„It’s hard to express in simple terms”

Gyula Gazdag’s book of film

“Hello now I’ll give the greeting” – what better style to introduce the still quite incomplete presentation of Gyula Gazdag’s life work, than this unforgettable excerpt from his first documentary short, The Long Distance Runner, filmed in 1968 in Béla Balázs Studio, and as greeting, the beginning line highlighted in the title. If for no other reason than the fact that the director himself did the same: for the title of his film he quoted the actual greeting verse spoken by the Council President of the town of Kenderes, which moreover followed the preceding line with a poor attempt at a rhyme:

“It’s a holiday for us because you’re here among us,
We can always count on your long distance running.”

To be serious: “It’s a holiday for us because you’re here among us” – it seems it’s can’t be taken seriously … when it’s difficult to break away from the grotesque tone of his career’s first documentary and feature films. Because he so precisely describes the absurdity of the hopeless post-1968 Kádár era’s narrow-mindedness, hopeless tragicomedy, unsurpassable incompetence – and also because this voice is sorely missing these days, though there would be material for it, even in the newspapers, which were usually the source of ideas for the documentaries. The situations caught in The Long Distance Runner, The Selection, and The Resolution and The Banquet filmed with Judit Ember, the self-revealing gestures, slips of the tongue, and glimpses of members of society in front of –and magnified by – the camera are unparalleled documentation of an era, just as their use of language is. This is why it was wonderful, although at first glance is perhaps seemed a surprising idea to publish the texts of these films, moreover in a form truly faithful to the text that preserves not only the living language, but the twists of language of a living dead nomenklatura incapable of functioning. The Photo Album 1968–1979 is a credible cross-section of Gyula Gazdag’s art, yet only a cross-section; for a full view we need to browse the pages of the director’s moving photo album.

Allow me to point out just two aspects of this album. One is the grotesque voice that can be heard in the above quote, which in documentary films is the voice not of the director, but of the situation that was captured, which is precisely the reason it is so unfathomably true and revealing. This voice also breaks through at times in the story of dramatic conflict, The Resolution, or the more chagrined The Banquet, when the viewer doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry – but we can also spot it in Package Tour, which faces the viewer with the tragedy unparalleled in human history, the holocaust – just think of the basic situation “found”, the package tour advertised by the travel agency – to Auschwitz. In the early feature films, the grotesque voice becomes the author’s voice, in The Whistling Cobblestone, which first expressed the disillusionment of 1968, in Singing on the Treadmill, a ruthless satire (banned for ten years) of the social realist operetta world, and in Double-headed Drum, a commemoration of ambitious pettiness. The other aspect is the post-1968 situation mentioned above in relation to The Whistling Cobblestone. Gazdag’s first BBS documentary film, The Long Distance Runner, was filmed in 1968, and the entirety of the director’s life’s work seems as if it is an unwrapping of this grotesque image of society; a “Hungarian chronicle” of the hopelessly long decades of stagnation told here in a documentary film, there in a feature film, at which one has to laugh, even if bitterly and crossly. The Resolution is the first communication about the freezing of the new economic mechanism as a result of 1968, while The Whistling Cobblestone is about “disillusionment”, a story that Gazdag made a separate film about, placing the story of Balzac’s original novel into 1968 Budapest. Then the poetic tale of A Hungarian Fairy Tale absolutely breaks from reality – although, as yet another grotesque sign, the story is based on an existing legal paragraph. Finally, the more dramatic tuning of Stand Off seems to report on the uncertainty and fear that accompanied the political system change. After this, the themes of Gazdag’s documentary films and his professional career gradually distance themselves from the time and place his artistic work had drawn from, but fortunately for us, he never breaks from them – that is, from us – completely. Because if we want to know where we came from and why we have gotten to where we are, “we can always count on” his films.

Gábor Gelencsér