We will arrive at the universal not by abandoning our particularity but by turning it into a way of reaching others, by virtue of that mysterious affinity which makes situations mutually understandable. — Maurice Merleau-Ponty
A wonderful thing happened recently. On October 4th and on October 11th thirteen filmmakers, writers, curators and editors met on Zoom to critique the first cut of The Restless Hungarian Film. I had been anticipating these dates with great excitement and (let’s be honest) some trepidation. I have been editing the film for ten months in complete isolation. This is partly because of COVID, but mostly it’s because, especially on this project, I am a one-man band: writer, director, producer, narrator and editor relishing the complete freedom from outside expectations. What goes with this freedom is the worry that, in telling a personal story, I could be engaging in a colossal self-deception, creating a work that only has resonance for an audience of one.
Throughout the Restless Hungarian project, both the book and the film, there has been this tension between doing my due diligence as a journalist and documentary filmmaker and telling a personal story. On the one hand, I felt it my responsibility to honestly portray the life and times of a great man, my father Paul Weidlinger. On the other hand is the story of the tangled relationship with the woman who was his wife, the girl who was his daughter, and the small boy, teenager, and grown man who was his son. In writing the book I brought myself kicking and screaming into the story. It felt incredibly vulnerable. The film has been much harder because the “real estate” is limited. A film lasts two hours or less. It takes about 10 hours to read the book. That’s a lot more space for historical and cultural context.
A writer whom I admire once told me “specificity is generosity.” She meant that the details in a story are what make it come alive, what makes it both unique and true. In the book I wanted the reader to see my father acting against the (detailed) backgrounds of the rise of modernism, the Holocaust, and the Cold War, so I took the time and space to write about this context. The opposite of being specific is to generalize. A single tight line of narration in a documentary film can sum up a vast swath of history and experience, but is it satisfying? Is it generous?
My biggest worry about the impending meeting with my advisors was that they would reproach me for abandoning journalistic principals, for clouding an honest, straight-up narrative about Paul Weidlinger with my own personal shit about my family. In the past I felt that there was something impure, manipulative, and heretical about bringing oneself into the story. I absolutely hated the sloppy films of Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11) where the film becomes as much about him as the heartbreaking issues he addresses.
I need not have worried. The advisors liked the film, but noted that its structure reflected my ambivalence. Almost unanimously they did the opposite of what I had feared. “Be more present in your film,” they said. “Don’t feel obliged to give us boring history lessons. Tell us how you feel about what went on in your family.”
My question to them:
How do I put myself into the story without it becoming narcissistic and self-conscious?
Tell your truth, simply and honestly and it will resonate with others.
My reaction was deep gratitude.
There is a great deal of work left to do, but now I know where I am headed.