts that, under a tragicomic two centuries of home misrule, the most devalued citizens of Lima have failed to be consigned to the limbo (“el olvido”) the oligarchy has constructed for them. A septuagenarian bartender, seeing the nation’s history of terror, dictatorship, and corrupt presidencies as “a badly-mixed cocktail,” tells his serving-school class that when entering the barroom or dining room, “we begin acting” out of an economic imperative. One of his students, a quiet young man from Lima’s hillside slums, flips brightly colored clubs in the roadways; across the city’s days and nights, laborers march for a national strike, an old man opens the gate of a tavern he’s worked in for 50 years (serving residents of the nearby presidential palace), and a blank-faced adolescent shoeshine boy claims to have no memories and hold no dreams.
Honigmann’s presence is mostly low-key and observational, binding her interviewees’ testimony with recurring footage of recent heads of state, including the scandalized Alberto Fujimori, swearing the same inaugural oath to the people and “the Apostles,” and the children of the street panhandling with their fire tricks and gymnastics. Her interviews don’t need to press hard for pain, both scabbed and fresh, to spill out, most awfully from a mother whose daughter was a casualty of gamboling in traffic, but perhaps most acutely from a waiter, a refugee from provincial bloodbaths that claimed family members, who takes abuse from his rich patrons with a smile for survival’s sake. “I never felt defeated,” says an elderly tailor whose shelf stock has been permanently stripped bare by hyperinflation of years past, restraining sobs.
Not all of Oblivion’s episodes are so focused, extending a humanist agenda to a warm but digressive glimpse of a golden-anniversary marriage party, but the Liman workers casually deliver the film’s acerbic populism; at his booth selling frog juice, a purported brain tonic, a vendor deadpans, “Good for the memory of presidents who forget the poor.” Often content to observe an afternoon in a café or bar using one fixed angle, dissolves, and a voiceover of poetry or social history, Honigmann persuades that her salt-of-the-earth publicans and itinerants are, through their survival, defiant of the misery enforced by Peru’s exploiters.