Sándor Sára is one of the most influential Hungarian directors and cinematographers. His ancestors were railwaymen living in a rural peasant environment for which Sára has always felt nostalgic. His father abandoned the family profession and became a deputy notary. As a consequence of this, he was interned for years in a labour camp after Soviet troops set foot in Hungary in 1945. Naturally, he disliked the Communist system from the outset, but not simply because he had been interred. He was shocked by the violent acts committed by Soviet soldiers at the end of World War II. Furthermore, he had a formative experience in the course of a series of encounters with Transylvanian refugees in his village during the late phase of the war. Although he was aware that there were many Hungarian speakers living outside the borders of the country (no one who attended school in interwar Hungary could have failed to have been aware of this), his encounters with the refugees gave this abstract fact very physical meaning, and ever since then, he has paid considerable attention to the Transylvanian Hungarian minority.
Photography has played a crucial role in Sára’s life ever since his childhood. He started photography as a hobby, and later he was inspired by the theoretical studies of photography by Béla Balázs and Iván Hevesy. He did not consider choosing film as a profession until he was encouraged to do so by a friend, with whom he applied for admission to the College of Theatre and Film Art (a university today). The first time, he was not admitted, so he worked as an assistant surveyor. The job involved frequent trips to parts of rural Hungary, and Sára explored these communities and familiarized himself with the world of the farmstead and the people, especially the Roma, who lived and live in the direst poverty. These experiences had a strong influence on his life and mentality, and they are frequently subjects of his films.
When he was admitted to the college, Sára found a welcoming atmosphere with relative freedom, as he remembered in a recent interview. In spite of the strict cultural policy of the 1950s, a wide variety of films was screened for the students, including some recent movies from the West. His professor of cinematography, János Badal, claimed that his class was only interested in the films from a technical-professional viewpoint and with no consideration of any question of ideology, and the authorities accepted this explanation and permitted him to screen even banned Western movies. As a student, Sára participated in the 1956 Revolution as a member of the revolutionary committee of the college. His patrons, like Magda Olti, who became the director of the school, protected him from direct repercussions. His activity during the revolution did have some consequences, however: his career was put on hold for a while despite his considerable talent, and he was marginalized for some time. He was not invited to work in the Hunnia Film Studio, where feature films were shot (he wanted to join the staff), but was directed instead to the News and Documentary Film Studio. Even there, he did not get any professional work for some time. Meanwhile, however, he won his first international film award for his short film Pályamunkások (“Platelayers”). The film, which he made with director István Gaál, was the work he submitted in order to complete his degree from the college. It was awarded a prize at the World Festival of Youth and Students in Vienna in 1959.
In 1958, the cultural policy of the Kádár regime began to ease slightly, and Sára, together with his friend director Zoltán Huszárik, joined a group of young artists in the Béla Balázs Studio (BBS). The BBS was founded in 1959. It functioned as the centre and most significant workshop for a renewal of Hungarian documentaries and experimental films. The function of BBS was to let fresh graduates in the industry experiment without the products of their work necessarily being released for the public. The studio as such was a transitional place between college and professional studios, where low budget films could be produced for their own sake. As Sára recalled in a TV interview, initially he did not want to shoot films under such an oppressive political regime, and he retreated into a sort of passive resistance. During these years, Sára dealt with experimental photography and wrote numerous scenarios. Beginning in the early 1960s, however, he and his friends started to feel that they were wasting their lives, and as a result they changed their attitude. Sára started to produce films more actively.
Sára’s 1962 17-minute documentary entitled Cigányok (“Gypsies”) was his first documentary shot in the BBS. The script was not approved at his workplace (the News and Documentary Film Studio), but he had a chance to make the film in the BBS. The social deprivation and the extraordinary poverty of the Roma population was not a favoured topic under the socialist regime, but in the BBS one could make such a film without, of course, the hope of ever releasing it to the public. The BBS was also a unique place because Sára could act as a director, even though his degree was in cinematography. Anywhere else, this would not have been possible, but in the open atmosphere of the BBS nobody cared about diplomas. The film was not allowed to be released, but it eventually found its way to audiences. In Hungary, small sociologist enclaves started to research the circumstances of the Roma communities in the 1960s, and Sára’s film was inspired not only by his own experiences, but also by these early research projects. There was a small but growing intellectual circle for which the Roma became an increasingly important topic, and the members of the circle found a way to watch the film. The breakthrough came in 1968, when the film won an award at the Oberhasuen film festival. This was not the first international prize it had won, but it was decisive in the sense that from that time on, the film became available to Hungarian audiences as well. This is just one example of many cases, when the success in the West of a work of art made in Hungary prompted the Hungarian authorities to legalize the artwork domestically.
After the success of “Gypsies.” as a director of photography Sára produced numerous documentaries, and he also created several significant movies as a director. His first feature film was again about the Roma: Feldobott kő (“The Upthrown Stone”), which is set in the 1950s, was finished in 1968. Sára worked together on the screenplay with his permanent collaborators, writer Sándor Csoóri and director Ferenc Kósa. The film, however, was forbidden. In a 2014 interview, Sára recalled that this incident paralyzed him in his work for a year: he was depressed by the sanction and was anxious that the political police would arrest him. His creativity was rekindled only slowly and with considerable difficulty.
The peasant revolt led by György Dózsa in 1514 was considered an important historical event in the “progressive” tradition of Hungarian history in the Rákosi and Kádár eras: artistic depictions and the narratives of the events were frequently made and enjoyed the support of the state. Accordingly, Sándor Sára got an opportunity to shoot a film about the topic in a Hungarian, Czechoslovak, and Romanian coproduction in 1967. Looking for appropriate backdrops, Sára travelled to Transylvania for the first time in his life. He travelled widely in the region, and while he studied Transylvanian lifestyles, he also developed contacts with members of the local intelligentsia. When the film, entitled Ítélet (“Judgement”) was shot in 1968, Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Soviet Union and neighbouring socialist states, including Hungary. This seriously threatened the completion of the film, but it was finished in 1970. For Sára and his colleagues, it was evident that they had produced a film which was particularly relevant from the perspective of the politics of the day: an attempt to achieve freedom for the masses was brutally suppressed in both cases. This reversal of official historical narratives and the use of the narrative to undermine the legitimacy of the ruling regime was by no means exceptional, neither under communism in general nor, more specifically, in Sára’s oeuvre.
Another example of this kind of potentially subversive composition is 80 huszár (“80 Hussars”), which was completed in 1978. This feature film recounted a single episode of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-1849, another important historical event in the “progressive” tradition. The story is about a squad of Hussars sent to Poland by the Viennese court to police the rebellious Galicians. The Hussars decide to race back to Hungary when they hear news of the outbreak of the revolution against the Habsburgs. The film did not depict the Hussars as great heroes, as had been done in earlier interpretations of the same story. Sára focused instead on the difficulties of the route and the dilemmas the Hussars faced. He highlighted the enormous efforts they made, which ultimately were in vain. As Sándor Csoóri, co-author of the script, suggested in one of his articles, the film criticized the imperial strategy of turning the peoples of Central Europe against one another. The production would not have been possible without a cooperation agreement between the Hungarian film factory and its Polish counterpart: this made it possible to shoot the film in Poland. Andrzej Wajda also participated in the process of filmmaking: not only did Sára consult with him, but Wajda’s film studio produced the sequences which were shot in Poland, even though the film was financed by the Hungarians.
Sándor Sára was a key figure in the historical documentary boom in Hungary which began in the mid-1960s. This was not an entirely free choice, but rather at least in part a consequence of circumstance. Originally, he had wanted to shoot a film entitled Madéfalvi veszedelem (“The Peril of Madéfalva”) on a tragic event in the history of the Székely people of Transylvania. In the eighteenth century, the Habsburg army massacred Székely men and their families in the village of Madéfalva because they resisted the military draft. The Directorate General of Films (Filmfőigazgatóság), which functioned as the censorship office of the movie industry in communist Hungary, did not permit the film to be shot. According to Sára, they were afraid that the story of Madéfalva would remind the audience on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia. Sára indeed saw a pre-figuration of these events in the 200-year-old story of the Siculicidium, as the episode is called in Latin. The director later returned to this topic. The film entitled Sír az út előttem (“The Road Cries in Front of Me,” 1987) narrated the history of the Székelys in Bucovina from the tragedy of Madéfalva to World War II. But the prohibition against the shooting of the original film had more direct consequences already in the 1960s.
Having had his script rejected and having watched the available financial sources drying up, Sára sought alternative, cheaper ways to mediate his message. He hoped that he would have less difficulty obtaining permission to produce less spectacular, less expensive films, and so he simplified filmmaking: he thought that a camera and a talking head would be sufficient to raise public interest in his product. Certainly, the key was to find the appropriate person to interview on the right topic. Like several other documentary filmmakers from this epoch, Sára did careful and thorough research: he documented everything with his tape recorder and photographic camera. Without this profound and well-documented research, decision makers could have rejected his scripts, but it was not as easy once it was clear that the scripts were based on a series of reliable records. Beginning in the 1960s, at least a pretence of professionalism was required in decision making, and in cases in which a committee was divided or cultural politicians were not of the same opinion, the existence of sources to which one could refer could make a difference and prompt the authorities to give filmmakers permission to shoot a given film.
Sándor Sára’s first documentary based on interviews was about the Second Hungarian Army, which was largely destroyed by the Red Army in fighting on the bank of the Don River in the Soviet Union in 1943. Again, this was a topic which had been neglected in communist Hungary. The writer and hobby historian István Nemeskürty’s book entitled Requiem egy hadseregért (“Requiem for an Army,” 1972) and some further volumes were available at the end of the 1970s on this theme, but these accounts were rather superficial or one-sided and ideologically driven. Sára’s interest was raised by this historical event, and, initially, he planned a two-part documentary. Finally, the composition, entitled Krónika a II. magyar hadseregről (“Chronicle of the Second Hungarian Army”) consisted of 25 episodes, and it was only completed in 1982. In addition, a five-episode cinema version entitled Pergőtűz (Drumfire) was released a year later. The Hungarian Television, which was the major forum for historical documentaries, joined in the production as co-producer. However, only the first three episodes were screened. In response to protests by the Soviet embassy, “Chronicle” was removed from the television-program.
For Sára, filmmaking was not just an artistic act, but also a social one. In his view, filmmaking was a moral imperative: if life gave him the opportunity to take a camera in hand, he had to use it for good, productive aims. In his works, he aspired to deal with sensitive and suppressed issues of his time. He felt that he was obliged to speak for those who had no chance to stand up for themselves. This vocation was the driving force behind the films mentioned so far and the documentaries on the Gulag, such as Te még élsz? (“Are You Still Alive? 1989), Magyar nők a Gulágon (Hungarian Women in the Gulag, 1992), and Csonka Bereg (Mutilated Bereg, 1988), as well as Vízkereszt (”Epiphany”) on the life people living on farmsteads and Oda-vissza (“There and Back,” 1962) on commuting workers, to mention but a few.
Due to his choice of subjects, his films were usually released with a large delay. Only the aforementioned “Peril of Mádéfalva” was completely forbidden, but censors repeatedly intervened. For instance, Sára had to add a frame story to “The Upthrown Stone,” and in case of almost every documentary, some parts had to be cut. As Sára admitted, another factor was self-censorship, which he and his colleagues tried to overcome, though it inevitably affected all filmmakers, and sometimes they consciously used it in order to ensure that a film would be released. Several significant historical issues had to be avoided. The fates of Hungarian POWs in the Soviet Union, for instance, could only figure indirectly in Chronicle, the series which was forbidden anyway. Sára and his fellow producers knew they could not deal with this subject in a meaningful way, because it would the whole production at risk. No doubt, Sára still pushed the limits. As he remembered, during production, he and his colleagues would frequently wonder whether a given scene was worth having to spend a couple of years in prison. As it turned out in the end, neither Sára nor his collaborators ever actually had to face any such consequences: conflicts with the political regime resulted in the banning of a film in the worst case.
At the same time, it is hard not to notice that Sára was awarded several prizes in the Kádár era, including the highest state prize awarded for the arts, the Kossuth Prize, in 1978. As he explained in his interview in 2009, the cultural policy of the Kádár regime wanted to control artists on the one hand and present itself in the West through them and their works. The state intended to demonstrate that there was no censorship under the socialist regime and Hungary was not a repressive state. Rather, it was a country in which internationally competitive, high quality artworks were produced. The film enjoyed privileged status among artistic media: it could travel easily across language barriers and it attracted large audiences. Films played a major role in defining the country’s image, so the regime gave filmmakers a relatively large degree of autonomy in comparison to the restrictions placed on artists working in other fields of the arta. Sára viewed the role of György Aczél, the designer of culture politics in Hungary, as ambivalent: on the one hand, Aczél was a cultural dictator who exerted rigorous supervision of the arts in Hungary, while on the other, he tried to provide more freedom for artists then Soviet cultural politicians wanted to allow, especially Yekaterina Furtseva, Soviet Minister of Culture until 1974. At the same time, the international reputation that some of the Hungarian filmmakers enjoyed as a result of their distinctive position constituted a certain kind of protection: since they were in the spotlight, their words and acts counted more, and politicians had to be increasingly careful when dealing with them. This is what led Sára to point out the paradoxical situation which arose in the field of documentary filmmaking: for a well-known director like him, it was easier to get funding for a documentary like the subsequently prohibited “Chronicle” before 1989 than it was after the end of communism. Sára’s privileged position could be measured by the fact that he had direct contact to Aczél, and he would sometimes go hunting with Imre Pozsgay, a politician who challenged Aczél and who served for a time as minister of culture. Pozsgay attempted to gain a political advantage by establishing dialogue with the populist-patriotic (“népi”) opposition. At the same time, Sára participated in the significant meeting between the regime and the opposition in Monor in 1985, where all the different opposition groups gathered for the first (and last) time. Sára also visited Lakitelek, where the populist-patriotic opposition had a meeting and where the Hungarian Democratic Forum was established in 1987. In spite of this, Sára claimed that he had not taken part in the opposition movements because he was concerned only with making his films.After the regime change, in 1993 Sára was invited by his long-time friend Sándor Csoóri to act as the chairman of the newly founded Duna Television. He held this position for seven years. During his time, historical documentaries and the previously suppressed historical issues dominated the programme structure of Duna Television.
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- Huhák, Heléna
- Scheibner, Tamás