Márta Mészáros recalls that when she turned up at a film studio in Hungary as a naïve teen and told a well-dressed employee she wanted to become a director, his response was blunt: “Girly, go home, because it’s not good to say stupid things like that.” Any woman who stated such an ambition was thought to be in the grip of hysteria, but she was undeterred. “It was 70 years ago, and here I am now.” The anecdote was recounted at April’s GoEast International Film Festival in Germany, which held a symposium on how female filmmakers from central and eastern Europe have been positioned – often against their wishes – in relation to feminism. It’s impossible to discuss this without considering Mészáros, who not only made the first Hungarian feature directed by a woman (1968’s The Girl), but continued to defy doubters and a climate of heavy censorship to become a defining voice of her nation’s cinema. GoEast screened a retrospective of her intimate, politically charged work, which moved on to Berlin’s Arsenal in May – an ideal opportunity to reflect on her trailblazing legacy.

Mészáros was one of few female directors (Agnès Varda, Kira Muratova and Larisa Shepitko also come to mind) to reach prominence in ‘60s Europe. She is best known for her semi-autobiographical Diary trilogy, which drew on the traumatic upheavals she and her family underwent at the hands of Stalin’s regime. Born in Budapest, she spent her early childhood in Kyrgyzstan in the Soviet Union. After her sculptor father was arrested by the secret police (and, it was later revealed, executed) and her mother died, she was raised by a foster parent. Diary for My Children (1984) mirrors her own experience of returning to her homeland in search of roots and an existential compass with which to come to terms with a keen sense of injustice. Wilful, rebellious teen Juli (Zsuzsa Czinkoczi) arrives back in Hungary into the care of her aunt Magda, a committed Communist struggling to reconcile rigid idealism with inner integrity. In this coming-of-age story, maturity means recognising the brutality of reality and siding with truth at any cost. Such a tough vision of the world, one devoid of consolatory endings, was something the resilient director learned when she was young (Mészáros jokes that if she’d made Pretty Woman, it would have been about a miserable prostitute who could never find love). Her dramatisations of authentic life incorporated archival footage and daringly blurred the line between fact and fiction. “The documentarist point of view I really like to mix into my movies and not everybody liked that,” she says. “Today everybody is doing it.”

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    Still from Diary for my Lovers (1987)

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    Still from Diary for my Lovers (1987)

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    Márta Mészáros. Image: olivtrain under a CC licence

With Hungary reluctant to admit women into film school, she took advantage of her fluent Russian and the possibility under communism to study in Moscow to enrol in the famed State Cinema Institute, or VGIK. She recalls that, on seeing that her country had sent a woman, her professor, a “Chekhovian character with glasses”, shrugged: “the Hungarian comrades are quite strange, but let’s try.” It was a rewarding experience, and one later beautifully dramatised in Diary for My Lovers (1987). On her return to Budapest, the film labs were intimidated by Moscow’s seal of approval, and allowed her to work. Though the idea simmered in her psyche, she waited years to make the first Diary film, advised that its political dimension would be too provocative for the censors. “I take my stories out of real life,” she says. “It seems I make my movies really fast, but I carry these stories for a long time.”

Among her earlier films is the downbeat melodrama Adoption (1975), for which she became the first woman to win the Berlinale’s Golden Bear. It’s a revelation in its sharp, emotionally complex take on maternal urges and attachment. A 43-year-old factory worker (Katalin Berek) tells the married man she is having an affair with that she wants to have his baby and raise it alone – a proposal he doesn’t take well. Meanwhile, she grows close to a delinquent teen from a girl’s home, and tries to help her secure her future. It’s a tender yet unsentimental oddity that’s very conscious of the gap between idealism and the pragmatism. With their depth of feeling, concern for “female” themes such as romance and motherhood and portrayals of domestic life, films such as Mészáros’s were initially dismissed in Hungary for being “woman’s pictures”, even as she garnered acclaim abroad.  

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    Still from Adoption (1975)

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    Still from Adoption (1975)

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    Still from Diary for my Father and Mother (1990)

Mészáros continues to pursue a prolific career, and is still making films at 85. When we first met at the Moscow International Film Festival in 2010 she was there with her grandson, Jakob Ladanyi. He had a role in her film screening there, The Last Report on Anna, and will appear in her upcoming Aurora Borealis. Work and family have long been fruitfully entwined for Mészáros, who had past marriages to fellow big-name director Miklos Jancsó and Polish actor Jan Nowicki, who starred in many of her films. “I really don’t agree that if you’re a director you can’t have kids,” she says. “I have three grandchildren and I’m happy with my movies and my children. When they say politically and socially that the role of women is to give birth and stay home with the family, why? If a woman is talented, why not? There are so many talentless men occupying important positions, and everybody takes it as natural. They forgive a man more if he’s talentless and careerist. What I’m saying, they call feminism, but I’m not a feminist because that’s a philosophy. I’m just a woman who makes movies, and thinks women are allowed to exist just the same way that men are.”

If a woman is talented, why not? There are so many talentless men occupying important positions, and everybody takes it as natural

While there is an activist pulse that runs through her films – as vehicles for truth, historical memory and the voices of strong, complex women – Mészáros has always resisted the label “feminist”. It’s a stance echoed by another of her female contemporaries, irreverent Czech New Wave innovator Věra Chytilová. This is perhaps natural, given that the term was stigmatised as an imported western slogan in countries already saturated with state ideology, even by dissidents; film was also a heavily male-dominated milieu. Being “allowed” to work in repressive regimes often depends on veiling one’s intentions, and to apply qualifiers such as “feminist” removes ambiguity, making one easier to pin down. Much more effective was making work true to the authenticity of one’s experience and letting it speak for itself, smuggling its subversive potential past the censors by not drawing attention to it via overt alignment.

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    Still from My 20th Century, dir. Ildikó Enyedi (1988)

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    Still from Body and Soul, dir. Ildikó Enyedi (2017)

What’s in a name, anyway? Mészáros undoubtedly opened the way for many talented filmmakers who came after. Ildikó Enyedi, who Mészáros names as being among the “many good female directors today in Hungary”, is one example. Enyedi is acclaimed for films such as My 20th Century (1988), a dynamic, playful piece about twins (one an anarchist and one a hedonistic courtesan) whose paths diverge against the backdrop of modernist culture. Body and Soul, a love story between two slaughterhouse workers who share a recurring dream about a deer, won her the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale – making her only the second Hungarian to win the award, 42 years after Mészáros. Women making films in Hungary? Not such a stupid idea, after all.

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