The 43rd Hungarian Film Week from a documentary filmmaker’s point of veiw

The 43rd Hungarian Film Week almost did not happen. After it was made clear that no state funding had been set aside for the event, fi lmmakers resigned themselves to the fact that it would be the first year since 1991 that they would not be able to debut their films before a home audience. The Hungarian film industry, after all, has been in financial and political disarray for the past two years.

Then Béla Tarr, the internationally renowned filmmaker and the new president of the Association of Hungarian Film Artists (Magyar Filmszövetség), appeared on the scene. The man who created an award-winning, seven and a half hour fi lm (Sátántangó/Satantango, 1994) would not be daunted by the task of organizing a major film festival on a zero budget.

“We decided that we would show that Hungarian film is alive, that Hungarian film is diverse and that Hungarian film is still viable”, Tarr said at the Film Week’s opening press conference.

In roughly one month, he led what can almost be called a movement to ensure that 2012 would not pass without the annual Hungarian film festival and that films would have their debuts before the movie-going public. In just four days at the beginning of February, 145 directors (including students of the various film schools) premiered over 100 films, including feature fi lms, documentaries, student and animation films, to an audience of over 10,000 people. This was no small feat, especially if we consider that everyone who worked on the festival did so on a volunteer basis and that the theatre space, the fi lm catalogue, the festival website and various festival events were all in-kind donations.

But the festival in fact did have a price, a potentially expensive one for Hungary. During those four days, it often seemed as if the filmmakers, producers, fi lm critics and even the audience spent more time talking politics than films. As a journalist, I realize this can be seen as a particularly Hungarian phenomenon – to reduce everything to politics. But as a filmmaker, I felt it drew attention away from the quality and subject matter of the fi lms screened.

This year the Film Week did not have any of the usual red-carpet glamour, or the tension and excitement associated with films in competition (this year there were no juries and no festival prizes). Oddly, the main point of the festival was perhaps not even the films themselves. The message of the Film Week this year was to support the efforts of Hungarian filmmakers to remain independent and – to a large extent – state funded.

Perhaps that sounds like an oxymoron, but in Hungary, where the primary funding for films comes from the state, the goal of filmmakers has always been to constitute an autonomous decision-making block within the system.

Filmmakers claim such a system was put into place in 1990 and since then functioned democratically and successfully, producing a number of internationally recognized Hungarian films. But the state-sponsored yet autonomous Hungarian Public Film Foundation (Magyar Mozgókép Közalapítvány, MMKA) was dissolved nearly two years ago, charged with mismanaging funds, irregular and nepotistic decision-making, and irresponsible financial commitments, i.e. co-signing production loans without adequate financial backing. The MMKA, according to the new government, had racked up nearly 11 billion forints in debts, and the state was simply not willing to honour those debts.

Thus the main motor of the film industry, the MMKA, was shut down and the fi lm industry fell under the aegis of the new Hungarian National Film Fund (Magyar Nemzeti Filmalap). The Fund is run by the new governmental commissioner, Andy Vajna, a Hungarian-American producer who left Budapest in 1956 and made a name for himself in Hollywood thanks mostly to blockbuster fi lm series such as TerminatorRambo and Die Hard, although he also produced fi lms like EvitaAmerican Rhapsody and Children of Glory which were about – or shot in – Hungary. Vajna, a Hungarian but also an outsider in a healthy way, was recently tasked by the Orbán administration with revamping the Hungarian fi lm industry. The new film fund, which is responsible for green-lighting new Hungarian feature films, is also responsible for consolidating the sizable debt left by its predecessor.

Not surprisingly, this new setup in the Hungarian film industry is a hotbed for ill will and disagreement among filmmakers, particularly between the older generation of filmmakers and the decision-makers of the new film fund. The two sides rarely ask each other the most important questions, most probably because they know they will disagree, as the battle lines on this subject have been drawn: According to what principles should public funds be distributed in the fi lm (and other cultural) sector, and who should be responsible for making those decisions? What role should the state play in financing expensive art films that reach an audience of a few thousand viewers at best? Should the measure of success be the box offi ce or recognition for Hungarian fi lms – and thereby Hungarian culture – at international festivals? Ultimately, at a time when public resources earmarked for culture are scarce in general, according to what principles should the money be distributed, by the filmmakers themselves or by a government organization?

It is noteworthy that the only major events accompanying the Film Week this year were two conferences, one addressing the current state of arts (held at the Open Society Archives and moderated by the writer-director Árpád Schilling), the other examining the role of Hungarian film in Europe today (moderated by Ulrich Gregor, a German film historian, and György Báron, a well-known Hungarian film critic). The second conference led to a heated debate between fi lmmakers and the new film board, represented by Ágnes Havas and, at least for a brief period, Andy Vajna himself. For Vajna, coming to the conference, which was held at the Uránia National Film Theatre, was like entering a hornets’ nest. Few governmental commissioners would have traded places with him.

80 year old Márta Mészáros, the director known both abroad and in Hungary for her award-winning films, complained that the new financiers of film focused only on box office results, while ignoring the rich and unique tradition of Hungarian fi lmmaking.

“The Americans are coming as if they were coming to Africa, where there are only native tribes, to teach us how to make films. But we really have to be united. They’re no longer giving us money to make fi lms, but at least there are no black cars. Intellectually we’re still free. But there is no dialogue. This Film Week is taking place precisely because there is no dialogue. They want to make money, not films”, said Mészáros at the conference.

Vajna responded in short, by saying, “I guess I should be sorry that I’m alive”. While pithy, it was perhaps not the most constructive reply.

Thankfully, Ágnes Havas, his second in command, was sitting next to him and went into battle to defend the Film Fund’s strategy and goals. She started by defending her boss: “It’s true that Andy came from the US. But he came home. He’s trying to make the film industry here better. We believe in dialogue, that’s why we’re here, we’re doing it. And you can’t accuse any of the films we’ve green-lighted for being too American. We aren’t the enemy here.”

The main issue most filmmakers have with the new system is that it is limited to “one window of opportunity”, which can be characterized as a one-way street between the funders and filmmakers, without much input from those who currently make fi lms, and especially not from those who have a history of making great fi lms here.

According to the director Árpád Sopsits, “What we’re speaking about here is that the film industry wants pluralism”. Sopsits was joined by another film director, Attila Janisch, who was upset that the Film Fund did not have a single Hungarian fi lm director on its board. “You have to have a director on the board, because they’re the ones who make the films… But you won’t allow it. There’s no choice, no chance to provide input. There has to be a plurality when handing out funds, that’s what we want. There has to be a roundtable, so work can begin. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

Not long after Janisch spoke, Béla Tarr retook the stage to announce that he and other filmmakers were going to “do something. We’re creating an independent foundation, here’s a 10-euro bill, and we’re going to open another window (of opportunity). Everyone can join us. There are many political parties, so there should be more film funding windows as well!” By the end of the day, a whopping 50 euros had been collected. Of course the new foundation was mainly a political gesture, not unlike the sketch film Tarr produced for the opening night of the Film Week called “Hungary, 2011”. The film, which was screened at the Berlinale a few weeks later, was a no-budget compilation of works by 11 directors, which showed various snapshots of Hungary that would make even the brightest optimist want to flee from the country – fast. Luckily, as some of the directors later said, “this is but one view of Hungary. There are many views. This is just as valid as the others”.

And that is precisely the reason behind the current turmoil within the Hungarian film industry. Recently at the Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin, Andy Vajna told the Hungarian wire service MTI that the message had gotten across internationally that the new system for Hungarian film production and film funding is working, and that a number of positive changes had occurred in the past year. This statement seems to fl y in the face of what fi lmmakers at home have been saying. The new film law, which came into effect this past January, ensures over 5.5 billion forints for film funding, thanks in part to 80 per cent of the proceeds from the national lottery. Filmmakers have been able to apply for development and production funding since September, and 11 new projects are underway. Still, many filmmakers at home feel they have been left out.

One group of filmmakers – those who make documentary films – have most certainly been left out, or rather reorganized in a fashion that does not make much sense in Hungary’s present context. Documentary films are in an entirely new category, no longer a part of the film industry per se. As Gábor Zsigmond Papp, a respected and award-winning documentary film director and head of DocClub explained about the new system, “the Film Fund under Andy Vajna doesn’t want to deal with documentary films. Documentaries now fall under Hungarian Television, which will commission roughly 15 films this year. The various channels of funding have all been closed, and this is really hurting our profession. The board of MTVA doesn’t include a single documentary fi lmmaker, only people from television. We need more possibilities.”

Although the “other channels” available to documentary filmmakers in the past, such as the Hungarian Historical Film Fund (MTFA), the National Arts Council (NKA), and the National Radio and Television Board (ORTT), were also state fi nanced, they at least provided different opportunities to submit proposals for funding. Most Hungarian documentarists come from film backgrounds (versus television journalism) and create feature-length documentaries with strong narratives. Although the new film fund has said it will finance such documentaries if they receive competitive proposals, they are unlikely to be able to sponsor more than one per year. The new television funding board, the Hungarian Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund (Médiaszolgáltatás-támogató és Vagyonkezelô Alap, MTVA), which recently called for new documentary film proposals, has been vague about the types of films it will fund this year. This is not to say that Hungarian documentaries should only be financed by state-funded organizations – in fact, this would be a bad idea in the long run, as non-fiction films should be both politically and creatively independent. And of course commercially viable, if possible. But before we yank the rug of state sponsorship out from under documentary fi lmmaking, it would be good to see a system of other kinds of financing in place, i.e. private funders, private broadcasters, NGOs and foundations. At the moment, these are few and far between in Hungary. In Europe and elsewhere, one must have some kind of funding from one’s home country in order to be viable on the international market. Hungarian commercial broadcasters, except HBO Hungary which commissions about four films per year, only buy documentaries after they have been made (and for perhaps a few thousand euros at best) and almost never commission them up front. Crowd funding, a manner in which an increasing number of fi lmmakers abroad raise funds for their films, does not yet exist either.

To use a Hungarian proverb: documentary filmmaking has fallen between two stools. State funding, on all levels, has been cut back or removed entirely, while the private/NGO sector has not moved in to fill the void. Based on how the public has perceived the “usefulness” of documentaries in the past two decades, I am not sure that this will actually ever happen. The silver lining: as a testimony to the will of filmmakers, some documentaries that premiered at the 43rd Filmweek were produced without state support. While most of the films were funded by the now-defunct MMKA and NKA, newer films were created with the help of international organizations like the European Integration Fund (Anna Kis, Every Day of Allah Horses Run), corporate sponsorship (Sándor Mohi, Klára Muhi, Not My Power, Péter Pál Tóth, Türe, A Hungarian Village), foundation money (Asia Dér, Péter Gerôcs, Private Mészöly; Diana Groó, Paddle Boat; Zsuzsa Katona, The Strength of Music). Some films produced last year were funded by the European Media Fund (Réka Pigniczky, The Life of László Hudec: in his own words). Last but not least, high-quality documentaries about important subjects, for example the red sludge catastrophe in 2010, were produced without a proper budget on a pro bono basis, as if documentary fi lmmaking were a hobby and not a profession (János Gulyás: 4 Days of Remembering).

Ironically, my review of the 43rd Hungarian Film Week, which I criticized as being overly political, has itself focused on the political state of the Hungarian film industry instead of the films themselves. It seems that I too have fallen victim to the context in which I work.

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