The only thing you can be sure of with a new Szabolcs Hajdu feature is that it will confound expectations. The thrillingly unpredictable filmmaker has, through this millennium, proved a versatile talent prone to stretching the possibilities of genre, at times with flights of surreal imagination. His distinctive sports drama White Palms (2006), which showed the harsh repercussions on a gymnast of a Soviet training regime, raised his profile — and that of his generation of Hungarian directors — when it was selected for Cannes. Several projects after showed wilder experimentation. A plot of sex trafficking met escapist, fantastical dream sequences of surrealism in Bibliotheque Pascal (2010), for instance, while in Mirage (2014) the Western genre was given a Hungarian spin with striking visual poetry in its unusual story of an African football player hiding out on a farm.
With such a colourful track record, Hajdu again surprises with his seventh feature, by turning his hand to something much more familiar and conventional. It’s Not the Time of My Life is a family drama made in his own house in Budapest with his relatives and friends in leading roles, tapping their everyday life for the inspiration behind its invented situations. And it’s this intimate naturalism that is its great strength. The film had its world premiere in July at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech republic’s famed spa town, the world’s leading showcase for central and eastern European cinema, and came away with the Grand Prix Crystal Globe. The festival’s top award also carries with it $25,000 cash — five times the budget of this ultra-shoestring indie production. We talked with Hajdu, who also won the Best Actor award for his role in the film, about how his decision to go it alone without state funding created such a fertile production environment from which the film bloomed.
“I made six feature films in the official structure,” Hajdu said. “Most of the time passed with helpless waiting. I’m 44 and I still have a lot to say. I don’t have time for this.” He explains that making a feature within Hungary’s current funding system takes at least two years. “I didn’t want to get on this bandwagon. We knew from the beginning that it was not a question of money. The movie wouldn’t be any better if we had more. But if a screenplay is in development and the begging for money begins, slowly your people drop out, the initial enthusiasm vanishes, and the spiritual energy that makes a film like this work disappears.”
Hajdu instead chose radical resourcefulness for the two-week shoot. “We didn’t have the money to rent a flat, so we shot in our own. We couldn’t pay for child actors, so we shot with our children. The actors are our old friends, with whom we did everything from the beginning. They were happy to come, free of charge, just to spend time intelligently. The cinematographers, thirteen in number, were my pupils at Budapest Metropolitan University. They joined in, keen to get work experience. Other members of the crew were students as well. Their average age must have been around 22. Catering was managed by our friends from the neighbourhood; every day somebody else cooked for the crew.”
“We didn’t have the money to rent a flat, so we shot in our own. We couldn’t pay for child actors, so we shot with our children”
Hajdu considers this a source of freedom, rather than constraint. “There is no money that can substitute for enthusiasm,” he said. “Everyone was active all the time as they had multiple tasks to do. There weren't any bored people, passively waiting for their money. In our flat we did what we wanted. There was no nervous landlord hanging around, and we didn’t have to inhabit a set, because we were living in it.”
Certainly, the result of this production approach speaks for itself. Hajdu adapted It’s Not the Time of My Life from a theatre play he wrote and directed, which was performed in Hungary last year. He and his real-life wife and frequent collaborator Orsolya Török-Illyés play Farkas and Eszter, a couple having trouble keeping the spark alive amid the pressures of parenting their five-year-old Bruno (their real-life son Zsigmond Hajdu). Bruno is in a phase of acting out, as he feels starved of the attention of his father, who resents his claim on his partner’s affections. Into this already strained dynamic comes more domestic strife in the form of Eszter’s sister Ernella (Erika Tankó), her hangdog husband Albert (Domokos Szabó) and their sulky daughter Laura (Lujza Hajdu).
“They are back, broke and needing somewhere to stay, from a futile year trying to establish a new life for themselves in Scotland. Tension between the adult couples quickly reaches boiling point as the green-eyed visitors gripe about the affluent privilege they read in the tasteful decor of the spacious home. Far from tactfully diffusing this resentment, Farkas stirs Albert’s sense of failure. Hajdu’s awarded portrayal of this petulant figure is nuanced and sophisticated enough to maintain empathy from the audience, while never shying away from the disruptive impact of his flaws. “He is me, exaggerated a bit,” said Hajdu. “And there must be lots of people running around in the world like me.”
While keeping to the indoor setting of its theatre origins, the film miraculously never seems too shut in — testament to the fluid, dynamic nature of the camerawork, which stays close to the characters as psychological revelations unfold from their shifting conversational groupings through the house. In its grippingly intimate, highly relatable naturalism as it charts the subtle combustion points of family relationships, the film has shades of John Cassavetes, or Romanian director Radu Muntean’s more recent, masterly Tuesday, After Christmas.
“Liberty, being unfamiliar, was terrifying. People living here as children and grandchildren of an oppressive system, got freedom as a gift and couldn’t handle it”
It’s Not the Time of My Life is a personal story of family — but its tensions are more broadly reflective of a contemporary Hungary transitioned to a society of consumerist aspiration. “Our generation is the first one after the change of regime,” said Hajdu. “In 1990 I was 18, and I took the first steps of adulthood in this strange, wild capitalist system. The society wasn’t ready for this change. The opening of socio-economic gaps started with our generation. For a moment, sudden enrichment and wonderful welfare seemed achievable for everybody. But a few years later it turned out that not everyone can live with opportunities. Liberty, being unfamiliar, was terrifying. People living here as children and grandchildren of an oppressive system, got freedom as a gift and couldn’t handle it.
“They either commanded others, with the ancient oppressive reflex, or they found somebody to bow before. Within 15 years high school classmates, who lived within the same existential circumstances during the artificial equality of socialism, could find themselves at the top or the bottom of society. The closest friends and siblings could become this distant from each other as well. Our generation experienced this in the extreme, and it’s now the root of many frustrations, neuroses, and complexes in the everyday. What appears in our little family movie is truly understandable from this historical perspective.”
The experience abroad of Ernella and Albert and their return reflects the wider European phenomenon of immigration, which has seen hundreds of thousands of Hungarians leave the country in recent years in search of a more comfortable life. Hajdu said of the team’s decision to use personal context as a starting point for any wider resonances: “Most artists have a working conscience and they feel they must deal with current social issues, like the migrant issue, the turn toward fascism and so on, and many of them start to process such large topics with honourable enthusiasm. But these issues are too abstract. The work is overemphasised by being motivated by social awareness — and the personal experience is missing. In our film, we mentioned these big issues as much as we are affected. Our presumption was that if we show a droplet, the whole sea will be in it.”