Black Box Foundation Video Archive at OSA
The video periodical Black Box was the first independent film production studio during the last years of communist rule in Hungary. It reported on demonstrations and civilian initiatives that the official media passed over in silence or reported on with disinformation. With its film reports, and portraits distributed in samizdat channels, at the beginning Black Box managed to create the largest film collection documenting the events of the transitional period and the change of political system both in Hungary and in other communist countries.
Budapest Arany János utca 32, Hungary 1051
Show on map
Name of collection
HU OSA 305 Fekete Doboz Alapítvány Video Archive
Provenance and cultural activities
A small documentary staff of independent filmmakers formed Black Box in late 1987. At that time in Hungary – similarly to other eastern bloc countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Russia – samizdat literature had been flourishing for years: independent publishers, books, and periodicals, together with clandestine network of distribution, made unofficial or “secondary public sphere” more and more extended and influential.
During the last two years of the Kádár era, the independent studio Black Box managed to shoot a total of more than one thousand hour-long segments of rough footage documenting major changes in both Hungary and other formerly communist countries. The founders of Black Box originally intended to counter-balance the massive manipulations of the official media, by providing more authentic presentations of such sensitive issues like ethnic minority problems, environmental protection, as well as social anomalies still considered taboo to discuss publicly. However, the radical course of events soon went further than of all these aims, and Black Box rather became a visual samizdat forum regularly providing uncensored reports on major social-political changes in Hungary and other eastern bloc countries. As István Jávor, a founding staff member stated, following the massive demonstration of the 15th of March 1988 in Budapest, they cancelled their earlier workplans, and instead preferred to be present with their video cameras at all important events. Thus, apart from the existing samizdat press, illegal demonstrations, and street performances, the Hungarian democratic opposition and public life successfully gained a new and important forum in Black Box.
The technology of video cassettes, as an easy way to produce, copy, and play motion pictures, became popular in Hungary in the second part of 1980s. This revolutionary new technology allowed Black Box to launch its “video publications,” a series of independent film reports on public events, with an average of four “quarterly issues” a year, each of them roughly one-hour long. Until early 1990, six issues and two special issues of the “video periodical” were produced. The founding editors of Black Box were the photographer István Jávor (the inventor of the project), and his colleagues at Hungarian Film Factory, philosopher András Lányi (who came up with the name Black Box), documentary director Judit Ember, film producer Márta Elbert, and sociologist Gábor Vági. In 1989, Ember, Lányi, and Vági left, and a new member, cameraman László Pesty, joined the staff. The editors also introduced themselves publicly in their call for support during the ‘Black Box opening’ in May 1987.
According to Márta Elbert’s recollections ten years later, the idea to start working with home video technology originated from István Jávor, who at that time already had his own video camera, and which allowed for the recording of any public event without any further technical preparations. With the use of this camera, they could even produce their own uncensored documentaries on themes that were still considered taboo in state-financed and state-controlled film studios. “The name ‘Black Box’ was conceived by Lányi, our clandestine editorial meetings were held in my home, and in the beginning the costs of the cassettes were covered by all of us.”
The editors of the “video periodical,” unlike those of the printed samizdat press, preferred to have official permission right from the start, although they did not stop their work in its absence either. During its first years of operation, Black Box in fact straddled the border of legality and illegality. With their sensitive subjects and close contact with the democratic opposition, they drew the early attention of the communist secret police, and kept on working under its surveillance. As Márta Elbert put it, Black Box was lucky insofar as the Hungarian authorities failed to realize the potential power of video technology as a new means to inform and influence the public; therefore, copied and reproduced cassettes were never confiscated. Although the editors had to work under constant police surveillance, the Hungarian police allowed the staff to keep working. As a bizarre evidence of this ambiguous relationship, according to a secret agent report that survived, it was known that Black Box filmed the reburial ceremony of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs at the commission of West German press agencies.
The project received from the MTA–Soros Foundation the support of HUF 1.5 million for 1988, and 1 million for 1989, which proved to be a sufficient basis for independent operations. At the same time the “video periodical” project received legal recognition in the official setting too: it was formally registered as a production of Béla Balázs Studio (BBS), meanwhile the staff of Black Box were all members of the Union of Hungarian Film and Television Program Makers. Even so it was quite problematic for them to meet all the bureaucratic requirements, and obtain authorization to distribute their films on their own.
According to the Hungarian Press Law of 1986, it was the Ministry of Culture that had the right to give preliminary permission to publish “other than paper-based reproductions.” However, the Ministry equally had the right to refuse to give that permission, simply on the ground that “the personal and material conditions are not sufficiently ensured” for the planned publication in question. This elastic paragraph providing unlimited prerogative for the decision maker clearly could ab ovo justify any arbitrary censoring. Another bureaucratic obstacle was that Black Box defined itself as editorial staff of a “video periodical,” which was an unknown category under the existing Press Law.
“We decided then to still do it, even if they do not grant official permission or otherwise thwart our operation” – one can read from an interview with István Jávor published in the gassizdat magazine “Hungarian Youth” in April 1989. “But in that case, we would have been forced to organize distribution through private channels for a limited circle only, and it would have been much more difficult. Anyway, the option of carrying on underground was not at all excluded. Still we firmly strove from the start to gain permission, if possible, for each and every one of our video issues,” he states in a retrospective interview almost three decades later.
Black Box was established at the most opportune moment to record the emergence of a democratic opposition, and to follow the changing course of the political system. Its editors found their subject matter mainly in the events of opposition movements, and the democratic transition. As István Jávor recollected, “At that time the meetings, marches, 1956 commemorations, and demonstrations against the Danube dam project followed each other all over Budapest, the Eötvös College, the Technical University, etc. We made recordings of them, and edited our first reports to be distributed by video cassette.” The activists who appeared in these films could hardly be seen or heard in the official media broadcasts: those speakers at demonstrations, samizdat writers, ’56-ers, organizers of protest actions and public performances against the communist regime. They all demanded prompt and radical changes. Decisive public events happened in private flats, underground meeting places, clubs, theaters, cinemas, and on the open streets day by day.
As Márta Elbert recalled in her memories of this eventful period: “The first part of the history of Black Box ended by early 1990. We mainly prepared video reports, shooting an awful large number of recordings at ten to twelve different sites a week. On top of all that we made 150 hours of recordings of the Opposition and National Roundtable Talks from spring to autumn 1989. Together with the jobs of pre- and post-production, we worked 18 hours a day. So we would have died of hunger without the grants of the Soros Foundation in those busy years.”
The filmmakers were not only interested in the political program of the opposition and the process of democratization, but also in the new forms of civilian resistance. It speaks for itself that the first issue of the video periodical, “Civilian technology,” was made by Black Box about the defiant movement of the Young Hungarian Democrats, FIDESZ. Later they recorded a number of major events of the ever-strengthening opposition, all proving to be milestones on the road of the change of political system: the massive protest demonstrations again the planned Danube dam, the unveiling of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs’ symbolic grave in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, the demonstrations in Budapest on the 23rd of October 1988, the exhumation and reburial ceremony of the executed 1956 revolutionaries, the Opposition and National Roundtable Talks, and finally the shocking disclosure of the “Duna-gate” scandal.
In late 1988, the Information Office of the Hungarian Council of Ministers refused to give authorization for a video periodical on the pretext that it fell outside Black Box’s scope of competence. Legal operations could only start again in January 1989, and only in the case of the revision of the earlier official refusal. A year later there was a clash among the staff of Black Box as László Pesty left and started his film news production company, “Black Box Limited,” on a business basis; meanwhile “Black Box Foundation” led by Márta Elbert kept on being active in supporting civil society and education. Their new documentary films were mainly focused on those in need: the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, those who suffered from ethnic discrimination, etc. In 1993 one of their productions, “History from a low-angle shot” (Kiskamerás történelem) won a Pulitzer Memorial Prize.
The Black Box Foundation and Open Society Archives have been in contact since the establishment of OSA in 1995. Depositing the invaluable and unique video and textual collection at OSA began in 2011 with Black Box handing over 90 short documentaries; videos documenting the 1989 Opposition and National Roundtable Negotiations, along with the transcripts in electronic format; news and other political programs produced and broadcast by the Hungarian Television in 1989 together with unedited footage produced by Black Box in 1988 and 1989. Further depositing of video, textual, and electronic records to OSA continued between 2012 and 2015, including the entire original analog video camera material shot between 1988 and 2008, their script lists, and the entire collection of documentary films produced by Black Box between 1988 and 2008.
There was a press conference held at OSA on the occasion of the release of the Black Box collection, which underlined its importance and special archival value. In his speech, István Rév, Director of the Archives, highlighted the fact that the entire collection was available for research. Moreover, the historian János Rainer M., Director of the 1956 Research Institute, evaluated the pioneering role of Black Box in breaking the mass media monopoly of the former one-party state, and in renewing Hungarian film culture, as he put, by providing, with their documentary works, an utterly new civilian optics of the post-totalitarian system.”
Description of content
The Black Box Collection of Blinken OSA Archives in Budapest – officially catalogued as HU OSA 305 Fekete Doboz Alapítvány Video Archive – contains documentation of both motion pictures and paper-based records held on multiple devices. Over 200 documentary films and news programs were created by Black Box along with their inventory, providing alternative news and independent coverage about the social and political changes from 1988 to 1996, together with 3,000 hours of unedited footage shot on analog video by Black Box in Hungary and Eastern Europe, as well as textual materials containing handwritten script lists to the raw footage – these main items well reflect the rich and versatile content of the collection.
The independent filmmakers’ work resulted in, among others, over 500 hours of evening news and political programs broadcast by the state-controlled Hungarian Television in 1989; approx. 150 hours of video documenting the Opposition Roundtable Negotiations of 1989; over 50 documentary films about the Roma by the Roma Media School students of Hungary; and approx. 50 hours of footage documenting the change of regimes in the former Eastern Bloc countries. The collection also contains videotaped oral history interviews relating to the history and perception of Radio Free Europe – Radio Liberty. These works were often created well after the change of political system, covering the period 1988–1996.
Filmography of Black Box productions
CIVILIAN TECHNIQUES (Fidesz), Vol. 1, Issue 1, 80 mins.
The cameras of Black Box followed for half a year the life of the group of young men in Budapest who initiated the Alliance of Young Democrats – Fidesz – a new, independent political organization of Hungarian youth.
THE PROJECT, Vol. 1, Issue 2, 75 mins.
The documentary report film presents the mass demonstration held in the summer of 1988 against the planned gigantic hydroelectric plant on the Danube at Bős-Nagymaros, menacing the most picturesque natural environment of the Danube Bend. The film also reports on the archeological rescue works that started to save findings in the planned floodplains along the barrage. Green activist Professor Béla Lipták, a Hungarian emigre returned home for a visit from the US, also gave an interview, summing up the arguments against building the megalomaniacal new industrial project.
Attachment: Hunger strike. Some dissident intellectuals in 1988 went on a hunger strike protesting the discriminative policy of the Hungarian Ministry of Interior that repeatedly refused their claim to a passport.
PARCEL, No. 301, Special issue, 100 mins.
On 16th of March 1988, the 30th anniversary of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs’ execution, a symbolic empty grave was dedicated to the memory of all executed Hungarian revolutionaries of 1956 in Pére Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. On the same day in Budapest an unauthorized memorial process started at the unmarked graves of the victims in parcel no. 301 of Rákoskeresztúr Cemetery, followed by candlelit commemorations in downtown Budapest at Heroes’ Square and Batthyány Square. Relatives of the victims together with ’56-ers tell the camera what that day with its mournful memory meant to them ever since 1958.
HERE LIVES A PEOPLE, Vol. 1, Issue 3, 100 mins.
This issue contains news reports about the opposition movements unfolding in Hungary in the autumn of 1988: protest demonstrations in Budapest and Nagymaros against the planned dam on the Danube, strikes at the universities, a demonstration of conscientious objectors, on the 15th of November 1988 a peaceful solidarity march for Romanian workers on the first anniversary of the Braşov rebellion, brutally attacked by Budapest riot police.
REQUESTS OF THE PEOPLE, Vol. 2, Issue 4, 100 mins.
This issue is about a series of memorial events on the streets of Budapest from late October 1988 to mid-March 1989. On the 23rd of October 1988, the 32nd anniversary of the outbreak of the Hungarian revolution, hundreds of demonstrators marched in downtown Budapest, during which the city was heavily patrolled by the police corps, blocking public areas, checking identities, etc. Two weeks later, on the 4th of November, Kádár’s supporters and members of the communist security agency (ÁVH) held a rally in Budapest at Köztársaság tér (Republic Square) to celebrate their victory: the suppression of the “counter-revolution.” On the national holiday of the 15th of March 1989, tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators demanded freedom and democracy in the streets of Budapest, and prominent leaders of the opposition held speeches, such as János Kis, Dénes Csengey, Viktor Orbán, and others.
NEW HUNGARIAN MOURNING, Special issue, 180 mins.
In the spring of 1989, a special committee of Hungarian Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Interior began the exhumation of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs’ mortal remains in top-secret parcel no. 301 of Rákoskeresztúr Cemetery, Budapest. The videographers of Black Box managed to record shocking scenes at the location, as the corpses were found one by one lying with their faces turned downward towards the bottom of their graves for more than three decades. The interviews with the victims’ relatives, friends, ’56-ers, and witnesses provide a deep insight into the depraved secrets of a frightful period.
BELLS RINGING AT 12:30, Vol. 2, Issue 5, 100 mins.
On the 2nd of May 1989, representatives of the Opposition Roundtable Negotiations held a hearing about the report of the Committee for Historical Justice on the preparations for the public reburial ceremony of Imre Nagy and the revolutionary martyrs of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, planned for June 16th in Budapest.
The 16th of June 1989: footage of the public reburial of Imre Nagy and all the executed revolutionaries of 1956 is presented.
Attachment: “Instead of desperados we are rather afraid of our policemen.” Meanwhile the Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party talked about democracy and human rights, and the police arresting innocent citizens day after day for political reasons. Then there are three fascinating stories about the everyday brutality of the Hungarian police, still under one-party state control.
JOURNEY TO KARABAH, 20 mins.
This issue is a wartime documentary made in 1989 on the tragic, sometimes tragicomic, scenes of the Armenian–Georgian conflict.
THE 1989 ROUNDTABLE NEGOTIATIONS OF THE DEMOCRATIC OPPOSITION IN HUNGARY, Parts 1–5, 5x50 mins.
At the initiation of the Independent Legal Forum, six parties of the democratic opposition (Fidesz, Independent Smallholders Party, Hungarian Forum of Democrats, Hungarian Peoples’ Party, Alliance of Free Democrats, Social Democratic Party) together with two organizations (Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Fraternal Society, Democratic League of Independent Trade Unions) joined forces in March 1989 in Budapest to prepare for the transition talks with the ruling communist party MSZMP in order to achieve a peaceful and negotiated political change of system. The documentary series of five parts was edited from 150 hours of raw footage, and covers all the negotiations of both the Opposition and the National Roundtable Talks.
TWO OCTOBERS, 21 mins.
This issue is a portrait of Police Captain János Balogh, who was in charge of crowd control at the demonstrations in 1988, including the brutal police attack on some peaceful demonstrators on the memorial day of the 1956 revolution, the 23rd of October 1988. Exactly a year later, 23 October 1989, when the Hungarian Republic was proclaimed, he was the commander of Budapest police corps maintaining order during the official ceremonies.
OUR BATTLES ON THE FRONT LINE, Vol. 3, Issue 6, 97 mins.
Black Box was among the first video crews that arrived on location to report on the Romanian uprising in December 1989. The first part of the report presents the fall of Ceausescu’s dictatorship and the volatile events of the revolution.
On Christmas Eve, thousands of Hungarians walked to Heroes’ Square in Budapest to pay tribute to the memory of martyrs who died in the street fights of the Romanian revolution. This was also the night when a secret police officer, Major József Végvári, made clandestine contact with a staff member of Black Box, for the purpose of warning the larger public about shocking evidence: the communist secret police, a few months before the first free general elections in the country, still surveilled the phone calls and mail of opposition activists, continued collecting information about them, and at the same time was busy destroying past sensitive files.
The second part of the issue contains four interviews with Major József Végvári. The first two of these were recorded before the “Duna-gate” scandal broke with the shocking evidence of the ongoing activities of communist secret agencies; meanwhile the other two were made after Végvári’s unmasking.
DUNA-GATE, 34 mins.
Those who have once seen the investigative report film made by Black Box will surely remember the “Duna-gate” scandal that forced the Minister of Interior to resign together with a number of secret police officers in Hungary. In late 1989, Police Major József Végvári, an active member of the III/3 secret department that surveilled domestic opposition, called the cameraman of Black Box to help in revealing the fact that just months before the future free democratic general elections, the ex-communist ruling party, renamed MSZP, was still monitoring the activists of the democratic opposition, just like it did in the “good old” Kádár era.
T.E.D.23. CHARLEY, 50 mins.
This is a portrait of secret police officer Major József Végváry, Dept. III/3, Hungarian Ministry of Interior.
HUNGARIAN CHANGES, Vol. 3, Issue 7, 60 mins.This film is an hour-long overview of a year – all the major political changes in Hungary from spring 1988 to spring 1989, from the first euphoric demonstrations to the first democratic elections in forty years. The attachment of the issue presents the scenes of the Romanian revolution, and then the violent ethnic conflict on the streets of Tîrgu Mureş/Marosvásárhely, Romania, in March 1990.
- grey literature (regular archival documents such as brochures, bulletins, leaflets, reports, intelligence files, records, working papers, meeting minutes): 10-99
- video recordings (including oral history recordings): 1000-
Geographical scope of recent operation
Date of founding
Place of founding
Budapest Arany János utca 32, Hungary
Show on map
Important events in the history of the collection
- completely open to the public
Author(s) of this page
- Huhák, Heléna
- Mravik, Patrik
- Nóvé, Béla
- Scheibner, Tamás
- Szilágyi, Csaba
- Zádori, Zsuzsanna
Múlt-kor. „Kutathatók lesznek a Fekete Doboz kordokumentumai.” 2011.03.03. https://mult-kor.hu/20110503_kutathatok_lesznek_a_fekete_doboz_kordokumentumai.
Szigeti, Ferenc Albert. „Magyar dokumentumfilm a rendszerváltás után.” Metropolis, no. 2 (2004). http://metropolis.org.hu/?pid=16&aid=97.
Révész, Béla. „A FEKETE DOBOZ – 20 ÉVE.” Beszélő 12, no. 7 (2007/7-8). http://beszelo.c3.hu/cikkek/a-fekete-doboz-%E2%80%93-20-eve
Varga, Balázs. „Fekete Dobozok: Változatok a dokumentarizmusra.” Filmkultúra, 1993, 10-6.
Galambos, Ágnes. „Fekete Doboz.” Magyar Ifjúság, 1989.04.15.
Nóvé, Béla. Tény/Soros. A magyar Soros Alapítvány első tíz éve. Budapest: Balassi, 1999.
Bársony, Éva. „Tiltott gyümölcsök a Fekete Dobozban. Tabu témákról forgattak, filmjeiket ma is gyakran hiába ajánlják.” Népszava, 1997.04.07
Mink, András, interview by Scheibner, Tamás, Apor, Péter, July 04, 2017. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection