Hunky Blues – The American Dream (Film Festival Review, Part One)

11 Apr

This is the first installment of a series dedicated to reviewing the films of Glasgow’s Hungarian Film Festival.

 

The first film of the Hungarian Film Festival was a documentary in nature, namely Péter Forgács’s Hunky Blues – The American Dream. The documentary deals with early waves of emigration to the United States by Hungarians in the early parts of the 20th century, encorporating footage shot from that time with interviews and recordings. At times light-hearted, other times mired in the social and political wedge these new immigrants find themselves in, the director has produced a credible and factual image of the situation in which thousands of Hungarians made the long voyage overseas.

 

Hunky Blues’ strength lies in the fact that it emphasises the personal stories, and is not guilty of homogenising the Hungarian people and viewpoint. Anecdotes are varied, at times even including the source on screen, and this adds to the academic strength if employed as part of a serious investigation. The drawback of this in the documentary is that the viewer tends to skim over or forget the statistical evidence which at times appears: the tales of the interviewees are much more fascinating. When coupled with period song recordings – at points just a woman singing over limited instrumentation in Hungarian – adding a sense of atmosphere and further retrospect to the inclusions within.

 

However, this is not to say that Hunky Blues does not have its problems. At times certain points are emphasised on screen when they simply do not need to be. The fade-in of “he was killed by a train” is bizarre and out of place. If the stories being recited are strong and telling, why does there need to be an emphasis here? By this Forgács appears to be straining to ensure that the viewer identifies with the severity of the plight many immigrants faced, or to feel a sense of sympathy – and it is debatable whether or not that should be part of the remit of a documentary. That is not to say that a documentary cannot occupy the space of cinema as a medium of communicating emotions, but at times one feels there is a line that has ever so slightly been crossed from the objective aspect of the feature. There has been wide discussion in the directing and production community on aspects of how a documentary film should be presented, and the director in this case has opted for third-person narration to compliment the footage. Perhaps there would be more resonance to the, often gripping and fascinating, tales if this was omitted; but it should be recognised that in this case a lot has to do with personal preference.

 

As a co-operation with Hungarian Television, there are several parts which a Hungarian audience, or someone with an interest in Hungarian affairs, will have more of an idea in the grounds of context and politics of situation in this part of history. Many parts dealing with immigration and Hungary’s part of Austria-Hungary have been generalised, and coupled with the long running time, may drag on for some viewers who are watching the film from an outsider’s (or merely cursory knowledge) perspective. The danger of generalising is that it tarnishes the extent of how informative certain parts are, and indeed makes some of the footage less relevant than it actually is.

 

Nevertheless, this is a credible effort and a fitting start to a film festival which will be dealing with the subject of immigration and displacement. Forgács has found some success in directing a piece that puts real-life stories first and foremost, and to their credit, this is what carries Hunky Blues along: the sheer number of immigrants yielded a rich cultural tradition which has been captured on the footage extremely well. The question that keeps arising, nonetheless, is whether or not the platform itself could have been worked upon.

http://www.hunkyblues.com

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