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A Hungarian Passport

Sandra Kogut's jauntily unpretentious docu about her attempts to obtain a Hungarian passport takes the viewer down some unexpected paths. Though starting predictably as a descent into a labyrinth of bureaucracy, her paper chase documents a far larger story when it becomes clear her grandparents were Jewish and left Hungary in 1937.

Sandra Kogut’s jauntily unpretentious docu about her attempts to obtain a Hungarian passport takes the viewer down some unexpected paths. Though starting predictably as a descent into a Kafkaesque labyrinth of bureaucracy, her paper chase documents a far larger story when it becomes clear her grandparents were Jewish and left Hungary in 1937. At a time when somber Holocaust films are a dime a dozen, there is something uniquely effective about a life-and-death drama deduced from shipping-manifesto entries, name-change records and visa applications. Underlying subject and charm of film augur well for fest and indie venues.

With Hungary poised to become a member of the European Union, Kogut, who lives in Paris as a Brazilian citizen of Hungarian descent, figures it wouldn’t be bad to have a European passport. In Paris, fellow applicants exchange tales of legendary passport difficulties. In Brazil, Kogut’s birdlike grandmother wryly recounts her exodus while pregnant and speaks of her late husband’s alienation from their strange new tropical home. In Hungary, she visits relatives who share pastries and stories of how they survived the Nazis as they pore over documents and photographs.

And at every stage of her journey, captured in footage shot through train windows or over the sea, her trajectory echoes that of her grandparents while questions of identity through nationality, ethnicity or culture freely circulate. Curiously, Kogut’s search never feels obsessive; there is something almost redemptive in the half-assed nature of her cultural reclamation.

Pic is engaging in its openness toward a host of people Kogut runs into along the way — people skilled in reading between the lines. An archivist in Brazil wonders how Kogut’s grandfather could get a visa and, even more amazingly, could ever disembark, seeing as how there was an edict that prohibited Jews from entering the country. A check of the ship’s passenger list reveals the names of several people sent back to Europe because they were Jewish or suspected of being Jewish, while Kogut’s grandfather’s entry has obviously been altered (by his brother-in-law’s bribe, as her grandmother later recounts).

Kogut makes no big deal of her discoveries — the revelations about her relatives’ brush with extinction is treated with the same wonder with which she views the madly differing passport requirements from official to official and from country to country. Indeed when, tons of paperwork later, Kogut finally receives an official certificate of Hungarian citizenship, she discovers, in a fittingly ludicrous coda, it’s valid for only one year.

Technical credits are excellent in their own desultory way; pic’s scattershot textures and formats shift effortlessly from shabby claustrophobic government offices to dusty basement archives to passing, color-saturated landscapes.

A Hungarian Passport

France-Hungary-Brazil-Belgium

Production: A Zeugma Films, ARTE France, RTBF, Cobra Films, Hunnia Filmstudio production. Produced by Michel David, Pierre Schaeffer. Directed by Sandra Kogut.

Crew: Camera (color/B&W, DV/Super-8), Florent Julien, Florian Bouchet; editor, Monica Almeida; music, Daniel Kardos; sound, Yolande de Carsin. Reviewed at MOMA Documentary Fortnight, New York, Dec.21, 2002. Running time: 74 MIN. (English, French, Portuguese, Hungarian dialogue.)

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