Aglaya, the Hungarian film was adapted by, Director Krisztina Deák from Aglaja Veteranyi’s novel “Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta”. The film centers on a very young girl who grows up in a family of circus artists from Eastern Europe. Their life of interdependence is a constraint and curse, as well as a source of joy, until the day the small community is torn apart.
Aglaya will be screened at Hungarian Film Festival, Los Angeles.
Bijan Tehrani: What inspired you to make Aglaya?
Krisztina Deák: The story of my film is based on Aglaja Veteranyi’s autobiographical novel. For my part, the most inspiring thing was an archive of photographs that came to light in her inheritance. The photo was taken during the shooting of a shampoo commercial when Aglaya’s circus artist mother was hanging by her own hair, above the sea, from a seagoing ship. It was fascinating; terrifying! I could feel the young girl’s dreadful anxiety for her mother who performed this hanging-by-the-hair circus act every evening for the sake of success and to earn a living for the family. I was interested in the relationship between the mother and daughter. They are totally dependent on each other. The circus is just a background, which in the story is visually interesting, and from the human angle is dramatic on account of the constant presence of danger.
BT: You write your screenplays and for Aglaya, you worked together with a link to Aglaja’s past: Jens Nielsen. How important was it for the film and how did it workout?
KD: Aglaja Veteranyi committed suicide at the age of 40 at the height of her success as a writer. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to meet her. The person who helped me while I was writing the screenplay was Jens Nielsen, Aglaja’s last partner and love, and the caretaker of her inheritance. Jens is a writer, actor and stage director living in Switzerland. From him, I received circus and family photographs. I also got some very funny home-videos made by Aglaja’s father, who was a clown, as well as a kind of amateur filmmaker. These films and photos influenced the screenplay that I wrote on my own.
BT: Aglaya is a film with many different layers; a political story, a coming of age story and a few other issues. How did you manage to blend them so well together?
KD: This is exactly what interested me; this diversity. An East European family escapes to the West from a dictatorship. Back home they were stars, in the West they are nobodies. No one even understands their mother tongue. They can only count on each other, but at the same time they are rivals. They have to earn a living and, of course, new successes would be good to have. The clown father has an easier time of it, but Aglaya’s mother has to think up something special in order to get recognition. So the hanging-by-the-hair act—so terrifying for the little girl—is the result. The story of the family is seen through the eyes of the young Aglaya. She has a strong inner world and a lively imagination. Things didn’t always happen as she saw them. I wanted to tell the story with strong images, almost without words, so that it could be understood all over the world.
BT: The performances of the actors in film are superb. How did you go about casting the film?
KD: As for the casting, finding a child to play the young Aglaya was the most difficult. It took months and months. The basic requirement was that the little girls who applied should be able to do the splits, and I only interviewed and made screen tests with those who could. The little girl who got the part, Babett Jávor, was the 3,235th in the line. But it takes a lot of luck for such a young child to be able to cope with a long and difficult shoot, and I had great luck with Babett. She couldn’t read when we started shooting, so I had to explain to her what to do and say before each scene. I came upon the teenage Aglaya (Piroska Móga) in an amateur theatrical group. The two girls rehearsed a lot together. They tried to imitate each other’s gestures as if they were looking into a mirror. That’s why they so often seem alike in the film. I had worked before with Eszter Ónodi, who played the mother; I knew she was an excellent actress. But she suffered from vertigo which, after six months of hard work, she managed to overcome. Eventually, she performed the greater part of the acts 11-meters-high in the circus dome without the help of a stuntwoman. Her rendering of the role didn’t depend on that, of course, but it did depend on the fact that she deeply understood the character she was portraying, and the life she was living. I can’t mention everybody here, but I must say that I worked with a wonderful team.
BT: How close is film to the real story?
KD: In the main storyline, in the turning points, I didn’t diverge from the original story, save some of the details. On the other hand, I ended the film story at an earlier stage than the end of Aglaja Veteranyi’s novel. My story ends when Aglaya at last breaks her family ties and stands on her own feet to begin a new life of her own. The end of the film is full of hope.
BT: Please tell is about visual style of Aglaya?
KD: The film is visually built up of close-ups and extreme long shots. Everything is very distant and yet very close. Everything is seen through Aglaya’s eyes; in other words, not at all realistically. As she grows, the viewpoint of the camera changes too. In evolving the design of the sound, Aglaya’s refined and sensitive hearing was decisive. All at once, she starts to hear the sound of the taut hair; she hears the voices of God and the descending big silence afterwards.
BT: How do you see the chances of Aglaya of winning an award during the U.S. award season?
KD: I have travelled to many places in the world with Aglaya. So far, the film has won several prizes (11 to be exact). Just last week when the Golden Globe screenings for members of the HFPA was taking place in Los Angeles, we received a grand prix in Russia for the film. No Hungarian film has ever won the Golden Globe competition for the Best Foreign Language Film. It would be a miracle for me if we were even nominated and amongst the best five films, but my film is about that too: miracles!