Les États généraux du film documentaire 2014 Fragment of a filmmaker's work: Sándor Sára

Fragment of a filmmaker's work: Sándor Sára

I was born in the countryside and I have lived in several Hungarian towns and villages which greatly broadened my horizons. In my films I naturally come back to these places, the people who inhabit them, with their customs, traditions and my own experiences. Of course, I know Budapest and I have also been in the metal plant at Csepel, but I have never thought of making a film about them. They are different worlds from mine: I am very connected to nature and to a simple, rural way of life. I wasn't accepted at the Film Academy so I worked as a geographer in several parts of Hungary and got to know the country better. In a certain way, in my films I've tried—often involuntarily—to represent the entire Carpathian basin.

When I decided to become a cinematographer, I went to a large library in the capital to read everything I could find about cinema and photography. There wasn't much but I discovered writers like Béla Balázs or Iván Hevesy. Balázs particularly fascinated me, because he wrote about the image the way others write about love, with the same enthusiasm. Aside from my personal interest, that's where my obsession with images comes from. Later, at the Academy, I got to know the photographic tradition and was surprised by the resemblance between my photos and those, sociological, of Kata Kálmán and others I didn't know yet, as much from the point of view of their subjects as their way of seeing. In the fifties, it was difficult to get access to these photos, but in the Academy library we could consult banned books thanks to a marvelous librarian who helped youngsters born of less cultivated families like István Gaál and myself. We didn't care about the rules of literature or official art, but were trying to represent the world as we saw it. I recently found a photo that I took at the time: the picture of a pig! This was the natural and wonderstruck look we had on the world. Once, I photographed a boy who was lifting a plum to his mouth with so much pleasure that even his big toe was lifted. The composition and lighting were successful but the Academy authorities refused the photo under the pretext that it was bad because there were no more barefoot boys in our country... We had almost no information about modern Western art. At the Academy, we stopped before Impressionism. It's thanks to our teacher of figurative arts that we got to know the Impressionists and more recent artists. Then, thanks to the art books of a few private libraries, we discovered the new artistic trends which greatly interested me. Once, I made photos of a large glass bell filled with water in which I had introduced a few drops of ink: they were very fine, “tachiste” images. But I soon felt the need to go out and photograph people again.

Documentary and Fiction
According to official ideology, artists were supposed to represent reality as they saw it and lived it. Filmmakers were often accused of shutting themselves up in cafés and inventing unreal stories rather than observing reality. So we started observing it, but we quickly understood that the authorities considered representing existing reality as a much more serious error than inventing another. At the same time, thanks to photography, we were confronted with the experience of not being able to lie: an old person had to be photographed with all their wrinkles which are signs of life. We did not want to hide reality. Later, when the censors wanted to cut from my film Néptanítók (1981) the sequences connected to the events of 1956—one of the great taboos, along with the war, the Soviet Union, the goulags...—I answered that you couldn't cut three years from the life of a person, as if 1956 and the terror that followed it had never existed! This position was transmitted to fiction films: if we weren't disposed to falsify the lives of others, how could I have falsified mine in a film as autobiographical as Feldobott kő (1968), my first feature? Afterwards, I tried to explore other directions, for example the grotesque and absurd with Holnap lesz fácán (1974), but that style was even more difficult to defend than the first and absolutely intolerable for the authorities.
It's not by chance that my documentary Sír az út előttem (1986) won the Grand Prize as best feature film at the Budapest festival. I remember that the president of the jury said: “It doesn't matter if a film is documentary or fiction if it can provoke catharsis among the viewers.” The important thing is to stimulate a strong emotional reaction, which is often the case in my documentaries that deal with very hard and intense stories. These films constituted an enormous power against the censors, for they constantly displaced the walls built by the people in power, at the same time as the weakening of Kádár's regime lead to a slow diminishing of taboos.

From Image to Word
One of my first films, Vízkereszt (1967), talks about a million people living in harsh conditions in houses spread out through the Hungarian countryside. I knew this world well, but while preparing the film I also read a lot of sociology. Yet, I did not want to do a film of interviews, a “talking” film, and I thought that the visit of a Budapest theatre troop in this difficult world could be the best way to represent life in these miserable and isolated houses. I related that almost exclusively with images, without dialogue. On the other hand, you can't talk about the war in the same way. To tell stories from the past I can either use fiction or an interview.
Starting in the eighties, I who swore only by images started to make films in which there was nothing but faces and people telling their stories. The real decision was to renounce images in favour of the word. I interviewed hundreds of people because their narratives supported each other reciprocally. Thus, the first person begins a story finished by the fourth, as if it were the story of a single individual, a choral portrait, made up of details chosen from specific narratives and portraits. When you look at these films, something strange and unexpected happens; while the viewers watch and listen to these “talking heads”—I've been severely criticised for it—all of a sudden, on the screen of their imaginations, they begin to see not only the faces, but also the stories that are being told.

Past and Present
We understood that the state was lying. Someone who is sensitive, even more when they are young, has trouble with lies and tries to recount their personal experience—unless they are a careerist, which we were not. At the Béla Balázs Studio, we taught each other how not to lie. We wanted to recount what had happened and what was really happening by daring realism but also by introducing poetry. The films of the Béla Balázs Studio were at once authentic and poetic, also because we were able to work more freely there than in larger production studios. Of course the state guaranteed that it had a form of control, because it was not obligatory to show our films and some of them were censored for a more or less long time. But they existed! At that time, we couldn't talk about the feeble, the victims, the losers—all of that was taboo, but we insisted on talking about them. I maintained the same attitude in my documentaries of the eighties and nineties. I never had to think about my subjects, I always chose the ones that were forbidden. Today, there are certainly very serious social problems about which people talk much less. It seems to me though that it's not only the fault of politics. It would be possible to confront any difficult subject but in some way it's the intention that's missing. With video you can interview hundreds of people in order to look for grave or preoccupying problems, but I think that the determination of the filmmakers is not there. It is also true that the world has radically changed, and perhaps nobody believes any more that we can change things. When we started to work, we discovered unknown territory, and each period must find its most burning questions. I often say that we should be making documentaries about bankers, even if getting them to talk is very difficult.

Interview and translation by Dario Marchiori and Judit Pintér

Debates led by Dario Marchiori.