a Waste of Time to Walk and Play Tennis’
You’ve been working with amateur films for more than twenty years now. You have a background as a visual artist, and also in music. How does that background inform the way you view, use and approach this material?
I really didn’t have any alternative. I actually came to this material via Fluxus and Conceptual Art. This, inevitably, differs from an anthropologist’s or a sociologist’s or a documentary filmmaker’s view. For me, it all begins with the question: what is an objet trouvé? What is finding an object, and placing it in a different space or time; or exposing it to the viewer in its non-original, non-conventional, non-accepted, not useful, not practical, not functional, not familiar environment? This doesn’t mean that I don’t have family photographs myself. But using photographs in my graphic work inevitably meant drawing this space into another. After many years of experimenting, and just observing and absorbing, I acquired different territories, like music and storytelling, which became tied into my special interest in history. In fact, collecting photographs and making collages from them is a normal practice since the early avant-garde, the Dadaists. We can easily look up the history of Dadaism, Surrealism or the Russian avant-garde; for them and photographers around Man Ray – Moholy-Nagy and all those people who where around the Bauhaus – recycling was a normal use of images. So to me, banal home movies are another form of objet trouvé. The kind of recontextualising I’m interested in is specifically connected to the place and the era, certain historical conditions, and my specific interest in psychology and psychoanalysis, the idea of a ‘forbidden past’.
What are your influences? How did you begin using amateur material in order to create your own films?
There were three important influences on me – actually, there were four. There was an avant-garde film movement in Hungary , associated with the Béla Bálazs Film Studio. That was a studio, and certainly the only studio in the East European Soviet Bloc, which was an independent studio, run on State money, with a Board of freshly graduated filmmakers from the Film Academy who didn’t have the time and place and authority to obtain funds from the Hungarian cultural Government to make fiction films – which is what they wanted to do. So it was a kind of playground, with a very important framework. It was an avant-garde film studio. It is important to know that this was under Soviet rule, where each nation had a different slavery or pseudo-freedom. This studio, in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, was the only studio where films – low-budget films – were actually censored after they had been made. All the other studios of the Soviet bloc and in Hungary had to send in the script to the Film Censor office. It’s a very good Communist method to control the idea. And that meant that the Hungarian film industry, whatever one may think about it, people like Jancsó or István Szabó, worked within a censored art-film production studio. The filmmaker wrote the script, censored himself; then the Studio Dramaturgical Committee said this and that could be dramaturgical or political; and then the Film Censor and the Film Cultural Ministry say this and that, this can go, this can’t go, etc. And even then after it was made, it was censored. Now the Béla Balázs Studio had little money. On paper, they had one fiction film budget for the whole studio. But the scripts were not pre-censored by the authorities. Simply, when the films were ready, then they were categorised: either banned, or limited to a closed circuit, or destroyed. This meant that there was a film studio where very interesting and exciting contemporary avant-garde films were created in the very same period when Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage and those fantastic guys were working in the United States , doing films out of their own pocket.
Apart from very conventional documentary and fiction films, there was the K-Three group, an experimental film group, which worked in this studio. The guy who created it was named Gabor Bódy. He was an extremely talented filmmaker and theoretician, with a philosophical-linguistic background. He later committed suicide, in 1985. It turned out many, many years later that he was also spying for the Secret Police. He thought he was clever enough. It’s one of many historical paradoxes. And I think that his suicide was due to this. The police couldn’t really use him after 1983, so he was released from his function. But he couldn’t go through with it, because he had made secret reports on his friends and colleagues. This is on the one hand. On the other hand, he made avant-garde films, he organised events, he invited musicians and writers to the Béla Bálazs Studio to make experimental films at exactly the same time. Works of poets – avant-garde poets, which was a forbidden land. This is a very important background for me.
Another reason I have gone into all these details concerning Bódy is that, in 1978, together with another filmmaker, Péter Timár, he made a film called Private History, which was made using found footage. He had placed an ad in the newspapers and collected films, which he then blew up to 35mm. Private History was a roughly thirty-minute film which showed a unique and new way to look at these films, how to use them. Bódy was a kind of high mountain gazelle, who jumped from one theme and territory to another. This was one of the different genres he experimented with. That is the first influence. Secondly, there is a snapshot photographic collection that was put together by a very good director of photography, Sándor Kardos, and a small team of assistants. The name of that private archive is called Horus, like the Egyptian god, the sign of the eye. Kardos collected bad pictures, mistaken photographs, where the head is cut off, jumping figures, etc. He collected thousands and thousands of photographs because he said that ‘the mistake is the finger of God’. The mistake is the moment when it’s not the photographer, but God who is pushing the button. Usually, all these photographs are thrown away.
So the Horus archive and the film Private History gave me the idea to collect home movies. Therefore, the attitude towards it was not anthropological or linked to some family historiography, nor was I driven, at first, by the idea of making an archive. There was something behind it, simply the idea that there is something there, that it is exciting to look at these films. And the third and fourth reason was psychology, which was very suppressed in the history of Hungary , in an Orwellian time when the past was controlled by the official existing socialisms, cultural police and cultural officials.
Psychoanalysis was also banned as a bourgeois science, wasn’t it?
Psychoanalysis was banned. It is very important to say that the past was under control. Those people with their cameras, the bourgeoisie, the whole middle class of the ‘30s and early ‘40s, was severely punished after the Second World War. They were sacked, pushed out, their properties were confiscated. In a way, the past had to be interpreted through Communist ideology. So to see the citoyen (citizen) self-portrayed in these films – that showed the other Hungary, the forbidden Hungary, the private Hungary. So I took the title from Private History. But while I was collecting films, I didn’t know how I would use them. So I thought of establishing an archive to collect this forbidden past: making interviews with families, collecting photographs, etc. I had a part-time job at the time, with a three-month contract, which was extended for twelve years, every three months. The reason this happened was that my boss, the director of the Culture Research Institute, knew that I was an interesting figure, but to cover himself against the officials, he couldn’t give me a permanent job. This way, he could always tell the Secret Police that I was just there for three months. That was a great opportunity, because I had the minimum money for living and I also had the free time to make this archive collecting home movies.
Your first use of these amateur films was during musical performances, where you would project images during the concert. You were also tied to an avant-garde music group, 180. Were the film performances linked to this group?
The projections were not directly connected with the performances of 180, which was a minimal music ensemble, although it is indirectly connected. Tibor Szemző was one of the musicians of 180. He created this wonderful group, which played Riley, Cage, Glass and Hungarian minimal music, from 1978 onwards. I met Tibor and we became very friends. We started to work together in 1984, making performances aside from the group. These were Fluxus performances, where I read texts, or performed dance, or painted. And these films were running on screens while, for instance, I would read from the Thesaurus, creating associations. It was the accidental meeting of the umbrella and the boot on the dining table. Or was it on an operating table? (laughs) These performances were in clubs and in the underground scene. In 1985, when finally I could get a passport that differentiated Hungary from Albania, Russia and all the Communist Fascisms – Hungary was a pink Communism – we could go out and give these performances in GermanyAustria and Holland , in small alternative places. And for four years we worked and gave different kinds of performances. These performances, now that I look back, were a kind of lab: laboratory work, using music, image and text. Mixing public works with the flow of minimal music and found footage material which was pre-edited gave me (or rather gave us) a clear view of how these things could mean in a different way. It was a truly unconventional rebellion against conventional meaning, or the conventional frames of meaning.
So, the connection between narrative texts, edited images and the accidental flow of the music somehow created a texture which became, very obviously, a language. And when I received a grant from the Cultural Ministry, in 1988 ... That was also, like many things, a strange accident. I met a guy on the street whom I knew and we talked. He asked, ‘What are you doing?’, and I said: ‘I am collecting home movies; they are very striking and interesting’. And he said ‘Oh yes? I am working in the Film Department at the Film Censorship Office in the Culture Ministry’. 1988 was already the melting of Soviet rule. It was exactly the year when things started. You could feel it in the air, that it wouldn’t last too long. And he said, ‘Why don’t you apply to me for a grant?’ It was very interesting that a guy in his early 30s, with his special taste, was already working in a department that normally took stinking bureaucrat heads, you know. You can’t usually negotiate with these idiot court-artists. He said: ‘Write down a project’. I wrote a page, I gave it to him and he said: ‘I’ll have this money transferred to the Béla Bálazs Studio’. So it was really a miracle. It was a possibility to do something that was not just an open-ended performance.
This forced me to
search for a form. But there already was a form in a way. Music, as a
performing time-based art, has a beginning and an end. So then it brought up
the big question: what should be the focus? Should I work with a flow of
images, or should I make one? Would it be possible to select family
collections, and create separate stories? I had some favorite collections
already, which I thought were very good; and having done these interviews
already, having permission from the families, having an editor, a professional
editor, it all seemed possible. I had never really made very many films before
that. At that point, I had only done four short films in the Béla Bálazs
Studio. That was another extremely interesting fact about this Studio, that
people not coming from the
So I worked with a professional editor, Màrta Révesz, for this film. She was a documentary film editor for Hungarian state television. The film ended up as a co-production with television. With the Ministerial money for the Béla Bálazs Studio, we made a contract with them; they gave us an editor and a studio. At first I pre-edited the VHS time-coded copies of the transferred film. Màrta was sitting there every morning at nine o’clock, which was a disturbing element because, of course, I can wake up at six o’clock, at seven o’clock, but the brain doesn’t work properly ... So when she said, ‘OK, when is the next cut?’, it forced me to make decisions. It was a very, very good school.
A lot of filmmakers have, since the late ‘80s and ‘90s, used found footage material, amateur films, decayed nitrate films, and so on. People like Bill Morrison, Angela Ricci-Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian, Gustav Deutsch, and many others. There seems to be a renewed interest in archive material from people who are not documentary filmmakers, anthropologists or historians. Most of these people are visual artists, or people who have worked for the stage, reappropriating this material in their own specific ways, opening up something which is not simply illustrative documentary. It’s this mix between something aesthetic, a modernist form of recycling, and also relating to the history of movie making, recapturing a hidden past, and re-exposing it in different ways. Do you perceive this phenomenon as a general cultural trend? A friend who visited Budapest told me that there is a cable channel in Hungary that only runs home movies, is that so?
Well, that channel is called Film Museum. And they really pump in from the tube, like tooth paste. Anything goes. They put entertaining music, using these films to fill up the gaps between old feature movies they buy. The idea was sold to them by a friend who had been restoring films for me for many years. When I left for a year at the Getty Museum, I couldn’t give him work; he asked me to use the equipment and I said yes. The channel got enough money to advertise and collect home movies. It is a very good example of a complete lack of insight and imagination. You can see people doing this and that, playing tennis, going to Italy ; sometimes there are nice black-and-white shots ... but it’s done in a cheap way. Take this cup, put another cup beside it, and push it through. And these same people are also producing channels devoted to kitchens, and how to make your table, how to make your flat. They are very nice people, but with very, very limited taste ...
Do your films get shown on this channel?
No. They asked me once and I told them it would cost them money. Since they can have all this other stuff for free, they didn’t bother ... So, on the one hand, it is inspiring, since these home movies of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s are being preserved. But most of them are boring travel films. Two hours in Bulgaria, at the seaside. Johnny and Niki are swimming, or Janos and Melinda ... But it is interesting to see how the influence I received from Gabor Bódy has now turned around. It’s gone a little bit commercial, they’re touching the surface, they’re scratching the surface of the matter, but they’re not making anything out of it. You can’t look at it for more than five minutes; you turn it off. So it’s a midnight boredom show, and if they could put really good music, they could turn it into a good disco. Nevertheless, it exists.
And the larger context of found footage filmmaking?
Just as Dada found old photographs and reconceptualised them, Morrison, Gianikian, Deustch and all these people are doing the same with moving images. So there is, on the one side, documentary film, where they take this footage to illustrate something, whether a sentence or a personal biography, or ideology, or just to have an image to put on ... The other edge is this avant-garde practice, completely taking it out of its social, cultural and psychological context, using it for their own expression. And I think I am a third way. For me, avant-garde practice is not enough. I really like the Gianikian films, but after a while I find them empty. Completely empty. Because they leave me alone. It’s like just an exhibition. I realise that I’ve become completely corrupted and degenerated now. If I go into a contemporary art museum, there are only one or two things that I can look at. I don’t understand how I could have liked certain works earlier. They’ve become completely empty. And only very, very few things still represent a carrier to me. This morning I saw on TV that Andy Warhol’s Mao Zsetung was sold for seventeen million dollars, and his Marilyn Monroe sold for seventeen million dollars ... and then I thought, yes, they are completely empty.
But that doesn’t mean that what these avant-garde guys do is wrong, it’s just another way of using those images. Like there is a poet who writes poems about trees, and another poet writes about grass ... But for me, to go behind means to have this Lacanian and Foucauldian attitude towards the source material. It means you have to look beyond the surface. For me, it’s not just a toy, a gadget, where you add slow-motion in order to exhibit it. It’s not just a museum. I see the Gianikian work as a museum, a musical avant-garde museum of the past. But for me there is something before and after in an image.
There is one thing that differentiates my work from theirs: the forbidden and prohibited past. Which means that the suppressed ego, the suppressed feelings of a person are expressed in spontaneous diaries, in a country where the past was suppressed. So it is a double suppression, from the conscious to the unconscious. The meanings are hidden and the quest for meaning means that you open up the trauma. This is not just a classical trauma: somebody was raped or not raped, beaten or not beaten, a trauma linked to an authoritarian Kafkaesque father, or an Oedipus lover/mother complex. But the immense banal happiness that flows from these images, this boredom linked to pastimes, this discovery of lost moments – all this tells me more than just to exhibit them as pictures on a wall. Such pictures are funny and nice – and empty. And, for me, this emptiness should be recreated in a film, because it is the scene of a crime.
For me, the films of Abigail Child, like The Future is Behind You (2004), or Jay Rosenblatt’s The Smell of Burning Ants (1994), or Alan Berliner’s Nobody’s Business (1996), or the works of the Dutch filmmaker Peter Delpeut – these filmmakers are placing the image somewhere where there is more than just the thing itself. The Gianikians and Morrison believe that, in itself, in its clear puritanism, the image tells you enough. So you are there with your contemplation, in the Zen nothingness. The Gianikians presume that you know who made the films you use – like the colonial footage in From the Pole to the Equator (1986). That is their political correctness; you know and then you can place it ideologically. I don’t mean that I don’t trust the viewers’ mind and knowledge but, for me, it’s really important to tell a story – let’s say, a fictional story.
From the films I’ve seen, it seems that you play on two types of structures: a vertical and a horizontal structure. A film like Bourgeois Dictionary (1992) has more of a Thesaurus free association structure. It’s not chronological. Other films like El Perro Negro: Stories from the Spanish Civil War (2004), Angelo’s Film (1999) and The Danube Exodus (1998) basically carry you from the ‘30s and the ‘40s into this tragedy which we know we will enter. There is a narrative drive that carries these images. At which point do you decide on this and that subject, how do you organise the material? Do you work differently whether you are working within one or other structural modes?
First of all, it is necessary to state that sometimes I work with a free hand, and sometimes there is a commission linked to the work. When Angelo’s Film was commissioned by the Dutch cultural channel, of course I have to sell them a story. Which means I am completely independent as to how I form it, but yet I must deliver them an interesting story, that happened somewhere, which shows something. This doesn’t mean I am serving the television’s need, but simply that the film is regulated: it must be of a certain length and it should tell a story. The Wittgenstein piece, Wittgenstein Tractatus (1992), for instance, was commissioned by Hungarian television, in a certain glorified period, just after Communism, just before the Parties started to fight for the television as a means of propaganda, whether Nationalist Conservatives or post-Socialists or whatever. There is a cultural war in Hungary , and in all Eastern European countries. And we can’t avoid it. The media is under tremendous pressure from political Parties. Like in France in ’68, when De Gaulle sacked the people in the French television, or the way Berlusconi did the same in Italy . There is a constant fight in Europe and East Europe in the new democracies.
When I have a free hand, I always want to go to the edge of this terrain. And the Wittgenstein film is definitely one of the best examples, like Bourgeois Dictionary – which sometimes I call Citizen Dictionary, because bourgeois has a very negative connotation. A Bibó Reader (2001), based on the writings of the philosopher István Bibó, also has this kind of vertical structure, like the Wittgenstein. It is important for me to do something new, not to repeat the same thing again. I don’t want to make it into a kind of industry, putting it on the assembly line and building these entertaining family stories. But I really want to find the libido of certain subjects, and in this narrow game-field where I am trying to play around with found footage, I try different things.
It is a limited language, because I am not really using interviews. So it’s not a normal film about home movies, the type that you find in normal documentarie. ‘Mister Smith, tell me what we see in the pictures?’ And Mister Smith says: ‘Oh, that’s me. I was five years old and my father just loved me when I was falling down into the pool. And that’s my mother who has her new bracelet’. This is tautological filmmaking and it is not interesting for me. What’s interesting for me is to find different frameworks for these different subjects. But it is not a blank page; I don’t work in a vacuum.
For the first eight episodes of Private Hungary, it was easy because I had a free hand; nobody was asking me what I was doing. After the eighth episode, I lost the support of the Studio and television. So I was on my own. Then I had to learn how to apply for money, how to find co-production, a lot of things. Until then I was just a director, ever since then I am an independent director, who has to find money and producers and co-producers – which is a different game. Therefore, it is not just a playground where I can do whatever I want, like a birthday cake. I am an artist who doesn’t depend on these strict games and rules. But within this framework of the ever-changing conditions – financing, applying, fund raising, co-production, television, exhibition – these conditions heavily influence what I am able to produce or create. Because I spend from three to six months in an editing room, and somebody else gives me money for bread and butter, and also for the editing room and also for the editor. Therefore, the family story is a better subject for television, and I still can play around with my little hobby-horse.
You spend so much time looking at and working with images of leisure.
To be frank, I just hate when people go to Paris and photograph themselves in front of the Eiffel Tour. I think it’s disgusting. It’s terrible, but that is why I am working with it. It is disgusting, everything is in quotation marks. It’s interesting to see how people waste their time, because for me the only way to use my time is to create. Art and sex and good food and maybe talk with friends: these are the four things that are interesting. Everything else is just a waste of time. Because life is very, very short. It’s over very quickly. I am sure that I won’t live as long as I’ve already lived. Now I’m 56, so I am past 50% of my life. So it’s just a waste of time to walk and play tennis. When I look at other people doing banal things, the Fluxus artist in me says, of course, that they are not idiots. But when I look at these images in the editing table, I say: ‘What peace at such a time, and they are laughing ... Oh my god!’ So there is this paradox. Looking at them as they waste their time, you can’t help but think that they don’t know that they will die tomorrow (together with me, of course).
Look at these two films where the Second World War, this big history, like a fast train or a tank, crushes private history. We float through these banalities: happy moments, marriages, good food, dancing, giving the baby a bath, baby-walks, all these normal things – suddenly they have a different reflection, different lighting, different flesh. You, the viewer, 50, 80 years later, you know their future. Firstly, they are dead, because of their age. They died of sickness or, secondly, they were killed. Third, they may be divorced – they did everything that is in fact missing from the home movies. The taboo, in film, is the bad thing, the negative thing: divorce. You see marriage, marriage, marriage, marriage – but you don’t see one divorce in home movies. Show me one divorce! A funeral, maybe. Yes, but a funeral is not the same as filming your mother dying. OK, Bill Viola did it. When I brought in my camera to take a photograph of my dead mother, I couldn’t do it. None of my brothers or sisters had the courage to go in and look. And I went in and I had the camera with me, but ... there was something taboo for me. I really praise Viola for that piece [The Passing, 1991], which I think is wonderful, his best. The others are decadent Baroque, fire and water, desert, it’s like Greenaway gone mad. It’s not even Baroque, it’s Rococo. But that piece is a courageous work. I feel lucky to have seen it.
The human being is fighting – I am talking about Western civilisation, Judeo-Christian culture, where our relation to death is completely different than in Buddhism or Hinduism. It is different from the Muslims, or Voodoo, or even Mexican Catholicism, where they have a different relation to the other world, the world of ghosts and death. We are suppressing every day and every moment. The culture is more and more built up to completely forget that we are vulnerable, not endless but limited beings. The whole cult around beauty, youth, consuming, sport, the body – but also religion, the Catholics, Protestants, Jews – suppress this moment of recognition that life is short. These images are a way to suppress trauma, to suppress bad things. Family paintings, photographs and home movies are evidently a documentation to prove to ourselves that we are alive, that we are eternal. But whenever we look at our grandparents’ photo albums, we are in fact looking at a cemetery.
Don’t you also think that filming one’s baby, in the midst of this historical turmoil, is a way of affirming life and beauty? Hitler has just entered Poland, and you’re filming your baby peeing in the street. And there is something in that which almost seems like an act of resistance in the face of horror and atrocity.
It is not resistance. It works as a counterpoint in a film, but it is not resistance. These are not conscious diaries. If they knew what was awaiting them, they wouldn’t film this; they would escape, hide. What is necessary to emphasise, in this regard, is the logic and dramaturgical construction of our own life, which is always in the past. We look back at our past, and we suddenly see a logic in it. Well, not suddenly, but always. When we put together these photographs, it becomes logical that Jack should meet Jill, because it was written in the big book, or whatever. But it was just an accident. So not only do we, humans, avoid and suppress the traumas of our life and the notion of death; we also construct a logic of the past and we project it into our future. OK, we have plans for today and next week, and next year, we have a pension, etc. But we also have the ticket determining when we will exit life. It is written. So, looking at a home movie collection, you see a kind of logic, but it is a backward perspective, a backward dramaturgical narrative construction. It is a novel. And even if the filmmaker had a plan – ‘I want to take my favorite images. I like Susan, I love to be here, this is my hobby, one-year-old Johnny has begun walking, let’s film it’ – it’s only later that everything becomes logical, like a novel, like a written book. But when you start filming, you don’t see the future. Wittgenstein says: ‘You can’t build clouds. That’s why the future you dream of never comes true’. It’s like a lottery. The hidden secret of your future seems logical if you look at your past. However, this is a false conclusion. But it is also a part of our game to avoid death, to suppress bad things.
If you look at the Morrison or Gianikian films, it’s all playing around with ghosts. The difference is that I really want to exploit film language, I want to really drive you down with your own fears, your own fantasies – to create the empty space for the committed crime. If we are detectives, looking at spilt blood, we see the contour of the murdered person in chalk, and we try to re-construct what could have happened. We call in the witnesses: one says John picked up the axe; the other witness says John was innocent, that he didn’t have the axe. But in this case we are the victims, because we empathise with the heroes; we are also the judges, we are the lawyers, we are the butchers, we are the relatives, etc. For me, of course, this is the skeleton behind a film, because this narrative is not necessarily telling you what to think. This is a floating, contemplative work that allows us to relieve our demons, and reveal our fantasies, and join in this journey. The special thing here is that naiveté of the banal filmmaker, who had a good camera eye – but couldn’t plan his life.
You have made films in different formats, employing different degrees of quality. Sometimes, the elements have decayed. Is this something that interests you, this auratic quality of the decayed material, optical and analogical? On the other hand, you work with video, and video tools and techniques (such as wipes, titles, slowing down, reframing) make the films very contemporary. How do you regard these two temporalities inscribed in the language and elements ou use? Is this idea of the auratic in old footage important for you?
If I had enough money, and if I wasn’t forced to make low budget films – otherwise I would never make a film – I would never use video. I would use original footage, blow it up, slow it down, etc. So there is one strict rule of my game: I want to tell these stories, I want to make the contemplative feel for looking at the object – so I must work with electronic devices, electro-magnetic or digital devices. That is crucial. I really miss the smell of film, the editing table, physically as it exists ... To manipulate it, touch it, cut it, smell it, arrange it in the traditional way. I don’t say I’m forced, because this has been my choice over the last fifteen, eighteen years. I’ve made thirty films or videos, video-films, including installations and short or longer pieces. Without making those low, low budget films ...
The problem with 35mm film is that the lab is expensive, the material is expensive, if you want to slow down to double each frame. While with video, I can just punch into the computer ‘35% slow-mo’ and it is 35% slow-mo. It’s there. In this way, I can edit my films for eight months, or two months. I have made my films with almost ridiculously low budgets; you can’t imagine. Sometimes it’s very expensive, not because it’s a film, but because the research is tremendously expensive, and the license fee, the copyright for archive films, German archives, whatever – they ask the gold price. So, it’s very important to see the decay of the film as a part of this syntax, the mystical touch of the film, the mystical material, the grain, the scratch. It is not only what you see on the film that happened long ago, but the fact that the film itself carries the wounds of time. And there’s also one thing that is extremely important: normally, filmmakers are taught to make nice pictures, to compose them, etc. This comes from the Renaissance. Sometimes they allow themselves a certain false sloppiness, like on MTV, when they try to copy avant-garde art, giving it this rapid moving camera look, and so on. They can afford it, so why not?
But evidently, there is a certain aim for composed perfection. Most Hollywood productions and television series today are made at a lower level than Méliès, Edison and Lumière. They are kindergarten compositions, kindergarten sequences, for babies. ‘John, do you have the gun?’ ‘Yes, Bill, I have it.’ ‘OK, sneak in.’ You can see the way they cut it – this is comic strip entertainment. It’s funny, it’s good to feed the masses, so they push this trash on them ... But imperfection is perfection; perfection is imperfection. Aiming to be clear, clean, beautifully composed, is pre-Cézanne, pre-Dadaism, pre-20th Century art. And in film, it's obvious. I really appreciate a filmmaker like Jim Jarmusch. He’s always making all these little mistakes. Like in Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), which is not his best, but there is this scene with Tom Waits, sitting there too long. You feel it’s too long. And the whole thing is so disturbing, because he’s not caring about the rules. Lars von Trier is a kitsch-maker in comparison with Jarmusch. I appreciate his hospital film [The Kingdom, 1994/7], but Dancer in the Dark (2000) is really just a bad melodrama. These invisible films of Jonas Mekas are miraculous. The mistakes in them are miraculous. Or when Paul Morrissey walked into Andy Warhol’s factory. And that is evidently the great tradition to which I can connect myself.
What is the limit, the rule, the code, when somebody looks at your picture, and decides to throw it out? Maybe that picture would have been the most interesting for you. But we’re in new times. Digital photography gives you the opportunity to have all the bad pictures and keep them, if you want. But in fact, they throw them out, because imperfection reminds us of death. It’s a wound, a scar – you’re dead. For me, it’s a mystical procedure ... And, on this point, I’m in the same boat with the Gianikians. You look at a picture which is completely whitening out, with a big scratch in it, and a shadpw enters, and a face is almost invisible, and you go: Wow! But the Gianikians, fanatically, work on celluloid. This is why they make few films.
They built their own system of developing, refilming, reprinting ...
Yes, because they are the great ancient filmmakers. They are priests, monks, saints of film.
Very often, amateur filmmakers try to stage their little films; they take their filmmaking very seriously.
That was the era when cinema started to dominate and rule human culture. In the first third or first quarter of the twentieth century, most people couldn’t afford to go to the theatre. But cheap cinema, the nickelodeon, offered something which had never seen before in human history. So it’s clear that our heroes (or my heroes) are influenced by these schemas, clichés, set-ups. Of course, this is part of the new discourse of the image. You can do it! You can hide behind the bushes, and then jump out, grab the lovers, splash them. Burlesque, Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, all these great artists opened up a new paradigm. It’s hard to imagine that Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet when she was over sixty. Would it be possible today? No. Because that’s a different time, a different context.
It’s always this change of paradigm, of the totality of culture which changed after the First World War. It also changed after the Soviet Revolution, after the Russian avant-garde movement, after Hitler and National Socialism, and after the Second World War. I mean, who thought about human rights when they were hunting down the Indians, in the Gold Rush? A good Indian was a dead Indian. And now they’re talking about human rights. The view of things, objects, movements, taste, women, style, fashion, food, family, father, authority, women, feminine, penis, cunt, people, has completely changed. If you look at literature, you don’t hear names of writers who were extremely famous in their times. You hear about people like Baudelaire who were almost unknown in their time. Cézanne was nowhere, while there were extremely famous historical painters of their times, extremely rich, that we don’t talk about today. So when we look today at a film of 1920, we have ‘today’s eyes’. This is a postmodern gesture. This washed-away, bad composition can, may send us (or at least me) a message. A message that is undecoded, uncovered, mystical, an almost religious fainting, disappearing poem. This is not how it appeared, of course, to those who made it, because for them it was just playing with the snowballs, skating, etc. ‘Oh, look how Jack skates beautifully, he was always clever at skating’. But, for us, it becomes a movement, a face, a shape. It’s funny to see the skates, how she is binding them to her shoes. We find it funny that they don’t have a mobile phone, funny that they didn’t know somebody would walk on the moon, funny that they didn’t know that in Auschwitz they won’t work, but they will be gassed and burnt, and their gold teeth will be torn out. And they had to bring their keys to give it to the Jewish council, who gave it to the Dutch and German authorities. Funny funny funny or sad sad sad?
Art is something that begins when you see something. You didn’t even do anything with it, but you saw it differently. Like Matisse who looked at a girl. One flick of the brush, and they’re dancing. And it’s different. Of course, you have to ask yourself whether he was right when the Germans were in France , and he was still painting, refusing to help the refugees. There was a nice film about it. But that’s reality.
In Angelo’s Film, you mention that his images were used during the Nuremburg trials to document the Nazi atrocities. Godard, in his Histoire(s) du cinéma, says something like: if we had filmed and shown the gassing of the Jews, if cinema had been there, since cinema’s role is to be a witness to history – we could have stopped it before it took on the proportions we know. On the other hand, Claude Lanzmann, who refuses to use archival material, has said that if he found a film on the gassing of the Jews, he would probably destroy it. How do you think these images work as testimony for you – and, hypothetically, if you were to find this film showing the gassing, would you use it?
Godard is a politically correct Utopian who thinks that art can change life. They knew what was happening in Auschwitz, but they didn’t bomb the railways. What would have changed, in military thinking and planning, if this supposed film had been shot and shown? Zero. Nothing. The Soviet army stopped at the river Vistula and watched for a month, until the Nazis had killed every Polish resistance fighter in the Warsaw uprising. Godard is a Utopian and Lanzmann is a great documentary filmmaker. Godard has made beautiful, strong, influential films, but in this case he is wrong, because he is a great artist who thinks that art has an overwhelming power. Lanzmann, I think, was correct when he stated that he would destroy the film – that’s a philosophical statement. The problem is not ‘how did it happen’, but rather ‘how could it happen’? If you ask yourself this question, you are completely blocked. It seems beyond imagination. What can drive certain people, normal bureaucrats, normal fathers, Christians, to become such barbarians? Lanzmann was right. Intentionally, in my films, you never see the Shoah. What is interesting – in Free Fall (1998), for example – is rather the road which led there, from inside the victim’s life, the would-be victim’s life. How do we suppress the threat that is coming? That is the most dangerous, sensitive point. It’s very hard to grab it, and represent it. We have seen extremely poisonous films, like Hungarian filmmaker István Szabó’s Sunshine (1999) – a big lie, and the same with Schindler’s List. Schwindler is a German word that means cheater – so for me, it’s not Schindler’s List but Schwindler’s List ...
These are fairy tales – ugly, disgusting, stinking fairy tales. And I completely agree with Lanzmann, who says: ‘The scene of the crime is enough proof’. If you want to prove more, you’re wrong. If you make a fairy tale like Szabó or Spielberg, then you place it outside of history. You can only understand these Nazi or Soviet or Cambodian criminals who led these massacres if you look at them as human beings who are capable of doing such things. As normal people, not as criminals, but as normal, everyday people. Otherwise you would never understand apartheid, you would never understand what happens in these countries.
In The Maelstrom: A Family Chronicle (1997) and in Free Fall, what the viewer can experience is how people still have the possibility to suppress their fear, their future, how we blind ourselves. It’s like you’re living in a bad marriage, and everyday you lie to yourself: ‘Yes, Mary, she doesn’t hate me. I don’t really like Juliette, I love to fuck her, but Mary is the real one’. These are common, everyday lies of today; but when your life is in danger, that’s very interesting. Of course, many people couldn’t hide, many people had limited possibilities – but still this is the most interesting question: how you are manipulated, how you manipulate yourself, and how you suppress so much. And it’s very hard to put in a fiction film, because the greatest genius actor is always just an actor. When he dies in the film, only the role dies, and he walks out after the shoot.
I really do not like to be stamped as a filmmaker who always focuses on the Second World War. I am not a Holocaust filmmaker. I am interested in human stories; by accident, I live in this period in time, by accident I find interesting films, and by accident my heroes were talented filmmakers who recorded their own lives. So I tell stories.
The editing in your films weaves a complex web of image, text, voice, sound and music, working together like an opera. Editing involves counterpoint. This counterpoint works to create something that seems poignant, at times almost ironic, and we’re often caught wondering: how are we supposed to read this cut? In Meanwhile Somewhere ... 1940-1943 (1994), there is a cut between someone slicing a pig, and then Nazi soldiers strolling in a park in 1941 or 1942.
It won’t really lead us to an answer if you just mention two pictures, because before that there was another picture, before there was another picture, and after that there is another, another, another ... There is an orchestration of a line, orchestration and variations, like in chamber music. The pig is not only connected to the Nazis, but also to another picture: a fat person in the third image, and starving Greeks two minutes earlier. So it’s a time-based art where there are images one after the other, different scenes, some repeated scenes. It’s as if we’re at a concert. You still have the melody from before. and you feel that it resonates and also forecasts the next chapter in a way. These instruments are talking to each other. So it’s more a kind of orchestration. It’s not editing, but rather composing with these different channels. Within film language and its syntax, you have slow motion, which emphasises something; the cut, freeze frame, tinting, text on the page, here and there, and the voice and the sound effects, and of course everything is floating with the music or silence. It’s hard to separate it technically and methodologically. I do it when I’m editing; I’m adding and taking away, then extending this, or cutting it or fading it out – but it's really a complex orchestration with no preconceived scenario. There is a kind of organic trial and error, building it up, feeding the beast. And the beast is the problem. Whether the viewer – and we’re thinking of individual and collective viewers at the same time – will find this magical space, to give or add his or her own associations.
So these are images that call for another image that is stored in the viewer’s mind. That’s the reason why I don’t show skeletons, gas chambers – because we know everything. The film is not the physical thing that I have on the tape; the film is what the viewer sees. Funnily enough, or interestingly enough, it’s much more than the film itself, because people associate. This is the great tradition that, of course, is on the fringe of filmmaking. And evidently we know why, because these films – Rosenblatt or Jarmusch, Maya Deren – constitute a big school; you have to work with it. It’s not obvious what’s in the picture, it’s not clear, it’s not explained. It’s not logically built up; it’s built up illogically, not just with free-association that you can fantasise here or there, but also with a very, very intense composition in the background and in the depth of the material.
You’ve been working with Tibor Szemző for some years now, and I was curious about how, concretely, you work together to find the music for your films.
From case to case, and from film to film, it’s different. First of all, I always edit on music. I put a soundtrack, which could be one of Tibor’s earlier compositions, or minimal music from Arvo Pärt, Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Bach – whatever matches the rhythmic need of the film. It’s mostly his earlier music, which plays well, because it compels the big question: what is the rhythm, what comes here and there? Secondly, in the middle of editing, he comes in. Except for The Bartos Family (1988), where he composed a large suite of music, and I used it here and there. With Dusi & Jenõ (1988), the second part of Private Hungary, I edited almost the whole film over a part of Philip Glass’ Glasswork, and then took out the sound, and gave him the film. He hated me for that, because he thinks it’s kitsch. It’s my favorite, anyhow. I don’t think that Glass has made better music than in Glasswork. There’s something in it that I can’t explain, I can cry every time I listen to it. There’s a certain point that breaks me, destroys me. And there are other stories, like for Angelo’s Film, where Tibor composed three different musics. Each time, I said it didn’t work. In 1996, he started to compose rock music, and he brought in electric guitars and it killed the image. I said, ‘Sorry, it doesn’t work’, and he said: ‘This is a bad film’. And I said, ‘OK, it may be a bad film, but this doesn’t work with the images’. In other cases, he really added something to it. Like in Kádár’s Kiss (1997). Kádár was the Hungarian Communist leader from 1956 till 1989. I made a film about that dark, interesting, depressive and funny period in Hungarian history when avant-garde art was ghettoised, and most of society made a big compromise in not talking about the taboos – in order to dwell in a pseudo-consumer society financed by Western bank loans. And evidently, when I started to edit that film, showing the pornography of politics and the pornography of this Eastern European country, I was using pornographic photographs, and quoting this Hungarian dictator's speeches, where he was making lapsus, Freudian slips, grammar errors. He could not speak good Hungarian, the nouns and adjectives were never in the right place. I mean it’s crazy, this guy could never finish his sentence! But he was a mild, nice dictator. At the end of his dictatorship, the majority of the Hungarian people accepted him, and even loved him.
When Tibor came in with the music, he used a Hungarian philosopher’s text to give him motivation. He started working on that text, and then we integrated it into the film. So it is a difficult give-and-take relationship, which has its mutual influences. He started to make films, he bought a film camera, a 8mm camera. He shot three or four films. He filmed in Japan , in Cuba . He has made very interesting experimental films, based on his own found footage. Definitely, his music scores, which were composed directly to each film – so they’re different, even though they have similarities – is the most creative collaboration I have encountered. And his music can give voice to the unconscious level of the film. Sometimes to the main actor, sometimes to the event behind; and sometimes it just alienates us from the event and creates a kind of contemplative distance. Sometimes it pulls us in, sometimes it shows what will come. So the sensuality, the eroticism, the deep undercurrent, is figured in this orchestration in a specific way. That’s why we don’t need dialogues for example, because you read the picture and the music. You read it or understand it in a very complex way. Without his music, the whole thing wouldn’t be what it is. Easy to say!
Often in your films, you have the same images redistributed differently. In Meanwhile Somewhere, you have a very short fragment of a captain on a boat, which will later be expanded into the entire narrative of The Danube Exodus. You also have this very stunning and beautiful scene which appears for the first time in Bourgeois Dictionary, where you see a woman taking her bath, drinking liquor, and so on. And you only understand who they are in Free Fall, where you can put them in a family, in a story. Part of the pleasure of seeing your films is in seeing this image again. As a viewer, you develop a tenderness towards these images and these people.
When Warhol made seventeen different prints of Marilyn Monroe – pink, green, blue – the meaning of Marilyn changed. In this recontextualising of a photograph (which was not shot by Warhol), why is each picture the same and not the same? This is the usual avant-garde gesture. We know from Wittgenstein that what is beautiful is a consensus through a language game, as to what is bad and what is wrong. And what is nice today, tomorrow is not nice. And what’s nice for me, in Peru is ugly. What’s true about the example you mentioned is that it shows that the intention behind the original footage is uninteresting. What is interesting is to place it now in this context or in that context. In one context, it’s an anonymous woman having a shower; in this other, she is the mistress of Mr Petr, and in the third film it will just be a nice breast, giving the message of sex. So this is the best example that it is not the amateur filmmaker who is ruling the game; the game is in my hand. And if I like this one film reflecting the other, it’s a kind of network; it’s a larger fresco.
Have historians been interested in your films? Or do you think historians are visually illiterate and can’t read these images in an interesting fashion? And do you think or do you hope the films you make in Hungary (or in Spain if you take Perro Negro) have helped the people who have seen them to better understand their history, or changed their perspectives on this history?
I don’t know who the historians are, but I know some historians who appreciate my work. This is micro-history anyhow, the private history of certain worlds, linked to specific interpretations. For me, it is more important that this is art, that my work is perceived as an orchestra. And I am happy that psychologists interpret their own way, historians their own way, filmmakers their own way, etc. There is absolutely no influence of this kind of contemplative work on Hungarian thinking about the past and History. Acquiring and ruling the past means that you rule and acquire History. That’s the Goebbelsian way. And I think contemplation is really a dangerous thing for normal politicians who like to interpret the past. Especially in Hungary, as an East European country, part of the East European bloc, where acquiring the past is very important – what I do is, in the deepest sense, millions of miles away from influencing the Hungarians who look back at history. I am happy about that, because only good propaganda films can influence. Even if nobody knew who Kennedy was, they would at least remember his phrase: Ich bin ein Berliner. And that’s enough. But my films are more problematic. They need effort. People have to think about them. This is what the National Conservatives, an almost fascist right wing party, did for the 50th anniversary of 1956. They want to colonise our past. They were basically saying that Communism was the same in 1956 as in 1989. That is the biggest lie. And me, who was suppressed, oppressed and outcast, I could tell you that it was not the case. I am the witness to a big historical lie. And the way that I look at my country’s past, with this micro-historic poetry, is as influential as a Cézanne painting.
On the other hand, if you look at the way Cézanne eventually changed the way we see and perceive the world ...
We? Who is we? Ask a thousand people on the street and they won’t even know who Cézanne is. Don’t ask university pupils, don’t ask intellectuals. Because you fell into the trap, when you said ‘Hungarians’, that’s ten million people! And from that ten million, there are seven million grown-ups. And of the seven million, there is only a maximum of 120 thousand who know who Cézanne is, but who have never thought of the real meaning of that apple. So let’s put it this way: I’m a poet and I am very happy to work with this special medium. If my films are broadcast in a good time slot – not at the cemetery after eleven o’clock in the evening but six o’clock in the afternoon – then 200 thousand will look at it. That means 2.1% of the grown-up population sees my film. That’s very, very nice – it’s a bigger influence than the best poet of Hungary would have. I’m happy about that. But it is the nature of the medium, not the nature or quality of the work. And, of course, I am in a deep discourse with historians, with writers, people stop me in the street and say, ‘I love your film, it is beautiful’. But changing a country’s history is impossible. Lanzmann didn’t change anything in France .
Don’t you think a young person, with only a vague sense of his country’s history, if he sees your film he will receive an epiphany and say: ‘My God, nobody had showed me what a 1930 Hungarian bourgeois was like!’ That must happen ...
It happens, even with the cleaning woman in my studio! She talked with my editor, and asked him: ‘What are you doing?’ She’s an old lady, and my editor said: ‘Well, last year we did this Miss Universe film.’ And she said, ‘I saw it, it was wonderful!’ I mean, this was a great surprise. She liked it. But I'm making films for my reference group. I'm in a lucky position not to be part and member of this industrial television system. I'm an independent filmmaker; I see colleagues like Berliner or Rosenblatt who are working hard to finance their own films. I am happy that I can work. It’s great that somebody discovers my film and invites me to Sweden . It’s a really wonderful and exceptional situation, a gift of life, that I can still support myself as an independent filmmaker. And it can be over at any second. But it wouldn’t change anything if nobody ever saw it. Marcel Duchamp said in an interview: ‘Imagine that in Africa there is the best painter of all time and he paints as well as Velasquez, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso. Everyday he paints five canvasses, but nobody has heard of him. Is he the best painter in the world? No.’ So I am lucky that my films have left the country. I was surprised that in Holland, France, Germany, in the United States and in Italy so many people have started to understand it, or resonate to it. And that is the more important thing. Not what 200,000 Hungarians are saying.
This interview was conducted on 15 November 2006, during Péter Forgács’ visit to the Cinémathèque québécoise (Montreal) for the 9th Rencontres internationales du documentaire. This is the original English version of the interview, transcribed by Nancy Baric; the French translation can be found at Hors champ, www.horschamp.qc.ca.
© Hors Champ and Rouge 2008. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.