Marrakech Jury President Bela Tarr: ‘Filmmaking is Like Hunting, You Have To Capture Life’

Hungarian helmer on film as ‘a real homemade dinner,’ being one of Hungary’s ‘Top 5 Black Sheep,’ closing his Sarajevo Film Factory film school

Bela Tarr
Courtesy of Matin Dale

MARRAKECH, Morocco — Following in the footsteps of Marrakech’s last three jury prexies – Martin Scorsese, Isabelle Huppert and Francis Ford Coppola – is no easy task. But iconoclastic Hungarian filmmaker, Bela Tarr, set a clear imprint on this year’s edition.

Viewed by many in his homeland as a dissenter, Tarr brought a distinctive Eastern European outlook to a fest that is paying tribute to Russian cinema, and whose career tributes and masterclasses include other outspoken filmmakers who have been dubbed as “trouble-makers” such as Pavel Lungin, Paul Verhoeven and Paul Haggis.

Tarr’s appointment as jury prexy was also a statement by the Marrakech Festival of its unswerving support for world cinema and in particular of distinctive auteur cinema.

Tarr has carved out a career of slow-paced art films, including “The Turin Horse,” “The Man from London,” and his seven-hour epic, “Satantango.”

After winning the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival for “The Turin Horse,” he was quoted in Berlin’s Der Tagesspiegel saying that the Hungarian government was crushing cultural dissenters. He subsequently denied that he had said this but then wrote a letter criticizing the actions of the cultural authorities. He says the he is proud to be one of the country’s leading black sheep.

Against this tense background, Tarr announced his retirement from directing in 2011, and moved to Sarajevo in Bosnia to set up his new Film Factory school.

He has subsequently produced several films by his students, including “3 Zene or (Waking Up from My Bosnian Dream),” just seen in post-production at Ventana Sur, and “Lost in Bosnia.”

During the Marrakech Fest, Tarr gave a round-table interview to talk about his work. He began by explaining that his Film Factory school will close on Dec. 15, due to lack of funding and that he is organizing an exhibition of photos in Amsterdam that will open on Jan. 21, for which he has directed a short film, consisting of a single 11-minute take.

Do you miss filmmaking?

Of course I do – I feel like a junkie, who doesn’t have his drugs. But I had to stop, because I had been doing this stuff for 34 years. After making my first film I had some new questions, so for the new questions I had to find new answers. Step by step, I worked out my own language and the way that I see life. And then somehow I had the feeling that the world I had created is complete. There was no reason to repeat myself. No reason to use this language to copy myself. Now I see some young people watching my old stuff and I see their eyes shining. That’s wonderful. But I don’t want to repeat myself.

Is making a seven-hour film still relevant today?

Day by day, my film are more and more fresh and still screening around the world. We finished “Satantango” in 1994, more than 20 years ago, but it’s still being shown. People watch it. This is the most important thing for me. I don’t believe in fast food. People can choose. Either get fast food or eat a real homemade dinner. Which is more satisfying? You have to ask other people.

What kind of teacher are you?

I’m not a teacher. I believe there are no rules. Everyone has to find their own way. In the 21st century, you can make a movie with an iPhone or other devices. There are really no rules. You have to liberate students. That’s my role. To see that people are free and powerful. That they are brave enough. I want to remind them that life is hard. I want to show them that they can’t be provincial They shouldn’t just think about their homeland or their own monolithic culture. The world is so big. Our students come from Japan, Korea, Singapore, India, Argentina, Columbia, Mexico, the U.S., all corners of the world. When they are working together they learn from each other. We don’t have teachers. I just invite some interesting directors. In the last semester, I invited Pedro Costa and Carlos Reygadas. Victor Erice has visited us. I was working with them. If you are a young filmmaker and have the chance to work or meet with these people, it’s wonderful. For example, Carlos is from Mexico. He has a completely different vision from other filmmakers. We wanted to talk about human beings and respecting life. My role is to be a liberator and some of the students are doing very interesting stuff. Making films nowadays can be very cheap. In Sarajevo, we didn’t have very much money. Sometimes we were shooting with an iPhone. It was low budget/high energy.

How would you describe your relationship with Hungary?

I’ve always been a bit of a trouble maker. In Hungary you have to fight. I never got anything easily. I was never spoiled. If you want to achieve something you have to fight for it. Some times it was difficult, but you love to do it. Fighting is part of the work. I wrote a letter dedicated against the cultural institutions in Hungary. They’re still angry with me. I am proud to be one of the country’s top five black sheep.

Does the new generation of filmmakers inspire you?

It’s very hard to answer that question. First, I am a simple human being and as a viewer I need to be touched. Everything that is really human, real situations, real human dramas or joys or desire, can touch me. We’ve seen a lot of nice things here at the festival. I just want to see life up on the screen. I don’t watch too many films. I am busy with other stuff. I don’t like sophisticated films. I don’t like when I can feel the creation. I like it when it’s flowing like a poem, when it’s happening in front of me.

Was it easy to cast the main actor and the horse in “The Turin Horse”?

We had a script. It was mostly a clean literary piece, due to the writer. It talked a lot about the characters and situations. I knew what the whole film would be, from the first frame to the last. I was looking for a personal piece. I didn’t want an actor that was trying to play a role, I just wanted them to be natural on the screen. I wanted a personality that was similar to the script or character. If an actor is natural in front of camera, you can get a lot of real things. There will be real emotions and you will be touched. So we found the horse in Southern Hungary, close to the Romanian border, in a market. They were selling horses, pigs and animals. They wanted to sell this horse, because it couldn’t work. Something had happened to it and it couldn’t work. That was perfect for the film. But then I had to fire my main actor, because he couldn’t relate to the horse. He was afraid of the horse. That made it impossible. So I cast János Derzsi in the main role. I had known him since 1982. I knew he is a guy from a village, a real peasant guy, so to say. He wasn’t a bit bothered by the horse, which was perfect for the role.

What’s it like to be the president of the jury?

I feel a bit uncomfortable sitting in a jury. I never say anything about my colleagues’ films for example. Everyone is different. How can I judge them? How can you measure films? Everyone has a different culture and background. Everyone has a different budget and different possibilities. Each person develops his own style. You see directors naked when you see their films. Actors as well. You see who they are on the screen. You understand the man or woman. You feel who they are. This isn’t an existential question. You just see the person.

What’s your own secret to filmmaking?

I like life, it brings me joy. When I’m shooting it also helps. You have to wait patiently until you see a take that works. Then it’s really done, it’s happened. Filmmaking is like hunting. You have to wait and wait until the situation really transmits life and it’s there. If you’re lucky you can get it into the can, take it to the lab, and watch it, and it’s okay.