Conversation with Gyula Gazdag

By Catherine Portuges (U of Massachusetts, Amherst )

A native of Budapest, Gyula Gazdag earned an MFA from the Hungarian Academy of Drama, Film and Television (Színház és Filmmuvészeti Föiskola) in 1970, where he served as Head of the Department of Film and Television from 1990-93. He is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. He has been the Artistic Director of the Sundance Filmmakers Lab (Sundance Institute) since 1997, and since 2002 has served as a tutor at the Maurits Binger Institute in Amsterdam.

His feature films include A Hungarian Fairy Tale (Hol volt, hol nem volt, 1987), which screened in 20 film festivals worldwide, including the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes. Winner of a Special Jury Prize at the Locarno Film Festival and Best Feature Film of the Year of the Hungarian Film Critics, it was voted one of the year's 10 best films on the Village Voice 's list. Other feature credits include The Whistling Cobblestone (A sípoló macskakö, 1971), which was banned for foreign exhibition for 12 years and won Best First Feature Film from the Hungarian Film Critics; Singin' on the Treadmill (Bástyasétány hetvennégy, 1974), which was banned in Hungary for 10 years; Swap (A kétfeneku dob, 1977); Lost Illusions (Elveszett illúziók, 1983), Best Screenplay at the Hungarian Film Week; and Stand Off (Túsztörténet, 1989), which screened at eight film festivals and won a Special Jury Prize at the San Sebastian Festival.

Gazdag has also directed documentary films, including The Long Distance Runner (Hosszú futásodra mindig számíthatunk, 1969); The Selection (A válogatás, 1970), which was banned for 14 years; The Resolution (A határozat, 1972), which was banned for 12 years and is one of the “Best 100 Documentaries of all time” according to the International Documentary Association list; The Banquet (A bankett, 1982), which was banned for two years; Package Tour (Társasutazás, 1985); Hungarian Chronicles (Chroniques hongroises, 1991); and A Poet On The Lower East Side: A Docu-Diary on Allen Ginsberg (1997).

For the stage, he has directed Candide, The Bald Soprano, Abduction from the Seraglio, The Tempest, Tom Jones, The Heavy Barbara, and The Hothouse, among many others. A renowned television director in addition to his distinguished career as a film and stage director, artistic advisor and consultant, film editor and actor, Gyula Gazdag was awarded the Béla Balázs Award by the Minister of Culture of the Hungarian People's Republic in1987 and The Official Cross of the Hungarian Republic for artistic achievement by the President of the Republic of Hungary in 1997. He was named an Artist of Merit by the Prime Minister of the Hungarian People's Republic in 1989. He served as President of the Jury for the Documentary section of the 30 th Hungarian Film Week in 1999 and President of the Jury for the Fictional Feature section of the 36 th Hungarian Film Week in 2005, Budapest.

His most recent feature film project, Cobblestone (Macskakö), based on the novel by Péter Lengyel, is in preparation.

CP: Could you talk about the younger generation of Hungarian filmmakers—how are their interests different from those of previous generations?

GG: I think there are many talented people working in Hungary today, and many with unique voices. I wouldn't say there's necessarily a distinguishable, generational or national voice. There have always been all kinds of different and unique voices in Hungarian filmmaking, and that is how it is now again. The question is whether they will be able to maintain their uniqueness and find their ways into international co-productions. Some of them actually start their career making co-productions. They need European co-production partners; otherwise they won't be able to realize their movies. For them, working outside Hungary is natural, and this is an important change from earlier times. In the small circle of Hungarian cinema, they can't avoid being compared with each other, which is not necessarily healthy because each voice is unique and it is not always useful to compare one uniqueness with another. Obviously, every festival and every award is inevitably the result of comparisons. I guess the efficiency of comparison depends on how large the pool is: when it is too small, as in Hungary, people may get way too competitive instead of supporting each other.

CP: How is that different from the beginning of your career?

GG: The young Hungarian directors of today were born into a different world from that of my generation. What they talk about is ultimately also different, but this is not necessarily a conscious departure from the filmmaking of the previous generations. Their experience is different. As we move away from the 1960s and 1970s, those decades become history. We don't live in a world that values the lessons of history, so there's nothing to inspire people to study what history can contribute to the present.

Fortunately, our world has changed much since I grew up. There was a system in place then that gave us no hope of change. The moment when this became clear to me was the morning of the invasion that ended the Prague Spring on 21 August 1968. Right then it became obvious that the system didn't tolerate any attempt to reform it. You had to define your relationship to the system; find your way into it or find a way to oppose it, but you could only exist in relation to the system.

CP: Are the films of younger directors finding audiences beyond Hungary?

GG: Yes, of course. It happens naturally. People at different festivals around the world see them; some of them even get distributed beyond the festival circle.

CP: Was that the case when you made your first films?

GG: I became a director at a time when it was very easy to bury films for political reasons without anyone noticing. The yearly Hungarian Film Week ceased to exist for a few years and there was no showcase for film production, so nobody noticed when films were shelved and hidden from the public eye for political reasons. Video didn't exist yet, at least not in Hungary, and when your film was banned, there was no way to get hold of a copy of it in any format, and you could not screen it. So the film just ceased to exist. There was a moment in the 1970s when I had 9—nine!—films that could not be seen publicly. Not many people were aware of that, and it wasn't even scandalous. Communication is available to filmmakers today—e-mail, phone, Skype—whereas back then there was only one telex machine at Hungarofilm, a government agency, and it was under strict control. So, when one's work was not considered desirable by the authorities, one just couldn't get in touch with anyone outside the country. We were cut off. Photocopying was not publicly available; one couldn't print a script because Gestetner duplicating machines, the only tool to make copies, were controlled, and one couldn't get access to such a machine without permission of the authorities. When video, fax, and photocopying became technologically available, I knew it was not going to be compatible with the system. I realized we were free when it finally became possible to go into a store and make photocopies.

CP: In your work at Sundance and as a film professor at UCLA, do you find that Hungarian cinema has an impact?

GG: I'm not sure what “Hungarian cinema” really means: I see talented filmmakers—some more, some less successful—but I couldn't say that Hungarian cinema as such has a strong, recognizable voice that might have a distinct impact on filmmaking. It is not like Iranian cinema in the1990s, where, although you could distinguish among individual filmmakers, a whole perspective, view, and style had shared elements that you could tag as “new Iranian cinema.”

CP: Do you talk about Hungarian film in your classes?

GG: When there's a Hungarian film festival in town, I encourage students to go, but in my classes I don't have time to deal specifically with films of different countries. Basically, we are discussing directing issues, and whatever is a good example to discuss, we'll screen, wherever it might come from.

CP: Do you think that inventions in technology, like being able to watch films on cell phones will change filmmaking?

GG: In the coming years, new technologies will affect how traditional formats find their place, their audiences, but there's something magical in watching a movie in a theater, and that will still be there as long as people have a desire to experience that magic. New technologies are just different outlets: you don't see the same image and you don't hear the same sound on a cell phone. Of course, you can design movies for cell phones; the way I see it, we can tell stories meant for any carrier. If you give me two shoelaces and tell me that these are the only tools I can use to tell a story, I'll find a way. The problem begins when a movie meant for the big screen has to be watched on a cell phone, or the other way around.

CP: How do you see your own artistic work at this point?

GG: In a way, with all the possibilities of new technologies and tools, I feel liberated. I can expand the language that I use. Most of what I was doing in Hungary under communism was, as I said, related to the system, so I felt an obligation to represent a certain consciousness in the stories I was telling. I no longer feel that way. I am personally interested in anything that probes deeply into human relationships and I'm freer to approach these subjects without those moral obligations. That doesn't mean that what I do won't deal with social circumstances; I no longer feel I live in a society where basic human rights are threatened, where the most important task and responsibility is to address that.

CP: Can you imagine making a film in Hungary?

GG: Writing a story, yes. Getting it financed and going through the practical hurdles, I don't know—maybe. Getting a movie made—getting it financed and into production—is, I think, today a much bigger effort, since making movies has become so much more expensive. Just beginning production has gotten more difficult and requires a huge investment of energy. I would really need to feel very passionate about a project in order to go there. I am currently working on the development of a movie that is planned to be an international co-production, generated from Hungary. Every stage of the project so far has been fun—the writing, doing the research, working on story boards. Now we have to get the financing and that's not so much fun. Throughout the process, I have learned a lot about many things—about the history of Budapest, about new technologies, computer animation—I just loved it. Of course, you always have to pay a price for fun, and this is how it is for everyone who wants to make a movie. If it takes a long time to get it financed, so be it. I'm in a luxurious position: I don't make my living on moviemaking; teaching provides me with a livelihood.

CP: Do the younger Hungarian directors you work with know your films?

GG: I don't even know if they have ever seen any of my films. The only time I was aware that one of them knew my work was when György Pálfi, in Taxidermia (2006), made reference to one of my documentaries from 1970, entitled The Selection (A válogatás). I found it quite moving.

CP: What is your method of teaching?

GG: I don't actually think that “teaching” is the right word for what I do… teaching suggests that you know something that others don't, and you pass on that knowledge so they can learn it. That is not what I do… I try to figure out where the talent of a person is, and that's very individual… I need to figure out how to challenge that talent so it starts to grow, discover the tools meant for it. But they have to make the discovery themselves, figure out what to do in order to grow. It is more like coaching. I don't tell them what to do, but rather create a situation that helps them move in the direction that is right for them.

CP: Are you aware of the influence your own teachers had on you when you were a student at the Hungarian Film Academy?

GG: I was fortunate to be in film school in the 1960s in Budapest when the faculty was extremely good. Learning the craft of directing was only a part of our education, and not always noticeably the most spectacular part. I had a professor in directing, Félix Máriássy (1919-1975), who didn't actually speak much, but when he said “mmhmm,” or “well, I don't know,” then that was followed by a week of sleepless nights—and at the end of the day that proved to be very inspiring. Sometimes we felt he was not doing anything, but now I see that he planted doubts and concerns in all of us that triggered the search for a specific cinematic language we needed to find individually. He left it to us to figure out who we wanted to be as filmmakers. He didn't tell us what we should or shouldn't do. It is strange to think that now I'm older than he was when he died, because for me he is still the great master. I didn't learn from him a method I could use when teaching; but the idea that I should inspire people comes from him, I think. While I don't do it his way, the idea that teaching the craft of directing should be done individually comes from him. Although, I think he taught instinctively, following his own taste. Whereas many films of my students have nothing whatsoever to do with my own taste, it is great to see their different worlds and perspectives. I learn a lot from them, and I want to teach only as long as I learn from my students. They bring something unique to the table, and my task is to recognize that uniqueness and figure out what the rules of their talents are, and how they can eventually do things consciously that they were not aware of at the beginning of the process.

Another directing teacher we had, Márton Keleti (1905-1973), was a very conservative and traditional filmmaker, who didn't have much respect for other directors of the time, but forced us to learn the most traditional blocking and covering techniques for a scene. We had to learn what he knew about filmmaking, even if we never wanted to use it. Directing was an area where we had huge respect for our professors because they were all esteemed, working directors, some of them with a great body of work.

CP: Did any of the teachers from other disciplines have an influence on you?

GG: We had an art history professor, Mrs. András Szollossy, who was one of the best teachers I've ever met. She was able to inspire and frighten us into frantically studying for her exams, and learn thoroughly everything she felt we needed in art history. It was a shame and humiliation not to be able to answer her questions at an exam. Every student, even those who had already started working in the “real world,” still felt they needed her approval. She managed to teach art history through the perspective of a filmmaker: composition, light in painting, how a story is told in painting or sculpture, and how that can be translated to the language of film.

Then there was our music teacher, Emil Petrovics, the composer, who in the third year, after a lot of stuff we hadn't been enthusiastic about studying, got the whole class to the point where we could sit down and analyze musical forms, such as Beethoven sonatas. That led to the revelation of how composition works in an art form that flows in time. We realized that learning to read music for two years paid off, and what it enabled us to learn was utterly important and useful for becoming a filmmaker.

We had an extraordinary drama history teacher, Géza Hegedus. I'll never forget that, at an examination, he asked me to specify: “What is the importance of the upper level (above the stage) Ibsen plays? If you hadn't read the plays, you couldn't answer—it was an exam. But the question itself revealed an aspect of Ibsen's work in John Gabriel Borkman, The Master Builder Solness, or The Wild Duck, even in A Doll's House, that one hadn't thought of before. I think this is what good teaching is about—illuminating something that the student may not be able to find on his/her own.

Another of our professors, Mrs. László Fövény, was supposed to teach Marxist aesthetics. Instead, she made available for us all kinds of works considered to represent “western decadence,” like Camus or Freud, for the very first time. She wasn't supposed to do this, of course, and we felt privileged to be able to read The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and to study, discuss, and write papers about books that were forbidden fruit, unavailable anywhere, even in libraries.

CP: Was that specific only for the Hungarian Film Academy?

GG: I was lucky because my years of education coincided with a very interesting and special moment in the 1960s in Hungary—the period when the oppression after 1956 had started to ease and a small window to the world started to open. I think I was extremely fortunate, since that period in life when one's mind is like a sponge, coincided with that opening. When something from western literature was published in Nagyvilág, a literary monthly that one absolutely had to read every month—first, a Brecht play that hadn't been permitted, then Kafka's Letter to My Father —you just would have felt inferior and dumb without having read it. So you might say it was mandatory to follow what was happening in literature, art, film, and music in the rest of the world. It was mandatory, otherwise you felt you would succumb to the authorities' goal and become as parochial and uneducated as the system ultimately wanted you to be. In order to feel somewhat equal with the free part of the world, you wanted to read, see, hear, learn everything that had been kept from you as “ideologically undesirable.”

When the first festival of French films was organized at the Budapest Cinémathèque in 1962 or 1963, I was a 17-year-old high school student. This was long after the French New Wave started; still, it was the first such screening in Hungary. Within four or five days a series of films was screened, each of them only once: Hiroshima mon Amour, Le Rideau Cramoisi, Le Feu Follet, À Bout de Souffle, Vivre sa Vie, Les 400 Coups, Les Cousins, Cléo de 5 à 7, Le Signe du Lion—the early French New Wave. We all thought this was our only opportunity to see these films and I would have killed to get in! Obviously, I wasn't the only one who felt this way. These films were legends, myths. It's hard to convey the intense excitement of that experience: four or five of us would take turns standing in line day and night to get tickets, and we were the happiest creatures on Earth when finally we could get in.

CP: Was it the French New Wave, then, that became the most important influence on you as a filmmaker?

GG: The only direct influence I felt on my own films was from the Czech New Wave. One day, in the first year of film school, one of my classmates said: “Guys, there's a Czech movie playing at the Pushkin [the movie theater closest to the film school]; it's unbelievable—let's go see it.” It was Miloš Forman's first feature film, Black Peter (Cerný Petr, 1964). During the first ten minutes of the film I realized I was watching something that wasn't similar to anything I had seen before, a film that opened my eyes and created an image of the world in a “socialist” country that was truthful, absurd, funny, petty, and sad, exactly as I had experienced it. It was a profound experience of recognition. From then on I made sure to watch every Czech film in theaters. I became a regular at the Monday screenings of the House of Czech Culture, where they screened Czech and Slovak films that weren't in distribution. This unique opportunity lasted until the spring of 1969. After the August 1968 invasion, they screened films there that had already been banned in Czechoslovakia, like Jirí Menzel's amazing black-and-white fairy tale musical Crime in the Night Club (Zlocin v santánu, 1968). By the summer of 1969 the House of Czech Culture was closed for “renovation,” never to reopen its screening room.

At the end of the fourth year of studies of history and aesthetics of film, I wrote my final essay on the Czech New Wave. That was in 1969, when all of a sudden there was an ominous silence around everything Czech or Slovak.

CP: Did you have access to films coming from other western countries?

GG: Italian neo-realism was embraced by the communist system, so those films were available, including Fellini. When I first saw 8 ½ at a private screening for filmmakers, I stood in the back while an unsubtitled copy was screened, with a voice-over translation. One could never be certain that there would be another chance to see those films again. So, I fought my way to get in and watched it, trying to memorize every image, every sound effect. When finally it opened in theaters, of course, I watched it again. I saw one or two Bergman films that had no real effect on me at the time; strangely, I felt no relationship to his work. I saw Persona at the film school, and that was the only Bergman film at that time that touched me. I thought his films were Nordic, mysterious, and incomprehensible. I had already graduated from film school when a retrospective of more than twenty Bergman films was screened at the Cinémathèque. Suddenly, seeing his films together, in chronological order, opened a new world for me. I envied him for not having a moral obligation to deal with politics in his films, and I felt that he was able to reach down to the depths of the human soul in a way I hadn't seen in films before. I think that finally he had a greater influence on me than anyone else, even though it may not be visible in my work. Times have changed, and now I have these movies on my bookshelf at home.

CP: Do you think your education followed a pattern that can be repeated?

GG: In order to get an education you had to struggle; it took an effort to get access to it, therefore education held a really great value. That kind of inspiration has disappeared, strangely enough, once everything became available. I'm not saying that my experience was ideal. I don't think for a moment that this is how things should be. It would be insane to make films and books unavailable just to make them desirable. It was an interesting historical moment. I have no idea how it affected my filmmaking, but it has certainly shaped me as a person. I don't know if my professors were exceptional people outside the class room. Maybe they were wrapped up in academic politics, just like academics usually are, but what happened in the classroom was certainly exceptional. I think good teachers flourish in the classroom.

CP: How is your work at Sundance, as artistic director of the Filmmakers Lab, different from your work at UCLA?

GG: At Sundance, there's a special situation. Creating a balance and making sure that the talent grows is a team effort there. It is very different from working with students on your own. There is an opportunity there to shape the view of what a certain talent needs with other advisors. We work closely together—my view of a talent is influenced by the view of others, who may see it differently, and vice versa.

CP: Can teaching be compared to filmmaking?

GG: If you compare the teaching process with filmmaking, there are similarities and differences. When you make a film, you have an idea first, than it takes shape. You get involved in a series of interactions and, at the end of the process, there is a movie out there, and you are done. When you start to work on the next project, it is going to be a different process. Relationships you get involved in as a teacher don't end. You cannot assume that you are ever done and that you can move on. The relationship may change; you may feel that a former student has become a friend, or a working partner, and it is a new stage of that relationship. Or they may disappear from your sight for some time, but when you see them again after a few years, usually it is possible to continue where you left off.

The student-teacher relationship is usually an exciting journey for me. You never know what direction it will take, you may not know how and when the information will land, and what effect it will have on the other person. It is wonderful to see that they are on the right track. When they are not, it's always challenging to find the way to fix things. I guess the process can be compared to sculpting—when all of a sudden something changes, you discover that it starts to take shape and you realize what needs to be added and what needs to be shaved off in order to make it work.

University of California, Los Angeles, 5 April 2007


Gyula Gazdag Selected Filmography:

1969 The Long Distance Runner (Hosszú futásodra mindig számíthatunk), documentary
1970 The Selection (A válogatás), documentary
1971 The Whistling Cobblestone (A sípoló macskakö)
1972 The Resolution (A határozat), documentary
1974 Singin' on the Treadmill (Bástyasétány hetvennégy)
1977 Swap (A kétfeneku dob)
1982 The Banquet (A bankett), documentary
1983 Lost Illusions (Elveszett illúziók)
1985 Package Tour (Társasutazás), documentary
1987 A Hungarian Fairy Tale (Hol volt, hol nem volt)
1989 Stand Off (Túsztörténet)
1991 Hungarian Chronicles (Chroniques hongroises), documentary
1997 A Poet on the Lower East Side: A Docu-Diary on Allen Ginsberg, documentary
2007 Cobblestone (Macskako), announced

Illustrations courtesy of Gyula Gazdag; still "Whistling Cobblestones" courtesy of Magyar Filmunió.

© Catherine Portuges, 2008

Updated: 26 Jan 08