Hungarian movies on Californian screens

Mon 30, June 2014

The Los Angeles Hungarian Film Festival was held for the thirteenth time this year, with a similar event taking place for the second time in San Francisco. Although “a bit small and a bit yellow,” like the iconic Hungarian orange in the cult classic The Witness, the San Fransisco Festival was no lemon, either. On the contrary!

I already discussed in detail in this column a good year ago why Northern California is a forward-looking place in the world (iRise! Népszabadság, November 17, 2012 – the essence of which was the hippie tradition, that is, Buddhism and the iPhone; click on the link, please [in Hungarian]). The San Francisco Bay Area stands for more than Silicon Valley and the creative industry symbolized thereof. Its significance is ever increasing in our crisis-ridden days, being not only an antithesis to the finance capitalist turmoil ignited by the fall of Lehman Brothers five years ago but a good example per se.

This is the world of start-ups, 3D printers (miracle machines that “print” objects in space), apps geeks, and over-the-top achievements in telephony, from where stem the technological basis, trends and sensible use of the network society. A long time ago, I visited the laboratories of Sony and NHK, which can, in fact, be found in Tokyo, not in San Francisco’s Japantown. At the mention of Silicon Valley, the staff started bowing and chanting “What creativity, what creativity!”, thus verifying the cliché that in today’s industry the hardware, or “iron”, may come from Asia and Japan, but creative solutions originate from the West.

“There are two thousand new millionaires in San Francisco,” someone blurted out casually. The stock package granted to two thousand employees of the then newly-traded company Twitter exceeded USD 1.5 million at the time. In this world, they still believe in the power of individual initiative, which is a pretty progressive American tradition, meaning that no commander-in-chief is needed to create a history-shaping entity, etc. In addition, here they also believe in the power of community financing, which is the backbone for the improvement of the network society; it is therefore not only films and creative projects that receive crowdfunding (funds from capital pooled together gradually on the internet by the “crowd”).

In a Sicilian restaurant on the bottom level of the cool building of American Zoetrope (Francis Ford Coppola’s company) in North Beach, San Francisco, the daughter of Theo Angelopulos, the recently deceased, magnificient Greek filmmaker, showed on her iPhone to me and the founder of Telluride Film Festival a pretty amazing trailer in which a ballsie little cyber-bakery and pizzeria tries to raise its start-up capital via a crowdfunding site called Kickstarter. Hence every project is a creative project today. It feels almost symbolic that on our last night my buddy and I watched Iron Sky on Netflix, directed by Timo Vuorensuola, a two-meter-tall Finnish giant. With its simple plot, “1945: the Nazis are escaping to the dark side of the Moon. 2018: the Nazis are coming back”, it is nothing more than a pretty average B-category steampunk action movie, which could even star Dolph Lundgren. What makes it interesting, however, is that a few years earlier they posted a short appetizer on the Internet, with the help of which they managed to raise enough money to invite some serious German producers and thus create one of the most expensive Finnish movies of film history.

The movie may have cost as much as the complete works of Aki Kaurismäki. (Although the complete works of Aki Kaurismäki are obviously more valuable.) So this is what I call progress. At this point, especially because the year of the FIFA Soccer World Cup is approaching so it could not be more fitting, I would like to draw the attention of official or overloyal public thinkers with an introspective or Turanian inclination to the paraphrased saying by legendary English soccer player Gary Lineker: “The global game is played by teams with a set number of members and at the end, the West always wins.”

The Los Angeles Hungarian Film Festival has been organized by tireless Béla Bunyik for nearly one and a half decades, and it is an important event for Hungarian films, since Hollywood is the place where the “industry” can take a glimpse at them. After three years of suspended activity, or call it hibernation, it is all the more important to provide the opportunity for internationally known movie personalities to be introduced to Hungarian films. There is no doubt that the government commissioner [Andy Vajna] does not have a bigger intellectual or any other kind of ambition than proving right here, in Los Angeles, the viability of the system he set up from scratch, making his way, at last, to the cash desk to pocket his dues for some measurable success.

The start was undeniably promising with The Notebook (A nagy füzet) by Hungarian director János Szász winning the Karlovy Vary Festival Award, and hopefully the future holds even more success!

On the website of the Los Angeles Hungarian Film Festival, Béla Lugosi, the classic Dracula, gives a blood-curdling stare, in a white tie and matching dress suit, holding a shot of Zwack Unikum. It is no wonder that when Lugosi died in the summer of 1956, during the shooting of the movie Plan 9 from Outer Space (director: Ed Wood), which is considered to be the worst piece in film history, Peter Lorre (László Löwenstein) asked a mourner standing next to him at the funeral, “Do you think we should indeed drive a stake through his heart just in case?”

The festival’s website also displays the program of North Hollywood’s Laemmle Theatre, which includes, besides the relatively fresh Hungarian movies (The Notebook, Aglaya), international classics with a Hungarian theme, like the Music Box, written by Joe Eszterhas, former Rolling Stone journalist and friend of Hunter S. Thompson, directed by Costa-Gavras, starring Jessica Lange and Armin Mueller-Stahl.

(The opening of the Soviet archives sheds a new beam of light on the past of a DP – displaced person who was forced to leave his homeland – who immigrated to the United States in 1945: the man turns out to be an Arrow Cross Party member and war criminal. His daughter, who is a successful attorney, starts a crusade against these views, eventually becomes bitterly disappointed in her father and has no choice but to face the shadows of the Hungarian past. The film, by the way, was protested against by Smallholder’ Party members in the Hungarian Parliament shortly after the change of the political system; it was a good idea to show it again in Los Angeles, since it is connected through a thousand threads to contemporary Hungarian reality.)

They also screened The Advocate by director Tamás Harangi, who lives in the US, Indianby István P. Szabó, Dear Betrayed Friends by Sára Cserhalmi, together, of course, with The Notebook and Aglaya. The international jury granted the festival award to The Notebook, which made a popular news portal remark ironically that the festival sponsored by Vajna awarded the movie sponsored by Vajna, but, to justify the decision, here we could paraphrase the famous poem [written originally about tyranny] by poet Gyula Illyés: “where there is one window / there is one window”.

Steve Kovacs, professor of cinema at San Francisco State University arrived in the United States with his parents at the age of ten, in 1956, living for a couple of years in Saint Louis, an important city in the Midwest at the time, then spending his teenage years and almost his whole adult life by the Pacific Ocean. He was assistant producer in Roger Corman’s famous B movie staff, which was an extraordinary experience, an American version of BBS [Béla Balázs Studio of experimental filmmaking in Hungary], with regard to the fact that “New Hollywood”, which saved the whole overseas cinema world in a critical period, also emerged out of Corman’s cloak. (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, and James Cameron, among others, received their training at Corman’s studio. The acting careers of Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper were also launched with Roger Corman’s help. Other significant filmmaker started their work with him as well, like Monty Hellman, Joe Dante, or Jack Hill.) Steve Kovacs moved back from Los Angeles, the center of the industry, to San Francisco, which is smaller and more human. Even though it is not the “second cultural capital” like LA, San Francisco is an originally cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic, colorful and bohemian place of commotion, determined culturally by the Beat Generation, the hippie traditions, and the current achievements of information technology and the creative industry.

Steve Kovacs had coffee here once with documentary filmmaker Réka Pigniczky (Journey Home), who was born in the USA, lived in Hungary for more than ten years, and has moved back recently. The two of them wondered why Hungarian movies were played only in Southern California, why there were no screenings here, in the north. And they did all the necessary coordination!

Steve Kovacs, who worked as a guest professor at the University of Theatre and Film Arts at the beginning of the 2000s, wanted to organize a course on Hungarian cinema anyway, so they did it, relying on their own resources, the American way. The first Hungarian Film Festival of San Francisco was last year, with a university background, in a theater hall of the campus, named after the other Coppola (August). The number of movies was limited for the known reasons, and the San Francisco Festival was connected with that of Los Angeles. Bence Fliegauf (Just the Wind) came for a conversation with the audience.

This year, Éva Homor, who used to organize Move-East in the city of Pécs for seven years, joined the project enthusiastically, so since then the three of them do the coordination work together. Réka Pigniczky says, “Pista is the intellectual father of the whole program, and there is the university background. I am the director with a strong side in documentaries, while Éva is an incredible organizer and knows practically everybody in the profession. Pista is a first-generation American Hungarian, a 56er, who has been here for a long time.

“I was born here but worked in Hungary for 14 years. Éva is an absolute newcomer, so we are a great team for the above reasons. Pista and I bring the aura of professionalism into the process, talking about films and watching films, ensuring quality and important themes; Éva does not let us drift away from reality in our ‘armchair intellectual’ status, and sometimes ushers us forward into reality in an enthusiastic but refined manner.

“This triple team is what makes me believe that there will be a festival next year as well. Otherwise, our budget is zero. (We have USD 250 in donations left from last year, because the guests, excluding students, were giving 5 dollars each at the door.) We used this amount to print flyers and posters. Advertising was also for free, thanks to the social media, Hungarian e-mail lists, many acquaintances, university e-mail lists, and free newspaper ads.”

Local Hungarian companies also participated in sponsoring: a company, called Circumstances Creative were involved in graphic design, Culture2 Inc., a cultural design company, provided financial support, while receptions were paid for by private persons, like Katalin Vörös, the leader of the association of Hungarians in Berkeley or Éva Voisina, the Honorary Consul of Hungary in San Francisco.

If we consider that Hungarian companies in the creative industries, like Prezi or Graphisoft, have interests in San Francisco, then the future looks bright, even if the San Francisco Film Festival, as opposed to that of Los Angeles, has not been supported by the Hungarian National Film Fund. The feature films – AglayaThe Notebook, and Colorado Kid – as well as Pigniczky’s documentary entitled Heritage (Örökség) were each screened at an almost full house in the 150-strong theatre hall. (My film, the Colorado Kid, screened earlier at the 10th Los Angeles Film Festival; this year I was the guest and perhaps this was the best after-screening conversation I ever had abroad.) Several of the more than twenty thousand Hungarians living in the San Francisco Area came for all three days. Károly Pekala, a lawyer with international experience who has lived near San Francisco for ages, said, “I thought I should come because I have not seen a Hungarian movie for 10 years.”

Tímea Sövény, who worked in the film industry in Hungary and does commercial shoots in California as well, told me: “I have always visited the Film Week at home as well, that is why I am here at this festival now, which may be a good continuation of the festival at home, provided that there will be a Film Week at all this spring.”

After the Festival, the local Romanian intelligentsia already got in touch with the organizers: next year perhaps we could hold a Hungarian–Romanian San Francisco Film Festival together, which would be good news for Hungarian filmmaking, with respect to the international prestige of contemporary Romanian movies. And maybe, sometime in the future, the San Francisco initiative could even be expanded into a Central European Festival. That would be real good news!


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