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‘Son of Saul‘ seen as vindication for film fund

Five years after Andrew Vajna took over the job of supporting the Hungarian film industry, the country’s first Oscar nomination since 1988 offers a strong argument against those who criticized his methods.

When “Son of Saul” was named a candidate for a foreign film Oscar on January 14, it became the first Hungarian film nominated for an Academy Award since 1988, and it is in the running to be the first to win the prize since István Szabó’s “Mephisto” in 1981.

The nomination was also a major victory, and vindication of sorts, for the Hungarian National Film Fund, which was launched in 2011 under the direction of film commissioner Andrew Vajna, a Hungarian who made his name in the United States as the producer of “Terminator”, “Rambo” and scores of other Hollywood films. Critics in the industry have complained that the fund mostly gives financial support to Hungarian films that are commercial in nature, and that it interferes with the creative process.

“Son of Saul”, the feature debut of Hungarian writer/director László Nemes, co-written by French screenwriter Clara Royer, can already be considered a success, having accumulated an impressive number of awards since its release last year, including the Grand Prix at Cannes and just recently a Golden Globe for best foreign language film.

The Hungarian National Film Fund can even silence claims of being overly commercial, as “Son of Saul” is more of an art-house film. In fact, this feature about the horrors of the Holocaust has defied the norms of the art-house genre, compounded by cultural and language barriers, to become a box office success.

From the very first scene, the film challenges the viewer with its unconventional visual style, ambiguous narrative and less than likeable protagonist Saul, a Jewish Sonderkommando responsible for escorting his fellow prisoners to the gas chambers and then disposing of their bodies. Given its heavy subject matter, it’s a wonder the film fund gave unanimous support to the project in the first place. The film’s fresh approach to storytelling, however, and its universal subject matter certainly helped.

“It was a very strong script,” said Ágnes Havas, CEO of the Hungarian National Film Fund. “All members of the committee voted for it because we saw the potential of it becoming a very original art house film.”

Claims of creative interference

As the main funder for anyone making a film in Hungary, the Hungarian National Film Fund has massive bargaining power in controlling the creative process. All contracts with the fund stipulate that it has a right to dictate the final cut, and it has been known to get involved in the creative process, as in the case of Hungarian filmmaker György Pálfi who criticized its practices in an interview with in July 2014.

After saying it would award funding to his big-budget project “Toldi”, which had reached the pre-production phase, the National Film Fund reportedly attempted to interfere with the direction of particular scenes and wanted to assign its own director – changes that Pálfi refused. According to Pálfi, after a lengthy negotiation and almost a year of no communication between the two parties, funding for “Toldi” was withdrawn. The reason stated on the film fund’s website in October 2014 was that it could not support such a high-budget production amid concerns that an artistic film of this nature would not be able to reach a wide enough audience.

Havas denied claims of creative interference, saying: “We work closely with the creators of each project but we never tell them they should do things differently, otherwise they won’t get support. They choose. It’s their decision if they want to take our advice or not.” Fortunately for the creative team of “Son of Saul”, the film fund was content with its submission and they were able to work together relatively seamlessly. “The development committee made its comments, some of which were taken, while others were not, but I think it was a balanced discussion,” according to the film’s producer, Gábor Sipos.

From Cannes to commercial success

At its premier during the Cannes Film Festival last year, “Son of Saul” drew the attention of international distributors. “After the film was sold, it won the Grand Prix at Cannes, and we believe that Sony Pictures Classics was the best match to lead us into the U.S. market,” said Sipos. This fortunate turn of events would set the wheels of international acclaim in motion.

The film’s initial theatrical run in Hungarian cinemas from June 2015 was short, but with Sony on board, it received a wide release in the United States in mid-December and then returned to Hungarian cinemas after winning the Golden Globe for best foreign language film in early January.

“The film was sold to 80 territories for theatrical release, which means that an art house film has become the most successful project supported by the film fund to date,” said Havas. Poised for success, the international box office for “Son of Saul” is currently estimated to be €1.9 million, already exceeding the film’s meager €1.5 mln budget.

But along with making money, the film is considered sufficiently unusual and artistic to allow the National Film Fund to sidestep critics who say that it does not support artistic films not tailored for big box-office. Havas maintained that the film fund had already proved in its first two years of operation that it does, in fact, support the tradition of Hungarian films.

Tarr: Diversity suffers

Renowned Hungarian film director Béla Tarr, who is the president of the Hungarian Film Artists Association (Magyar Filmművészek Szövetség) shared a very different view on the association’s website in September 2012, a year after the Hungarian Film Fund was created. Tarr, who worked with and mentored “Son of Saul” director Nemes, said at the time that the fund is destined to kill the diversity of Hungarian films and that the structure of the previous funding body, the Hungarian Motion Picture Foundation (MMKA) was more suited to such plurality.

Sadly, however, the mismanagement and massive debt incurred by the MMKA, to the tune of more than HUF 6 billion, had to be resolved somehow. The industry was up in arms when the ruling Fidesz party put commercial producer Vajna in charge of preserving the cultural heritage of the nation’s film industry.

Critics have complained that Vajna’s approach was to give more funds to a smaller number of movies, and that the five-person jury making the decisions was picked without consulting the industry that it was chosen to support. For nearly two years following the funds inception, very few films were made.

Even Sipos, who said “I think the Hungarian National Film fund is a much more modern, more active system than MMKA,” expressed his concerns on the matter: “My one criticism about the film fund is that the industry needs to be better represented. It’s not because the jury is not good enough – in the case of “Son of Saul”, they all voted yes, so I can’t complain, but the industry should be able to vote for who sits on the jury. The bigger issue, however, is how do you define an industry that doesn’t really have a unified voice?”