Dead Sea Scrolls: Hungarian Documentaries Before and After the Political Changes

By György Báron (Academy of Drama and Film, Budapest )

In a recent radio interview, I was asked what films I would recommend that could provide a credible picture for those interested in what happened in Hungary before and after the political changes. I searched my memory for a long time, but I could only recall documentaries, and quite a number of them, in fact. Not that there have been no feature films made about the period. Some of them are quite good, interesting, and of a high standard. However, they depicted the events through filters of personalization and aesthetic shaping, and understandably so. Following the train of thought provoked by my spontaneous answer, I realized that if I were to recommend films about Hungarian Stalinism, the Jewish and Romani holocaust, the 1956 revolution and the subsequent retaliation, and the lukewarm wallows of the so-called “goulash Communism” of the Kádár era, I would still suggest documentaries.

It is quite obvious that the secret lies in the nature of documentaries. Contrary to traditional branches of art, the motion picture has been Janus-faced ever since it was born: documentary and fiction, recording and story-telling. It inherited the documenting part from its parents, the Lumière brothers, while Méliès, its foster father, gave it the story-telling. The latter belongs to the highbrow realm of aesthetics (although it has never been able to rid itself completely of its barbarian, bastardly inheritance), while the former takes us back to the ancient and magical roots of art, to cave pictures and to sorcery, when the aim was not to give pleasure or to shock, but something simpler and more profound: to conjure up raw images and events as a way towards self-recognition, self-therapy, and community healing. I do not know how far documentary filmmaking has fulfilled the same mission in other countries, but most probably in the case of Eastern European nations, which shared a similar history, it has. However, I am quite sure that in Hungary the part it played in forming social consciousness and, through that, in the spiritual and emotional preparation of the political changes, can hardly be overrated.

Documentary Filmmakers like Taboo-Breakers

Hungarian documentary filmmakers incessantly expanded the limits of the freedom of expression and methodically shattered the taboos that had fettered research, as well as thinking and talking about the events of the present and the recent past. In this respect, the Kádár regime, which was often jovially called “the merriest barrack” of the Socialist camp or “goulash Communism,” occupied a special place in the region. After the suppression of the 1956 revolution and the subsequent retaliation, in the hope of a rapid consolidation process, Kádár and his leadership offered a deal to the society that had been exhausted and drained of blood by the political struggle and terror of many long years. The essence of it was compressed into the following slogan: “Those who are not against us are with us.” Which was the complete opposite of what the dictatorship of the 1950s had proclaimed: “Those who are not with us are against us.” In practice this change of wording meant the saturation of every segment of society with politics: citizens were required to give evidence of their loyalty, their active and enthusiastic approval of the Communist dictatorship, overtly and clearly. The citizens no longer had to present themselves as participants in politics; they were allowed to withdraw into their private sphere and within that not very spacious framework they could enjoy relative freedom. They were not required to tell lies under any circumstances, but it was forbidden to tell the whole truth in public. In the field of arts and film, or rather documentary filmmaking in particular, it meant that artists were allowed to express themselves with relative freedom even though there were some taboo subjects they were forbidden to touch upon. Although there were not many of these, they concerned the very essence of the system. It was forbidden to speak freely about the Hungarians taken to the Gulag after World War II, the cruelty and violence of Soviet soldiers, the rigging of the 1948 elections, the 1956 revolution and the bloody retaliation that followed it. It was also forbidden to question Hungary's belonging to the Eastern bloc, the presence of the occupying Soviet troops, the one-party system, the exclusive power of the Communist Party; people were not allowed to talk about the situation of Hungarian minorities beyond the borders.

Documentary filmmakers, however, proved to be real taboo-breakers. Pócspetri, a 1982 film by Judit Ember, which was shelved for a long time, was the first to give voice to the innocent victims of the cruel sham trials of the 1950s. A series of documentary films directed by Sándor Sára (Drumfire [Pergotuz, 1982]; The Road Before Me Weeps [Sír az út elottem, 1987]; and Hungarian Women in the Gulag [Magyar nok a gulágon, 1992]) presented shocking confessions about the tragedy of Hungarian soldiers at the River Don, and later about the sufferings of Hungarian captives in the Gulag. People who had been deported recounted their Calvary in the forced labor camps of the 1950s in long documentary films such as In Keeping with the Law (Törvénysértés nélkül, 1982-1988), directed by Gyula Gulyás and János Gulyás, and Recsk, the Hungarian Gulag (Recsk. Egy titkos kényszermunkatábor története, 1998), directed by Lívia Gyarmathy and Géza Böszörményi. The events about which people only dared to speak at home within four walls or in the company of friends with great cautiousness now became part of public discourse. Recounting a true story and giving evidence stood at the center of these very important films. “Talking heads” looked into the camera and told us what they had gone through in the past decades. They did so in the eleventh hour: they were all elderly people, survivors, the last ones who could give personal evidence, who could recount without any trace of doubt, with the unquestionable credibility of eye witnesses, what had happened, what they had seen, what they had done, and what they had gone through. The suffering victims take the word one from the other, continue the stories of one another, and in this way ten, twenty, or fifty people tell the same story. These films are common confessions, like collective ballads. And that is what makes them unquestionable. The account of a single victim is one memory, one opinion, but unanimous confessions make for such evidence that their credibility is beyond any doubt.

Changes Began with the Revision of the Past

At the end of the 1980s, when the pillars of the system were already creaking, the dam burst. Documentary films not only prepared the process of changes, but were also able to follow them quite rapidly and effectively due to technology that had already become inexpensive and was easy and available to everyone. Most of the films, quite understandably, still dealt with the history of the recent past. It was impossible to speak about the present without examining the road that had led up to it. The changes themselves began with the revision of the past: its metaphorical moment, the re-burial of Imre Nagy, the executed Prime Minister, and his fellow martyrs in 1989, and, related to that, the reformulation of the events of 1956 as a revolution and fight for freedom. The heritage of that revolution constituted the common ideological basis that would later be accepted as a starting point by the political forces that had generated the changes—the reform Communists, the Liberal Democrats, and the National Right Wing. The fact that now they could talk freely about subjects that had previously been considered taboo had a liberating effect on filmmakers. Several dozen important documentaries were made about 1956 and the terror after the revolution, and cameras were present not only at the re-burial of the executed Prime Minister but also at the opening of the graves (Judit Ember's Neo-Hungarian Jeremiad [Újmagyar siralom, 1989]) or the withdrawal of the Soviet troops (János Vészi and László Sántha's So Long, Russians [Isten veletek, oroszok, 1991]). Later they gave accounts of the movements and demonstrations preceding the changes and the formation of new political organizations—Elemér Káldor's And the Last Fight ? (Ez a harc lesz a végsö?, 1999); Civilian Techniques (Civil Technikak, 2002) by Black Box; Katalin Zombori's Flag Flyers (Zászlóvivok, 2002); Márta Elbert's The Story of the Opposition Round Table (Az Ellenzeki Kerekazstal törtönete, 2002), etc. An important chapter of the struggle to overthrow the dictatorship was the film made by the collective Black Box (in the beginning an illegal collective), which documented the events and stirred up quite a commotion. With hidden cameras, they revealed how compromising files were taken out of the archives of the secret police and destroyed.

From History to the Problems of Everyday Life

These documentary films played an important role in the fact that in 1990 Hungarians could cast their votes fully aware of alternatives and facts; and in a peaceful and free election they voted out the Communists. Historical themes have been present since these political changes and most probably will remain so for a long time, even as more and more films deal with questions less closely related to everyday political events, such as the situation of minorities with special attention to the problems of the Romani people, the most numerous ethnic minority in Hungary. Several important films have been made about the fate of Jews in Hungary: Miklós Jancsó devoted a whole series to the topic, but Gyula Gazdag's Package Tour (Társasutazás, 1985), Judit Elek's To Speak the Unspeakable—The Message of Elie Wiesel (Mondani a mondhatatlant—Elie Wiesel üzenete, 1997), and János Zelki's The Wagon (Vagon, 2006) were also about the same theme, while Diana Groó's Ways (Córesz, 2000) and János Zelki's Le Chaim—Drink for Life (Le hájim—Az életre, 2005) showed the life of young Hungarian Jews, grandchildren of Holocaust-survivors. Society learned about the Romani holocaust from Ágota Varga's Porrajmos—Gypsy Holocaust (Porrajmos—Cigány holokauszt, 2000).

Two important series—Pál Schiffer's Videoton Saga (A Videoton-sztori, 1993) and Elektra Ltd. or Introduction into Political Economy of Capitalism (Elektra, avagy: Bevezetés a kapitalizmus politikai gazdaságtanába, 1995) about Székesfehérvár; Tamás Almási's In a Vise (Szorításban, 1987), The Factory is Ours (Miénk a gyár, 1988-1993), and Barren (Meddo, 1996) about Ózd—look at the social and economic consequences of the political changes. Both show us what happened in one or another industrial town after the socialist plant or factory that had provided the daily bread to the people was closed down. Székesfehérvár slowly got back on its feet, its inhabitants learnt to conform to the new market situation, while Ózd lost its wealth and became a dead city for a long time. Only the latest part of the Ózd-series, Our Own Little Europe (A mi kis Európánk, 2006), gives some hope. Almási, the director, went back to the city on the very day when Hungary joined the European Union. The citizens we optimistic for the first time in the last fifteen years: they hoped that, owing to the European Market, their life will take a turn for the better.

Many films have been made about impoverishment (András Salamon's Jonuc and the Beggar Mob [Jonuc és a koldusmaffia, 2000], Tamás Almási's The End of the Road [Az út vége, 2003], János Litauszki's Threadbare [Cérnaszálon, 2005]); the problems of people gone down in the world, such as the homeless (Gábor Zsigmond Papp's Streetpeople [A flaszter népe, 2002], Lehel Oláh's Junking [Gubera, 2003], László B. Révész's Diogenes Looking for the Barrel 1-2 [Diogenész hordót keres, 2005]), junkies and drug-addicts (Tamás Almási's Down and Out [Alagsor, 2001], Judit Surányi's A True Romance [Tiszta románc, 2002], László Pesty's Budapest Terminus [Budapest Végóllomás, 2004] and One Day [Egy Nap, 2005], János Domokos' Outside and Inside [Kint és bent, 2005]), prostitutes (Kriszta Bódis' Slave Market 1-2 [Rabszolgavásár, 2000-2002], Ádám Csillag's No Mercy in this Hell on Earth [Nincs kegyelem a földi pokolban, 2004]); while others show the other side of the mirror, the hidden  world and closed life of the newly rich, the young yuppies and top managers (Gábor Zsigmond Papp's Mall People [Plázák népe, 2003], Péter Szalay's The Way of Today [Mai módi, 2007]).

Hungarian society was shocked by a three-part family saga by Attila Moharos (And Now I'm Here [S immár itt vagyok, 1999], When Serving Years Go Past [Mikor szolgának telik esztendeje, 2002], and Born into Servitude, also known as Lot of Servants in Székelyföld [Székelyföldi szolgasorsok, 2004]) about two teenagers whose poor and alcoholic parents sent them to be employed as child servants living in miserable circumstances and working like slaves in the Hungarian community of Transylvania (Székelyföld). One of the most successful documentaries of the recent past is the young writer-filmmaker Kriszta Bódis' A Village Romance—Lesbian Love (Falusi románc—Meleg szerelem, 2004-2006) that leads us to a small Hungarian village where a lesbian community of urban intellectuals has settled, seeking refuge from the city. One of them, an artist, falls in love with a local gypsy woman who is heterosexual, living with her sadistic, alcoholic husband and children. This romance develops in front of the peeping eyes of the village-people, offering an escape for the gypsy woman who finds real love for the first time in her life.

Many documentaries deal with ecological problems. The first one in the long line was Ádám Csillag's Danube Torso (Dunatorzó, 1991-1993). This four-part documentary, made in the late 1980s just before the political changes, is about the fights and mass-demonstrations against the building of the gigantic “socialist investment,” the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros dam on the Danube River. Two important, internationally successful, long documentaries reported on the cyanide pollution of the Tisza River in 2000, said to be the worst ecological disaster since Chernobyl. The poison that came from a Romanian goldmine owned by Australian and Romanian companies killed 130,000 tons of fish and destroyed the ecological balance of the region. Inheritance: A Fisherman's Story (Örökség: egy halász története, 2003) by Australian-Hungarian filmmaker, Peter Hegedüs, focuses on the lonely struggle of a poor fisherman against big international c ompanies. Tibor Kocsis' (still unfinished) three-part series, New Eldorado (Új Eldorádó, 2004), begins with images of the pollution in 2000 and continues with the plans of a Canadian company to open a new goldmine in Transylvania (Romania), which destroys the monuments and archeological treasures of a 1,872-year-old settlement, evacuates the entire population of four villages, and builds up an even bigger reservoir for water, containing cyanide.

Several hundred documentary films are made each year in Hungary, but few manage to make their way to viewers. It has been a long-time desire of documentary filmmakers to have a venue where only documentaries are screened—an independent festival (at present documentary films are shown together with feature films at the Hungarian Film Week or at special screenings), continuous appearance on video and DVD, and that television channels especially the nonprofits, should screen their films regularly. Many thousand hour-long documentaries are still hidden treasures. Like the Dead Sea Scrolls, they are important messages, accounts, and testimonies waiting to be discovered. The self portrait of the Hungarian society of past and present is outlined by them more credibly than by anything else.

All stills courtesy of Magyar Filmunió, Budapest

© György Báron, 2008

Updated: 29 Jan 08