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Hungarian film week opens discretely without a bang

The 39th annual Hungarian Film Week (Magyar Film Szemle, 2008) got under way discretely this year on January 30 without the customary fanfare of a grand opening gala at the Budapest Convention Center.
There was, consequently, no prestige opening film or the usual champagne banquet where one might rub elbows with some of the sacred cows of the local industry such as the Jancsos and the Szabos, or catch sight of a Hungarian movie star or two. Whether this is due to a drastic cutback in funding, or whether other reasons are at play, is a moot question at this point, however one does sense a subtle tightening of the belt as compared to previous years. The festival also has a new nominal director (officially, chairman of the Board Committee), film director Gábor Herendi, who succeeds Attila Jánisch in the position which rotates every two years. An interesting change this, as Janisch is a maker of extremely esoteric art films, whereas Herendi makes no bones about being a mainstream commercial director. His 2002 musical comedy “Valami Amerika” (A kind of America) was one of the biggest box-office smash hits ever in this highly film conscious country.

The first two days were devoted almost entirely to documentary projections, mostly without translation. As far as the sizeable contingent of foreign guests is concerned however, the real opening of the festival was Friday night, February first, with a nicely catered buffet reception specifically organized for the foreign visitors aboard the party boat “Budapest”, anchored next to the brilliantly lit Chain Bridge on the Pest side of the Danube. For the next five days there will be special screenings for the outlandish visitors with either subtitles or headphone translation in English or French, take your pick. Why French is the “backup” foreign language is a bit odd, as there are very few francophone guests, but it’s a nice touch. Don’t think it will help the visitors from Shanghai very much though.

There are, incidentally, several listed guests here from the relatively young Shanghai Film Festival, indicating that the Chinese are anxious to advertise their wares everywhere possible in this the Chinese Olympic year. They will also be hosting a reception at the Berlin Film Festival next week. A significant number of the foreigners invited to the Hungarian Film Week are representatives of other festivals which is not surprising, since the principal organizer of this annual film week is the Hungarian Film Union, a semi governmental organ whose job it is specifically to get Hungarian films into festivals. Variety and one or two other trade papers are here, but the noticeable presence is a group of festival “regulars” such as Michael Kutza of Chicago, Czechpoint Charley Cockey of the San Jose Cinequest festival, and Peter Scarlet, formerly of San Fancisco, now of Tribeca. There is also a whole array of other festival reps from places as widely scattered as Chenai (Madras), India, Moscow, Toronto, Venice, Thessaloniki, Marseille, and closer to home, Sarajevo, Cottbus, Jihlava (Czech Republic), Kiev and Karlovy Vary. Due to the assiduous promotional activities of the Film Union Hungarian films do get around and often pick up prizes at obscure festivals, but a prize is a prize.

There was also a considerable Hungarian presence at the boat party, mostly concentrated in the smoking salon up on the second deck. Among those I managed to chat with were outgoing festival chairman Attila Jánisch, whom oddly enough, I last met at a boat party on the Bosporus two years ago at the Istanbul film festival – and a nicer guy you’ll never meet – hard to believe this chap is now fifty because he still looks like a rock star with his shoulder length blonde hair. Then director Gabe Dettre, the other guy with a prodigious mane of shoulder-length sixties hair, now turning a bit whitish as he edges his way into the elder statesman category. Gabe, who speaks flawless English, has a film on view entitled “Tableau”, described in the catalogue as “ a grotesque panoramic rendition of today’s hopeless, inhuman societies” – hmm.

A step away was George (György) Syomjas, who also speaks fluent English, and whose new film,”The Sun Street Boys”, has been getting a lot of advance notice. The film, George told me, has nothing to do with the famous novel, ”The Pal Street Boys”, but is rather about a group of teenagers who lived on the actual street of the title (Nap utca) in the rundown 8th District of Budapest during the heady days of the 1956 Revolution against the Russians, and inadvertently ended up fighting the Rooskies –based, says Szomyas, on his own youthful experieces of the time. Sounds like one not to miss.

The most flamboyant person at the party was a stocky man in an immense black hat with a super wide brim and a bushy moustache. When I awarded him the „Best Hat of the Evening Oscar” he immediately invited me for a drink at his table, which turned out to be the table for the cast and crew of the much-buzzed about Gypsy film „Bahrtalo!” -- a Romany word meaning ’Good Luck’. The man in the hat turned out to be Gábor Lajos, the star of the film ( a neo-realistic, comedy- documentary, road movie!”) and an authentic Kalderash Gypsy from Kolozsvar, Transylvania. When I threw my few words of Philadelphia Kalderash at him, he embraced me like a long lost brother and for the next fifteen minutes spoke only Romany to me – which I recognized as thoroughly authentic, although I could only catch a word here and there. This is one flick I will not miss!

Other promising titles of films to be shown include ”Captain László Ocskay, The Forgotten Hero” by Fonyó Gergely. This is a 70 minute documentary about a Hungarian army officer who went to extraordinary lengths at the tail end of WW II to save hundreds of Jews from the hands of both the German SS and the Hungarian ”Arrow Cross” home-bred Fascists. Ocskay worked closely with the legendary Swedish Embassy attaché, Raoul Wallenberg, but his own heroic deeds have all but been forgotten. This film revives the memory and has many guest appearances, one by American director Robert Altman.

Altogether, 18 feature films are to be shown in competition, while 36 documentaries will be vying for prizes. Another 20 features will be screened out of competition (one wonders what the criteria are for competition Inclusion or Exclusion), five full length made for TV films are on the program, another interesting looking competition section entitled ”Scientific Educational Films” embraces thirteen titles, and a vast selection of experimental and short films, enough to comprise a sub-festival in itself, rounds out the package for the week. The good old French expression ”l’embarras de choix” (-- too much too choose from --) would seem to apply.
Tomorrow the heavy viewing begins.
by Alex Deleon

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