KineDok has recently welcomed a special guest. The director of "Train to Adulthood", Klára Trencsényi, has honoured us with her presence at the screenings from Casa Forum in Alba Iulia and Aethernativ in Timișoara, where she sat down with the audience and talked about the story of her film and the situation of the young generation in today's Hungary.
Klára's documentary follows three children who work for the "pioneers' railway". Built in 1948 in communist Hungary, the train is almost entirely operated by children and was originally meant as a way of teaching responsability to the young pioneers. If we ask ourselves why such a symbol of communism has survived, the film slowly unravels the mystery. In the absense of a social welfare system that would protect vulnerable citizens, children who struggle with poverty find refuge within this railway, one of the few institutions that gives them stability and support. In the context of harsher anti-homelessness legislation in Hungary, Klára's film sheds light on a system that punishes poverty, instead of fighting it.
This was your first feature documentary - what is the story behind choosing this topic?
Basically I wanted to talk about a particular generation - kids between 10 and 14 in today's Hungary, and I was looking for a way to present their problems as I was very aware of them. I was looking for places, I contacted drama clubs and went to schools... In the end, I found the train by chance. I did know there was such a train in the 50s and 60s, but I wasn't aware it was still running. So I ran into one of the stations by accident and I suddenly realized that this thing from the past, this train is a very valuable metaphor to talk about the present and about these children, because it's exactly the children between 10 and 14 who work in the train. And they are not some strange guys, they are not "weird", they are completely average kids who find their place in today's society within this railway. These kids represent all the problems and all the good things of this generation, so it's OK to talk through them about the problems I wanted to talk about.
So you did not intend to talk about the communist past initially. You actually wanted to talk about the present.
My goal was not to talk about the train or the past, but the problem is that the past is everywhere in the present. In the end I discovered that I can talk about today's problems through the kids working at the railway and I was very happy that it was happening through something that was coming from the past, namely the train, which represents movement. The metaphor is also more tangible this way.
Was the railway closed down after communism fell in Hungary?
No, it wasn't really closed down, but the kids disappeared. In '89 if you said that you worked in the pioneers' train, you wouldn't have a good reputation. So the children slowly disappeared and the state didn't know what to do with this thing anymore. They said: "Why do we need a pioneer's trains? Let's close it down." In the end, however, all the train workers, who had become adults in the meantime, joined forces and saved the train.
You are very critical towards the present by showing the lack of institutional support for children who struggle with poverty. However, towards the past the film does not have such a clear stance. I felt neither a positive, nor a negative attitude.
Who am I to judge what the past means for my father and what the past means for my kids? They are two completely different realities. I wanted to leave it to the viewer to decide what they understand about the past through the film. When the movie was for the first time in the cinema, some people who came out from the screening had a physical fight about the past. On one side you had some older people who were arguing that at least in communism the state was taking care of you, and on the other side there were some youngsters who were very violent about saying that all communist institutions are bullshit. So they had a fist fight after the screening. Both sides thought that my film supported their view, but they also saw little details, which disturbed them. So I think the lack of a clear judgment towards the past is there to create a discussion.
I understood that when you chose your three main characters you didn't know about their whole situation and that they struggled with poverty. This came out later in the shooting process.
I think it's always like this in documentary. I insist on scriptwriting for documentary films precisely because there you give the framework and you talk about your wishful thinking: what would be a way to talk about the problems you want to cover? Then during the shoot you just have to keep your eyes open and find the alternatives for that. I knew I wanted to talk about economic difficulties. I didn't know it was going to be eviction, but I knew it would be hardship in some way.
Now that you mention it, how did you shoot the eviction of the family?
I was there on the day when they said they would evict them. I was in the house shooting the kids packing their things. They still didn't believe that it was going to happen. When the eviction people came in and found me with the camera facing them, they wanted to beat me up. They started to threaten me. I said "I have shooting permit from my characters and I'm not going to shoot you, do whatever you want". So I was shooting the whole event without the faces of the authorities, obviously. And this is how we shot the eviction. The first thing I get asked in Q&As: "why didn't you help them, why did you film the eviction instead of helping them?" Sometimes I tell, sometimes I don't tell that this was already an extended deadline of the eviction, which the crew helped them achieve. The mother also said to me later: "that was the first moment we felt that somebody is supporting us. Even though you were filming, you were part of our family and that is how we managed to survive the whole eviction", which was so beautiful. Because I was unsure how they would perceive it, but they perceived it like I was there to support them. And even later when they saw the film, they were proud of it.
Then there was one more thing. When the evicting people were about to leave, my sound guy was not rolling anymore. Two of the ladies who did the eviction turned back and said "good luck! have a better life!". This was so much the comment I wanted to have at the end. How can you tell that to people who are just being put in the streets? I wanted this comment to be there explaining the cynicism of the state towards these people, which is reflected in the new legislation that punishes homelessness, but unfortunately I missed it.
Related to this question asked by the audience about why you did not help them, which is, of course, very unfair, because it places unbearable responsibility on your shoulders. I am wondering, however, how you deal with the empathy you feel for your characters who live in these difficult circumstances.
The other question I normally get is "how much did you pay your protagonists?", not only for this film but in general, if I shoot a documentary. I'm very much against paying the protagonists. I think that screws up the whole relationship between protagonist and director, if there is a sum of money named at the beginning of the shoot. But in this case we started to think how to help during the shooting process, but also afterwards. We took them to Leipzig for the festival premiere, which was amazing for the kids. Obviously, we couldn't say anymore "oh, we are not paying because we are professional documentary filmmakers", because these people really needed help. So one way of helping them was by organizing charity screenings, where people who watched the film were really ready to help and donate some money, but then we also organized charity screenings to see what are the other ways we can help. At some point there were people coming to us with information about other shelters they could join or how they could find a work place. It was much about community helping, which I think it's more important than the money we managed to raise for them. Also I think there was some help with their identity. The kids were hiding this whole story about their situation before the film happened. They didn't want to talk about it. After the Leipzig screening there was a screening in Hungary where Viktor stood up and said "I want to do the Q&A with you." We always invited him, but in Hungary I never knew how much he wanted to be identified with this whole problem, but he wanted to and sat in the Q&A next to me and started to talk about his own life. It was so beautiful to see how he managed to get through that and talk about these things, considering that this can help other people. Somehow he became the hero of his own life. So it's quite amazing.
What do you think about the future of documentary in Hungary?
The real question is: will there be any entities funding documentary in the future? Because the state funding is not enough and it's not really directed towards critical approaches about the current situation. So I don't know what will happen. And for some reason Hungarians are quite reluctant to go to community funding. Also the Hungarian Film Fund is not supporting co-productions. For example now there is a project, which got international support, but the Hungarian Film Fund went out of the deal because they don't want any co-productions. So nothing is going towards a healthy funding structure.
I know you've been to KineDok screenings in both Hungary and Romania. How do you find this type of distribution of documentaries?
I think one of the biggest problems of documentaries is that they have a very short life. They have one year of festivals cycle. You worked so many years and then your film is already out of the distribution chain. So from the very beginning I was thinking about how to make its life longer. I was very happy when I heard about KineDok, because I think it's really the way that films should be seen and treated. Making these small communities watch a film, which they wouldn't see otherwise is something really valuable. Also creating a space to discuss with the director afterwards makes the film's life much longer for the viewer also. I think this is very important and this is what happened in all the screenings of KineDok. There was one KineDok screening in this tiny village in Hungary, which was not even on the map. I really loved it because all the people from the village came and there was a monastery and the monks came too. I was really excited about how a monk would talk about a film dealing with kids and a critique of communism. It turned out that even the simple agriculture guy had a very sophisticated vision about the film. The monk had an open vision about the communist problems and today's problems. Everyone was really taking their share from the film: what was touching or interesting for them.
Yesterday we had a very nice screening in Alba Iulia. The audience was a bit more timid, they wouldn't ask so many questions, but afterwards, in the informal discussion, they came with their insight, which I found very touching.