Imagine a rope suspended from the sky. It is a thick rope of hemp or sisal, and It has knots tied into it at regular intervals. For the past eight months I have been climbing down that rope very slowly, pausing for long intervals at every knot. Each one represents a scene in the script for my film, The Restless Hungarian. Four years ago, when I completed the book manuscript, I asked my friend and filmmaker, John Whitehead, to read it and tell me how he would adapt the book to a film. John wrote a beautiful treatment drawing on the most personal aspects of the book, my family stories. I was grateful. I was way too close to see the forest for the trees. Using John’s structure, I produced a detailed editing script (what filmmakers call a paper cut) while preparing the book for publication.
As I climb down the rope I edit each scene, transmuting words on paper to spoken words, images, music and sounds. There is something deeply satisfying about this process, but it isn’t without obstacles. Not everything translates from one medium to another. I may lose track of time and find myself spending hours on a few seconds of film. A photograph may need cleaning in Photoshop. A piece of music doesn’t feel right, so I spend half a day listening to fragments from iTunes which will later be replaced by original compositions from my composer. Sometimes a clip of archive film does not “say” what I expected. The black hole created by its absence taunts and challenges me and I find the entire premise of a scene up-ended. Occasionally the words I have written say too much or too little and I struggle to provide just enough spoken information to evoke, rather than dictate, a thought, an idea, or an experience. There is a deep mystery in this process because nothing ever comes out as it was written. In the space between what I imagined in the script and what I edit in the film, I discover new things about my family that I thought I understood completely. I am reminded of the adage: The depth of a soul is a fathom unknown.
Film editing is like making love. It is discovering and re-discovering the body of your lover. Notwithstanding what we have been through since the beginning of the coronavirus shut down, this has been a happy time for me. There hasn’t been a day when I haven’t looked forward to sitting in front of my desk-top computer, opening Premiere Pro, and reconnecting with the unfolding story.
In the midst of this happiness, I have started to be assailed by doubts. Tomorrow I will come to the last knot in the paper cut, scene #63. This is where the rope ends and I find myself suspended in space. I did not finish the script when I initially wrote it. I didn’t want to know how my film would end. I wanted to give myself freedom to discover the ending. It should be a joyous discovery, the triumphant end of a long and satisfying journey. But completion will not only be an end to the film, it will also be the end of a long love affair. The inexorable process of bringing the film into the world will begin. I have hopes and fears for its reception. Most artists are on intimate terms with such hopes and fears, but I have managed to keep them at bay for seven years by not seeking production money from any source with institutional expectations, and by refusing to discuss, consider, imagine, or envision distribution. I knew that as soon as I did, I would stop making my film and, ever so subtly, start working on a film I thought a particular audience would want to see.
Never before have I given myself this luxury. All of the twenty-five documentaries I have made have been in support of social justice causes, and have been paid supported by entities interested in supporting that cause. Within that framework, I’ve had freedom to make films as I saw them, but never have I been entirely free to create my own framework. The Restless Hungarian is mostly sustained by an inheritance, and by people who generously contributed to crowd funding campaigns. There’s an old adage in the filmmaking business: Never, never fund your own film. I heeded that advice for forty years, but within days of receiving my inheritance in 2013, I embarked on The Restless Hungarian project. Somehow it made sense that my father’s gift would enable me to tell his story, even the darker parts that he had kept hidden.
I know that personal work does not always resonate widely. My hedge against being blinded by my own subjective creative choices is to invite a rigorous critique from my peers, an advisory committee comprised of excellent filmmakers, writers and curators, and then respond to that critique in the final cut of the film. I have faith that their essential contribution will make the Restless Hungarian film as clear and accessible as possible. Beyond that is a mystery.
When I was twenty-four I had the great good fortune to be a part of a group conversation at The American Film Institute with the person I then considered to be the greatest filmmaker in the world. At the end our talk, Ingmar Bergman, surveyed the room of hopeful young-filmmakers-in-training and said:
The most important thing I can tell you is this: If you have a story and you believe in that story and you embark on a journey to tell that story faithfully, you will find that the journey has been worth it.