The films of Judit Elek serve as textbook examples of art as a reflection of personal experience and political/humanist commitment. The works of many of our foremost contemporary filmmakers are autobiographical: In his films, Woody Allen consistently focuses on the neuroses of middle-class Jewish New Yorkers whose childhood insecurities and Brooklyn roots forever affect their actions as adults; the films of Martin Scorsese often spotlight the Italian-American tough guys and tough-guy wannabes of the director?s youth. Yet Elek goes Allen and Scorsese one better as she combines autobiography with a sensitivity towards human suffering that is a direct outgrowth of her own youthful experience.
As a child, World War II raged around her. Elek?s father, a bookstore owner, was exiled to a Nazi labor camp, and she and her family were confined to the Budapest ghetto until the Allied liberation in 1945. While they all survived, Elek did witness the obliteration of her own community, not to mention the entire Eastern European Jewish culture.
And so her films are both humanist and activist in content. They serve as testimonials to the brutalization of the human spirit, as historical records and heartfelt contemplations of anti-Semitism, and as warnings of the folly of sitting idly by in the face of genocidal racial and ethnic hatred.
From the outset, Elek has been a trailblazer. She was the lone woman in her class at her country?s Academy of Theater and Film Arts. In the early 1960s she and her fellow young Hungarian filmmakers, including Istv?n Szab?, P?l Gab?r, Imre Gyongyossy, and Zsolt Kedzi-Kov?cs, were lauded as Hungary?s ?first generation? of filmmakers. This ?generation of 1956? trained at the B?la Bal?zs Studio, a workshop that served as an experimental and bureaucracy-free learning center for young directors. Summarily, Elek was acknowledged as one of the notable members of Hungary?s ?direct cinema? movement, whose constituents went about portraying history in realistic and factual (rather than idealized, Hollywoodized) terms as they directly confronted the grisly realities of fascism and violence in their homeland?s recent and distant past.
Throughout her career, Elek has directed both documentaries and fiction features. Thematically speaking, they spotlight individuals who most often are young, and who suffer through troubled childhoods and summarily must struggle to overcome childhood constraints. They are girls coming of age in a man?s world, or girls and boys confronting the bleak realities of life in wartime or under totalitarianism. By exploring the plight of abandoned or abused children and charting the harsh realities of the Holocaust, it is as if Elek is affirming her own survival and exorcising her own ghosts.
Occasionally, Elek?s films explore the intricacies of familial relationships. Maybe Tomorrow is a portrait of a family devastated by resentment, brutality, and adultery. Maria?s Day is a Chekhovian account of the familial and political tensions that arise during the summer reunion of an aristocratic family. Here, a recurring theme is the place and role of women within the patriarchal family structure. Similarly, the docudramas A Hungarian Village and A Simple Story chart the plights of young women aspiring to dodge the limitations placed upon them because of their gender in a Hungarian village. Elek?s approach to filmmaking is never casual. While making A Hungarian Village and A Simple Story, she relocated herself and spent four years in the village researching her subject.
The pressures on Elek?s main characters also may result from events that transcend familial conflict. Awakening is the story of Kati, a young teenager coming of age in Stalinist Budapest during the 1950s. Upon the exile of her father and the death of her mother, she is forced to her own devices and ends up residing in a communal apartment. In order to get on with her life, she must face up to her growing loneliness and psychological isolation and come to terms with her mother?s death.
Arguably Elek?s most acclaimed film is Memoirs of a River, a commanding and haunting examination of anti-Semitism. Its fact-based story?one she had wanted to tell for two decades?is set in Austria-Hungary in 1882, with the core of its scenario involving the apprehension and persecution of a group of Jewish and non-Jewish loggers who are falsely accused of the ritualistic murder of a 14-year-old Christian girl. In Memoirs of a River, Elek contrasts pastoral countryside images with sudden and quick bursts of violence. She effectively re-creates a shtetl world?a world of her own ancestors, if you will?which is devastated by anti-Semitism.
Elek had wanted to make Memoirs of a River for two decades. Significantly, when the film opened in Hungary, she was harassed by anonymous threats and hate mail, and her car was vandalized.
Her most recent film, To Speak the Unspeakable: The Message of Elie Wiesel, is a poignant documentary that charts the journey of Nobel Peace Prize-winner/Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel back to his hometown in the Carpathian mountains. Wiesel recalls the destruction of his village by the Nazis, and the tragic plight of him and his family as they are deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald. Wiesel in fact tours what remains of the concentration camps, and his recollections are gut-wrenchingly painful as he recounts his final memories of his sister and mother and how his father died. Yet Wiesel?as well as Elek?emerges as a survivor, a storyteller and a recorder of history, and this is their triumph.
Elek has noted that To Speak the Unspeakable is ?dedicated to our children.? She has also observed: ?Although I haven?t lost as much as Elie Wiesel, I have the feeling [that] despite all, we are like sister and brother. And I wish to share our common fate, our common responsibility, with the people who will see the film. We are both convinced our mission is to keep the memory alive and pass on to our children this history we?ve inherited from those who lost their life [sic]. It is the only way to protect the living and do the dead justice.??ROB EDELMAN