Hardly a coincidence – just days before the opening of the 40th Hungarian Film Week in Budapest (27 January to 3 February 2009), the Hungarian Parliament voted to amend its film law and bring it in line with European Union regulations. Previously, the Hungarian film law had offered hefty tax rebates to international film productions. Now, state subsidies and tax allowances for films are limited to productions with “appropriate cultural content” – meaning that the focus should be on projects that reflect Hungarian and European customs and values. Preferences, however, are given to producers and directors who had won awards at international film festivals. Also, 20 % of the national film subsidies are open to filmmakers from other EU countries. How this will play out economically in the future was debated at a press conference held by the Motion Picture Public Foundation of Hungary (MMK) shortly after the festival opened.
Nevertheless, given the global crisis that has hit Hungary especially hard, Hungarian cinema does not seem to be suffering all that much. As listed in the festival’s 230-page catalogue, a total of 335 films were completed over the past 12 months: 26 features, 120 shorts, 152 documentaries, 28 scientific films, and 9 TV productions. Of these, 101 films were selected by committee vote to compete in the five respective categories. And the crowds turned out in record numbers. In a move that provided the festival with nearly twice as many seats as in previous years, the 40th anniversary edition relocated from the former Millennium Theatre and Palace Cinema multiplex in the Mammut mall to four new locations: the Budapest Congress and World Trade Centre (1500 seats), the Palace Cinemas (9 screens) in the Mom Park mall, the Urania National Film Palace, and the Bem arthouse cinema. Altogether, 32,000 tickets were sold. Furthermore, 13 of the 18 feature films selected to compete for the Golden Reel Award were world premieres, seven credited to first-time directors. “Perhaps this explains why there was such a heavy audience turnout,” noted festival director Eva Vezer.
The anniversary festival opened with Balint Kenyeres’s delightful 15-minute short, A repuls tortenete (The History of Aviation), based on a tale by New Zealand short story writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923). Shot on the cliffs of Normandy, The History of Aviation is best described as a la belle époche impressionist painting that springs to life. Picture a French bourgeois family enjoying a picnic at the seaside in the summer of 1905. Suddenly a strange bird takes to the air from a nearby cliff. In tune with the movements of the “flying bird,” the camera takes off, too. Its rhythmic, graceful dips and turns are a cinematic homage to the birth of aviation. Balint Kenyeres is a talent to keep an eye on. His Prije zore (Before Dawn) (Hungary, 2005), a 13-minute fiction film without a cut about a foiled smuggling attempt to transport people illegally across a border, was awarded the 2005 European Prize for Best Short film. Shot in the middle of a waving wheat-field just before dawn, sweeping camera movements reveal a police-raid that ends with everyone arrested save for a bewildered child left behind and still hidden in the field.
The festival closed on another winsome note: Gergela Fonyo’s musical Made in Hungaria, programmed out-of-competition. As this story goes, American rock‘n’roll arrived in Hungary in 1963 thanks to a musically talented teenager returning home with his parents after four years in the States. Needless to say, Hungarian youth culture back then was longing to shed oppressive communist shackles on the dance floor – to say nothing of the still-fresh memories of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
Under jury president Marta Meszaros, the Golden Reel was awarded to a first feature: Aron Matyassy’s Ultolso idok (Lost Times), his diploma film at the Budapest Film Academy. Set in 1997 along the eastern Hungarian border, Lost Times offers a melodramatic portrait of post-communist times that also parallels conditions in Hungary today. Ivan, a car mechanic burdened with an autistic sister to take care, makes some extra money on the side smuggling diesel oil over the border from the Ukraine. When the sister is raped in the forest, she becomes mute – and Ivan seek vengeance.
The Gene Moskowitz Foreign Critics Prize was also awarded to a debut feature film: Viktor Oszkar Nagy’s Apafold (Father’s Acre). A dark tale of patricide, Father’s Acre features veteran Hungarian actor Janos Derzsi (memorable as the station-master in Bela Tarr’s award-winning The Man from London, 2007) as the luckless father who return home from a 10-year prison term and tries in vain to right things with his teenaged son. An affair with his former wife’s sister doesn’t help matters much.
Overlooked for an award, György Palfi’s improvisational I’m Not Your Friend is nonetheless destined for a long life on the festival circuit. Best known for his multiple award-winning Hukkle (Hiccups) (2002) and Taxidermia (2006), both absurdist adventures into the Hungarian psyche, Palfi moves deftly from one experimental form of filmmaking to another. In this first part of I’m Not Your Friend, a planned trilogy with the working title Paradise – we follow nine kindergarten children (3 to 4-years-old) as they go through the rigors of first-time communication. Of course, it isn’t long before friendships in this play-pen environment run hot and cold – until one little rascal, who can’t get his way with the others any more, screws up his face, and blurts out in tears: “I want my mama!” In an interview Palfi confirmed that he had shot 120 minutes with a hand-held digital camera and a soundman, from which 55 minutes were then edited into the finished film. Next comes Purgatory, in which the kids are asked to speak plainly about themselves. Finally, for Hell, the planned closing film in the trilogy, an improvised fiction film will be created from the foregoing sketches.
Another Budapest premiere that should do well on the international festival circuit was Peter Sparrow’s mystery tale, simply titled 1. Adapted from Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem’s novel One Human Minute, this is the story of a book deposited in a rare-book shop by a passing stranger. Suddenly the store is flooded with copies of 1, an “almanac” without author or publisher that purports to describe the whole of humanity within the space of one minute! An engaging though mind-boggling tale of the implausible, Sparrow/Lem’s 1 was heaped with a bundle of festival awards: Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Visual Design.
Gabor Zsigmond’s Kemek a porfeszekben (Hick-Town Spy – Gabor Rimner’s Story), awarded a share of the Best Documentary Prize, is also one of those films that begs belief. Take documentarist Gabor Zsigmond at his word, then a certain Gabor Rimner was recruited by the CIA in 1973 to spy on his country. In Hick-Town Spy we follow the double-agent around his routes as he drops off secret information for his American employer. At the same time, Rimner reveals how he transported this secret information in assorted containers, somewhat like a professional magician giving away his secrets. A mockumentary? Maybe, save that both Zsigmond and Rimner take sheer delight in retelling the hick-town spy’s tales of quaint espionage. After all, hicks can be pretty resourceful people, as Mark Twain once put it.
By far, the most entertaining film seen at the 40th Hungarian Film Week was Livia Gyamathy’s Kishalak … nagyhalak (Big Fish … Little Fish). The “Little Fish” in this fiction documentary is an old pensioner whose illegal catch is confiscated by watchful game wardens. Meanwhile, further down the stream, bigtime poachers are dragging in bundles of fish from the same river, thanks to corrupt game wardens paid to look the other way. Meanwhile, the old pensioner suffers a further humiliation when his modest fishing tackle is thrown on a bonfire.
Main Prize “Golden Reel”
Ultolso idok (Lost Times), dir Aron Matyassy
Best Genre Film
Valami Amerika 2 (A Kind of America 2), dir Gabor Herendi
Peter Gardos, Trefa (Prank)
Mate Toth Widamon, 1, dir Peter Sparrow
Best First Film – ex aequo
Intim fejloves (Intimate Headshot), dir Peter Szajkl
Papirrepulok (Paper Planes), dir Simon Szabo
Julia Ubrankovic, Majdnem szuz (Virtually a Virgin), dir Peter Basco
Andor Lukats, Prima Primavera, dir Janos Edelenyi, and Mazli (Fluke), dir Tamas Kemenyffy
Balint Hegedus Mazli (Fluke), dir Tamas Kemenyffy
Best Original Music
Albert Markos, Veronika Harcsa, Ultolso idok (Lost Times) dir Aron Matyassy
Attila Csaky, Papirrepulok (Paper Planes), dir Simon Szabo, and 1, dir Peter Sparrow
Best Visual Design
Fruzsina Lanyi, Peter Sparrow, Judit Varga, 1, dir Peter Sparrow
Wanda Kiss, 1, dir Peter Sparrow
Csaba Major, Mazli (Fluke), dir Tamas Kemenyffy, Valami Amerika 2 (A Kind of America 2), dir Gabor Herendi, and Pinprick, dir Daniel Young
Gene Moskowitz Foreign Critics Prize
Apafold (Father’s Acre), dir Viktor Oszkar Nagy
People’s Choice (via Internet)
Kameleon (Chameleon), dir Krisztina Goda
Best Short Film – ex-aequo
Alena utazasa (Alena’s Journey), dir. Karoly Ujj Meszaros
Hideg berek (Cold Grove), dir. Mihaly Schwechtje
Best Documentary – ex-aequo
Csempelevel (Tile Mail), dir Gergo Somogyvari, Judit Feszt
Kemek a porfeszekben (Hick-Town Spy – Gabor Rimner’s Story), dir Gabor Zsigmond Papp
Master of Hungarian Motion Picture
Judit Elek, film director, scriptwriter
Life Achievement Awards
Peter Bacso, film director
Sandor G. Szonyi, film director, studio head
Istvan Szilagyi, actor
Tavadar Bertalan, art director
Fanny Kemenes, costume designer