Hungarian film festivals in California

Hungarian immigrants made important contributions to Hollywood; Michael Curtis, Adolf Zukor, George Cukor, William Fox and the Korda brothers were legends in the last century.

“It’s not enough to be talented – you have to be Hungarian in Hollywood.” There is some truth to this myth; during the 1930´s some claimed that the California film industry was dominated by Hungarians. There is also a story that a major film-studio had a sign at the entrance saying: “It’s not enough to be Hungarian to make films. One must also have talent.”

Today it is a tradition in Los Angeles to stage the Hungarian Film Festival where organizers bring an array of diverse films, features, documentaries and shorts each year. This year, the 14th Hungarian Film Festival is celebrating the 100 birthday of the Hungarian Animation and the festival is focusing on the diversity of the animation film making, children, adult, short and feature film length movies.

The “father” of the LA Hungarian Film Festival is Béla Bunyik. He told in an interview that the festival’s idea came 14 years ago after he brought to the US Robert Koltai’s film We never die. The success of the film, which included an HBO acquisition and sell-out houses at the Laemmle Theater (the venue for the festival), gave him the idea that Hungarian films would be accepted by American audiences.  That was the beginning in Los Angeles, and his company (Bunyik Enterprises/Entertainment), a distributor of Hungarian films in the US and Canada, helped to organize the event.  They introduced Hungarian films to America’s foreign film loving audience, and the first festival was enthusiastically greeted by Kevin Thomas, LA Times film critic. The positive audience feedback kept the festivals rolling, and Bunyik confessed that he never expected to reach the 14th festival, as the experience turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

Éva Homor, Steven Kovács and Réka Pigniczky - the San Francisco team of the Hungarian Film Festival.

Éva Homor, Steven Kovács and Réka Pigniczky – the San Francisco team of the Hungarian Film Festival.

San Francisco, where I live, started its own festival 3 years ago. The “motor” behind the SF venue is Réka Pigniczky a talented television journalist, producer and independent documentary filmmaker. She teamed up with San Francisco State University film professor Steven Kovács, and Éva Homor producer who did a wonderful job organizing the event. This years’s festival took place at the Coppola theatre at the SF State University campus.

I attended the San Francisco venue, where I saw several films, and my personal favorite was Kristóf Kovács’s bittersweet documentary entitled Man with Balls (Besence Open). I also enjoyed producer Judit Stalter lively Q and A with the audience. The cleverly shot documentary put a light touch on the absurdity of an EU-funded tennis court in a dirt poor village where most people don’t have jobs. The ever present racism in the left-alone Roma village, and the energetic mayor who is trying to remain positive, gave an unusual glimpse of the hopelessness of the Hungarian countryside.

At the entrance hall of the Coppola Theatre I saw an interesting photo exhibit entitled A Witness to Change. It helped to understand Hungary’s turbulent history of transition to democracy, and the photos by Piroska Nagy added a new perspective even for those who were familiar with the events.

Finally, I want to mention a film not in the program, but closely connected to Professor Kovács. A quarter centurty ago he directed a remarkable feature film entitled ’68. It was about the struggle of a Hungarian family trying to adapt to the American way of life in San Francisco. The film was based on Kovács’s own experiences, he wrote: “in superficial detail the family resembled my own.” According to him “the ignorance of most North Americans about the world at large” was a shock to his family of 1956 refugees “who had lived in a European capital city and had experienced international politics on our skins.”

In a way history repeats itself. Many of us feel that the ignorance and naiveté of the West is palpable to what is happening today in Budapest.

California has always been a trailblazer, open to new ideas, like these Hungarian film festivals. Thanks to the organizers the events today became a tradition which worth to continue and support for the coming years.

György Lázár

(For a video report about the Los Angeles venue click here)


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