Gábor Hanák is a historian, documentary filmmaker, public collection specialist, and head of the Cseh Tamás Archives. After finishing secondary school, he obtained a qualification as a studio technician at Hungarian Television (MTV) in 1963. He completed a degree in Hungarian Literature and History at Eötvös Lóránt University of Budapest in 1968. He worked at Hungarian Television from 1969 to 1984, where he ended up as editor-in-chief of the programs related to the social sciences.
At MTV he was mainly involved in creating popular historical programs, the most memorable of which included Krónika/Pergőtűz (“Chronicle/Running Fire”) and Századunk (“Our Century”), to which he contributed as editor and dramaturgs. He began making contributions to “Our Century” as a university student, and his talents were quickly discovered by Péter Bokor, the creator of the program. Bokor and Hanák worked together for decades, and by 2006 they had released some 500 episodes.
For these television programs, he did several interviews with historians who were treated with suspicion by the Party (e.g. Domokos Kosáry, György Bónis, Erik Fügedi, Jenő Szűcs, and Elemér Mályusz) and who often challenged official historical narratives. Representatives of the Party at MTV, however, often censored the episodes. Therefore, the history of his oeuvre is entangled with the history of the Kádár era: it is a history of concessions and prohibitions, and of the evolving relationship between censorship and the public sphere.
In some cases, he had to wait a decade before a given work would be shown. For instance, his portrait film on Communist politician and sociologist Ferenc Erdei (1976-1980) remained in its film canister until 1986. Similarly, his video interview with political thinker István Bibó (1971-1975) was broadcasted ten years after it had been completed. In order to deceive the political censors, he sometimes used minor tricks: he submitted to supervision the portrait film on Domokos Kosáry together with that of Iván Berend T., the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences at the time, hoping that the censors would accept the two in a pack. Still, the film was not presented until 1986.
Those portrait films, which were about key figures of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (such as Ferenc Donáth, Géza Losonczy, Miklós Gimes, and Miklós Vásárhelyi) were met with particularly strong interest. The Hungarian Revolution (which was referred to as a counterrevolution at the time) was one of Hanák’s primary topics, and he even did video interviews with Hungarian exiles in Austria. He also made films about the important personalities of the interwar period. Hanák preferred to balance on the border of what was acceptable to the regime, and sometimes his work caused fissures within the Party.
After leaving MTV, he was employed at the Budapest Film Studio (BFS), which he directed from 1985 to 1992. This firm was established as the successor to the former News and Documentary Factory (Híradó- és Dokumentumfilm Gyár) at the end of the 1950s. BFS evolved into a central scene for the renaissance of Hungarian film production, where the most significant directors shot films of various sorts, including movies and documentaries. One such example was Tutajosok (Raftsmen, 1988) by Judit Elek, a film which was based on the documents of the Tiszaeszlár trial in 1882 and dealt with the issue of anti-Semitism in Hungary. According to the director, who spoke at the 25th anniversary of the film, MTV withdrew its support for the film while it was still being shot. As Elek recalled, “Everybody started to panic because there was an unspoken but widely known view expressed by [cultural politician] György Aczél, according to which there have always been, are, and always will be Jews but nobody should speak about them.” She added that the film was saved by Gábor Hanák, who helped to make sure the movie was finished.
Together with Péter Bokor, Hanák thought that the preservation of the interviews made for documentaries was highly important, since they constituted raw material for filmmakers and a significant source for historical research. The recordings document personal histories of people who had little chance to present the narratives of their own experiences in the socialist period. Gradually, filmmakers learned that the system allowed one to record practically everything, even if only for the camera, i.e. without any actual chance of being released. In an interview, Hanák spoke about the recurring scandals that arose because they tended to spend more time shooting than was considered necessary for a film. In one case, they recorded approximately 30 hours for a one-hour program. The idea of archiving and preserving the recordings for posteriority (i.e. the idea of establishing of a video archive of sorts) was slowly taking shape in Bokor’s and Hanák’s minds.
The ban of the program Krónika in 1983 required immediate action on Bokor’s and Hanák’s part if they wanted to save the recordings. Because of the practices of film production at the time, many recordings were lost. There was no room to store the films, and no intention of archiving them, so Hanák and Bokor made efforts to set up a video archive, which by the mid-1980s had been established. The video archive became part of the collection of the Széchényi National Library (OSZK) in 1986, and Hanák became the director of the Collection of Historical Interviews (TIT) until his retirement in 2009.
The personal credibility of Hanák was a great asset in the quest to do new interviews and enlarge the collection. People trusted him and were more willing to tell their stories to him and in front of his camera. Interviewing required historical research, which became considerably easier when Gyula Juhász, the general director of OSZK, set up a special collection in the late 1980s named Collection of Prints Closed to the Public, where former closed stacks became accessible to researchers with permission. As a result, samizdat materials and émigré publications became available to interviewers, and this proved extremely important when the interviews were done.
The first interview in TIT was done with Irén Gróf, the widow of Sándor Haraszti in 1985, followed by interviews with Miklós Vásárhelyi, Zoltán Kallós, Péter Kende, Tibor Méray, and others. While doing the interviews, Hanák and his colleagues stressed that the recordings were made for posteriority and not for the contemporary public, so interviewees usually spoke about more controversial issues as well. As a consequence, the bulk of the material can be studied only with the consent of the interviewees or their relatives.
Gábor Hanák also played a key role in the process of OSZK acquiring the archive of the Hungarian Department of Radio Free Europe and the BBC. The materials produced during the two weeks of the revolution in 1956 are particularly significant for historical research. Some of the relevant materials, including radio recordings, are available online within the framework of the project Hungarian October (www.magyaroktober.hu).
Hanák has been the director of the Foundation for the Promotion of the Hungarian Motion Picture Treasure (MMMA) since 1992. This Foundation is still a main supporter of the TIT. Hanák was also the vice-director general of Duna Channel (Duna Televízió) from its foundation in 1993 until 1997.
In the last decade, the narrator of Századunk (Our century) was the well-known singer-songwriter Tamás Cseh, with whom Hanák got in touch and made friends in the early 1970s. After 2000, the documents Cseh’s life, which had been collected over the course of the years with the help of his mother, started to be digitalized. After Cseh’s death, Gábor Hanák led the creation of an interdisciplinary archive out of the manifold material of various formats. His aim was to foster comparative research on Cseh’s oeuvre and its era. The archive was operating first as part of the National Library. It then became part of the Hungarian National Archive, and later the Hungarian Art Nonprofit Ltd. (Magyar Alkotóművészeti Közhasznú Nonprofit Kft.).
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Author(s) of this page
- Beöthy, Balázs
- Huhák, Heléna
- Scheibner, Tamás