Beyond the Talking Heads – Recent Hungarian Docu Successes

Talking heads, static, sharpless pictures and muzzy dramaturgy – these have been the stereotypes of documentaries in the past few decades. Of course – as in the case of stereotypes generally – it is not entirely true, but seeing the newest streams it is really time to reconsider the approach for documentary film-making as pieces of art and products of entertainment.

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tititá by Tamás Almási

Hungary has a rich tradition of documentary films. Especially in the 70’s during the communist times when it was one of the rare ways to deal with social issues, focusing on poverty, family problems, history and other topics which were too inconvenient for the official, State-controlled press. Documentary as a genre was so influential that in the second half of the 70’s, fiction films were made with non-professional actors or took place in real-life situations. This style of film-making were labelled as the Budapest School by the international press, and legendary directors like Béla Tarr or Gábor Bódy hallmarked the movement, as well as other important directors such as Sándor Sára, István Dárday and Lívia Gyarmathy, among many others.

This period defined the style and approach of Hungarian documentary film-making, and the successes continued. At the annual Hungarian Filmweek, more awards were being won by documentaries than by fiction films. However, after 1989, the structure of media and publicity changed: TV and radio became much quicker and deliberated from political censorship. At the same time, most of the documentaries remained old-fashioned, slow-paced films, which lead to the loss of their audience in Hungary. The films did not fit into the scheme of the new distribution standards and many directors did not have the intention to apply certain changes without losing the independence and the relevance of their works. There were many exceptions, of course: Tamás Almási, Ferenc Moldoványi, Ágnes Sós or Ágota Varga, who started their career in the 90’s, gained international attention and had successful works in cinemas or on television, but in general the reputation of documentaries among wide audiences was really quite poor.

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Cain’s Children by Marcell Gerő

Perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say that recent times can be very promising regarding Hungarian documentary films. The structure of financing TV documentaries has been stabilised in the past few years with three annual deadlines by NMHH. Feature-length works are supported by the Hungarian National Film Fund, with continuous deadlines and frequent opportunities for project development. There is a very significant worldwide company, HBO, which finances and coordinates several projects per year; its presence on the market means more than just a financial supporter, as applying the standards of the company results in high production value and careful realisation and distribution of the films. The appearance of HBO was a significant change for the industry as a whole.

These opportunities – combined with the potential of international co-productions and EU grants – mean a great deal, particularly for the younger generations. Their success is following the lead of the mid-generation documentary film directors’ results, for example the earlier-mentioned Tamás Almási and Ágnes Sós, who are strongly involved with young film-makers, both as teachers and as peers. Ágnes was one of the first directors who had the chance to have films produced by HBO (Invisible Strings: The Talented Pusker Sisters and Stream of Love) with young producer Julianna Ugrin. Stream of Love had a long and fruitful festival run, including a premiere at IDFA, winning an award in Zagreb and being selected for the Sarajevo International Film Festival. Stream of Love provides a heartwarming panorama about elderly women from a small village in Transylvania talking about their sexual life. The picturesque landscape and the clean freshness of the protagonists create a very special atmosphere for the film. Stream of Love is a great example of a documentary that can represent a topic without stereotypes or pathos, but with humour and sensitivity.

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Drifter by Gábor Hörcher

Ugrin also produced Tamás Almási’s latest feature documentary, Tititá, which was just premiered at the Sarajevo International Film Festival where it won the Special Jury Prize. Tititá focuses on two subjects; on the one hand it shows the rich tradition of Hungarian music and music pedagogy, while on the other it talks about one of the most important Hungarian social problems: the perspectives of a talented Gypsy boy from a disprivileged area. The two topics are connected by Ferenc Snétberger, a world-famous guitar player who opened his talent centre a few years ago, which helped the young protagonist, Anti, break out from his circumstances. Just like Stream of Love, Almási’s film exposes interesting characters with humour through a twisting story.

The success of Julianna Ugrin as a producer does not end there. She has a strong international network after participating at several workshops and being an emerging producer in 2014. She is now part of the prestigious EAVE workshop with the project Afterglow to be directed by Noémi Vera Szakonyi. According to the synopsis, it will be a deeply personal story of the director herself: “The biggest task in my life was finding my missing brother, and the only way I could fulfill this mission is to tell it with my tool, which is film-making”, says Noémi, whose brother was kidnapped by his father back in 1987; she found him 28 years later in Brussels. The film is being developed at EAVE, co-produced by HBO and is to be premiered early next year.

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Stream of Love by Ágnes Sós

The collaboration between Sára László and Marcell Gerő started back at the University of Film and Theatre in Budapest where they were classmates. They founded their company Campfilm in 2008, which is now one of the most important hubs of talented documentary film-makers in Hungary. They have produced more than 12 documentaries, besides successful shorts and TV productions. Their recent big hit was Cain’s Children, which had its debut at the San Sebastian International Film Festival and was followed by many other significant festival appearances: IDFA, Abu-Dhabi, Zagreb Docs, Triest IFF and Sarajevo IFF. The film is a French-Hungarian co-production (with the participation of ARTE and HBO Europe), was supported by the MEDIA programme of the European Union and directed by Marcell and produced by Sára.

Cain’s Children is about three men who committed murder when they were children. They passed their entire youth in the most brutal prison of Communist Hungary where they were first filmed in 1984 by András Monory Mész in the documentary entitled Fallen. Marcell and Sára made an enormous effort to find them in order to figure out what had become of them and to ask them about untold secrets, fate and legacy. Is there real hope for them? This might be the biggest question in Cain’s Children, which gives a cruelly sharp picture of today’s Hungary and the strength of its society; the story is told with the tension of a well-dramatised thriller. After Cain’s Children, Campfilm just premiered its latest documentary in Sarajevo, Harm by Dénes Nagy, which is about women who harm themselves in several different ways. There is a great chance that it could have a long festival run too.

Gábor Hörcher is one of the most recognised talents of this year. It is already enough to mention that he has had two films in two separate competitions in Sarajevo this year. Ricsi in the short competition and Drifter among the documentaries. The Bosnian capital has not been the first stop for this documentary though, as it won the award for the best first film at one of the most prestigious IDFA festivals and, among many others, a special mention at goEast Wiesbaden. The production was supported by a Robert Bosch co-production prize and realised as a German-Hungarian co-production. Drifter, which had been shot over a period of five years, portrays a young rebellious Hungarian man called Ricsi who takes his life into his own hands. He has always been in trouble, partying hard and driving cars without a licence, as he receives no understanding or support regarding his circumstances. Once again, a sharp picture is given of the country, but this time in a very fresh and colourful way. It is very complex work from a debut director, not to mention that Gábor has managed to deal with this topic and protagonist twice, both in a unique and rich way. It is no coincidence that his successful short film is entitled Ricsi.

Besides the productions, there are international workshops (Duna DOCK, co-organised by Julianna Ugrin) and film festivals (BIDF, co-organised by Ágnes Sós and Rita Balogh, and Verzió Film Festival) happening all over the country, which create a buzz around documentaries in Hungary. Taking a look at the projects in production and all the ambitious film-makers around, we have high hopes for the future of the documentary genre.

by Dániel Deák


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