Private and Public Histories: An Interview with Péter Forgács
Found-footage films are on the rise, especially those which employ fragments of home video. Young filmmakers are turning to their family archives to create narratives that often lie at the intersection of the personal and political. Recent festival fare, such as Agustina Comedi’s Silence Is a Falling Body (2017), show the impressive range of footage that, in its primary form, is mostly unassuming, but which can be integrated — or “recycled” as William C. Wees puts it in his 1993 study of found-footage films — into a sweeping discourse that encapsulates issues like human rights, activism, history, and psychology. As both filmmakers and scholars stumble upon more personal film archives — a fact undeniably determined by recording technologies that have gotten progressively cheaper and more accessible over the last 40 years — essay and found-footage films are becoming increasingly shaped by these archives.
Arguably the most important director to work with such materials, insofar that he is the auteur par excellence of found-footage films based on personal archives, is Péter Forgács — a prolific artist mostly known for titles such as The Maelstrom: A Family Chronicle (1997), El Perro Negro: Stories from the Spanish Civil War (2005), and the Private Hungary series, which includes films like The Bartos Family (1988) and I Am von Höfler (2008). Sourcing the vast majority of his materials from the many European families that recorded themselves between the ‘30s and ‘60s, Forgács’ oeuvre delves into the personal tales of people who often found themselves caught in the fray of several wars from the last century: be it the Spanish Civil War, World War II, or the Cold War.
Recently, Forgács was the star of a mini-retrospective organized by One World Romania — the largest human rights documentary film festival in Romania, which in recent editions has shed a more conventional curatorial approach towards documentaries and has become a haven for unconventional, experimentally minded forms of non-fiction cinema. I spoke with Forgács while he was attending the Bucharest-based festival.
I would like to start out by asking you about the research-related aspects of your work. When do you usually decide to begin? I assume it’s never the same for each project, but where do you generally find yourself starting from: the larger historical issue or from a particular story?
I always start from concrete films; theme is motivated by them. In each case, as far as I remember, most of them contain visual, moving image, found footage, and home movie archival materials. From film to film, it’s different. If it’s one family story, then I have to know what happened in the family. I usually do two interviews with family members. In the first one, they describe what the films contain, details like, “In this picture, at this timecode, you see him or her, here or there, who did what and when, what happened?” The other one is an expanded biographical interview about the story of their family, with questions such as, “Where were you born? Who were your parents?” and so on. And, if they pop up during the interviews, I’ll also ask about documents — marriage certificates, letters, diaries, photographs, sound recordings, other films…
In regards to the historical period and its overview, you have to know the stories in detail. For The Bartos Family, you have to know that, for example, Hungary used to be a country where the car traffic was in the left lane, until the 1940s, when the German forces crossed the country to attack Yugoslavia. During the summer in which they attacked with over 50,000 Wehrmacht and SS forces along the Danube, they had to completely overhaul the traffic and its control laws in the whole country so as to avoid crashes. Because, you know, the Germans are Germans. That’s just one example of the details you need to know, that the traffic circulation rules changed in the 1940s.
To know the facts, you have to know certain kinds of information, but if you’re working with the family, you don’t really need the big picture, which is more data than what you can ever know. Of course, I love history, and I read a lot of it, therefore, it’s always a joyful process to learn everything. For example, in 1941, the Prime Minister of Hungary at that time, Count [Pál] Teleki, a fierce anti-Semite, committed suicide after writing a letter to Regent [Miklós] Horthy that we, the Hungarians, are a shameful nation because we lied to the Yugoslavs.
Since you mentioned interviewing the families, when you were working on El Perro Negro, were there any surviving members that you could interview? It seemed that almost everyone had been massacred.
Of course! In the source materials portraying the Spanish Civil War, it was even more important to have the background knowledge, since mine (be it art, politics, history, laws) was not so good as the one I had about Hungary, Britain, and Germany. I needed a lot of information, and a lot of it particularly about the family, especially to know who is who in the pictures. In the case of the Salvans, the filmmaker’s daughter gave me his films, and she was the one I had interviewed. She’s the one who appears as a baby in the film, Merce. In the case of Ernesto Noriega, I managed to track him down — he was already 80 years old — and I did a long interview with him, so that I could build the voiceover. All that the narrator says comes from him — and since the narrator has a Spanish accent (in English), it gives the impression that Noriega himself is speaking.
It’s also a problem to overlook the big picture, so I had to learn history, contemporary laws, information about Spain’s military, and about the Soviet, Nazi, and Italian interventions in the country. Of course, this background check also meant that I had to study how film was being produced at the time, especially how it was used by either the Republicans or the Francoists. I spent a lot of time at the film archives in Madrid, and at the Catalan Film Archive to understand how Spanish filmmaking looked like at the time, if there were differences between what the Republicans and Francoists did, and so on. I stayed in the archive for weeks watching every film that I could. At the time, it was not digitized; every film had to be watched at the editing table.
I find that most of the time, when people record their lives, they document moments that are not necessarily very narrative. They are glimpses. Usually moments of happiness, of joy, moments that aren’t exactly comprehensible for a larger audience. How do you edit using these interviews, turning these images into what one could call a narrative?
I start by sitting in the editing room for months, using trial and error. It’s hard to describe this process. You have your stock material — which is usually comprised of tens of hours of raw footage — and your knowledge from the books and interviews. It’s an amalgam, like alchemy.
In El Perro Negro, I had two big family stories and ten side-stories. First of all, I wanted to edit the family footage — and to tell the stories of their films. These were the nodal points, so I first worked on shaping a rough story of the families. And then, if there are certain points of departure — like the anarchists or Jose Salvan’s film with the newspaper — I use them to tell these side-stories, which lead to further research, to look for films related to these subplots.
I have the hub, the side-plot, and the general history. The Salvans’ films are good for a story that explores private, political, and documentary issues. This particular narrative structure is organized at the editing table around the Salvans, and if you see what roads the images lead you on, you can place them on a timeline and add thematic pictures. For example, the issue of Spanish Republicanism — I can still use the Salvans’ story, which I can connect to images of the five big demonstrations in Plaza Mayor, which all change due to the political regime. And the last demonstration is when Franco arrives in Madrid.
While organizing a film, I have these crossroads that I work with. I don’t use the concept of chronology, knowing exactly where the end and the beginning of the film are. But editing is not about fulfilling this timeline; it’s rather more like a mosaic. This is how the film will keep its layered-ness. Also, mixing the personal and the public story sometimes gives you a stark contrast, a conflict or a sort of complementarity, while it may also allow you to go to the next theme. The editing procedure sometimes relies on content in a linear manner. It may just open a field that you have to explore, even by going back into the past. Dramaturgically, you can’t jump directly to some things. And then it also changes a lot when you understand what your main structure is, what the positions of your narratives are, your storytelling.
You have the timeline, the family, the main history, and from there on you build it, holding all of this together. Therefore, through this procedure, you work out the layers of possible meanings of the film. Then, at a deeper, later phase, you have the narration and the music, both of which help you determine the speed of each sequence, their rhythm. And this is a means of working in itself; as the film is multilayered, it contains these phases that gradually come together into a whole, even though they all remain visible and distinctive. This is the big challenge; it’s not one big, linear story, rather, it has its funny jumps, like Mulholland Drive — a film which proves that there still is a place for the avant-garde in the middle of all the shit produced by Hollywood.
Think of the early avant-garde, the Russians and the Germans. These filmmakers were making collages and using its specific techniques. They understood that there isn’t necessarily one stage where things happen, like in early silent movies, but by using cuts, you can jump from there to there, to the face, to a snake… And then you know the person you shot earlier is afraid of a snake. Even if your montage is a wild collage of different elements from different places — in contrast to theatre, where you depend on time-space unity — the viewer is still capable of bridging the gaps and understanding the narrative by means of perception, apperception, association, and cognition. So it’s all this — and I haven’t even started speaking about how I consider music, actions, and so on!
The 12th One World Romania film festival screened several movies by Péter Forgács between March 15 and March 24.