Saturday, 15 July 2006
Hungarian director Szabolcs Hajdu presented his gymnast drama Fehér tenyér (White Palms) in Karlovy Vary after its international premiere in Cannes. The film, the third for the 34-year-old writer-director, is a fusion of his own childhood memories as a young gymnast and the experiences of his brother Miklós Zoltán Hajdu, a professional gymnast and trainer. Fehér tenyér is a carefully constructed story that looks at the tyrannical treatment of children during the long training days in 1980s Hungary, and how its effects ripple through the life of the gymnast Milkos Dongo (played by Miklós himself), who goes to Canada to train promising children gymnasts and is then forced to train the difficult adolescent and future champion Kyle Manjak (played by Olympic winner Kyle Shewfelt) instead after a hitting incident involving one of the children.
Rather than offering snippets of many different events in the life of Dongo, the director (who also wrote the screenplay) decided to focus on several key events and try to examine these in depth, sometimes by juxtaposing them almost in real time. Says the director: “The fact that the story extends over such a long time was a problem when we were writing the film. The story starts in the 1980s and finishes today, so that is about 25 years that have to be told in 90 minutes, with the added complication that I wanted to give a lot of room to the different locales and atmospheres. To properly give everything its due, we needed a different kind of storytelling than a purely chronological narrative.
"When we started thinking about this film, there were a couple of films in release that were bad examples of storytelling, because they wanted to show everything. These films are like coffee table books with pretty pictures but no depth whatsoever, simply because there is no time. That is why we chose to focus on some key events, and try to show these in greater depth. I did not want to simply show the past and be nostalgic for nostalgia’s sake, but rather present the events – whether in the past or in the present – as if they were happening now. There is the large opening section with the childhood of the athlete, and then there is the period passed in Canada, there is the circus and the actual competition. These four points cover the 25 years, and they work as a classical literary narrative in terms of thesis, antithesis and synthesis; the childhood training is the thesis, the Canadian experience is the antithesis and there is a double synthesis in the parallel stories of the circus and the competition.”
About the characters and the fact that they are based on real people (who actually play themselves in the case of Miklos and Kyle), the director says the following: “The story is based on a true story, and the characters have retained their first names though not their surnames, because I did not want the film to be too confrontational but I did want to have a sense of recognition of who these characters really were. The characters are not always shown in a completely positive light, so when we showed the film in Hungary to my parents, my friends and the trainer, it was important to have a sense of detachment about the characters on screen for them as well, or they might have become very angry.”
The childhood sequences are inspired by the director’s own experiences, while the Canadian section is taken from the life of his brother. The fact that the film delves into the difficult relationship between Miklos and his trainee Kyle was not an easy thing for the director, since he had to direct actors who had to re-enact difficult scenes from their own lives: “Miklos is played by my brother and is also inspired by the life of my brother, but the childhood sequences are drawn from my own experiences as a child athlete. In fact, the actor who plays the young Miklos reminds me a lot of myself when I was his age. For the Canadian section in the film, I did a lot of interviews with my brother and with Kyle and used these as the basis for my screenplay. For my brother and Kyle, it must have been very strange to re-live parts of their own life again, and this is why I decided not to give them the screenplay when we started filming. I did not want to scare them off! They only knew that they would be playing characters based on themselves, nothing more.” Obviously, the actors had a larger than usual part in shaping their characters, because they were based on themselves: “I am not completely satisfied with the film’s Canadian sequences, as there were some problems when we were filming with portraying the events as they actually happened. The actors always played it a bit nicer, a bit less rough than the picture they had painted in the interviews I did with them beforehand. So it was a difficult situation because I was trying to push them to go there, which they did not want. They had problems re-enacting some of the things that they had talked about during the interviews on camera, which is why I feel that something is missing in this section. We cannot really get to the bottom of their relationship because some elements are missing. I think for Kyle it was difficult because he quite well-known in Canada, he won an Athlete of the Year title and won at the Olympic Games in Athens. I think he was a bit afraid to appear in a film that showed him somehow with some negative traits as well.”
Being such a personal film, Hajdu was nervous about the Fehér tenyér’s critical reception: “The personal side of things was not such a big problem during filming. It only became shocking when we were editing the film and the different elements started to come together. I had never told this story to anybody, and part of it was my story as well. I got somewhat scared when the date of the premiere started to come closer, and was especially worried about the possible reactions of the audience. It was, after all, the story of me and of my family, and I did not know whether it would work or not. I was happy when the reaction turned out to be good! I was fascinated by the fact that many people that I did not know came up to me and said they had live through exactly the same thing when they were little. When the film finally found an audience, it was not about my private life anymore, but it had become public property; I think that is the best I could have done with this film.”
The film is yet to premiere in Canada, where part of the film is set and where Kyle, one of the film’s stars, comes from. Says the director: “The Canadian premiere will happen at the Toronto Film Festival, and it will be slightly bizarre to see the reaction of the Canadians. I am especially interested in the reaction of the Federation of Gymnasts and the Teachers Association, since they are part of the criticism on Canadian society in the film. Some people [at home] criticised the film because they were a part of what was shown, and this might be the case in Canada too. Canadian society is in fact a bit absurd; it is an oversized, outgrown democracy. Everyone has a right to live as a human being, and you cannot hit anyone, not even children. If you do something wrong than it is not the police who will give you a fine but your neighbours and friends who will tell you. There is a scene early on in the film in which Dongo has just arrived in Canada, and he asked to smoke away from the building façade. It is absurd that these rules exist; it is like a form of ecological fascism.”
Though his brother has worked in Canada and speaks English, the director himself speaks no English and directed the scenes with the Canadian actors through a translator, as he did the scenes with the Russian and Romanion actors (the latter play the young Miklos' parents). About the clash between two different cultures and two different upbringings -- such an important part of the character of Dongo and his fate -- the director says the following: “It is very difficult to live abroad if you are used to a different kind of living, if you were educated in a certain manner and this manner has become part of your personality, such as is the case with Dongo when he comes to Canada. In 1992, with the change of regime, it was allowed to go and work abroad and a lot of people went to Canada after having been successful in Hungary. Most of them were sent back within a week. The completely different mentality was a problem for them, some even got in trouble with the police. When Hungarian trainers saw the film, some of them said they really felt like hitting Kyle when he was being impossible, which of course in Canada is forbidden. [There is an explicit scene in the film where the head coach tells Dongo that he is not allowed to train the kids anymore after he has hit one of them, and that Dongo will train the adolescent Kyle instead. “But you cannot hit Kyle,” he says, to underline the point.] The scenes in Canada were mostly improvised; the dialogues were not scripted. The scene in which the Canadian trainer speaks to Dongo after the hitting incident is also improvised, but you can feel that the trainer gives this speech with all his heart.”
There is obviously a big divide between the culture of North America and Europe, much more so than the already big divide between East and Western Europe and the differences between the various countries of Eastern Europe. Hajdu in fact finds it a bit unsettling to think about his own film as a European film: “It would be strange for me to say that I am making European films, because that would mean that we created something that goes beyond borders, that widens horizons and that can be understood even in a place where the film did not originate. From a financing point of view, Europe is very important, and the European financing does influence the choice of subjects and the themes for many films. In Hungary, for the moment, it is quite difficult to make a film that is not a co-production with another country, and these films then normally have something that ties them to the co-producing country, creating hybrid films. That is why probably there are a lot of films now that tell stories that travel through several countries; because the filmmakers created the story with pan-European financing in mind. For example, the Romanian film Ryna has a French-speaking character in the cast, probably because it was a Swiss co-production; if you did not know that this was a European co-production, you would wonder why this character has to be a French speaker. I am not saying that it is a bad thing, but it is noteworthy nonetheless.”
Hajdu’s next project will have a more European dimension, and will again be filmed in several countries: “My next film will be a truly European film. It is about a Hungarian girl with the Romanian nationality, who leaves her native Transylvania to work in France. It is not because of a co-production construction that the film happens in different countries, but because of my interest in the many people who left Hungary in search of better opportunities in the West. It is a fascinating voyage, because she will go from the poorest region in Europe to one of its hot spots. Next year, when Romania will enter the European Union, I think we will see a lot more people moving out West. This is what happened in Hungary when we joined the European Union. My first visit to Transylvania was about seven years ago, and a lot of friends and family still lived there at the time, but now I do not know anyone there anymore. They have all left to Brussels, Canada or Hungary. Their houses in Transylvania are empty.”
This interview was originally conducted in Hungarian and French, with Csaba Papp of the Magyar Filmunió providing the translation. It has been translated into English by the author.