Late last week, Béla Tarr concluded yet another chapter of his evolving career, and the Hungarian director marked the occasion with a tweet. “Dear friends,” wrote the iconoclastic filmmaker, who burnished his art-house gleam with films that were as existentially probing as they were demanding in length. “I would like to inform you that after 4 1/2 years, yesterday I left from Sarajevo. I wish all the best to everyone. Béla.”
This was not the first time he said goodbye. Tarr decamped to the Bosnian capital in early 2012, after announcing his official retirement from filmmaking. Having decided, following 2011’s “The Turin Horse”, that he had — in philosophical terms — said all that he really needed to say with film, he set up the film.factory at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology with the hope of honing a new generation of voices. Now that too was drawing to a close, though for a significantly more mundane reason.
Asked by IndieWire to explain the decision in a recent interview, Tarr was blunt. “Because of money,” he said, in a conversation at the Marrakech Film Festival, where he served as jury president. “We were a faculty of a private university and this program was too expensive for them.” Simple as that.
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Of course, nothing is ever that simple for this 61-year-old contradiction. A leading light of the so-called Slow Cinema movement, Tarr is among the most influential directors of the past 30 years, even though his films have often been maddeningly difficult to track down. “What can I do?” he said with a laugh.
Though Tarr is one of Hungary’s most prominent international voices, the country’s political and artistic establishment has often kept him at arm’s length. “Mr. Orbán is the shame of our country,” Tarr said, referring to prime minister Viktor Orbán.
And for all that the noise he made about leaving the art behind, Tarr doesn’t feel like he’s the least bit retired.
“I’m still a filmmaker,” he insisted. “Because filmmaking is a drug, and you cannot just stop it. It takes time! But I still see situations in life, and I’m still thinking. My brain is not stopped.” And how does the director’s brain work? “Filmmaking is a way of thinking. And of course, it’s a kind of reaction to life, a kind of communication. You see something in life, and then you transform it, and show it from your point of view.”
Now that doesn’t sound particularly surprising coming from the man Martin Scorsese called “one of the cinema’s most adventurous artists,” and who himself believes that “when you see a film, you see a director, naked,” but consider this: Tarr never meant for it happen.
“I did not want to be a filmmaker,” he explained. “I got my first 8mm camera as a kind of birthday gift from my father… [and] I did not touch this camera for almost two years.” The son of two theater workers, Tarr only returned to the forlorn gift when he felt the call for revolution. “I was thinking that the camera was just a piece of equipment, because I wanted to change the world, and I can use this shit for this. And that was my attitude.”
He got his start with activist documentaries, the kinds built of shaky cameras and fiery politics, a far departure from the controlled fatalism that would define his later work. But as Tarr tells it, the move from social realism to metaphysical poetics was entirely natural. “When you finish a movie, you have a new question. And for the new question, you cannot use the old answer and that’s how, step by step, you grow up and develop a style or language.” Step by step, question by answer, he moved towards a greater level of narrative abstraction; he moved up the art-house ranks; he moved 2011, towards “The Turin Horse.”
And then, well, “I was thinking the language, of the film language… it’s complete. And the main questions, I had [answered].” And so he moved to Sarajevo.
To a very real degree, Tarr saw the film.factory as bridge between his activist past and his art film contemporaries. He intended the school to be a sort of lab where filmmakers and theorists young and old could mix it up, exchange ideas and change points of view. While students for this final promotion where able to hobnob with Carlos Reygadas, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang, Tarr brought them on to do more than share aesthetic approaches.
“We have a kind of social sensibility; we feel our responsibility for the people,” he noted. “When they are working together they will understand, they have to respect each other. Everybody has a different religion, a different skin color, you know, its great! We are thinking of the whole earth, we have a global view. Not anymore this fucking provincial, nationalistic shit. This is why I was doing it.“
So what does he do now? In the short term, he’ll head to Amsterdam. He is preparing ‘Till the End of the World,” an upcoming exhibition at the EYE Museum that will run from January to May 2017, where he will premiere two new short films. In the longer term – that’s anyone’s guess. While he made clear that he does not foresee a return to feature-length filmmaking, he would very much like to find keep the film.factory going, provided he can find a new home.
And maybe he’ll hit the festival circuit. As the director noted, Marrakech had invited him each year for the past four years, but he could never carve out the time to come. This year, as his school wound down and he faced and uncertain future, he accepted their annual invitation. Why now?
“I just wanted to see some films.” Simple as that.