Found footage Art. Conversation with Péter Forgács | LORENZO MARMIROLI, VALENTINA VALENTINI, GIUSEPPINA VIGNOLA
Mr. Forgács, in every movie of yours, in every material there is a biography, the story of a human being. Can you tell us your artistic biography?
An uncle of mine, in summer 1956, escaped successfully from Ukraine, which was in the Soviet Union. He was a painter, and during his temporary stay at our home, in Budapest, sometimes he let me into his small room, his “atelier”. These visits to this place made me decide that I wanted to be an artist.
You were born in 1950, and you mentioned you were 6 years old when you met your uncle painter, so this happened in the summer of 1956, just some months before the Hungarian Revolution. Did your uncle escape from the Soviet Union?
No, he just came as a lucky immigrant. Then, during the revolution, when the borders were open for a short time, he escaped to West. He did it immediately, because he knew from the experience of Soviet dictatorship that Hungarian freedom would not last long. He continued his carrier as a painter in the West, and died some years ago, at the age of 92, in Vienna.
So, you started with paintings.
Originally, yes, I dreamt of painting. The smell (the scent of turpentine) in his room, the flavor and magic of the paintings, suggested to me that I would like to be like him; my future could have been the future of a painter…
Then, when I turned nine years old, I started to attend to evening art schools, followed by another scene when I turned 15, the excellent Arts and Crafts High School in Budapest: it was the best arts and crafts education possible in Hungary at that time.
Later on, I was admitted to the Academy of Arts, but got expelled just months later together with others, as I was a member of an opposition leftist cultural political group. Of course I later tried to enter into other different universities in Hungary, without success, never being accepted as I was on the black list. I could get a high school art teacher degree with evening courses.
But, after some years, I must admit that, for my own artist’s biography this maybe awoke me, and it was not the worst thing that could happen, being outside academia. I got into what was then underground art, into what was unacceptable to the Communist Party, to the official schools and academies. The underground avant-garde became a cultural fertile soil.
For many years I thought that the ban from university was a curse, but now, looking back, I see that it was just a road to maturation, so “thanks” to those idiots!
Of course, I should be happy that I was not living in Romania or in the Soviet Union, where they could just have cut my head off, or sent me to the Gulag, like many other poets or artists of the time. On the other hand, Hungary was still a “socialist” country, and it was impossible to be legal for a self-educated artist in many fields.
I have been teaching visual arts in elementary schools and in houses of culture for fifteen years, and working as a recitativo singer for the contemporary music ensemble Group 180; I made Fluxus performances as well, in underground groups like the Young Artists Club… As a result of my participation in creative visual-and –art school experiments I was invited to join a research group led by a creative music teacher, and I was given a supporting role in a part-time art educational research program in a Cultural Research Institute, Budapest.
All in all, in the art scene I was banned until 1990 and did not have any solo exhibition in a state owned gallery or museum in Hungary (there were NO private galleries in Eastern Europe, except in Poland!). In 1995 had my first solo art exhibition in Hungary when I turned 45 years old – that was a good kick off. And as I mentioned previously I have been confined to private spheres and to underground art clubs. I had my art-life in the underground, learning on my own and from the avant-garde in Hungary.
Luckily in the Cultural Research institute I had a director, Ivan Vitanyi, who was really an open minded fellow (we are still friends, he is now 85 years old). Among others he sheltered me, and after some years, together with a colleague of mine (A. Bán), we started to collect hundreds of amateur photographs and films.
My artistic experience is complex, and followed different paths. I had my fundamental experiences in music groups, in theaters, design workshops, I did and practiced a lot of things, like psychological, historical, philosophical, musical, or film studies (in the Béla Balázs Film studio for example)…
This kind of art based on found footage became a kind of synthesis situation and terrain for me, where the object trouvé – like a Duchamp readymade – is already there (films-photos), and the rest is a rich terrain of tools, methods, attitudes, a “place”, a “zone”, where one can re-contextualize by art ‘the world’ and its ephemeral visual recordings. My Weltanschauung has been formed through all these experiences.
Were you allowed to exhibit just after the fall of Communism?
Yes, my first exhibition took place in 1995, after the end of Communism in Hungary. Previously I was neglected, but I do not consider myself as a martyr: this was just my way to grow up facing the problems.
Who were your masters and not-masters? How did you discover your anthropological and historical vocation? Do you see a difference in the artistic life after the end of Soviet Union?
The Béla Balázs studio was the only place for filmmakers and independent artists to express themselves. There, it was possible for us to make low-budget films, and then hope for the best in the future: one day it will be published, distributed. Eventually that was the only place in the Hungarian film practice where censorship acted after the making of a movie; in all other studios, censorship was enfaced before, whether filming, pre-censoring, self censoring, tight control was everything that could be done over the film zone.
This structure made possible for me to work with films, and also allowed a good community of artists to work at Béla Balázs studio.
In 1978 I went to the Venice Biennale, and I saw everything, I was like a dry sponge thrown into water. During the same trip, I also went to Greece, and Paris.
I was lucky not to find myself in a totally isolated situation, like the inhabitants of Albania, or the Soviet Union… Travelling was somehow controlled, restricted but allowed.
To escape provincial pressure, the dogmatism of censorship, like people of my generation, I tried to see and travel as much as possible. I was aware of what was happening in the art scenes of Poland and Czechoslovakia, for instance.
In 1978 a contemporary music group, “Group 180”, was also established, and I was invited to join and play in English, as my English was pretty good. I worked with them, and had the wonderful opportunity to learn about the inner world of contemporary music and musical structure.
Theater also played a vital role in my life. Underground theater in Hungary (like the Squat, who were forced to emigrate to USA in 1976) represented the trends, the avant-garde aspects, that would hardly be shown in the state sponsored, censored, classical theaters; a good example is when the British Royal Shakespeare Company came to Budapest to play Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1973 and 1978, it was a mind blowing eye opening experience, that somehow changed the progressive part of Hungarian theater. We found ourselves in need to learn what was not the official culture, but the opposition, the underground one.
From the film scene, I should also mention Gábor Bódy, and Péter Timár’s film. Bódy was one of the first theoreticians, an influential film-maker and organizer (among many things he was also a pioneer of found footage based avant-garde pictures). He and Timár made the first found footage based film (35 minutes), Private History, in 1978: it was a mind-blowing interesting film, which used avant-garde technique. This was an inspiration and a good motivation to collect home made photographs and movies in the Cultural Research Institute. I have to mention a friend who was collecting bad photographs, photos with a mistake: Sándor Kardos. His excellent private archive is called Horus Archive, named after the Egyptian god whose symbol is the eye.
Among others, these artists and the Horus collection inspired me, and I was in a lucky constellation – with my part-time job in the Cultural Research Institute – to establish the Private Photo and Film Archive, the PPFA. Like beggars, from 1982 till 1987 we’ve been collecting photos and films and making interviews. At that time I was focusing on the collection archiving, anthropological, aspects.
Do you see a difference in Hungary’s artistic life after the end of the Soviet Union?
The Hungarian socialist system was being eroded by Gorbačëv’s reforms, and in 1988 I was allowed to make my first movie from found footage. This is what happened.
One day, by chance, I was walking in the street, when I met a friend of mine. “What are you doing these days?” he asked. When I told him that I was collecting films, he asked me: Don’t you want to make a movie with all those films – photos you collected?” ”Well, yes, I do” ”So, apply to me, I’m now working in the film department of the Ministry of Culture, and can allocate money from the government cultural fund”. I just couldn’t believe it! So, I applied by writing one or two pages of the film project, and got the money I needed, – like a miracle – and with that money, and cooperation of the Balázs Béla Studio, the first four episodes of the Private Hungary series were done in three years.
Was the movie broadcasted on television?
Yes, but later on. It was a video technology piece. First we transferred the homemade movies onto video, and then the artwork came. In the Balázs Béla studio I also found financial support for this project.
I had a collection of 140, 150 hours of homemade movies, the money from the ministry and the support of Balázs Béla Studio, even a co-production with the Hungarian television, and access to video studio equipment as well. That meant that I could make a creative production using the Private Film collection.
As inspiration you mentioned Gábor Bódy, and Péter Timár; what about Istvan Bibó. You made a movie about him, did you ever meet him? How did you get to know him?
After I was expelled from the University of Arts (1971), I was also expelled from the leftist cultural group (Orfeo Group) I belonged to, because I was considered deviant by them too. I found myself quite isolated for a while.
I was in contact with some opposition thinkers, and one of them, János Kenedi, a friend of mine, gave me the typewritten manuscripts of Bibó, and that turned and changed my way of thinking. That cured my simple Marxist-Leninist dogmatism, freed me definitely from the communist tradition and from Soviet dogmas. Bibó was a kind of humanist, liberal and radical at the same time… his way of thinking about Hungarian society and history changed my vision of the world once I met him, far after his release from prison.
I was lucky that my brother András was studying philosophy and history: and for example I got familiar with Wittgenstein and the Vienna’s Circle, and with ancient philosophers as well, and with Kant, Spinoza with his help.
I must mention my master Ferenc Mérei, a social and clinical psychologist, one of the masters of psychology in Hungary: he was in prison after 1956 because of the Revolution. I joined his working group to learn individual and group psychology, and for eleven years I have been his only pupil who was not a psychologist. I am still a member of that work group, as always I was something in between, being an insider and an outsider. Mérei was a real master.
Where do you situate your work, in the cinema system or the museum world? And, therefore, which area do you belong to, the cinema director’s, or the visual arts?
I don’t have to choose. I would never call my films documentaries, and I would never care where are they exhibited. I let it be a problem for my contemporaries, where and how to categorize and to place my work: along with the documentaries, or homemade movies, or exhibitions, or art movies. Anyhow I would like to be in between, and it’s not my problem.
What kind of research do you do, apart from collecting homemade movies and photos, and using archives of emotional, familiar memories, and on which kind of material do you focus to your parallel research: interview, official documents…?
The aim of a research – beyond the basic goals – is changing all the time, depending on the work itself. In the beginning of my work, by 1982-83 I started to collect undefined amateur films and the additional family documentation – and we made interviews with the family members. The info on the owners of the films and photos became important… and thus out of the hundreds of hours of archive we were able to collect quite a large amount of material from the families. (I.E. the private history of Hungary 1925-1980)
Beyond this effort: historic documents connected to the films alongside with ephemeral daily source materials, diaries, memories – everything the families, or the film-owners offered, was gathered.
The complex research has widened my horizon to international cooperation, and an important project was the School of Research Method. In 1993-94 I made the film Meanwhile Somewhere, a documentary, the 3rd part of an international TV doc. co-production (An Unknown War series I.-V.) and it was a great lesson on research methodology. As a consequence I’ve learned to adapt different research strategies, methods and scopes to complex mediums, like all written material, (private or public), all stills (private or public); all moving images (private or public) those which connected to the given film project. From then on I’ve focused on a specific research quality, beyond the general standards, on those segments, and terrains, sources, mediums that were necessary in every project preparation. If a writer is planning to write about trees, he has to walk into a wood and study it: I do the same on the foundations of my movies. The research is also a very interesting process, just learning how human beings, memories, cultures, and aspect changing, watershed of history, private poetry and accidental events happen in this universe of parallel narratives.
In every movie I have to sort out the “new language” needed, to create the grand format and the syntax of the multi-layered context, to find, open up, what is to be discovered, expressed by the movie; sometimes it could be done just with some basic kind of material, other times with complex layers and work of long months.
I use everything that I can gather, to find everything that is necessary. For instance, I made a film about Greece in World War II, and I had to get familiar with everything that has to do with Greece of that time: Greek history, Greek films, but also the Nazi film-makers… The research process as I’ve said is in itself a very interesting road, and also teaches a lot of knowledge about the material gathered: later it’s the part of the film language that influences the choices motivation later… for example, which photo or homemade film episode or historic allusion I will use in the composition – so the preparations play a fundamental role in my poetry, I need a long meditative time to think, getting inside – that is part of the research period too – before I finish.
Which part of your work is more interesting, the one about the research of the materials needed, or the one about the work you need to develop the materials you got, the re-contextualization?
Well, I really can’t answer. If modern neuroscience could study my brain/thoughts and see through it, maybe it could try to answer, but I cannot. I like to think about my work and work process as a small orchestra: every player/layer/channel/ has to play its small part/role, but the whole has an internal overview like the conductor, and the most important is to listen to the inner voice… My own inner rules. That is the most important central issue required. This is not architecture or a scientific work: it brings along its inner contradictions, and on the other hand it is a sensual work. Many years have passed since I’ve started this work, but all the material I got, or saw, or went through my hands still brings meanings and an emotional core to me.
Home movies are made of banalities, but what is behind them, what I offer to the viewers is a multi-channel perception, the interpretation is free. I never force the viewer to a pre-selected interpretation. Therefore I’d name my artwork as an offering (i.e. like the Musikalische Opferung).
The amateur home-movie is a very interesting social document. The main characteristic is that it is structured into narrative, elliptic sketches, without continuity; there is an active relationship between the director and the ones recorded, like glances to the camera, active talk between the two and so on. What do you do in order to reconstruct the dramaturgy of the narrative structure, and what is your philological work?
I cannot pre-categorize (or define) the matter, this waits for those others who watch the final movie. Of course, these discontinuities are definitely very interesting in avant-garde films, for example the (radical, non-conventional) cuts (editing) done this way (Brakhage) are against the ‘normal’ technique one usually expects; this is not the classic montage for example. But there are much more sophisticated channels the editing method, the process, can follow. In every movie of my own I follow different paths and strategies, depending on the material and the story I have to compose.
For instance in Vortice (Free Fall) we have the Petö home-movies on the one hand, with all these familiar sketches, and we have the tragic history of the Hungarian Jewish family’s historic context on the other. Understanding the multilayered past, “we know what has happened”, and we find ourselves in their (the film’s heroes) future time (our present time is their unseen future): this, one of the main psychological, dramaturgical paradoxes of the genre I am working with, is the same as in a “classic Hitchcock thriller”, or let’s say, in a Bressons film.
We all know that the “victim has to die because of the role”, (the role dies in Mouschette) but the actor himself will “never die”. But in my films, the actors/real persons are really dying, and we all know that, we are all aware of that all through these film viewings. That’s one powerful point of view for the public, a real distinctive measure, an appreciative disposition: they are real persons in a real happening in real films.
There is not only the problem of reality and fiction, there is also the problem of which (film, narrative) language can be used to reach one’s goal. These homemade movies do not follow a concrete (pre planned, formal) path in most of the cases: the director/amateur doesn’t record everything, every moment, of what happens. He selects, spontaneously and directly maybe, and later even makes a kind of order in time, in quality and importance. The layers the film is based on have double or even triple meanings: we have our own associations, knowing what happened or what will then happen, beside the character’s real thoughts and feelings.
In the cinematography it’s what is called the “Hitchcockian effect”: you see in the beginning of the film that somebody kills someone, but the other ones (the players) in the film do not yet know that. This is the suspense technique of the thriller, everything that is connected with the future: we are simple creatures, knowing just our past, not what will be in the future, we try to know what is going to happen, but we cannot be sure. The choice we do, depending on our possibilities, plays a vital role in our lives. As with the players in Psycho.
Your work contributes to rediscover old homemade movies, old memories. What do you do with the original material you have (movies, photos), do you do a restoration at a photo-chemical level, do you reconstruct that material? Have you ever used the photo-retouch? Which actions do you perform in the post-production and editing phase?
I don’t have a fixed scheme: it all depends on the materials condition I have to start the film in. What I can say is that in a “normal” movie the scratches and spots on the film have of course to be avoided; in old homemade movies you can frequently find these mistakes. But what makes my movies different is this new aspect, I do not cut the original ‘mistakes’ out, on the contrary I use the mistakes for texture. The scratch becomes an integral part of my work: I may say mistake-wise I am on the other side of the river, and I don’t care if it’s a bad picture, if the contrast is bad or other mistakes appear. I don’t care. But certainly I make several interventions too in luma, contrast, tinting if necessary.
What about Lars von Trier’s Dogma project: also there, the quality of the film is not the best one, and this is a wanted feature, although the actors there are professionals. Do you share von Trier’s mind?
Yes, I agree with von Trier that one of the most important things in film making are the rules of the game. They play also a good and important part in my projects. For each film I have to work out the rules of the game. My ‘dogma’ is that I have to find and apply more, new different ‘dogmas’.
So you don’t have a fixed method to make your movies?
No, not at all. The biggest challenge I have to deal with, is the given – original – film collection, “the material” I choose, and its inherent, invisible ‘message’ that I have to start with. And the homemade movies I work with aren’t always precise – by conventional film practice – and not universal message carriers by standard. This has to be created, this is my work. There are certain circumstances, accidents, which define the later formed main structure elements, the grand format, but as I mentioned it’s like a novel, it “writes” itself, but one has to compose, structure and reshape always on its own standards. However ‘similar’ my films, one immediately notices the crucial differences, like Antonioni’s films that have a basic epicenter, a common language and attitude, but obviously Blow Up is unmistakably far from Il deserto rosso (The Red Desert).
In Vortice (Free Fall) you mentioned that one of the uncles was the secret lover of one of the women in the family. How did you get this information?
All home movies are full of secrets, because the very important parts of life are not recorded, so they are off-screen, they are the taboos, they are the not happy parts – not the representational segments – of a family. This is a crucial part of a double tension paradox (one is real death, passing away, and this other is the inside, the hidden, unspeakable parts of life. In this concrete matter I had the info by an interview from the daughter of filmmaker Petö. Secrets are of course interesting, as you see more motivations in people’s acts, and later, knowing the fact that she was able to survive because of her husband, and the secret lover was also lucky to survive to the concentration camp, all this gives the story a different profile. The shape of their future gave a different weight to their present, at the time of the movie.
Do you know Pasternak’s Doctor Živago? Did it play a role in your work? One of the aims of the book is to show the fate of the single human being into the whirlwind of history…
I am aware of that, a good number of excellent writers deal with this procedure: like Sebald, Nádas, Camus. Your comparison to Pasternak is for sure important, but to find one’s own poetry, own language – the path between the private and the historic vortex, the good proportions, and good distance, all together is a long, long way. I have to find my own poetry, a narrative for every film I create, and definitely I am not like an icon painter, who has to follow the canons in every work, every brush stroke. I more like to surprise suddenly, like a Rublëv- kind of masterpiece. It’s always kind of a challenge whether I can or cannot show – via somebody’s story and the grand imago – the dynamics of memory by the narrative. Let me say in a prosaic way, human beings, like myself, are lone animals, but we usually live in tribes, and these works are opportunities to get in contact with You, by story telling this is an old relationship between humans, we are between ourselves and sharing with others, living in the community, in times of truce.
What about the German Heimat project? Do you see points in common with that project? All in all, there is Germany’s history shown, in Private Hungary you show Hungarian history in 15 movies, although it is homemade movies, without professional actors, as in Heimat.
Well, for sure it’s a really well done piece, and in itself really unique, but let me mention the fact the director was working with a good amount of TV – film money and professional institutional background. In comparison I am a craftsman, and I always work from scratch, in a small group… this is not bad, or a handicap, but just different. David Lynch had much more money to make Mulholland Drive than Razor Head: one must see the financing/production conditions behind a nice result. It’s not like a writer or a poet working alone in a room, it’s a differentiated, collaborative / industrial / institutionalized work. Heimat, with a famous director and a big crew, had a lot of work and German money invested; I have been working in a much smaller size most of the time, working in ‘little’ on long narratives (a bit like arte povera), re-contextualizing the previous material. These are valid comparisons, as a work is measured from the results! It gets feedback from the professional community, festivals and last but not least from the reached audience: So, you ask me about Heimat, and not about a bad, commercial work of Michael Moore (called “documentary”). That makes our conversation balanced. Because I create for contemplation and for the discourses and NOT for propaganda, nor for ideology, or entertainment, or tautological education.
ROME, 29th October 2010
* The conversation was conducted by Lorenzo Marmiroli, based on a schedule of questions previously agreed and prepared by Lorenzo Marmiroli, Valentina Valentini, Giuseppina Vignola.
 Gabor Body promoted and produced Infermental the first international magazine on videocassette. Check: Vera Body, “L’enciclopedia elettronica” in Dialoghi, diverbi, pacificazioni ( a cura di Valentina Valentini), Sellerio, Palermo, 1990.