Iska Journey follows the toil of a twelve year-old girl living on the streets in a coal mining town in Eastern Europe. The story follows her fight for survival in her small town until the her experience with the Black Sea, where she becomes a victim of human trafficking. Maria Varga plays a role almost identical to her own life and her childish naivety and vitality lend a tragic charm to this story. When Iska is taken to an orphanage and asked if her parents hurt her, she simply responds, ”Well, they do not beat me every day.”
Csaba Bollók graduated as a film director in 1994 at the Hungarian Academy of Film and Drama. His shorts made in collaboration with Béla Balázs Studió won several prizes abroad, while his first feature NORTH BY NORTH (1999) was awarded the Hungarian Filmcritics’ Prize. The following years he worked for television, made workshops and studied on acting in movies. ISKA’S JOURNEY (2007), produced by actress Agnes Csere and her indie company ‘Merkelfilm’, won Grand Prize at the 38. Hungarian Filmweek, was world premiered at the Berlinale, and has been a great international success since then. It has been presented at more than 60 festivals, winning over 20 prizes, including the Golden Puffin / Discovery of The Year at the Reykjavik IFF, Main Prize at Monterrey IFF, Best Film of The Visegrad Countries at Zlín IFF, Best Acting Prize at Brussels European Film Festival, and many more. ISKA’S JOURNEY has been in the Ten European Movies shortlisted by the European Parliament’s first Lux Prize Nomination. At present, Csaba is working on his next project worktitled ‘NUMBER NINE’.
Bijan Tehrani: What was your motivation for the making of Iska’s Journey?
Csaba Bollók : Very soon I realized that my meeting Maria (Iska) was not by chance but it happened with a purpose. She was a streetkid, abused and illiterate, and yet, there was so much brightness and wisdom in her eyes. If I didn’t make this movie, she would be just another unknown streetkid. And she would disappear before the world noticed. I felt that I have to tell the world about her childhood, I have to show the way she looks at us, and without any complaint. So I made friends with her and soon I felt that I’d like to raise her. If you see the movie, you’ll understand why.
I also wanted Maria to do something that she would be proud of. Something more than collecting scrap metal or playing cards with miners (though I have to tell she usually beat them). She was one of the many children, born at a wrong moment, into an impoverished family that would soon turn to alcohol, in a mining town where industry just went bankrupt after 1989. Maria was sent out to earn money, her childhood was stolen by her abusive parents just as they were abused by history.
But making a movie with a child, 40 days of shooting with her almost in all frames is quite risky. I put this heavy burden on Maria. But I just looked into her eyes, and the way she looked back, I was absolutely confident that she would do it. And now when I look for some extras for the dvd, I realize again that Maria made no mistakes, I found only two ’I forgot my line..’ kind of stuff in the footage. She is so intense, and her presence is so dignified. No wonder that she got into the ’Talents On The Rise’ in Variety.
Bijan: The performances in Iska’s Journey are incredible. How did you pick the kids playing the main parts in the film and how did you work with them?
Csaba: When I first met Maria (Iska), she was collecting scrap metal to buy food for her family, in a mining town in the Southern Carpathians. She was 8 then. I asked her take off her cap and tell her name. She was bald, and told me that her name was Maria. That was how I knew she was a girl. Because all the street kids you meet look like boys, but of course, half of them are always girls. But you would not tell when you see them. I found Marian, the Romanian boy at a country fair, whom I cast Iska’s young love. Rosalia came with Maria, as they are siblings in real life, too.
Their hometown is at a day’s drive from Budapest where we live. So me and my wife Agnes, went back to that region as much as we could. We visited the kids, made friends with their families, tried to convince parents to give up drinking habits. We had their ID cards made for them again, as their excuse was that they had lost them and so they could not go to work. All these efforts with the parents failed. But the girls cling to us very much. We took them to a nice St. Franciscan child-care home several times. They usually fled. After making Iska’s Journey, we took Maria and Rosalia to Budapest and kept them within our family. That worked almost for a year and they learned many things during their time in our family. But even before that, Agnes’ presence helped a lot in making the movie in a family atmosphere. As an actress, she played the doctor in the story, she was also the producer of the movie, and Maria and Rosalia called her ’mama’ during shooting. As you see, I have already mentioned three functions of her, only in one sentence.
My working relation with the kids was based on a communication beyond words. It was like a blind flight of confidence. Devotion may be a good word here. I used all my experience and knowledge as how to lead actors and non-actors to devote themselves to a movie. Because this is what I’m sharp about: I’m no longer interested in ways and shades of good or bad acting, I’m only interested in ’presence’. When the personality, the action, and the feeling is ’there’. If I see any technique in it, I don’t buy it. Recently I saw Sean Penn’s Into The Wild movie and I’m sure that Mr. Penn works with a similar method, performances in that movie are close to Iska’s, among movies made in Hollywood or off-Holywood.
Bijan: The visual style of the film matches the dark tone of Iska’s Journey story. How did you come up with the visual style of the film?
Csaba: I was completely attached to my heroes, and I wanted to show them ’as close as possible’. So we worked with a small crew, only about 20 people, and Francisco shot the entire movie with a hendheld camera. We kept to the ’truth of the subject’, we used the camera to show ’the heart of the happening’. And that approach defined visual style more than any previous ideas. When the kids are collecting scrap metal, the camera is searching with them, when Iska is sleeping in the orphanage, the camera lingers on her, raindrops reflected on her face.. We did not use digital coloring, the movie is a contact copy, quite rare today. Yet, many asked us about the coloring, which, I could reply, was done by selection of the locations and the clothes. Iska is appearing in her bright red pullover in a bluesh coal dust scenery. We cannot do else but follow her – which was my intention.
Bijan: What was the most challenging issue you had while making Iska’s Journey?
Csaba: The main challange was to shoot the movie in the most authentic way. There are some scenes that were not scripted at all. Like the whole scene at the football stadium. I remember we only shot the scene when the streetkids are praying and eating because this is what happened during shooting: they got bored and went wild, they were throwing stones to each other and then came to us, crying. We told them to quit that and be nice to each other. They obeyed us but then they began throwing stones at the cars in the street. The same kids ate with us at dinner, and without a word they began praying, not touching the food until we did. I was amazed by that, and the next day I decided to shoot the scene when they are praying together. It is in the movie, and it’s quite breathtaking. When these kids get the attention they deserve, they can behave and concentrate.
So the movie has a nice cast, including authentic streetkids, excellent actors like Agnes Csere, Marius Bodochi, Dan Tudor, Zsolt Bogdan, and many local people; real miners, villagers etc. So the main challange for me was to create harmony with these people in creating one world, and preserving authenticity.
Bijan: The ending of the film is very dark, sad and bitter, why did you choose such an ending?
Csaba: Thanks for this question. I remember once I asked Maria’s teacher—though they had rarely seen each other as Maria was out on the streets most of the time—about the chances of Maria in life. The teacher told me simply that she would be a prostitute. A kid born into an abusive home, growing up in the streets, leaving school without learning how to read and write; a kid like that has absolutely no chance in life. She will be part of the black market, or more likely, a victim of it. Most of the things in the movie had happened to Maria: all the beating, begging, sleeping outside. She was not subject to kidnapping though, but this often happens to streetkids. They disappear without a trace in the world. So I ended the movie with a dark, but truthful scene: Iska is taken abroad with young girls. She becomes a victim of „human trafficking”. But she is alive. And seeing the sparkling in her eyes, we must know that she will find a way out. Her spirit keeps her alive. But it’s true; no police, not lone hero comes to rescue her in the end.
I absolutely agree that movies need to show some light, but here I felt that I had to keep to the truth, ’the facts of life’, rather than ’the rules of storytelling’. And as we know, fate is not a trained screenwriter. Still, for me, hope is there. All is in her eyes.
Bijan: Have kids, like Iska’s character’s in your film, seen Iska’s Journey? What has their reaction been to the film?
Csaba: Maria and Rosalia were in a cinema for the first time in their life when Iska’s Journey was premiered at the Hungarian Filmweek. Later we took them to the Berlinale, where they were ”little stars”, and several other European festivals. So they enjoyed popularity they’ve never had in life. We showed the movie to the kids of the the biggest child-care home in Transsylvania, where Maria and Rosalia belonged for a while. Seeing the bad things Iska goes through, a little boy asked in the end, „Is she still alive?” But they took the whole story as their own, they were not surprised or shocked at all. Their life was similar before they got into the child-care system. Even Father Csaba, the founder of the St. Francis Foundation, told me during the screening, „I used to sleep like that”, referring to the scene when Iska finds shelter on the dump still warm.
Bijan: How successful has Iska’s Journey been at public screenings and film festivals?
Csaba: It’s been an immense and incredible success. About 50 invitations came just after the Berlinale. And at the festivals, I remember hours of Q and A’s. I remember in big cities like Berlin, London, Jerusalem, Paris, Pusan, Toronto.. full houses stayed for the Q and A. And then we got so many emails, saying they still ’feel the movie on their skin’. The movie would probably end up at about a hundred film festivals, it has won over twenty prizes. But what is most important, people relate to each other because of this movie. Some will be godparents to kids in child-care homes, as we have become for Maria and Rosalia.
Bijan: What are your future plans?
Csaba: Now I need to make a movie which will not take many years in the making. And somewhat lighter, too. Then I will go back to my ’Iska heroes’ and see what will have happened to them. Although we will visit them in the meanwhile. Next time I see Maria will be tomorrow. If she feels like coming with us, we’ll take her to our screenings for the Oscar Campaign. Those will be on the 6th, 7th, and 8th of January at the Wilshire Screening Room in Los Angeles. And, as I said, Maria is a ”Talent On The Rise” in Variety!
* ELMA (European Languages and Movies In America) has supported Cinema Without Borders to bring you this coverage. ELMA‘s mission is to create new avenues for better cultural understanding between the people of Europe and the USA by celebrating alternative cinema and language study.