Szabolcs Hajdu is another auteur of the legendary generation of Hungarian directors who began their careers around the millennium. His impressive talent lies in the individual freedom of storytelling, the consequent method of instructing actors, and playful experiments with genres.
words by Janka Barkóczi
Stepping into the spotlight at the same time as György Pálfi, Ferenc Török and Kornél Mundruczó, Szabolcs Hajdu became a promising new voice of Hungarian film in the 2000s. Although the members of this group of young cinema artists are connected in many ways, all of them placed emphasis on keeping their own voice. Hajdu’s works are best known for their irregular style and deeply personal tone which depict not only the grim issues of everyday life, but also reflect the harsh and sometimes absurd realities of Eastern Europe. He is a writer and film director in one, often inspired by his own life and experiences. His repertoire includes family drama, sport, and western films executed with equal facility yet he never stays within the well-known routine of these film genres.
He graduated from the University of Theatre and Film Arts Budapest, where he had already made several award-winning shorts (Necropolis, Kicsimarapagoda) during his studies. His feature debut, Sticky Matters (Macerás ügyek, 2001), was dedicated to the surroundings in which he grew up – the people, apartment blocks, and spaces in the typical Hungarian town of Debrecen. The cinematographer of this spectacular coming-of- age movie was Mátyás Erdély (later known for Son of Saul) and audiences could also recognize the well- known director Miklós Jancsó, who made a cameo appearance in some of the scenes. Jancsó’s influence, through personal friendship and his cinematic heritage, can be detected mainly in the smooth and diverse ways of storytelling in Hajdu’s works. The best example of this extraordinary freedom in story-telling was Hajdu’s next film, Tamara (2004), which is a surreal tale of a couple with talking animals painted in vibrant colours. The 75 minute film captures the audience’s imagination and remains in mind for a long time.
Looking back on childhood memories, White Palms (Fehér tenyér) was a poignant sports film made in 2006. Hajdu, who was himself involved in sports as a child, wrote the story about his brother who suffered under the pressure of a sadistic athletics coach during the depressing era of Communism. The movie was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight programme of the Cannes Film Festival, bringing broader international recognition to the filmmaker, as part of a big comeback for Hungarian film at the Boulevard de la Croisette. Hajdu’s next and most gloomy film, Bibliothèque Pascal (2010), sheds light on the experience of those from the lowest levels of Eastern European society finding themselves in Western European countries. The dreamlike sequences of the movie were based on the wild adventures of many sex workers exported to the West, but portrayed from a sophisticated philosophical perspective. At this point, the mesmerizing visuality, captured this time by cinematographer, András Nagy, has since become a special individual characteristic of Hajdu’s films, functioning in tight union with the scripts.
Hajdu’s portrait would not be complete if we did not mention his long time creative partner and leading actress, the Transylvanian born, Orsolya Török-Illyés. She featured in Sticky Matters, Tamara, Bibliothèque Pascal, as well as in Mirage (Délibáb, 2014) and in an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s, The Gambler (2015). Her on-screen presence and acting style originates from the strong tradition of Romanian theatre and has a great impact on the authenticity of the stories. Hajdu, who also started off as a child actor, has built strong connections with the best artists of the contemporary Romanian acting scene and invited such actors as Razvan Vasilescu, Oana Pellea and Dragos Bucur to work with him.
‘Mirage’, reviving the special genre of the so- called ‘Eastern’, an Eastern European take on the classic Western’, is a perfect example in which the actors are put in touch with each other and their own cultures.
The film tells a story of an African football player (Isaach De Bankolé) who has to flee and look for shelter in Hungary’s prairie countryside. He soon realizes that his rescuers are owners of a modern-day slave camp which operates outside the law but is known to many people living in the midst of the „puszta”. The fate of the football player and his fellow slaves at the camp reveals the xenophobia and misery of a community, one in desperate need of external help and depicted in a perpetual state of hating ‘otherness’.
It’s Not the Time of My Life
The original play, providing a source for the movie adaptation with the same title, premiered in April 2015. The drama, written and directed by Szabolcs Hajdu, was performed by the Maladype Theater, known as one of the most progressive independent companies of Hungary. Maladype’s concept of intensive acting workshops and vivid communication between the performers and audiences had a great effect on the final form of the story. The play was performed at the Euroregional Theatre Festival of Timișoara and at „DESZKA” – The Contemporary Hungarian Drama Festival.
Hajdu says the following about this work: „We talk about ourselves, our wishes, doubts and anxieties. We talk about our everyday lives, families, children and parents. We’re not special; our problems are similar. Things are all around us, we just need to reach out to them and somehow tell the story – on film or in writing, standing at the bus stop or on the phone − it doesn’t matter. Now to the theatre, let’s forget about formalities, let’s just talk, let’s tell the story while we can, while we know, let’s give news to each other about ourselves.”
The film adaptation is a sarcastic family drama following the encounter of two sisters, Ernella and Eszter, and their families. Ernella, her husband, and their 10 year old daughter return from Scotland following an unsuccessful try to start a new life there. One night, they knock on Eszter’s door and ask for temporary accommodation. The forced cohabitation of the relatives gradually reveals the suppressed feelings and tensions in the background of a polite surface.
The personal element involved in the adaptation was strengthened by the unique creative process. It’s Not the Time of My Life was shot in the director’s home with his own family and many of the crew members were students from Hajdu’s university film course. The most daring choice was to form a team of 13 cinematographers who were (with the exception of Csaba Bántó) Cinematography MA program majors of the Budapest Metropolitan University. Hajdu had been teaching them directing during the previous semester and wanted to produce evidence of the time they spent together.
When the idea came about developing the original play into a movie, the director decided to invite the whole class to work on it. Since he didn’t want to favour any individual, the script was divided into separate parts, each assigned to a student. A chief cameraman and assistant cameraman worked together during the shooting of one part, while the rest of the class helped the process in other ways. There were always 5-6 students,working on the film at the same,time. Although the visual style of,the movie is standardized, smaller,differences can be detected in the scenes. Working together was a unique experience for both tutor and students, and perfectly complemented what they had learned about story telling beforehand.