I have owned DVD copies of, watched once and kept rewatching segments of three documentaries made Gábor Zsigmond Papp. They were all made using archival footage only from earlier decades. Their audio was a mixture of the original sound, readings from the newspapers of the era, or brand new, slightly sarcastic text written specifically for the the movies. The movies I already owned covered the cultural anthropology of the largest lake in Hungary, which was a resort destination for most Hungarians (“Balaton Retró“) and in two volumes, Hungary’s capital (“Budapest Retró” and “Budapest Retró 2“.)
Last week received a package from my Mother in Hungary containing four more of his movies. Two of the four had English subtitles. I started with the one I thought would interest my wife the most: “Magyar Retró.” The film has two explanatory subtitles, one describing what we’ll see (“Scenes from the 1960’s and 1970’s”) and the other telling us the question that will be answered (“What kind of a man is the Hungarian?”) The film has four, 20 minutes long segments:
- The Hungarian Laborer
- The Hungarian Farmer
- The Hungarian Tourist
- The Hungarian Emprise
The collection, the editing and the narration were all entertaining and informational. For me, as a Hungarian, it was also a weirdly nostalgic. On one hand a lot of the objects, visual styles and conditions were unfamiliar to me, because I grew up in Budapest (and not in the countryside), was only a baby in the 1960’s (so don’t have much memory of that period), and never worked in a factory. On the other hand I saw things in this film I only had vague memories of (e.g. buses that stopped running when I was 6), secondary memories of (newsreels I saw on TV or in the cinema at the time, but not in person) or active memories of (package tours by the state owned travel agency, IBUSZ).
Some of these recollections were positive (e.g. the food I used to love to eat), but most of them made me realize (again) how twisted the system was. By that I mean how deep the value system got embedded into people that was imposed on them by the state’s propaganda machine. And how limited people’s choices were in both the areas the movie covered(work, tourism enterprise) and in those that it didn’t (political opinion, self-expression, lifestyle, religion, … entertainment.)
The only slightly criticism I have is that I got the distinct feeling that some of the footage was from the early 1980’s. Stylistically they didn’t fit the movie. For example, scenes from a popular and funny documentary about the eating habits of Hungarian got incorporated into this film. I am pretty sure it was made after the 1970’s ended, although I didn’t find it,
Tree more minor points related to the viewing experience
- My wife asked me three times what does the subtitle say. Turns out the “English” subtitles included a few sentences in Hungarian, which were then also shown in English.
- My mother bought the DVDs at a screening, where the director was present. And she managed to get the disc autographed by him for me, because she let Pap use her sharpie a great permanent marker. Sharpie still doesn’t seem to be available in Hungary, although I recall that even as a teenager I used (a different brand) marker to “help” with the decoration of underground music clubs.
- My mother also included two gingerbread cookies in her package. I only realized days after opening her gift that she must have purchased along with the DVD. I think so, because the cover has a gingerbread cookie in the shape of a five pointed star along with the hammer and sickle sign, all symbols of the communist era. And that’s exactly how the accompanying cookies looked like.
Next time I will watch the movie with the filmmakers commentary. I hope that will enlightening about the choices they made in editing. Meanwhile I recommend this twisted mirror of how Hungarians were for those who recognize and understand sarcasm, while enjoying a visual documentation of an era rapidly sinking into history.