VIFF Preview| Hunky Blues: The American Dream

A photographic still of immigrants waiting to be processed,
used in Hunky Blues: The American Dream
For many North Americans, the story of our individual family’s remembered past includes tales of immigration adventure. Passed down through oral storytelling, the occasional photograph from the “old country,” and the suggestive trace of a name found on an archival document, the stories form and re-present memories through the mediation of personal visual and textual documents. At the same time however, these same stories remain in constant dialogue with the visual and textual documentation of the broader cultural context from which they emerge. For Hungarian filmmaker Péter Forgács, this dynamic intersection of personal and cultural/national memory forms the basis for his latest experimental film, Hunky Blues: The American Dream, playing at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

The captain from
Danube Exodus (2002)
Forgács, who is also a media artist and has represented Hungary at the Venice Biennale and exhibited his art works at the Getty and in multiple galleries and museums around Europe, is best known for his work with found amateur home made films recovered mainly from Hungarian families of the 1920’s through 1960’s. Through these efforts, he established the Private Film and Photo Archives in 1983 that houses a collection of over 300 hours of amateur film. Since 1978, Forgács has made more than thirty films, the most internationally recognized to date being The Danube Exodus (2002) which tells the story of Nándor Andrásovits, a riverboat captain who documented his voyages along the Danube as he transported Eastern European Jewish refugees to safety in Palestine in 1939 within the same year as transporting Bessarabian Germans who had fled back to the Reich from the Soviet invasion to resettle land confiscated in occupied Poland in 1940. Compiled from original 8mm footage taken by the captain, Forgács presents these complicated (and seemingly irreconcilable) stories in purposeful and stark juxtaposition.
Péter Forgács, rendering of video portraits in frames for Col Tempo (2009)
courtesy of Art in America

With this found film material, Forgács has thus worked to retrieve competing narratives in an overall understanding of the troubled region of Central Eastern Europe. Born in 1950, only five years after the end of WWII and the beginning of a new communist regime in Hungary, Forgács has spent a good deal of his professional career attempting to understand the complexities of art and history-making in his homeland. Expelled from the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts for his involvement with an unsanctioned art movement, he began to explore the avant-garde scene rarely discussed in the art schools of the time—finding the work of pioneering modern artists such as Marcel Duchamp and more contemporary filmmakers such as David Lynch to be both inspiring and mind-opening. As a result, Forgács has worked with a conceptual aim in both his art and film making practice to explore and visually represent those places of slippage where the historical and personal record intersect. In his latest film, Forgács once again tackles the complexities of what would appear at its surface to be a straight-forward documentary account of the large wave of Hungarian migration to the United States between 1890-1921. What he creates instead is a visual fusion of early American cinema sources, archival photographs, found amateur film, and personal diaries, in a carefully composed “picture” of the complexities of immigration. The film's world premiere in New York's Museum of Modern Art attests to its visual focus.

As I close this preview, I want to disclose that my personal family history is also linked to a Hungarian past and a harrowing tale of immigration adventure that my parents took to find their way to Canada. It is a part of who I am and has played a critical role in how I understand the production of history and visual representation. Still, I believe that an experimental film like Forgács’s can resonate with a much broader audience than first presumed. As Forgács has explained about his process: "I am using the ordinary language of photography and film to find in banality, the sacred."

Hunky Blues: The American Dream will be playing at VIFF on Wednesday, October 13th @ 7:00pm (Pacific Cinematheque) and Friday, October 15th @ 1:15pm (Vancity)

Here is an example of the "found footage" technique used by Forgács. More examples can be located at his YouTube Channel