Feri Pap came to the city from Törtel to conquer the cinema scene. Physically, that village is barely a hundred kilometres from Budapest, but in another sense he came a lot further than that.
Yet he did not bring with him baggage or handicaps as he waved goodbye to the watermelon fields in the scorched sand, the stands of locust trees, the rural school, and the hardship of life in a family with 12 children in the countryside. Instead he arrived equipped with the courage and stamina typical of people born to hardship, the down-to-earth sense of reality and virtually unlimited endurance of someone used to tilling the earth and tending to livestock. And something else that we could call a human secret: the magical ability to transform personal experience into an art accessible to everyone.
Already in college, Ferenc Pap was like the star striker of a junior soccer team, who uses his foot to kick the ball but puts his brains into that foot. His admission film had a freshness and originality, fuelled by his immersion in countryside life and his deeply rooted humanity, which proved riveting for many.
His career has been primarily motivated by a thirst for knowledge, an inner drive shaping a profound and instinctual talent that so often goes to waste in others. As cinematographer, he is never content with simply creating a spectacle. He has an urge to look deep into the structure of his material, to interrogate the secrets of the magical world of light, which he exploits consciously and in rigorous methodological fashion. Going beyond the tricks of the trade, he insists on being actively and inquisitively present at each phase of making a film.
He was a stalwart representative of documentarism, the movement that remained controversial through the 1970s but exerted a cathartic influence on Hungarian film on the whole. He contributed vital ingredients to the powerful witches’ brew that emerged from the seminal Balázs Béla Studió, and was co-founder of Társulás, the film workshop formed against the grain of the professional establishment.
In addition to several documentaries, that typically dived down to the most poignant depths of the human psyche, he was chief photographer of the Education Affairs series and, assisting Lajos Koltai behind the second camera, worked on The Prize Trap, the film that foreign critics later hailed as the overture of what they called the Budapest School. He was the visionary behind the images of Békeidő, Vörösföld, Családi tűzfészek, Harcmodor, and Filmregény, the most famous documentary fiction movies of the Társulás Stúdió Ferenc Pap also had the honour of winning international acclaim for Pál Erdőss’s film The Princess (recipient of the Caméra d’Or in Cannes). Later, he teamed up with Géza Böszörményi and Lívia Gyarmathy, taking years to complete the clandestine shooting of Recsk, avagy egy titkos kényszermunkatábor története (Recsk: The Story of a Secret Concentration Camp in Hungary), one of the most harrowing Hungarian political documentaries of the late Communist era. The film won the European Film Award in Paris in 1989.
Yet it would be a mistake to pigeonhole Pap as a single-minded documentarist. He has worked in many styles of feature films, and was inseparable from director Béla Tarr until the release of Almanac of Fall. A staunch partner of Pál Erdőss until the latter’s death, in both films made for the screen and for television, Pap has worked with many other directors including Ferenc András, Gábor Dettre and Attila Mispál, among others.
Born in 1949, he started his career in the early seventies, serving as assistant cameraman for master cinematographer Sándor Sára in three films, gaining experience he said was instrumental in augmenting what he had learned in college. When asked about his early years in the field, he said, “I would like to handle light like Janó Tóth, have a feel for the camera like János Kende, and remain as diplomatic as Lajos Koltai” – all stars of cinematography in the generation preceding his own. As someone who has shot over forty feature films to date, he may rest assured that he has accomplished these ambitions. As well as in Hungary, he is also a respected figure in Turkish cinematography. The chance to shoot footage for a series of American travel films from Australia to Alaska may have demanded a sacrifice from him as a family man, but provided him with much-needed insight into the nature of coproduction, which began to play an increasingly important role in film-making around the world starting in the 1980s. Yet even in America, Feri Pap never for a moment abandoned the stance he had become accustomed to in his native village of Törtel. “Do you know why they like Hungarian photographers so much?”, he once asked me. “Not just because we cost a quarter of what they would pay an American. You see, if there is a problem on the set, the American will grab the phone and call for help. The Hungarian will grab a couple of planks and a length of wire. Bingo, problem is solved! This makes a huge difference.”How much that little extra in work attitude means has been driven home to us many times. The last time it happened was in San Diego, where we simply would not have been able to complete shooting The Émigré, my 2006 movie on the last years of novelist Sándor Márai without having Feri on board. He is the kind of artist who is capable of turning to his advantage the struggles of a man from the sticks. Nothing is impossible for him when it comes to realising an image. As a colleague, he is characterised by an imperturbable composure and an unfailing readiness to help, to constructively find the way out of a predicament, small or large. After holding the camera for ten hours, he will make his images with the same unruffled precision in the face of utter exhaustion, keep his hallmark sense of licentious, wry humour, and adapt to changes on the fly.
Despite the enormous strides made in the technology of recording images, a long-standing cultural debate persists, in cinematography in particular, concerning the respective merits of film made for television versus film made for the movie theatre big screen. Which is more modern, more in tune with the times? We all know, in Hungarian and European culture, that the motion picture has suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of television. The majority of professionals and audiences have acknowledged the sweeping victory of the televised image – a victory supported, in no small part, by political powers, notably the interests of cultural policy. The film industry has had no choice but to make peace with a process which has come to justify the existence of moving pictures tinier than a square millimetre per “frame”.
Instead of getting bogged down in a suicidal struggle making traditional motion pictures bereft of audiences, Ferenc Pap chose to revolutionise the televised image as the prevailing format drawing large numbers of viewers.
In this, he found great help in the legacy of Zsigmond Móricz, the classical Hungarian novelist of the early 20th century. Teaming up recently with director László Vitézy, Pap made several films for television based on the famous author’s short stories, aiming to resuscitate the television play without perpetuating the age-old messages that used to characterise the genre.
Beyond the difficulty of translating dramaturgy into images, the greatest challenge facing him was how to make extreme long shots fit the tiny television screen – a daunting task demanding a special, remarkably resourceful artistic vision. The meticulous rendering of setting, the capturing of the actors’ performance and faces, and the seamless incorporation of scenery within the narrative all form indispensable requisites of a work that pretends to any degree of wholeness or, if you will, integrity. In cinema, all of this is just a question of composition. By contrast, television poses a vital dilemma for the maker who, confined to a small frame, wants to achieve an effect on a large scale comparable to what comes so easily on the movie screen. Finally, Pap shot these films obeying his own inner need to make them fully viable if and when they were elected for screening in a movie theatre.
Apart from fiction films, Pap directed several documentaries in an annual series. In Tanyák népe (“Farmland People”), for example, he traced back his steps and the gaze of his camera to the backdrop of his childhood, the disadvantaged countryside in the grip of crisis. The intense faces and dazzling long shots of scenery he filmed showed us that our country consisted of more than its cities, and was doomed unless we embraced and elevated rural communities to the same rank and opportunity as those enjoyed by residents of the concrete jungle.
Feri, God bless you for your work! As I salute you, let us remember that it is time the highest echelons of power acknowledged and paid tribute to the journey of the youngest son, the trials he has surmounted and the enduring oeuvre he has created along the way. A career as consistent, rich and fearless as yours has been surely deserves more recognition by the state than the Béla Balázs Prize you already own.
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel