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Cannes: ‘Son of Saul’ Epitomizes Spirit, Ambition of Hungarian Cinema, National Film Fund Chief Says

At the Cannes Film Festival, Hungarian film “Son of Saul” was one of the standout pics, winning acclaim from critics, selling to buyers worldwide, including to Sony Pictures Classics for North America, and winning both the festival’s Grand Prix and the top prize of the international critics’ body, Fipresci.

Laszlo Nemes’ Holocaust drama, which was the only directorial feature debut in Cannes’ competition, and the only pic from Eastern Europe to play in that section, is the source of great pride for Agnes Havas, CEO of the Hungarian National Film Fund, as it was a 100% Hungarian-financed project. “The film is closest to our spirit,” Havas told Variety.

Nemes and the film’s producers, Gabor Rajna and Gabor Sipos, had gone on a tour of Europe trying to find co-production partners, but were unsuccessful. Havas’ fund stepped in with 75% of the budget — Euros 1.1 million ($1.2 million) out of a total budget of Euros 1.5 million ($1.63 million) — and the rest came from the Hungarian tax credit, which is also public money.

Havas and the fund’s five-strong decision-making committee had great faith in the project and in Nemes’ talent, she says. His route to directing his first feature was not swift, but the time was well spent. He moved to Budapest in 2003, and was Bela Tarr’s assistant for two years, working on such films as “The Man from London.” He later studied directing in New York, and helmed three short films, one of which, “With a Little Patience,” competed at the Venice Film Festival. All three shorts were supported by the Hungarian state. During this period, he was able to hone his craft and identify those who would later join his crew on “Son of Saul.” The film’s cinematographer, Matyas Erdely, and sound designer, Tamas Zanyi, in particular played a key part in the film’s success.

When Havas attended the premiere screening of the film at Cannes, she was struck by the audience’s response and its effect on the director. “That was a very uplifting moment for us because there was silence in the hall throughout the screening, and then at the end credits everybody stood up and applauded. Laszlo opened his arms to receive the warm reception,” she says.

She describes Nemes as “a very modest guy,” but adds that he is ambitious when it comes to playing his part in world cinema. “He could have made a feature earlier, but he, along with his co-writer Clara Royer, put together the structure of the script with meticulous care,” she says.

When Havas met with a delegation from Prague’s FAMU film school, she told them: “This is your film too. It is the only film from Eastern Europe in competition, and we share a common history — especially in this respect,” referring to the fact that the Nazis took Jewish people from across Eastern Europe to Auschwitz, where the film is set, and the other death camps.

Havas is now focusing on the new projects that have received funding from her organization.

These include Gabor Herendi’s period romantic drama “Kincsem,” which is about a champion racehorse. The project, which received 97.8 million HUF ($344,000) from the film fund, focuses on a feud between a Hungarian aristocrat, Erno Blaskovich, and an Austrian military man, Otto von Oettingen, and Blaskovich’s tempestuous love affair with von Oettingen’s unruly daughter, Klara. It is set to begin filming in July. The film is produced by Tamas Hutlassa (“Land of Storms”) and is co-produced by Herendi, who had a box office hit in Hungary with “A Kind of America.”

Another highlight of the slate is Roland Vranik’s “The Citizen,” which is set in modern-day Budapest and deals with the sometimes difficult issue of immigration through a love story told with humor and empathy. The main protagonist is Wilson, who lost his family in a war in Africa, and fled to Budapest as a political refugee. He now works in a supermarket as a security guard and his one aim in life is to become a Hungarian citizen. The film is based on a screenplay co-written by Vranik and Ivan Szabo (“Land of Storms”). Vranik’s first film, “Black Brush,” won the main prize at Hungarian Film Week, and his second film, “Transmission,” enjoyed success at film festivals around the world. “The Citizen” is being produced by Karoly Feher at Popfilm. The fund contributed a production grant of 310 million HUF ($1.09 million).

Lastly, “On Body and Soul” is the latest film from Ildiko Enyedi, who won Cannes’ Camera d’Or for “My 20th Century.” The romantic melodrama “On Body and Soul” is based “around the duality of sleeping and waking, mind and matter.” Speaking about the project, Enyedi has commented: “What would happen if you met someone, who dreamed the same as you or, to be more precise, had been meeting you in the same world every night for years? Would you be pleased? Or would you feel that you had been in some way robbed? And what if this specific individual didn’t exactly appeal to you? What if you actually hated that person?” The film is produced by Andras Muhi and Monika Mecs’ Inforg-M&M Film. The fund contributed 430 million HUF ($1.51 million).

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