How does an internationally educated young film director who grew up in several countries and is rooted in many cultures lives with a mindset that knows no borders? Does the way you move around in the world add a different perspective to the creative work?
I spoke with the young Swedish-Hungarian film director Otto Banovits about his award winning short, Donkey Xote, which disects the search for connection between cultures. The short has claimed the highest awards at the SEEfest in Los Angeles, the Film Fest in Bejing and Montreal as well as the Indian Cine Fest, the Danish Nordic Talent and the Hungarian Mediawave Festival.
Otto Banovits was born in Sweden, grew up in Hungary and studied and worked in London for years where he graduated as a film director. Recently he completed the masterclass at Stockholm Academy of the Dramatic Arts. With such a background it is, of course, not surprising that the questions of double-identity are a big part of his artistic work. The search for connections between cultures and themes around emigration surface often in his films.
He started as a child actor. His modern dance studies prepared him for consistent work. He regards this genre as a type of altered state of consciousness and believes it to be indispensable for filmmaking. His films are usually co-productions. He films in Sweden, England and Hungary with an international crew and actors. Although a feature film is still wating to materialize, his thought-provoking shorts are winning awards on an international scale. He was amongst the winners at the Montreal Film Festival, the Indian Cine Film Fest, the Mediawave Festival, the Bejing International Film Festival and was selected as one of the five most promising young Scandinavian film directors at the Nordic Talents in Denmark. He sees the world with mature eyes while doing his job with youthful energy, courage and enthusiasm.
BB: Your childhood years in acting and modern dance have surely contributed to you ending up in the creative field of filmmaking..
OB: That is true. Laying the groundwork for creativity in childhood is certainly very important and I am thankful that I was able to start this way.
I can see it in friends and aquaintances who don’t work in a creative field that humans carry an inherent boomerang effect within themselves. We can look at professionals working at banks or multi-corporations. After a while everybody feels the need to be part of some kind of creative process. This desire for creativity can be compensated by career, power or money but the inner satisfaction that creative work provides will never appear. This is why I am so grateful for my childhood—that creative activities were such an organic part of my and my siblings lives that I didn’t have to run unnecessary laps in life. I think this should be taught to children. Free, couragous thinking without any fear, combined with a lot of sports and meditation. This is how I would compile a modern school curriculum.
BB: Your short „Donkey Xote” was presented recently at the SEEfest in LA. It won first place for student films at the 47th Montreal Film Festival. What’s the secret of your film’s positive international reception?
OB: This film is a black comedy. It came to be with the help of the Hungarian Media Support Program as a Hungarian-Swedish-American co-production. This was the first Hungarian film at SEEfest in Los Angeles to be selected.
OB: The reception was interesting. We tried to make a universal movie but it also contains a strong Hungarian message. I was present at the screenings in America, Hungary and Sweden.
It was interesting to see, how people reacted. My experience was that everybody understood the universal message; everybody got the meeting points for different cultures and the beauty of how human relationships develop independent of cultural backgrounds.
OB: A specificly Hungarian theme was, for example, a statewide campaign in the film titled „Land back in Hungary!” This was a ficticious campaign targeting young people who left the country which actually became reality in Hungary with the tag line „Come home again!” It is funny that we developed and shot this way before the actual program was advertised in Hungary. The plot of the movie is that at the festival organized as part of the ficticious campaign a half Hungarian, half black American lands with his parachute in Hungary. This obviously resonated with the Hungarian audience, just like when a ten year old Chinese child, who speaks Hungarian fluently, recites the poem „The Outcast Stone” by Endre Ady. It was surprising that not only the Hungarian but also the American audience was able to interpret it. The reaction to the key moment was maybe a little different but always similar in every country. This reassured me that we achieved creation of something special and universal with this film.
OB: Yes, this is the feedback I received wherever the film was screened. I think this is very important. If our soul, our humanity, our fate, our tragedy, etc., find their way into the movie then it can not be a bad movie, in my opinion. Maybe it is bad technically, but the main pillars will be allright. In any case, if a film doesn’t have this then I am not really interested anymore.
BB: For example if the form is created before the content?
OB: Yes. To quote István Eörsi: „A pair of knickers swings, wind-blown as if on swings … Rare occasion, not the norm, there is no content, only from.”* I can’t imagine this order, if not for a filmic exercise, but maybe not even then. Of course one can say that a form is given and throughout the creative process the soul finds its way in. Surely this works for some but for me it is unimaginable.
BB: The protagonist, Lajos Kovács, said in the movie, „two people from entirely different worlds meet and with that, their way of thinking and their values change forever. Meanwhile they are able to stay themselves.” These personality forming interactions at the intersections of different cultures are very typical when living abroad. What do these encounters mean to you as a young globetrotter?
OB: My experience is that no matter where you live in the world you can always find your people, the ones where a self-evident relationship is immediately established. I have always succeeded in this. More often than not there is a feeling from the very first moment. With my partner I also knew instantly that we would connect. The same is true for my work relationships. It is rare when the professional and personal connections work hand in hand but I love those the most. I need the human aspect! If we resonate on a common human frequency it does not matter what country we are in or which language we speak. Many don’t feel equal if they speak the other person’s language. I believe that the core content transcends language. We read in The Little Prince: „One sees clearly only with the heart.” This can work if we are open and empathetic towards each other, similar to the young boy and the character depicted by Lajos Kovacs. The fantastic part of their encounter is that even though they barely understand each other, culturally even less, but at several points, at the deeper human levels they have found the common denominator.
BB: You and many of your colleagues have stated that the film was a „very difficult birth”. There are probably plenty of obstacles for the artist throughout the realization process. How does a freelancer who is his own boss constantly motivate himself to keep alive the enthusiasm and the inner strength needed for the rigorous, everyday work withstanding the difficulties coming his way?
OB: We have spoken a lot about how difficult it was to make this film happen but the biggest difficulty for me is when there is no film… when you are in a transitional state. If I can’t see the next project on the horizon, that is emotionally difficult for me. Will I have work and when? Will I have money? Making films and money are two seperate things in my opinion. (He laughs) It is a big question, how I spend my time, how I keep myself in an active state. You are what you do. I have to keep my energy level up and the routine going. If you shoot a feauture movie as a director you still have only shot 30 days out of 365. You have to fill the rest somehow. It is important to me to occupy myself daily, to be organized, to have the stimulation of people around me. My enthusiasm is carrying me forwards. The importance of a given topic and that I have to find a form for it. I regard it as a game, like Activity. You can’t kill yourself because of it but you can’t take it too seriously either. I write and develop the material, apply for grants, earn the money for it, etc. Structure in my everyday life is important to me and I break down my day into hours to work on my ideas!
BB: Motifs of isolation and motifs of meeting-of-worlds appear again and again in your award winning film „Agape”…
OB: It is true; these are recurring motifs of mine. Obviously resulting from my own life story, these are the questions I am intrigued by. My films show the phenomena of isolation within the country, the countryside falling behind and the isolation of the individual.
“Agape” bears a very positive message. The always lonely father discovers that life is worth something if you are “used” by people who mean something to you. Isolation can make someone exciting, maybe even unique, but we can only become interesting if we allow others an insight into our world. We are all very private beings but the most beautiful things occur when we allow human encounters to happen, when we are brave enough to open towards each other and are able to surrender ourselves to the divine dimensions of love relationships – just like the title of the movie suggests.
BB: Your newest short film, „Dark Chamber,” also dissects questions of emigration and isolation. You have brought a very current and true story to the screen drawing from a case at the Austrian-Hungarian border where, by chance, the dead bodies of refugees were found in a truck. On film you relocated this story to Sweden.
OB: Yes, two cultures meet in this short film. The title of this movie means „camera obscura” in Latin. The whole thing builds on this technique, on this visualization. Where light and darkness meet, which can happen any time and everywhere and it projects an upside-down image. We play with this axis: what is upside-down and what is not? This is life itself, this is what we experience every day… life’s absurdities… we go for a walk with the family on a beautiful sunny Sunday, we park the car and lick some ice cream while a few feet over in a truck the rotting corpses of 70 people are found in the scalding heat. Inside are the families who tried but didn’t succeed and outside the family who lives the everyday, banal life.
BB: Not even the sight of the tragedy seems to disturb their everyday routine…
OB: It is not their fault. They live how they know best. I think the question here is, at what point do we take responsibility? At the end of the movie the Swedish family gets back in the car and they start chatting about completely banal topics. This is not accidental. I believe this is how we operate. And nobody is at fault here because this is our survival mechanism. If you think about how much information stimuli and trauma we take in throughout a day only by watching the news or scrolling through the Facebook news streams… It is simply impossible to absorb everything and react in an impactful manner. We humans lock ourselves in. Everybody does. We survive. Those who were in the truck just wanted to survive themselves. It is relevant, of course, where you are born. The world is segregated, it excludes… and people from different ethnicities meet in the “global village” – this big, wide world of ours – no matter what. Politics governs us through no fault of our own. This is difficult because there are these people who meet but these are not the same ones who cause and start this absurd mechanism… and, of course, taking in several thousand immigrants is an extraordinarily complex question. We have a problem and we have to basically stay human. This was so beautifully portrayed in the movie “Son of Saul” (a film by the Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes Jeles , winner at the Oscars 2016 in the category Foreign Language Film) in connection to the Holocaust. There is neither excuse nor absolution for someone who doesn’t stay human. But people can only do as much as they have the capacity for, what their inner possibilities can carry, and looking at it from that perspective, this is always the maximum they can do. There is no need to decide who is right. In the film we don’t take sides, either. We just document. The camera follows the stream of light towards the sun and then turns around. That’s all. Take it or leave it. It is easy to school people but I really don’t like that. Who am I to tell anybody anything… but I believe that films should be made about this chaotic and often inhumane world. Let’s use these films as tools!
BB: I want to ask you about the “cross” that appears frequently in your movie „Agape”. What does this symbol mean to you?
OB: Everybody has a cross to bear—I see this as the thesis of the film. We can call it karma or fate… I don’t want to narrow down the interpretation to the symbol used by the Catholic Church; I thought of it on a much broader scale. The cross-maker in the movie has a curious proposal for our protagonist: “You had a hard life but here are two million crosses, choose one! You have the chance to call a different one your own.” The protagonist chooses the same cross that was his all along. Because this is mine, this one I know, this one I will take on. It might crack my shoulders but this is the one I can carry. Somebody else’s I can’t. I believe this is very important. There are some very deep alliances, like marriage, or a true friendship, or the relationship between mother and child. We are able to help each other, lighten the load from time to time, but we all have to carry our cross ourselves. I am responsible for my own fate. When I meet people on my way they can add a role and content so that I can live a good, meaningful life. Nonetheless, we have to find our own inner strength and peace! Find your cross and accept it, take responsibility for it!
Translated by Klara Kunsagi
*Excerpt from the poem “Knickers on the cloths-line” translated from Hungarian by Leslie A. Kery. Original by István Eörsi: “Bugyi a szélben”.