Lives Uncovered

A searing new documentary, There Once Was…goes in search of a forgotten population of Hungarian Jews

“Those who can not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Spanish/ American poet/philosopher George Santayana wrote that memorable line more than a century ago in The Age Of Reason (1905), and it serves as a haunting description for There Once Was…. The film, directed by veteran documentarian Gabor Kalman, traces the quest of a high school history teacher in Kalocsa, Hungary, Gyongyi Mago, who while doing research for a dissertation, discovers the town’s lost population of Jews, more than 400 of whom were later murdered in German concentration camps.

None of Kalosca’s 18,000 current residents are Jewish, so Mago went looking for Jewish survivors and relatives living abroad. One of them was Gabor Kalman, who was nine years old when the Nazi army invaded Hungary. Kalman survived the Holocaust, and the subsequent Russian occupation. While in college, in 1956, he joined his country’s uprising against the communist regime, then later migrated to the U. S. as a political refugee after the Soviet army brutally crushed the revolt. He earned an undergraduate degree at the University of California at Berkeley and a Masters degree in film and television from Stanford before launching his career as a documentary filmmaker.

Jewish stores in Kalocsa, circa early 1900’s

In addition to directing award winning films, Kalman was a founding member of the International Documentary Association in 1986 and on the board of directors for nine years. He has taught documentary film production at the USC School of Cinema and Television from 1987 through 2007. He has been an adjutant professor of Cinema and Television at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena since 1984. Kalman was also a Senior Fulbright Scholar and taught at the Academy of Theater and Fine Arts in Budapest, Hungary in 1994 and 2008.

There Was Once… blends black and white still pictures and film from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s with contemporary color moving images. In one scene, Mago is talking with a resident who is sharing her memories, and the woman pulls out an old photo album with pictures of Kalman’s family and her parents. Although critics have applauded the film, Kalman says he’s most proud of the words from Oscar-winning cinematographer (and fellow Hungarian) Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, who called There Was Once… a “wonderful movie” that “everyone needs to see.” Bob Fisher caught up with Gabor Kalman in advance of the film’s screening (sponsored by the Embassy of Hungary and the Lantos Foundation) in Washington, D.C., April 24 at 7:00 P.M..


ICG: Share your memories of when you decided to produce this documentary.

Kalman: I received an email from Gyongyi Mago during the Spring of 2008. She tracked me down through some other survivors. I was totally taken by the fact that 65 years after the Jews were taken away from Kalocsa, a young high school teacher, who is not Jewish, was interested. We corresponded by e-mail and spoke during telephone conversations. Gyongyi told me she was planning to restore the vastly neglected Jewish cemetery in Kalocsa. She wanted to invite survivors and relatives of victims to a memorial. I was so impressed by what she was doing that I proposed making a film about her. Gyongyi agreed.

Gyongyi Mago

How long have you been working on the film?

Someone else recently asked me that same question, and I said about 65 years because it touches on such a large part of my life. As for the actual production, we began in 2008.  I was lucky to connect with Gabor Garami, a wonderful producer in Hungary, and contrary to what I teach my students, there was no script or treatment; I was too familiar with the subject. Gabor gave me a list of cinematographers as candidates for our crew. Zsolt Toth, HSC was on the list.  He was one of my students when I taught at the film school in Budapest, and we have stayed in contact over the years. Zsolt did a wonderful job of capturing images with just the right look.

What do you mean by “just the right look?”

Zsolt and I had long discussions about finding the look of the movie. I had some nostalgic memories of my childhood days in Kalocsa. I envisioned something in-between a pure cinema verite look and my dream-like memories. It was just me, Zsolt and the soundman.

There is another cinematographer is listed in the credits.

That is Jon Dunham, who was one of my students when I was teaching at USC. Jon has an impressive array of documentary credits as both a cinematographer and director. He shot the interviews that we did with survivors and members of their families in the United States and Canada. Jon also went to Hungary with me when we covered the memorial service at the cemetery. Zsolt shot all of the early footage in 2008 in Kalocsa. Most people didn’t remember what happened to their Jewish neighbors or didn’t want to remember. After I came home, we tracked down survivors and members of the victims’ families to interview in New York, California, Toronto, Montreal and Saskatchewan.

Memorial tablets erected by Jewish Holocaust survivors in Kalocsa in 1948.

What was your approach to shooting those scenes in Kalocsa?

I tried to do everything through Gyongyi’s eyes and from her point of view. Basically, we followed her around and covered her interactions with people while shooting verite style. Since there were no Jewish families left in the town, Gyongyi decided to interview old people who would remember those days. One lady who she interviewed read names that she had written on a piece of paper. She said that one of them had a variety store where she shopped. Gyongyi, members of her family, her colleagues and the students were very receptive. Other people were friendly, but there was also an underlying current of resentment.

In fact, there are still neo-fascists in Hungary, correct?

Yes, they are the second largest political party.

Tell us about the memorial.

To commemorate the 65th anniversary of the emptying of the local ghetto and deportation of Jewish citizens to Auschwitz and other concentration camps, Gyongyi organized a memorial service at the Jewish cemetery. It was attended by a handful of survivors of the holocaust, their descendents, Gyongyi’s students, the mayor of Kalocsa, other city officials and the Archbishop. Jon travelled to Hungary with me to help cover the memorial in 2009. Zsolt and Jon were generally working side-by-side. At one point, one of them covered the memorial service while the other one covered a neo-fascist demonstration near the memorial service. During the service, one of the neo-fascists used a slingshot to hit a visitor from New York with a rock.

Gabor Kalman

What kind of cameras did you use and how much content did you record?

Zsolt used a Sony EX-3 camera and Jon a Sony EX-1. We recorded between 40 and 50 hours.  It wasn’t a case of more is better. The interviews and all of the events were tightly scheduled. The first time we were in Kalocsa for only a week and our second visit to Hungary was less than a week. The whole thing was done on a shoestring budget. There were no sponsors. I had to watch every penny. When Jon and I were in Canada, we were scheduling two or three interviews a day. We would interview someone in the morning in Toronto, fly to Montreal and do an interview or two there.

Kate Amend (ACE) was the editor who collaborated with you.  She has edited several Academy Award winning documentaries. Kate also received the first IDA Outstanding Achievement Award for editing in 2005. Had you and she worked together before?

We hadn’t worked together, but we have known each other for a long time. Kate was teaching editing at USC when I was teaching documentary production there. I told Kate about the film and asked her to look at some of the footage and recommend an editor.

Why you didn’t ask her to edit it?

I assumed that she was busy working on projects with bigger budgets. After she looked at some of the footage, Kate told me that she wanted to edit the film. We had a wonderfully close relationship. I kept teasing Kate and asking her, when are we going to disagree about something and have an argument, but we never did.

How would you describe There Was Once?

Some people have characterized it as a Holocaust film. But it is really a story about what one person can do to influence how future generations see the past. I think Gyongyi Mago is a true heroine. After I showed the film to people at the Museum of Tolerance, in Los Angeles, they brought Gyongyi to Los Angeles and presented the Medal of Valor to her at their annual gala dinner at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel [May 2010]. There were about 800 people at the dinner. Gyongyi accepted her award and gave a beautiful speech in impeccable English, even though she doesn’t speak English and had to memorize the words. It was quite touching. We also had a screening at the Museum of Tolerance [in West Los Angeles] with Gyongyi and her daughter present. There have been one- week screenings at the Laemmle Sunset 5 [Los Angeles] and the IFC Center in Manhattan.  There Was Once… was recently shown at the International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Budapest. My goal is to bring it to as broad an audience as possible. I believe that through Gyongyi’s story there are important lessons to be learned.

By Bob Fisher. Photos courtesy of Gabor Kalman.