proceedings of the International Documentary Film Symposium held on September 11 - 16, 1999 in Riga, Latvia

Social Commitment, Narrative Renewal and the Challenge of the Television - the Hungarian Documentaries in Transition
Balazs Varga
First of all, I must say a few words about the institutions and conditions of the Hungarian film industry. That means money, money and money. In the beginning of the 90s, after the changes in the political system, there was a time for setting up new foundations and looking for new sources of money for the whole cultural area. The same happened in the film industry.
Now the film production has at least three important sources of financing. First of all there is Hungarian Motion Picture Foundation. It was set up under six parties coalition. Six parties mean all the Parliament parties. So, Hungarian Motion Picture Foundation gets money from the budget, which the Parliament gives for the film industry. Actually the Motion Picture Foundation leadership consists of professionals, intellectuals but not of filmmakers. Under this I mean special departments they established for particular fields.
So, the Motion Picture Foundation supports the whole film industry that includes fiction films, documentaries, as well as distribution, exhibition and film education. In the middle and late 90s the average budget they have for the whole film industry was four million dollars per year. So, documentary films get less than 40 thousand dollars a year.
Besides the Motion Picture Foundation there is another institution sponsoring documentaries, that is Hungarian Historical Films Foundation. It might seem strange that separate foundation was set up specially for historical films. You could understand the reasons, if you saw the Hungarian historical film of the middle and late 80s, the years of many political changes. At that time Hungarian documentaries had a significant role in the political life because they dealt with important and sensitive topics. It was a kind of taboo-breaking. These films shed the light on the history of Hungarian Revolution, the unknown Hungarian GULAGs, the years of Hungarian Stalinism and especially the history of the early Janos Kadar regime, I mean the time of the bloody repression after the Hungarian Revolution. That is why the politicians and the government wanted to set up a special institution for supporting the historical films. This kind of films had an important role in writing and re-writing our past. So at this point politicians and filmmakers met the agreement.
Now the foundation gets approximately the same money as the documentary department of the Motion Picture Foundation or a bit more, that is from 40 thousand to 100 thousand dollars per year.
At the beginning of the 90s the Historical Film Foundation financed only documentaries, while now they support fiction films as well. Besides twice a year they give money for film archives and for the restoration of the old copies.
The third source is the Art Council that subsidizes not only the film industry. It was set up in the middle of the 90s by the Ministry of Culture. But at the beginning it was independent from the Ministry.
The Art Council has special departments for different cultural fields, I mean theatre, film, literature and so on. In the departments you can find the representatives of the Ministry, but the majority of the curators are professionals in the certain realms.
There is a special department for cinema. However they get money not for filmmaking but for the post production. Now it seems that they will launch into film projects as well, both documentary and fiction.
Such is the structure of film financing in Hungary. Besides the three funds there are also special civil foundations. One of the most important is Soros Foundation. But now, as far as I know, they are moving to the Eastern European countries.
So, that is as to money, financing the films. I'd like to add in brackets that there is a regulation according to which every project may get from one particular foundation no more than 30 per cent of its total budget. So it is not possible to receive all the money needed for shooting from one foundation.
Now a few words about the production. Actually it's not easy to define how many documentaries are made every year in Hungary. There is no detailed catalogue or list of Hungarian film production. If I exclude TV reportage, I might say that during the late 90s we have around 60-80 documentaries a year. But the problem is that there is no possibility to see the films.
In February we have the Hungarian Film Week where a special competition section for documentaries is set up. There is a committee that chooses film for the competition. And it depends on the agreement of its members how many documentaries will be shown in the competition section in that particular year. Two years ago we had more than 40 films in competition, last year - only 20, while this year again there were over 40 documentaries in competition. This is a significant event because the Hungarian Film Festival or Film Week is the only possibility for the audience to see the films.
Nowadays documentaries are disappearing from cinemas; you can hardly find any Hungarian documentary film, to say nothing about foreign ones, in Hungarian cinema theatres. Even in the Art cinemas documentaries are shown rarely, which is strange because in Budapest there are quite good special cinemas.
The similar situation is with documentaries on TV. Both commercial and public channels show documentaries seldom. To explain the situation I must say a few words about the transition in Hungarian media.
Approximately three years ago, after the media law was adopted, the first commercial TVs were set up. And now the situation is as following. We have two commercial channels, both are owned mainly by foreign companies: one is MTM SBS which is German - Scandinavian company and the other is owned by Bertha's Fund, which , as far as I know, is a German company. Besides these two we have three public channels. It seems quite enough but the problem is that among the three channels only one, Hungarian television 1, covers the whole country. The two others are the old Hungarian Channel 2 and the new channel, which is called Danube Television. It was set up by the government in the beginning of the 90s to reach the Hungarian minorities abroad. Actually Television Danube covers the whole country but its audience mostly consists of "foreign" Hungarians. As far as I know, the ratings of the public second channel and Danube Television are approximately the same - they both have 2-5 per cent of the whole audience. Hungarian Channel 1 ,which is the biggest one, has less than 15 per cent. This is an extremely unbalanced situation. There are constant attempts to change it but it is not easy because the public channels are in deep economic crisis.
So, even if a documentary is made in a documentary film studio or on the public TV channel, it is broadcasted rarely. So, there is no sure opportunity to show a film made on the public television, to say nothing about the documentaries filmed in foreign studios or produced by independent producers. During the last two years the public television showed only 6 or 7 documentaries at prime time and all the rest were shown very late at night. Besides, documentaries are broadcasted by the second channel, which practically has no audience. So, you may make documentaries, but the documentaries cannot find the audience. That is a general view of the situation in Hungarian documentary cinema today.
And finally, I would like to say a couple of words on the trends in Hungarian documentaries. As historical films have the special funding, the majority of Hungarian documentaries deal with historical topics. Usually they are devoted to the events of the 40s and 50s. They are World War 2, the years of Hungarian Stalinism and the history of Hungarian Revolution. Unfortunately, there are only a few directors, who try to discuss the history of contemporary era, the 60s and 70s.
The historical films are mostly quite classical or conservative. They could be described as a kind of combination of oral history and micro-history. They are interviews or portrait films based on parallel life stories. So, these films are usually called "talking-heads" films because, as a rule, nothing happens in them - all you can see are people speaking on the screen. Of course, this is a result of lack of money that some filmmakers consider that words are enough and all the dramatic changes may be seen on a very peculiar human face. So, the documentaries of this kind are quite long, quite slow and use only traditional cinematographic techniques. Then the question arises: why do we have so many historical portraits? Perhaps, there is a constant need for heroes, for characters who we could feel for. Probably that's why we have extremely long films about ordinary people. It seems that this trend demonstrates that the political changes mean constant change of values. The audience needs to see certain values of the life time, values of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. And the question is, what is about the contemporary subjects and topics? Yes, there is such a trend as social drama. Among them there are two most important series of documentaries. One is Pal Schiffer's ten-year-long project on the transformation of an industrial company in Hungary. Elektra, the film we have seen at the Symposium, also belongs to the series.
A similar to Mr. Schiffer's is the series by Tomes Ormas. Again this is a kind of social documentary about the privatization, or rather the attempts of privatization of one of the most important Hungarian companies in heavy industry. It is located in the city of Ozd, in the Eastern part of the country which is the poorest region in Hungary. The value of such series is that the directors have been following the story of the transformation of a particular company for 8-10 years, and, at the same time, of a particular family whose life is connected with the company. Each film in the series is devoted to a particular topic as you could see in Elektra.
Now I would like to mention some themes or some questions which provoke the most important debates in discussing Hungarian documentaries. First of all, it's the question of social commitment. After a film week when the main prize in the documentary section was won by a TV compilation on the story of KGB, there was a real fuss in the circle of documentary filmmakers. They said that this kind of TV stuff would take power everywhere and would prevail over the films devoted to ordinary people, to social topics, to living at the bottom of the society.
There is quite a few films telling about those, who live in the margins of the society, in other words, films dealing with the problem of poverty. At the same time, it seems that Hungarian documentary directors are not interested in the other side of transformation. We almost have no films about entrepreneurs, about those, who advanced after the political changes. It seems that this circle of people (who actually form the top of the society) is not easy to get access to. But the directors even do not try to deal with this topic.
Then I would like to tell about some films and some directors who might be the most promising in the Hungarian documentaries on the brink of the Millennium. The first whom I'd like to mention is Peter Forgac, the director of a very special series of films called Private Hungary or Private History. He began the series in the late 80s. Forgac has a collection of private film and photo materials. Actually this is an archive of private film footage he bases his films on. He started with home movies of the early 30s and now he reached the 50s. Forgac's films could be reckoned among the most important trends in the contemporary Hungarian documentary. And what makes the films especially interesting is that the director uses almost no narration. He uses only short subtitles just naming the topic, the situation or characters in the films. Mostly they are narrated by the minimalistic music by contemporary musicians. That is why the films have a very specific atmosphere of the private life in a particular historical period.
Besides, I should mention some young directors who might be interesting for us. We have a special studio for experimental films. One of their new projects is to give a small digital camera to homeless people. It is one of the first attempts to make a film on a certain circle of people based on the auto representation.
Two of the Hungarian films in the Symposium's program, The City People and End Game (I must say I am very critical about both of them; they are far from being masterpieces in Hungarian documentaries), might represent how a young director finds new ways of narrative. By the way, there is a film, somehow similar to The City People, which is based on a strange juxtaposition of images and text. The film's narration is the audio montage of morning programs of a Hungarian civil radio with techno-music and telephone conversation between DJs and the audience. While the images have nothing to do with these discussions and commentary. They are the sights of Budapest in the morning, at dawn. And the images form a kind of montage reminding the early films by Dziga Vertov.
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