Csaba Bollók: Iska's Journey (Iszka utazása), 2007

reviewed by John Cunningham© 2008

Over the last few years regular visitors to the Budapest Film Week have become increasingly accustomed to the impact of newer Hungarian directors—György Pálfi, Ferenc Török, Benedek Fliegauf, to name only a few—those directors who “came of age” at the time of the political changes or after, and their attempts, often stunningly successful, to push the boundaries of Hungarian filmmaking. With films such as Fliegauf's Forest (Rengeteg, 2003), Pálfi's Huckle (2003) and Taxidermia (2006), Török's Moscow Square (Moszkva Tér, 2001) and Season (Szeszon, 2004), it is possible to discern a shift in Hungarian filmmaking towards a more exuberant, edgy, more youth-oriented type of film. Even veterans such as Miklós Jancsó, with his series of Pepe and Kapo films—The Lord's Lantern in Budapest (Nekem lámpást adott kezembe Pesten, 1998, etc.)—is now gleefully embracing what might be called a cinema of the absurd. One aspect of this trend, perhaps, has been a move away from realism, although this should not be presented as somehow seismic: Hungarian cinema has never been just about realism.

Nevertheless, it was pleasing to many of the guests at the 2007 Budapest Film Week (and presumably the jury) that the major prize went to a film thoroughly steeped in a sense of gritty realism, of time and place, of the here-and-now, particularly after the visceral onslaught of last year's winner, the brilliant, grotesque, vomit-inducing Taxidermia. Iska's Journey by Csaba Bollók, a tale of a young girl's struggle to survive in a dilapidated mining region in Romania, was strongly reminiscent of the work of British director Ken Loach. One thinks, obviously, of Kes (1969), but also My Name is Joe (1998) and Navigators (2001), and the similarities, at least in style and theme are clear. Bollók himself is part of the post-1989 generation (he was born in 1964); his first feature film was North by North (Észak, észak), released in 1999. Since then he has had a somewhat checkered career, no doubt not helped by the poor financial state of the industry in the 1990s.

Iska (an amazing performance from non-professional Mária Varga) is an ethnic-Hungarian girl, probably around thirteen years old, who lives with her dysfunctional, alcoholic parents and a sickly younger sister Rosie (played by real-life sister Rózsika Varga) in a forgotten corner of Eastern Europe, which, to put it mildly, has seen better days. Her home life is miserable and she squeezes some kind of existence out of her barren surroundings by “iron-picking”—salvaging scrap metal from the industrial wasteland that is now the Zsil Valley, Romania's once thriving coalfield. The little amount of money she receives for the scrap metal is purloined by her parents for Pálinka (a strong brandy) and she often resorts to eating in the miners' canteen, where the few remaining miners treat her with kindness and buy the slop that passes for food and give it to her.

It is one of the few instances of human kindness in the film. The mines are almost all closed and the miners—along with their traditional, historically bred solidarity and community spirit—have all but disappeared; there is nothing left in their place except rusting machinery. In this respect alone, Iska's Journey is noteworthy: few filmmakers have bothered to tell the stories of mining communities once the mines have been closed, although this is hardly the central focus of the film. From their former position under the old regime as the “proletarian vanguard,” miners or rather ex-miners, are now regarded as pariahs, fit only to be thrown on the scrapheap. The problems in the Zsil Valley are, without a doubt, exceptionally bad, exacerbated by the poor state of the Romanian economy and the almost total lack of any welfare provision; but Iska's story, or versions thereof, is one that could easily be repeated in many parts of the former coalfields of Europe, east and west.

Iska and her sister are put in a care-home, but Iska decides, despite all the domestic problems, to return with her mother after a visit. While in the home, Iska strikes up a relationship with a boy and later, together, they run-off to the seaside; Iska has never seen the sea. However, while making her way to the railway station to meet up with the boy she accepts a lift from two strangers. They take her to the sea, but she is now their prisoner. The last shot of the film sees Iska looking out of a porthole on a boat heading for who knows where. She will now become another kind of victim—a child prostitute. Her fate is uncertain, but she may well survive; she has guile and a deep, calm, inner strength. Iska gazes wistfully out of the porthole at the receding shoreline that she has hardly had a chance to see, let alone savor, and the film ends.

As is often the case with this kind of realistic filmmaking, the cast is a mix of professionals and non-professionals (a practice employed by Rossellini, Forman, Loach, and others). Ágnes Csere, the producer, also appears in the film and the performances are enhanced by a documentary-style cinematography and a clear impression of the importance of Iska's environment. As in the early Czech New Wave films of Milos Forman (A Blonde in Love [Lásky jedné plavovlásky, 1965] and The Fireman's Ball [Horí, má panenko, 1967]—so influential on the work of Loach), the camera is frequently distanced from the action, allowing a more observational mode; what Loach referred to once as “standing back a little.” This technique makes the occasional close-ups all the more powerful in their emotional impact. The result is a film that imparts to the viewer a strong sense of reality and authenticity, however grim that may be.

Perhaps criticism could be leveled at the fact that there are really two films or stories here—Iska pre- and post-abduction. However, the systemic failures of welfare institutions, the fall-out from social and economic breakdown all lead inexorably to the kind of slavery inflicted on Iska. The two stories of Iska “morph” into one another with a depressing and grim logic. Child prostitutes do not come from the wealthy areas of Europe; they are the products of the total collapse of society depicted in the film, where people, and worst of all, children are abandoned to their fate. Bollók's grim but brilliant and moving film is, therefore, not just about the journey of one unfortunate girl, but also has much to say to audiences about the kind of Europe we live in today.

John Cunningham, Sheffield Hallam University

Iska’s Journey, Hungary, 2007
Color, 93 minutes
Director: Csaba Bollók
Scriptwriter: Csaba Bollók
Cinematography: Francisco Gózon
Music: Balázs Temesvári
Cast: Mária Varga, Rózsika Varga, Marian Rusache, Marius Bodochi, Zsolt Bodgán, Ágnes Csere, Ibolya Csonka, János Derzsi, Noémi Fodor, Dan Tudor
Producer: Ágnes Csere
Production: Merkelfilm

All images courtesy of Magyar Filmunió

Csaba Bollók: Iska's Journey (Iszka utazása), 2007

reviewed by John Cunningham© 2008