Shedding light on a sensitive director
UTD film festival honors Szabo, showcases his 'sad' storytelling
by Tamara Stokes
A gifted storyteller has a keen eye on humanity and can portray characters with familiar stories that are easily identifiable with the audience. Istvan Szabo, Academy Award-winning director, is an extraordinary storyteller through his films. He is perhaps best known in the United States for his 1981 film, "Mephisto." Szabo's artistic vision is a reflection of political and social conditions through the times and in the context of the relationships of his characters. This expression differs from the popular American notion that art is a reflection of the individual artist's value system and not necessarily one based upon popular society.
More than 375 people attended the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) Holocaust Studies Program in conjunction with the Burton C. Einspruch Holocaust Lecture Series Feb. 2 through 5, where Szabo was presented with a humanitarian award on behalf of the studies program.
Burton Einspruch spoke to the audience prior to the presentation. "I can not promise that you will sleep well after viewing his films, but you will view some things in the world differently," says Einspruch.
Einspruch read excerpts from U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Nancy G. Brinker's letter, which addressed Szabo's contributions: "Szabo's work as a gifted story teller reveal a keen eye and humanity are a stark contrast to the political environment where he was raised, in Hungary. He has compassion and an intelligence that illustrates challenges to man's humanity through the extremes."
The award, inscribed "In recognition of his achievement in Twentieth-Century cinema illuminating some of the most profound issues of our time with great artistry and deep sensitivity," is a first-time award presented on behalf of UTD.
Szabo told the audience, "[My] Stories aren't so simple and some are very sad. I was raised and educated by three generations of doctors." He made an analogy about sugar-coating medicine. "If something is covered by sugar, it goes down easier; we accept it. I tell sad stories because this is my job. I am very happy to get prizes because it awakens interest in the subjects.
"My aim was to always tell our (middle European) stories; our experiences are very important for everyone to see mistakes, solidify traditions and not repeat the mistakes again."
Szabo's 1996 movie, "Sunshine," follows a Hungarian family through several generations and through social upheavals and changes from occupation by the Nazis to the socialist regime. Ralph Fiennes portrays three different characters through three generations.
"The story we explore here (in 'Sunshine')," says Szabo, "is that of assimilation."
He told the audience, "This rich world [in 'Sunshine'] sunk slowly. From the language to the characters expression in four letter words, regardless of rank or station. I've seen tragedy and what we must remember is that Auschwitz was not an accident."
During a lecture question-and-answer period, Allen Mondell of Media Projects, Inc. and representing 3-Star Cinema, asked Szabo, "How do you cast your films?" Szabo answered by saying, "I have no (hard) rules," and he told the audience that sometimes he writes screenplays with specific actors in mind. He believes casting is the most important decision for a feature film because the identification of the actor with the audience is key to successfully expressing both the message, content and success.
Cynthia Mondell, who sat on the panel with her husband and daughter, Fiona, said, "This was a great experience. He's terrific. He makes you rethink film today." Mondell, who specializes in documentaries, says that her process is quite different from making a feature film.
"A documentary explores life without a script, so the casting and screenwriting, although of paramount importance to feature filmmaking, is not as much of an issue as the subject," says Mondell.
This story was published in the DallasJewishWeek
on: Thursday, February 13, 2003