Friday, March 30, 2007

Fade and dissolve

An interview with Hungarian filmmaker Can Togay

“The presence of Hollywood is everywhere. It’s one of America’s biggest industry. You can’t just overlook them,” says Can Togay, before accepting the fact that Hollywood has diminished the presence of European Cinema in Europe. “When I was kid, apart of local cinema (1960s and 70s was the golden age of Hungarian cinema), we had the access to, not only the European cinema, but also the world cinema, including American cinema. Those days are gone as Hollywood has taken over. There’s lot to learn from Hollywood as well. But it’s negative impacts on local cinema. Europe is trying to do something about it. But it’s difficult.”
Now 50, listening to Can Togay is like hearing the history of Hungarian cinema from the horse’s mouth. An actor, director and screenwriter rolled in one, Togay has been involved with film since 1970, first as an actor (“I have also acted in Hollywood, in Snipers,” informs Togay.), then as an screenwriter and director. His first directorial venture was The Summer Guest in 1992. “My last film was based on a small village where people do not have access to cinema. Then one of them finds some old movie in a cellar and he begins to edit them and show them to public where people discover a whole new world until the guy dies, and things had already changed by then. The film is called One Winter Behind God’s Back. It was produced in 1999.”
But Hungarian cinema is not very popular, say like, German or French, isn’t it? You want to know. Instead, Togay tells you a brief history of Hungarian cinema.
In 1930s Hungarian cinema would be seen in Germany, Greece and the Scandinavian countries. But after the World Wars, things changed. Through the failed 1919 revolution to the defeat of the 1956 Uprising and its aftermath, Hungarian film-makers and their audiences have had to contend with a multiplicity of problems. 1960s was, however, the time of original Hungarian cinema. By then, the country had entered into a period of relative stability and increasing cultural relaxation, resulting in an astonishing growth of film-making. Innovative and groundbreaking directors such as Miklós Jancsó (Hungarian Rhapsody, The Red and the White), István Szabó (Sunshine and Mephisto, which won 1981 Oscar for the best foreign film) and Márta Mészaros (Little Vilma: The Last Diary) emerged and established the reputation of Hungarian films on a global basis.
The 90s saw the rise of television and newspapers and public slowly began to lose interest in cinema (there’s always Hollywood!). “In last 3-4 years, however, things have gradually changed. People are making cinema, which are shown in film festivals (Togay own film went to the Cannes) but local commercial cinema is also being produced.”
But Hollywood still lurks around. So what the Hungarian audience really prefer. “Earlier, they used to show European art house cinema. Now, its rare. But there is a spate of local commercial films. But they are mostly sentimental, emotional comedies. Nothing more.”
So what the film fraternity is doing about it? “There is a law in the country that states that Hungarian Cinema is a part of the cultural heritage and they must be protected. The government is supposed to fund the local film industry. But these funds are few and far between. As the governments change, so does the policy. Now, we are looking for sources of budget independent of the government, independent of public money.
And how the system works? Can a producer expects to get his money back? “I am not a producer. So I can’t tell you the exact number of viewers,” informs Togay. “Let’s say, there are 3 million potential, I say, potential viewers out of 15 million Hungarian, excluding the children and all. It’s not a big number. The local films are mostly low budget. And if the film has public funding, the producer might just get the money back. Therefore, there’s no other genres in Hungarian cinema except for sentimental melodrama, no thriller, no horror, no crime, nothing.”
What are the other options? “You make an art house movie for the festival circle and try to sell the foreign television rights. It’s better. I think, it’s the situation everywhere,” Togay says knowingly.
These days Togay is busy writing for other director, both big screen and small. “I’m also planning to start my next directorial venture, a German, Austrian, Hungarian project. We plan to start shooting next year.” Then Togay pauses for a moment and says, “I am planning to make it a ‘mainstream art house film,’ if such a thing exist.”

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