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Focus on Hungary

To some, Hungary brings to mind various food-related associations, such as the Csabai sausage, goulash, langos or a multitude of farmers who grow mostly bell peppers and watermelons. Others will recall summer days at Lake Balaton, a poor man's version of the sea. There are considerably less people who would immediately think of Hungary's booming film industry. Yet the early February at Budapest's MOM Park has for many years been dedicated to the Hungarian Film Week (Magyar Filmszemle). Almost 100 feature and documentary films completed over the past year reflect on the current state of Hungarian filmmaking. What then is the image of Hungarian (documentary) film today?

 

The Hungarian Film Week is a national film competition with a long history that provides an overview of films made over the past year. Founded in 1965, the festival presents feature and documentary films, but also television programmes, scientific-popular films and shorts. 95 films in this year's lineup were selected out of a total of 356 films, which speaks for a fairly busy filmmaking scene. Last year Hungarian filmmakers made 19 features (compared to the 34 Czech feature and 12 documentary theatrical releases).

The opening film of the festival was the latest feature by Hungary's legend Miklós Jancsó. Set in the 15th century, So Much For Justice! (Oda az igazság) is an epic drama that follows a young boy's quest to become the king of Hungary. Szabolcs Hajdu's Bibliotheque Pascal seemed to draw the most excited reactions. This latest feature by Hajdu who is known to Czech audiences for his White Palms (2006) tells the story of Mona, a young Romanian who looks back at her time spent in England and recounts the events that forced her to abandon her daughter and become a prostitute at a night club that gave the film its title. The film was also the jury's favourite and received the festival Grand Prix.

Documentary film drew attention especially thanks to filmmakers whose reputation goes well beyond Hungary - Tamás Almási who presented his Puskás Hungary and Péter Forgács who introduced Hunky Blues – The American Dream, Almási's film portrays the Hungarian football legend Ferenc Puskás who fled the country in 1956 and as a Real Madrid player became "one of the most famous Hungarians in the world". Puskás Hungary took the Award for Best Documentary Film. 

Almási shared the award with László Csáki's short documentary Tincity, a poetic potrayal of life in a tiny wine-growing village. Local themes are also dominant in Hunky Blues by Péter Forgács who made the series Private Hungary that captures the everyday life of Hungarians against the backdrop of momentous historical events. As the title suggests, Hunky Blues - The American Dream is composed of archive footage and old photographs of thousands of Hungarian immigrants who from 1890 - 1921 travelled to the United States in search of a better life.

All three filmmakers stick Hungarian subjects yet their films are often succesful abroad as well. Czech audiences had several opportunities to see their work at a number of local festivals. However, they are only the tip of the iceberg that seldom reveals the true nature of Hungarian documentary filmmaking. Forgács, especially, enjoys a special status among Hungarian documentarians as he managed to succeed on the international scene. His long-term focus on archive material led to the foundation of a private archive in Budapest (Private Photo & Film Archives Foundation) and in 2007 he was awarded the Erasmus Prize for his contribution to European culture. He is viewed as a filmmaker with a European stature rather than a typical representative of Hungarian documentary film. What are some of the conditions and factors that form contemporary Hungarian documentary film?

Hungarian Film Act

The Hungarian Film Week alone presented almost 40 new documentaries (out of a total of 169 documentary and 35 scientific-popular submissions). According to the data released by the Motion Picture Public Foundation (MMKA), the major funding body in the country, 172 grant applications were received in 2009, with 43 of them granted financial support. The Hungarian Film Week presented almost all of the films completed last year. Compared to the 30 Czech documentary projects that received funding from the State Fund for the Support and Development of Czech Cinematography, the Hungarian figures seem relatively high.

Although both countries are comparable in terms of their size and population, could it be that Hungary has set better conditions documentary filmmaking? Could a specific funding scheme be essential in boosting documentary filmmaking? Hungary was quick to understand that it was necessary to modify the basic conditions so as to stay competitive in the film industry, especially in relation the Czech Republic that, thanks to financial availability and solid technical conditions and professionals, was initially able to draw international film productions. From 2001 Hungary was drafting a new film act; the major change came three years later with the passing of the so-called Act II that introduced the system of film tax incentives and tax relief up to 20% of the total budget.  

The amended film act took effect in 2004. Using a point system, it allows filmmakers to apply for up to 50% financial support; art and non-profit projects can receive 70-90% funding out of up to 2 mil. HUF. However, the key achievement lay in introducing the incentives that allow for up to 25% returns on the total budget, both for local and international filmmakers. At the same time, other supplementary funding sources for local projects and co-productions are being created by Hungarian companies that can apply partial tax writeoff on their investment.   

Hungarians were quick to realize how to draw investors and bring in international finances. They promptly implemented what took the Czechs until autumn last year when the Czech government passed the Scheme for the Support of the Film Industry, based on a similar model as in Hungary or Germany. At the moment, the incentive scheme awaits decision from the EU that must assess whether the programme meets all EU regulations concerning state support for commercial enterprise, but should take effect at the end of February. Support should paid out in the form of subsidies, which means that the project will have to be approved by the Programme Council as well as the so-called cultural test required by the European Commission to demonstrate that the scheme has cultural qualities relevant in terms of European culture. It still remains to be seen what exactly this vaguely general phrase means in practice. Who will decide and how about what is or isn't relevant in terms of European culture? It could easily become a bureaucratic loophole in the assessment of projects. And, finally, it could cause filmmakers to consciously insert elements into their films just to ensure approval.

Documentary Film: Dependent on the State

How does the system work in Hungary? Considering the number of state-funded projects, does the system have, after all, any impact on documentary film? Has the number of international co-productions increased since the law was passed? With a good incentive system in place, it could seem that co-productions will be the way to go for documentary filmmakers as well. However, badly underfinanced documentary filmmaking is clearly not too appealing to foreign investors (in the East Silver database of completed films, you'll find only a handful of Hungarian co-productions). With a few exceptions, Hungarian documentary films work on very small budgets so that a 20% return is not a factor because the whole system was designed primarily for medium-sized and large projects. Support granted to documentary film by Hungary's MMKA, the major film-funding body, is negligible. Currently running on a budget of 5.12 bil. HUF (approx. 19 mil. EUR, as agreed by the Ministry of Education and Culture, and MMKA), documentary films receive less than 300 mil. HUF (1.1 mil. EUR), a slightly higher amount than in previous years (142.5 mil. HUF in 2007 and 180 mil. HUF in 2008) yet other sources must still be tapped into as well. According to Lórant Stöhr, a member of the MMKA expert committee for documentary projects, the average amount per project is roughly 5 mil. HUF, covering up to 80% of the total budget. In exceptional cases, the committee may decide to fund the project completely.

Although the production costs for feature and documentary films are in no way comparable, MMKA's budget for feature films is 2.5 bil. HUF (approx. 8.5 mil. EUR), which clearly shows how much underfinanced Hungarian documentary film really is. "There is a sufficient number of sources on the local leve even if documentary films are not considered high-budget projects. We are able to fund projects locally but at a lower standard that is reflected in lower wages, poorer visual qualities, etc. This is doable but, on the other hand, it is extremely difficult to fund an international project, explains director and producer Bojána Papp. State subsidies are too low for international investors to get involved in Hungarian film. As many local experts point out, filmmakers themselves are often in a difficult situation because they have little contact with international producers and are not too willing to change it.

Of course, this applies mostly to the older generation of filmmakers who never fully adapted to the post-1990 changes and still stick to old themes which they consider relevant in their own right regardless of form. Lóránt Stőhr believes that this group of filmmakers is not interested in international distribution, co-production with international TV networks or international grants because they want to target the local audience and stir the conscience of Hungarian society. In contrast, younger filmmakers are well aware of the new standards set by the audience, networks and distributors and adjust their films accordingly, whether it be in subject matter, innovative approach to form or creative use of film devices.

These filmmakers are getting used to international festivals, venture beyond local funding opportunities and are able to present their projects at markets and workshops abroad. As Stöhr adds, "They are willing to attend international pitching events and look for co-production partners but they still face a peculiar catch-21 in that Hungarian state support is too low for foreing investors and co-production partners yet, at the same time, they cannot apply for higher grants from the MMKA which has limited resources. Documentary filmmakers are calling for changes in the grant system run by the MMKA. Many would much rather see direct proposals and project presentations before a committee of experts, a system similar to pitching forums, such as the East European Forum organized each year in Jihlava. Lóránt

Stőhr is one of the professionals at the forefront of the proposed changes: "I feel that we are not able to assess projects fairly unless we can discuss the budget or other issues directly with the filmmakers." A more thorough assessment of projects that would weed out the weaker projects should improve the situation and increase the quality of documentary films. These efforts may be stalled  by the MMKA's new Board that should vote on the changes but still has not officially started its term due to reelection delays. The new Board is made up of the following members: economist Péter Ákos Bod, László Baán, Árpád Kovács, producer Attila Bognár, producer and director György Durst and Veronika Bakonyi, led by the MMKA President, screenwriter Zoltán Kőrösi. According to information from the MMKA, the Board is set to start its activities in Spring 2010. It is still unclear when - or if - the Board will start discussing these changes. Documentary professionals may also be partly to blame for not putting enough coordinated pressure on the officials. 

Journalist David Dercsényi perceives one of the main causes in that Hungarian documentary professionals are divided into a number of separate groups, without any single association or organization, operating locally or in mutually hostile camps: "Filmmakers in general are not associated in any organization; the local documentary scene is completely fragmented, some of the factions are not even on speaking terms or organize their own separate festivals. Only a handful of filmmakers have international professional contacts. As a result, uncoordinated Hungarian  filmmakers are not able to defend their rights and cannot effect any real change." Illustrating this fact, Hungarian film schools do not include documentary departments and young filmmakers face not only production difficulties but also the generally low status of documentary film. On a better note, the situation may be looking up; next year director Tamás Almási plans to open the first documentary department. Documentary film is overlooked by film institutions, such as Filmunió (Hungarian counterpart of the Czech Film Center) that focuses its promotional activities on feature film, while documentary film is mostly shoved to the background.

Other Funding Sources

Unlike in the Czech Republic, Hungarian television networks cannot be relied on for support. Not only do they allow little space for creative documentaries, they are not willing to get involved in the production. Although the Hungarian Media Act requires broadcasters to support national cinema, documentary films always seem to come short. Among the few exceptions, Duna TV provides some contribution to documentary funding and in cooperation with the MMKA sponsors one of the awards at the Hungarian Film Week, this year awarded to Dracula's Shadow by Árpád Szöczi and The Last Performance by Ákos Zámborszki. Hungarian networks offer negligible funding to feature films as well - last year, Duna TV gave 0.14%; Hungarian TV contributed 1.28% and currently on the verge of bankruptcy.

Documentary filmmakers do not have much choice but to apply with other grant institutions, such as the the National Cultural Foundation (NKA), the Hungarian Historical Film Foundation (MTFA) that is aimed at history (documentary) films, also the Fund run by the Ministry of Education and Culture, and the private sector, e.g., the Concorde Film Trust, the first Hungarian film fund established by the banking corporation Concorde Securities shortly after the Film Act was passed in 2004 which offers investment incentives and tax relief to companies that provide funding to Hungarian film. The trust has several members now and the fund serves as an intermediary between producers and participating companies. 

Undoubtedly, the Hungarian Film Act has some value, at least for feature film. It is less clear how it would be implemented in our context and whether it would establish conditions for other funding sources, such as the Hungarian Film Trust, that would be open to documentary film. It is apparent that Hungarian documentary film is still treated as inferior to features and the situation has not progressed much since 2004. At the moment, Hungarian documentary film seems stuck at a standstill. Let us hope Czech documentary film can avoid running into a similar kind of trouble.  

 

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