Interview with Gábor Szabó

10 February 2021

The ZSIFF gets professional help

Interview with Gábor Szabó, Béla Balázs Award-winning cinematographer and founding president of the HCA

Founded at the end of January 2021, one of the first steps of the Hungarian Cinematographers Association (HCA) was to express support for the Zsigmond Vilmos International Film Festival. The president of the association, Gábor Szabó has been the mentor of the Szeged-based festival of cinematography from the very beginning. We talked to him about the new professional organization and the last five years of the festival.

One element in the endgame of the ‘war’ at the University of Theatre and Film Arts was that prominent filmmakers left the Hungarian Cinematographers' Association (HSC) and joined a new organization. Will the new HCA have an influence on the competition in Szeged?

Looking at the past five years in the life of the Zsigmond Vilmos Film Festival, we can say that the competition in Szeged is still young, but very promising. It hasn’t been added to the list of major festivals yet, but more and more people know about it, and the number of applicants also shows that its popularity is growing. In the first years, the number of applicants was around 300, which almost doubled last year in spite of the pandemic. We feel a growing interest from professional competitors, too, the festival awards have become more prestigious.

Our association and its professional help can possibly bring changes in the festival’s life. It is both absurd and fully incomprehensible that the HSC did not support this film festival before. The large professional world organizations, such as the IMAGO or the American ASC (of which Vilmos Zsigmond was a member), supported the competition in Szeged already in the first round. The first step our new association took was to express its support to the organizers. So far the festival in Szeged has been a competition based strictly on professional grounds, and it will stay like that.

The HCA was founded only a short time ago. In the international professional scene, can the birth of this new organization and the reason for the break-up be understood?

We feel that our international colleagues quite clearly understood what happened at the University of Theatre and Film Arts. There are constant doubts in me personally whether I can look at a particular problem objectively enough, but the international reactions to the scandal around the university have confirmed me. For example, a long article published on the website of the French Cinematographers' Association (AFC) described, with the objectivity of an external observer, what happened at the internationally acknowledged film university in Budapest and why we created a new organization.

Our situation in the HSC was already intolerable, for example, our correspondence with each other was blocked. In the regulations of our new association, we have included points that guarantee democratic operation, and we are also determined to function in a more modern way. Our exit, though to some it might seem to be one, is not a political issue. It is motivated by the solidarity to protect our alma mater. We studied here, and later many of us also taught here. We never thought that one day we would have to throw it all away. We also get in touch with more and more international organizations, which is quite easy as we have old and personal relationships with different kinds of professional companies. We also expressed our intention to join IMAGO, the world organization of cinematographers.

Probably it will not be easy to make everyone understand that the HCA functions as a purely professional, re-formed association. There is still a lot of work to be done.

Essentially, almost everyone who photographed the most important films of the past, the recent past or the present has joined the HCA, but membership is still open. We think it is important that the assessment of the membership should not be influenced by any political consideration. We welcome everyone whose professional performance entitles them to join us, whatever political side they sympathize with, the only exception being ethical misconduct. We would like to have everyone among us who played an important part in Hungarian cinematography. We are constantly moving forward, we are working to create the framework of the association, we have set up a forum and we will have a website soon.

For this year’s film festival, submissions are open to films made with mobile phones. Why did you decide to open up to this form?

This is a gesture. I think it’s important that the democracy of filmmaking should also give an opportunity for the children and young people who do not have professional and expensive equipment, but would like to express themselves as filmmakers. Technology is very important, or rather dominant, in filmmaking, but the fact that a film is technically perfect does not guarantee that we will remember it. On the other hand, we will remember an exciting thought or idea even if its visual realization is not perfect. Fortunately, the festival becomes more prestigious year by year, and it is increasingly important for cinematographers to submit their films, to receive an award. But we should offer the opportunity also for those filmmakers who are still beginners.

Last year, due to the pandemic, we not only had to reschedule the usual spring date to the autumn, but also had to comply with the restrictive provisions. This year, we also organize the Zsigmond Vilmos International Film Festival in September and may have to do it under restrictions again. If so, what are the experiences that could change the way the festival is run?

The film festival of Szeged is very unique, similar conditions could not even be created in Budapest, only if we transferred Urania Cinema to the bank of the river Danube. But I don’t know about any other town outside the capital either where the geographical conditions would be so ideal. The Belvárosi Cinema attracts people simply with its central location, surrounded by the river Tisza, green parks and restaurants. In the past years, the festival had become a bustling event, which was set back by the coronavirus last year, when basically the audience was excluded from the competition. If the restrictions remain, we need to rethink how we can include online those who are interested.