Peter Forgacs interviewed by Sven Spieker

Peter Forgacs has a long-standing reputation as Hungary's most innovative documentary film-maker. His latest film, A dunai exodus (The Danube Exodus, 1998), was a highlight of the 30th Hungarian Film Week and shared the Grand Jury prize for best documentary. Using amateur film taken by a ship's captain, Forgacs relates two stories which took place during the war: the exodus of Central European Jews to Palestine and the exodus of ethnic Germans from Bessarabia to "the fatherland."

> The first question I’d like to ask you has to do with the notion of “Mitteleuropa.” The question is whether this term has any relevance for you.

The physical division of Europe ended 12 years ago, but the spiritual did not. So there is still a place for the notion of Mitteleuropa. It means that we are not united ... I think the definition of Mitteleuropa is more one of cultures in constant crisis.

I began my found-footage research in Budapest, in 1982 and 1983, to establish the Private Photo and Film Archive. First with snapshots—home photographs—and by ’83 the collection of films. At that time I had a part-time job at the Cultural Research Institute as a research fellow and had quite a free hand to develop the archive because my director regularly renewed my three-month contract and, outside the research community, nobody really cared what I was up to ... They let me work and I didn’t bother them too much. The reason why I was up to collect home movies was the distorted, censored, and destroyed past and the inconsistent continuity of traditions and history. Let’s say it was more a psychohistorical imprint I was looking for than regular observation of the past, or a sentimental journey. My terrain is the unofficial visual imprint of my culture, and I soon realized this image collection might represent something new and fill some of the gaps of the vast, destroyed, and lost past.

The past was destroyed and rewritten in an Orwellian way . The past is an always rewritten history: this is a common identity crisis in East Europe or, in other words, in Mitteleuropa ... The vast part of the common history, memory, and culture was completely terrorized, sank, suppressed, rewritten; shortly: destroyed. Some of those memories where preserved by the midwar home movie imprints, and for me those sparkle, flash out from the past (lets say in a Jungian way), and as a result, my work speaks truly a different language from regular fiction films or newsreels of the same period ... I started to collect home movies (transferring the films to video) and interviewing the families as a time archeologist. For six years, the film and photo collecting was just a kind of archivist mania: the archeology of the vanishing past.

In Hungary, eleven different political rules existed between 1918 and 1989, (including three revolutions and two counterrevolutions) and two world wars ruined us. The demonic Nazi influence crushed Europe, and until the fall of the Berlin wall and the Soviet Empire, we where never really free. As a consequence, any family home-movie collection that covers more than ten—or, for God’s sake, more than 30—years will show the unique sign of times, even images made from the most naive focus, from a private history perspective of the citoyen [citizen] ... So the Private Photo And Film Archive collection focuses to the unknown Hungarian history registered on films from 1920 to circa 1980. This archive is the basis of my work. I’ve learned a lot meeting these families and the making interviews. I’ve been doing it for years, without with intention to make a film with them. This is really an archive, providing a kind of discovery of hidden (sank, forbidden, etc.) cultural history through the home movies and the interviews ...

> My question is quite closely related to what you are talking about. One could make up such an opposition in looking at your films that would say, on the one hand there is an aspect to what you do that has to do with recovery, which is to say that you salvage these films that have not been shown in a long time, and you bring them back to light, you salvage them, you recover them for posterity. Maybe it is with this in this type of paradigm that one would say you locate the kind of “meditative” elements in your filmmaking (if that is the right word). It may not be the right word, but the sort of elegiac kind of elements. But there is also a very different part to what you do that has to with something that I would call construction. You put together these films. You edit them. You are a very active kind of worker at the cutting table. I wonder that this tension between these two elements—if it is indeed a tension—seems to kind of structure your work. That is to say, on the one hand an emphasis on a certain continuity that stresses the possibility of maybe bridging again the gaps with that which has been lost or which has been forgotten, yet which can somehow be recovered on the one hand. On the other hand, I notice a very different attitude towards the past, which says that the past is something that in a sense I make out of the bits and pieces, that I construct, that I at the cutting table give you and it is for you to decide you know what this construct that I give you is. But it seems to me that it is very important to keep either side of these things in mind when one watches your films. If you just concentrate on the construction side I think you don’t do your work justice, but if you concentrate only on, let’s say, that side that emphasizes the sort of healing rifts, that recovery, the salvation or the salvaging would be a better word, then I think that would also be rather one-sided.

Your question raises the dichotomy of my work. The elegiac float is for the viewers’ perception, because that is primarily offered by the films. In certain works it’s sometimes melancholic or it’s just poetic, but it’s always there. The structuring serves the elegiac texture, for deeper perception, to perceive the message from these time capsules. It is really the structure that provides the message it for the viewer’s eye. Filmmaking since Griffith and the Russian avant-garde film is something different. It does not want to cheat and tell you that film time is continuous. The simplest montage in film, like the counterpoint Eisenstein used, fills up the gaps of traditional storytelling. From that moment of the early ’20s, we can see and sense through film the imaginary time paradigm.

In my films it is emphasized, because they are made from fragments, bits, and pieces. My films are not results of a script, but the recomposition of film acts, reshaping the hidden intention of the amateur filmmaker. The home-movie maker, attributes a personal dramaturgy to those bits and pieces, collected on bobbins and rolls. They are just cutouts (slices) from the continuum of the personal, local time and certain life periods. For example, my hero Mr. Bartos bought his camera in 1928 and then filmed for 30 years. This film collection is more than five hours. All the things that are important to them, to the maker, are concentrated in five hours, but those are the selected, and mostly happy moments.

Now, how can we reread these things, events, moments, acts? That is the question. Here comes a big watershed. Most of the filmmakers use archive material and home-movie stuff, use these images for illustrating an idea, a problem, a sociological or historical fact for their film. For me it’s the opposite: it’s the message of the film fragments that is important and my challenge is to put together a new story. The home moviemakers creating these naive self-anthropology films, proving for themselves and for later times that they exist. Their film approach—perception—is completely different than that of a “professional,” and from mine. I want to compose something that could be called a private history in front of the curtain of the public history. This dynamic relation between the elegy (of private saga) and the structure (of a historic perspective) with Hitchcockian melody is my message ... The bits and pieces of the old home movies are more like parts of a dreamwork. My, recontextualizing construction is more a kind of restructuring of the dreamwork and not an illustration with/by their lives. My aim is more to open up the secret vaults of a personal, private history memory archive of those lives ...

On the screen, you see private story and juxtapose their local-time events with historic landmarks: the years 1938, 1945, 1956, or whatever. Today we have our own, local-event history, the time of present history. The time lapse between today—the viewing time—and the past—the film-event time (historic time)—this distance is full of tension. The bridging of two dates (today versus time chapters) is a strong effect, because we know at today’s screening what will happen with them in their own film time by the future story. The suspense is a Hitchcockian tension: we know their forthcoming drama and the twists, as we are aware of the would-be victims’ future, but are not able to communicate our knowledge. The tension between our present and their past is a hidden motor and the whole film works that way. I am not saying all my works are like that, but in most of the works that cross the watershed of the Second World War work with that dynamism of two different time perspectives.

Where is the focus point of the elegiac form and the structure? Where the musical and historical structure meets: what I would say is possible in the viewers’ mind. We bridge the gaps of time and events. Not only of those banal things, but also we evaluate constantly what we see on the screen. What we see on my screen is mostly everyday banality. When we see “the smoking everyman” banally walking into the history [Second World War], one has a feeling that there is something bad that is going to happen to him. That is the suspense point when the elegy and the structure meet. They—those on the screen—do not know what we know: their future, i.e. our past. That rhythm or oscillation, between the structure and the elegiac form is a key motive.

Memory can be positively sentimental, while negative memory consists of focusing on the loss of those beautiful days. The loss or the gain of what we have colors, alters, the memory. But of course the memory is a trace of the past. As an archaeologist puts together a vase of certain discovered elements, he tries to figure out how the vase looked originally; his work is like the trace of the memory, in the archive. What is the archive in this sense? The archive (a film archive in our case) is also the archive of memory bits and pieces connected to films and home movies. The question is how we are reading the signs, the trace to past? My reading of these amateur films is quite different than of the original makers. It does not mean that they would necessary disagree with the result.

We all have family members and memories, so when we see these home movie bazaars, we are touched by our own archive memories. We are looking through a kind of kaleidoscope of the past of ourselves, a kind of emotional projection for us. In a way these, films are collective-memory fiction (I wouldn’t dare say that that’s the reality). I try to suggest with my films: I suppose that’s how it happened; I presume it happened that way. I think the heroes’ fate in my films create a novelistic form, or a kind of archeological image still under construction. We can put together certain aspects, allusions, moods, and such, but we will never be able to describe what was really the life at that time ...

> I was struck by your mention of avant-garde filmmaking, specifically Eisensteinian montage. I wonder if you could clarify the relationship a little bit more specifically with regard to time. Now, the way I understand avant-garde montage—and I certainly am often reminded of this type of montage when I watch your movies—is that it has something to do with what you said is very important for your own work - the interruption of the flow, which is both an allusion to narrative but also it is constant interruption. Montage appears to be about bringing about a certain moments of crisis with the help of the medium of film: making things clash, interrupting the elegiac flow, bringing you to reflect upon what you see, rather than letting you immerse your self in a certain mood. Avant-garde filmmaking, it seems to me, montage specifically, is about kind of getting people away from the idea that films are there to confirm their ideas about history, and about the medium itself, I might add. Are your films at all interested in interrupting that mood, in getting people out of their preconceptions about the historical process?

Absolutely ... Your question draws our attention to several layers of this problematic genre. First of all, an avant-garde filmmaker, like Maya Deren for example, does not want to tell me anything else that she wants to say. On the other edge of the film genre, we have the educative BBC-type documentary that is explaining with tautology: “This is the blue sky above us; what you see is the green grass which grows up.” From the tautology-type film on the one hand and Maya Deren–type film on the other, I feel myself to be somewhere more in the sphere of Maya Deren, but with an effort to compose the story by not losing the other segments, allusions, and dimensions of the historical, cultural, or just psychological context completely ... Whenever there is this loose historic sphere in which you live your own private life - lets say in a certain year - I really mark it and expose it: this is 1938. Now you can connect with your historic knowledge what 1938 is. One sign of a year is enough for us to come out from the banal flow of the private history. On the other hand, there are other elements that we might able to separate now. Apart from the collage and montage techniques, we have the music that is a very strong part. There is no narration as we expect and have heard before in normal, entertaining or discursive films ...

I think the avant-garde collage technique of filmmaking is just one part of this language. On the other hand, there is the psycho-historical dynamics or the counterpointing of the themes, and chapters; in many cases, the music of Szemzo is “playing against” or mediating the image; parallel stories are played so that they are weaved together or against each other in this method. I would say that this is a larger vocabulary used by a limited palette.

> Maybe, to use an analogy from information theory, one could say that what you are interested in is the historical processes in the background noise of history ... So you’re playing with this difference between noise and perceivable signals, it seems to me.

I like it.

> That’s one thing. The other thing is - there are many postwar filmmakers or artists who also made films that are interested in banality; take Andy Warhol, for example. But there seems to be a big difference ... There does seem to be a certain confidence in what you do that in the noise there are signals, which are hidden and can be filtered out only if we take the right approach - a confidence that it seems to me is completely lost in many of your contemporaries outside Central Europe.

You just pointed out the first enormous difference between Europe and the United States. The United States does not have the blood of the historical - the last brutal history on US soil was the Civil War one hundred forty years ago. They haven’t seen war in this country since that time. So what distinguishes United States and Europe is that history has a somewhat different notion here ... There's a great difference between Joseph Beyus and Andy Warhol, although both of them are fluxus artists: Beyus is historic, it happens with him, but Andy Warhol is indifferent – others play for him, though he is exclusively secretive at the same time. In a Beyus work I have, feel, get, acquire always the context. We have the surrounding noise, and the tangible distance, the tension of the sacred/banal. The banality of the rabbit Beyus, the banality of grease Beyus, the banality of his self-mythology, and it is always placed, composed, embedded, or grounded very well in to the context. So I think (and maybe I’m wrong) that this is a quasi-European tradition.

My own work has something in common with the works of Boltanski - it is easier to talk about Boltanski for a second than of my own work. When he, Boltanski, is recovering a young German’s fictitious bio photographs, this is a fiction in one sense, a fictional documentation. What Boltanski is doing is like a Rorschach test image - you start to project your own emotions on that screen ... The context is a quasi-historical context, and I also feel this same theme in Ilya Kabakov’s artists’ rooms installation. He is creating a common, metaphoric place and the everyday level at the same time/space. It is a Moscow common housing project, where each room is a different person’s universe. They are fictions, but it has its very strong reality call, and behaves, again, as a Rorschach test plate. You project the person and almost see the person inside the space. Now, there is something similar in Boltanski and Kabakov and in my own work. In my installations and films work I try to offer the illusions that they are real (REAL) people, but still it plays in the imaginary space, where the noise of the channel is very strong.

... If I am wondering in my museum of home movies - because all my films are a kind of exhibitions- I still perceive the pace of the messages and the exposition of floating image dreams. Though one has a kind of time-based eternal float where to fly with them, but still it is an exhibition of banalities with a difference between the noise and the signal in front. This difference is the recontextualizing of not necessarily the historical context and connotations, but simply of the decoding process of seeing things. Of course what we are attributing to the meanings of image is rich in historical context. I might not have to say or add anything to the image – and this is what I do, usually just enough to mark one date (1942) or one place, and you’ll associate to the aura of the image of those. I don’t give a history book lesson for the viewer in these films, but I try to activate, mobilize your knowledge. And I try to activate your complex perception.

> What is striking to me as you were speaking was that for me the home movies speak less about history as a large process of a certain chronology of events. But they speak to the enormous fragmentation of people’s experience as a result of, or accompanied by, their use of the camera. I mean it really does seem to be a very particular vision of a very confined space and you’ve emphasized it yourself that what these people were doing was framing or conserving happy moments of their life. A very particular, a very narrow, a very specific, a very much confined view. It becomes then an almost ironic kind of procedure to put these things together and present them as mirrors of these large historical processes, events. The way in which these films speak to the incredible kind of confinement of these people’s private lives is something that I am very struck by. I do not know whether that makes them more or less suitable as historical documents or as documents that tell us something about history. It certainly makes me wonder to what extent we can really treat them as entryways into history.

One of the reasons I’d like to use the clear notion private history is to distinguish it from the “Grande Histoire”, the notion of public history. It is really a parallel and individual history of life and event fragments. If you watch any of the original sources (the collection) of my films as the home-movie makers rolled it on, the fragmented life event recordings are visible and easy to find similarities or reminders to anyone’s family life. I try to look what is behind the fragmented life collections. I am not forcing you as viewer to look at it as a “Grande Histoire”, but more to offer a new viewpoint from this horizon of archeological exposition of time or event fragments. I put together something that has a new panorama of unexpected flow of time. Its more a mood and a rather new aspect of rearranging, recontextualizing the personal with the public, the concrete by the substantial. I hope its more than declaring “this is history,” or “one can learn what is history.” I was using history like you were using noise. It is not history writing.

For me it is very important to expose the individual banality, or banality of the personal. I am the messenger/mediator and I am transmitting/mediating a fractional memoir, the grasped memory ruins. Since I was sent from my country to an other, the message changed because the time and space context elapsed. I don’t want to say anything about truth, as I don’t know anything about the Truth. What I would like to say is something more like “look what I found.” “Please look at it”, or “What is this?” In a way it’s a conceptual performance, meditation connected one way or another to Kabakov, Boltanski, or the postmodern cinema. My work is not forcing you or anybody to see this world this or that way. You are free with your choice like at my exhibition. I am not saying that this and that is the value of this and that ... What I am doing is hiding my own issues, my anthropological, political and historical notions.

For example, I made a film called “Angelos’ Film”, a Greek saga. The hero is a wealthy monarchist, who is filming in Athens under the Nazi occupation. Most of the intellectuals and filmmakers of today are more or less leftist in Greece. The history of the Second World War in Greece was completely altered/modified later by the civil war that followed. Therefore, anybody who is a monarchist - in the eyes of the left - is also a collaborationist. My hero is not a collaborationist. He is making a different shape of history by recording secretly the life in Athens 1940-1944, and the Nazis’ atrocities. For today’s average Greek intellectual perception, this film is non-objective, because the hero cannot be seen through a biased eye as a monarch-fascist; to them he/Angelos cannot be a true “patriot.” To them true patriots are the communists. By presenting this film in a kind of intentional indifference, I was objective as author, though if I go to vote, I vote a different way than when I am making the films. If I vote, I would rather vote for the liberal side, but when I am making a film, then I am exhibiting it for you, by saying: you have to evaluate. I don’t express explicitly this is good or bad.

This is the sphere where I feel the connection to Warhol or his films. Or to Bob Wilson’s “slow motion theatre“ when he is transferring something to the minimum of the existence of that notion meaning. It is like an event under the microscope, like Warhol’s observation of the Empire State Building as a cell, under the microscope. The same slow motion observation of found footage comes up in my films, though it is contextualized more or less in a family story. But, still you are in the nowhere land of banality. It is always—at least for me the great challenge to keep this observational position.

On the other hand, there is a minimum of the event noise that you have to separate significantly from the background noise in the transmission channel from other noises. Like there are turning points, or crisis, it happens the same way time to time in a Warhol film, suddenly, unexpectedly there is a crisis. In Warhol’s movie you don’t have to know the context. In my films one has to know a little bit about that terrain. To my great surprise, in the beginning of the 90s the films that I made in Hungary had greater reactions outside of Hungary. Others understood it and I was really, really surprised. It is not the Hungarian spleen, but it is something, maybe more universal, not bounded to the local Hungarian terrain, subtext, colloquial film.

> In conclusion can you tell me something about your film archives in Budapest - the history of the project and where it stands right now?

It’s a small archive, The Private Photo and Film Foundation, and since 1983 we collected approximately five hundred hours of home movies, transferring them to video. The main purpose was to somehow find the lost evidence, that there was another life before over there. As a parable we are returning to the original, your question of what is the lost “Mitteleuropäische”, which is – I’d define now - the lack of past. The Orwellian rewritten past was disturbing for me for many years. Hungary was in the middle of enormous lies. This archive is 500 hours of private history, with many interviews. It is a kind of - it’s hard to explain - a personal archeological channel.

My archeology-archive is like an excavation to the hidden and forgotten past. It’s not only my past; it’s a common East-European past, with this suppressed, substitute past. The substituted past, substituted with different idiotic emblematic psychopaths like Nazis or Communists; or just forgetting who you are and why you are there. My works are the findings of the past by a substituted wonderer self in THE ARCHIVE. On the other hand, it was an avant-gardism, a gesture to create this archive, which is completely different from any other archive in Hungary. It is not the official representation of the Hungarian films and not the official OK photographs, but it’s the bad photographs and the banal films. This is a different cultural anthropological aspect of that culture, the non-official culture, and the non-official re-written culture. Where the vacuum is, the white spot …

I have to mention something else and it’s about my composer Tibor Szemzo. I think it’s worth it to mention his work - as a great part of this oeuvre is the unique musical perspective. His different perception is an exquisite expression of music and sound-scapes provided to my works. The music has a very specific, and a strong new meaning; it’s not explaining, not dramatizing, not illustrating, but giving enough power to meditation and perception. Offering the pulsing distance between you and the film. It is not film music in any sense, it is much more.

> One could say quite generally that if one is not able to forget, then it is very hard to remember, because an overload will occur and you will in the end most likely not remember anything. I wonder if the music in your films is actually that moment since the music does not contain any mediate images, it is not visual in character. It plays precisely the role of counterbalancing the images to the extent that it is an element of forgetfulness, where it appears as if the images are constantly giving you the illusion of reminding you of something, of making you remember something, of giving you something visual that will suggest that things have been successfully archived. The music seems to be a counterpoint to the extent that it is sort of respite, a kind of saving from that illusion of remembering. It is not an archival thing. The music is precisely what escapes the archive. Does that at all square with your ideas about the role the music plays in the films?

It is very interesting, because when I think of the music of Tibor Szemzo, I feel that music is sometimes the vocal of the main hero or the sound of the channel. It provides a meditative distance from the object and is sometimes the motor of the emotional flow of our story. I never thought of it in the relation of forgetting and remembering. This dynamic is more complex than the work, because the musical image (sound-scape) is woven together with the filmic image in a fitting and contemplative way. The context is completely new in this music, because it is not the perception of the original idea of the maker at all. It is bridging somehow this fragmented world of remembering with us.

You are right when you say that the problem of archive is remembering. Derrida’s evocative question - what is archive? - helps us to rethink the archive. What happens when you pick out something from the archive and expose it? Do you understand the context or are you recontextualizing and then suppressing or altering the content? Now, that’s why I insist to express that the dream structure and the re-reading of a dream is more near to this genre than that of a simple archival re-representation. Reading a dream means that you offer a reading, which could have been replaced by a different reading, which is – or could be - just as true, as right as the previous, other readings. So you peel off the meanings - or the attributions of meaning - and the music helps, opens up The Gate in that way. It’s a kind of fluid in this procedure that helps rethink your own remembering. The music connects the mood, structural elements, and bridges these gaps. Of course, the gap is terribly big because the original footage and the way I edit is really a jumping from scenes to scenes, from situations to situations.

With the found footage it’s like with any “objet trouvé” - it is recontextualised and it’s not anymore a pissoir, it is a fountain. A Duchamp fountain resembles the pissoir, but you’re not sure anymore whether there is a pissoir only. It’s the same with the films and this is where the music comes in as a very significant element of this texture, it bridges the gap, gives an emotional float, and sometimes it is the opera singer’s voice, the main hero’s voice, or feelings and emotions. So it’s not helping to forget, but it smoothens the way how we float in this time Möbius strip.

A longer version of this interview originally appeared in ArtMargins in 2002

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