Taken from the December issue of Dazed & Confused:
Born under Soviet rule in 1955, Béla Tarr began making amateur films about ordinary Hungarian people when he was 16. His early movies, like his 1977 feature debut, Family Nest, are conventional, social-realist domestic narratives. However, by 1988’s Damnation, a bleak romance about unrequited love, Tarr had developed his trademark style of long black-and-white shots with little if no dialogue, and gained a reputation as a difficult storyteller. His self-declared swansong to cinema, The Turin Horse, nonetheless received the Jury Grand Prix at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival, and his admirers have included Gus Van Sant and the late Susan Sontag.
Hungary is currently wrought by political upheaval, with far-right party Jobbik polling third and prime minister Viktor Orbán making constitutional changes that the EU deems to be against the interests of free speech. Tarr lives mostly in Sarajevo, where he runs the Film Factory, a university faculty dedicated to empowering a new global generation of filmmakers. Speaking outside his office, he explains why he’s decided to leave his director’s chair empty.
Dazed Digital: What is the Film Factory?
Béla Tarr: It’s a laboratory for young filmmakers where we try and mix traditional and non-traditional forms of education. Firstly, we put on theoretical workshops with world-famous historians and critics. Then we have practical workshops, held by some experienced filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch. And then finally there’s what I do, which is help students prepare and edit their own films.
DD: Who taught you to make films?
Béla Tarr: I was self-taught, but when I started things were totally different. What’s still true is that when you make your first movie, you’re breaking into the industry, not asking. Over the years, my style has become purer and simpler, until my last film, The Turin Horse, which is probably one of the simplest films ever made. And that was the point where I decided to stop.
DD: When did you first think about creating the school?
Béla Tarr: After The Turin Horse, I thought, “What can I do? I’m too young to retire.” So I decided to share my knowledge. I’ve always felt that film schools I’d visited made the mistake of trying to teach people the ‘rules’ when every filmmaker knows there are none. My concept is: I don’t want to educate. I want to liberate!
DD: Do you think students and teachers of filmmaking have other responsibilities?
Béla Tarr: Firstly, I’m not a teacher, but I believe that when you touch the camera you take responsibility. Here we’re funded by taxpayers, so we have to say what we feel, otherwise we would be lying and stealing. But I don’t believe in the idea of the filmmaker who wants to teach and educate his audience. When you make a movie, the most important thing is honesty, and I hope that when the students here go back to their countries from all over the world they will be able to say what they want more articulately. If I achieve this, things will have gone okay.
“As for Hollywood, all I see are concrete filmmakers making concrete films. Sometimes there are some good ones” — Béla Tarr
DD: Is there anything unique about making films in the 21st century?
Béla Tarr: In some ways, things are much easier today. You can even shoot a movie with a stupid iPhone. But it’s not up to me to say: it’s up to the students to decide what’s unique. People have to evolve. You cannot accept the order of the world as you find it. The students here have been making lots of different types of films. Some of them prefer to do things with narrative, but this is certainly not a centre for traditional filmmaking. It’s a home for the brave!
DD: Is the school strictly in the European arthouse tradition, as opposed to the Hollywood blockbuster model?
Béla Tarr: I don’t know what a European tradition is. Every country has a different culture. British films are totally different from French movies, which aren’t the same as Italian movies. As for Hollywood, all I see are concrete filmmakers making concrete films. Sometimes there are some good ones. But I don’t think the four Americans on the course are making films in this style.
DD: Why Sarajevo?
Béla Tarr: This is a multicultural town. You have Muslim culture, Orthodox culture and Catholic culture. The country is full of tension, and I think it’s a very good place for a young filmmaker. When I started making films, one of the easy things was that the tensions in Hungary were simple to spot. Today, this is not the case in many places.
DD: Tensions are high in Hungary once again. How do you feel about it?
Béla Tarr: The situation in Hungary is horrible and I feel that democracy is in danger. From time to time I go back and visit, but it doesn’t make me happy. I still have a connection to Hungary because I am the president of the Hungarian Filmmakers’ Association. Seven hundred filmmakers elected me to that position to represent our interests and keep Hungarian cinema alive, which is so difficult now. I’m doing my best, but I have to confess I have not had much success. We’re fighting a losing battle. If people want to make films they have to compromise with the system.
DD: In 2011, Jean-Luc Godard said that the age of the auteur was over. Do you agree?
Béla Tarr: No, I don’t. I have 30 young filmmakers here in Sarajevo and they are all real auteurs. So I don’t believe it’s true. In some ways, history is like the tide – it might seem low right now, but don’t worry, it’ll come back up!