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Les États généraux du film documentaire 2021 Doc History: Hungary, at the Béla Balázs Studio

Doc History: Hungary, at the Béla Balázs Studio

When János Kádár took power in 1956 following the disastrous Budapest insurrection bloodily repressed by the Soviets, the nationalisation of the film industry had taken place long before [1] while numerous unsolved problems and too many frustrated desires weighed on the new generation of filmmakers. For them, entering the State film industry entailed a long apprenticeship, the anguish of obstructed creativity, being condemned to the petty bureaucratic routine of subaltern positions.
Fully conscious of this unease and these desires, György Palásthy, a young screenwriter, brought together in 1958 a group of young comrades who were dissatisfied with their work as assistant directors and wished to bring a breath of fresh air into official cinema. Thus was born a new studio, the largest workshop of experimental film and of young Hungarian cinema, borrowing its name from the greatest Hungarian film theorist, Béla Balázs. The choice of this name was not by chance: Balázs had written that “cinema, which is the art of seeing, must not remain in the hands of those who have plenty to hide”. He thought that the camera should be in the hands of those who had something to say, and who knew how to say it. The group managed to obtain the support of the film department at the Ministry of Culture, which provided a certain budget for the creation of experimental works, exempting them from the usual obligations and long procedures attached to bureaucracy, but requiring prior approval of the subject matter. During this first phase, the Stúdió was a kind of ciné-club; its young members lived as a group, looked at films, discussed them collectively and imagined a new kind of cinema, much like other groups of young filmmakers on both sides of the iron curtain. But it was difficult to move on to actual production and the Stúdió was dissolved.
In 1961, a second group of directors and cinematographers reconstituted the BBS. These youngsters all came from the directing class of the filmmaker and teacher Félix Máriássy. Their names appear henceforth in all film history books: they were the creators of the New Hungarian cinema of the sixties and seventies: István Szabó, Judit Elek, Pál Gábor, Zoltán Huszárik, István Gaál, Sándor Sára, Ferenc Kósa, Ferenc Kardos, Imre Gyöngyössy. The State intervened to support the autonomous initiative of these young directors who self-managed the Stúdió and decided to finance every year a dozen short and mid-length films “invented” and discussed collectively, then handed to one or the other of the group members to direct.
There was no obligation to distribute their film in cinemas and above all, as it was an experimental studio, no traditional scenario was necessary, no commercial aspect needed attention: it was the direction elected by Stúdió members themselves who decided, or not, to present the films to the public, and in which form, and this gave the young directors the possibility to experiment without censorship, self-censorship, or compromise. Films which rankled the authorities could be confined to an extremely limited distribution, or frankly banned on their completion. But nobody forbade their production and the possibility to direct them with a remarkable degree of creative freedom.
The methodology of collective work encompassed all phases of production, but this did not hamper the expression of personal poetics or style; on the contrary, it encouraged their development and their interconnection. The essential choice was not to institutionalise the BBS, but to keep the structure open to the collaboration of youngsters graduating over time from the Budapest School of Dramatic Arts and Cinema. The BBS was directly managed by its members: it was a workshop and a meeting place where young creators had the opportunity to concentrate on their preoccupations through debates, confrontations, viewings and reviewings of film classics and new productions, but also via relations established with other circles of film culture outside the country. The BBS workshop guaranteed that all its young members had the chance to try their talents by directing a short film termed as “qualifying”. This opportunity saved novice creators a long apprenticeship as assistant director, demonstrated the efficacity of collective work and encouraged the emergence of numerous talents. Filmmakers searched for their particular voice and style, experimenting with new formal solutions in the politically and artistically free atmosphere of the Stúdió.
The films from this first period of BBS are often experimental documentaries, lyrical studies where the interest for social life is portrayed in personal expression and often formalistic aesthetic research. The years 1967-68 marked the end of this first phase of BBS production: themes and forms began to change as did the names of their creators. The short or medium-length film were no longer a springboard for the practice of feature-length film, but an autonomous form in itself. While maintaining its function as “training ground”, the BBS started opening its doors to artists who were not film school graduates. A new circle of freedom attracted marginalised artists from the (neo)avant-garde of the seventies, and the Stúdió became a meeting point for all alternative and subversive ideas, as much linguistic and artistic as socio-political. Film graduates became more radical from 1968 on, following an ever more combative trajectory. They continued the social tradition of the sixties but with sociological films in which they analysed the processes of daily life and often came into political conflict with the official interpretation of these processes and the hidden events of Hungarian history. In the second half of the decade, they were joined by filmmakers who emerged outside the film community, notably those from amateur cinema.
The filmmakers of this second generation were no longer content with a lyrical and subjective approach to social phenomena, they moved beyond formalism and searched through direct cinema a form for a more profound analysis of society. An ironic, sometimes grotesque and reflexive style became visible: Gyula Gazdag, Ferenc Grunwalsky, György Szomjas were no longer interested in the great universal themes, but in society’s changes and the reorganisation of its structure; their films were attempts to make these processes visible and comprehensible. The social sciences and sociology became tools used to show within documentary the evolution of Hungarian society. This was a period of great aesthetic hybridization: direct cinema was mixed with fiction (Pál Schiffer et Dezső Magyar), improvisation with sociological inquiry (Judit Ember et István Dárday), visual experimentation with scientific research (András Szirtes et János Tóth). Longer formats and series of several episodes began to replace the short film.
A more strictly experimental cinema also emerged during the seventies, which was marked by groups created with the Stúdió: Gábor Bódy, Miklós Erdély, Dóra Maurer, Tibor Hajas, Tamás Szentjóby are the names to remember from this movement characterised by extremely radical formal research and an opening to other contemporary arts (Fluxus and minimalism) and philosophies (structuralism and linguistics). This was a true avant-garde whose works most often centred on identifying the nature and potential of cinematic expression.
We close our homage at the beginning of the eighties when new changes appeared, muddling the categories of the previous decade. The Stúdió became more and more interested in video art, television and performance, and there appeared a new penchant for narration. New filmmakers began their path through the Stúdió, such as András Jeles, Béla Tarr and Ildikó Enyedi.
Today, the BBS is a research centre and an archive, but no longer a place where films are made. During its history, which lasted fifty years, 271 directors were members, 511 films were made: short films, features, documentaries, essays, animation, experimental films. All this in extremely different styles and in conjunction with a large panoply of other arts: photography, literature, music, theatre, the visual arts, but also disciplines such as history, sociology, pedagogy, ethnography, and anthropology.
A history and experience unique in the world.

Federico Rossin

1. Hungary, of all the East European countries in the socialist sphere, was the first state to nationalise its film industry: in 1919 during the ephemeral Republic of Councils headed by Béla Kun, György Lukács, then commissar of Education, was the instigator of the measure, several months before that taken by Lenin in the USSR.

In partnership with the National Film Institute Hungary – Filmarchive.