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Tradition Vies with Modernity at 40th Hungarian Film Week

Tradition Vies with Modernity at 40th Hungarian Film Week

On January 27, the short film “The History of Aviation” from director Balint Kenyeres kicked off the 40th edition of the Hungarian Film Week, the traditional one-week event just before the Berlin International Film Festival that highlights the previous year’s films made in Hungary. The out-of-competition musical “Made in Hungaria” from Gergely Fonyo – about the introduction of US pop music in 1963 Communist Hungary – closed the festivities on Tuesday night, when Aron Matyassy’s countryside drama “Lost Times” was crowned best film.

Balint Kenyeres, who directed “Before Dawn” (which won a European Film Award and also screened at Sundance in 2006), has crafted with his latest short, “The History of Aviation,” a delicate and poetic seaside reverie that recalls the work of short fiction writer Katherine Mansfield in its deceptive simplicity. Set in 1905, “The History of Aviation” looks at a bourgeois family picnic on the Normandy coast, with its dramatic cliffs and steep plunges. The young Manon wonders off to spy a strange bird taking off from one of the cliff tops, while two secret lovers are also looking for some privacy. The 15-minute short relies almost entirely on its elegant camera movements and sumptuous visuals that suggest an early impressionist painting sprung to life.

An event organized for both foreign and local press as well as a sizeable local audience, the Hungarian Film Week’s most important section is the Competition, which showcases local feature films that were readied in the year leading up to the event. This year, 18 films competed, ranging from (potential) box-office sensations to arthouse and experimental films.

The most anticipated film was without a doubt the new film from “Taxidermia” director Gyoergy Palfi, “I Am Not Your Friend.” Shot as a quickie between two bigger productions, the film was presented with an introductory short called “I Will Not Be Your Friend,” that is essentially a mini-documentary looking at the interaction between various tots at a kindergarten. The short feels unforced and a natural narrative, however slight, arises from the material, something that cannot be said of the feature film. Improvised by the director, cinematographer and actors (who play Budapest residents connected in unexpected ways), “Friend” lacks a clear sense of direction and relies too much on facile coincidences to create any sense of coherence. The cheapie video look is also miles away from the composed visuals that contributed to the success of Palfi’s previous features.

Actor-turned-director Simon Szabo uses similar methods to Palfi’s to much more engaging effect in his debut feature “Paper Planes.” Looking at teens and twentysomethings in Budapest, it opens with a hipster montage of vistas of Budapest set to a techno beat before diving into the lives of its young inhabitants. Though somewhat long even at 88 minutes, this digitally shot feature succeeds in capturing and telling a lot more about the people that populate its streets than Palfi’s throwaway exercise in the same medium. “Planes'” closing shot – a pan upwards from a riverside bench towards the illuminated Budapest skyline while one of the protagonists grunts “Swallow or spit!” – is a good indication of its cheeky spirit and energy. The film won a shared Best First Film prize during the Film Week, shared with Peter Szajki’s “Intimate Headshot,” which recounts the fate of four men who all end up at a nightclub.

Both “I’m Not Your Friend” and “Paper Planes” showcase, for better or for worse, a looser, less rigorously controlled approach in Hungarian filmmaking, facilitated by the availability of relatively cheap new technology. But the era of visually sumptuous Hungarian films is far from over, as evidenced by the dystopian dramas “1” by director/production designer Pater Sparrow and “Transmission” from “Black Brush” director Roland Vranik. Both tell stories set in vastly different worlds; the former is set in a bookshop mysteriously filled with only copies of a book called “1” that contains the fate of humanity in one minute, while the latter takes place at a sea-side resort where all screens and monitors have stopped working. Still, the two films share a visual flair and interest in the power of images – or the power of the absence of moving images in the case of Vranik’s film. More interesting for their formal aspects than narrative charms, the two features nevertheless contain some thought-provoking ideas wrapped in eye-catching visuals. “1” won three technical awards during the Film Week: Best Cinematography, Best Visual Design and Best Editor.

Occupying the solid middle ground between arthouse and commercial fare are the Catholic boarding school drama “Prank” by Peter Gardos, the children’s suicide drama “The Seventh Circle” from Arpad Sopsits and “Lost Times” from director Aron Matyassy. All three films deal with youngsters, the first two with kids in their early teens, and “Lost Times” with a young man in his early twenties and his mentally handicapped teen sister. All three films are likely to appear on the international festival circuit after their initial bow during the Film Week and are about the characters’ responsibility for their own actions and the unfortunate results that occur when people don’t look out for each other.

A similar idea runs behind the mainstream comedy “Fluke” from Tamas Kemenyffy. The film looks at a small Hungarian village on the border with Austria that becomes rich when the villagers start selling oil illegally tapped from an enormous oil refinery on the Austrian side of the border. Apart from being a not-so-subtle take on where Hungary stands compared to old Europe, the film also offers many comic moments that will please Hungarian audiences but might be too broad and too local to travel far beyond the region.

Other confections that are unlikely to travel far include “A Kind of America 2,” a sequel to a hugely popular local comedy, “Virtually a Virgin,” a misogynist sex comedy that is a new low-point for the iconic 1950s/’60s writer/director Peter Bacso, and Krisztina Goda’s swindled swindlers tale “Chameleon.”

A ray of hope in contemporary Hungarian cinema came in the form of the emaciated father-and-son tale “Father’s Acre,” which the jury of the Hungarian Film Week unjustly ignored but which picked up the Gene Moskowitz Prize awarded by the foreign critics.

The 2009 Hungarian Film Week Awards:

Main Prize “Golden Reel”: “Lost Times” by Aron Matyassy
Best Genre Film: “A Kind of America 2” by Gabor Herendi
Best Director: Peter Gardos for “Prank”
Best Cinematography: Mate Toth Widamon for “1”
Best First Film “Simo Sandor Prize” (Ex-Aequo): “Intimate Headshot” by Peter Szajki and “Paper Planes” by Simon Szabo
Best Actress: Julia Ubrankovics for “Virtually A Virgin”
Best Actor: Andor Lukats for “Prima Primavera” & “Fluke”
Best Screenplay: Balint Heged

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