I recently sat down with filmmaker Hugo Perez to discuss his documentary feature film debut, Neither Memory Nor Magic, in preparation for its New York premiere during the 2009 MoMA Documentary Fortnight on Feb. 22. Neither Memory Nor Magic beautifully and hauntingly tells the story of Hungary’s most celebrated poet, Miklos Radnoti, whose notebook of poems was discovered in his coat pocket when the mass grave he’d been shot and killed in during the Holocaust was later unearthed. The film presents interviews with those close to Radnoti interspersed with incredible super 8mm footage vocalized by readings of verses from Radnoti’s poems, and narration by ACADEMY AWARD® Nominated actress Patricia Clarkson. Make sure to mark Neither Memory Nor Magic down on your calendar, as not only will Perez be answering your questions during the post-screening Q&A, but special guests will also make an appearance to read a selection of Radnoti’s poems. Already confirmed are Hungarian photographer Sylvia Plachy and poet Howard Altman. (Look below this One-on-One Q&A for two deleted scenes that didn’t make it into the final cut of the film.)
TFPN: How did you first hear about this story and what compelled you to make a documentary about it?
Perez: Poetry is one of these traditional art forms that are fast disappearing in this fast food, reality TV era that we live in. I had met Greg Carr who ran the Carr Foundation. At that time they were supporting documentaries. He felt poetry was given short shrift and wanted to see if there could be a documentary that somehow conveyed the power of poetry to be something more than words on a page. I had read the work of Radnoti in an anthology. I pitched Carr on the idea of doing something on poetry of witness, which is a whole genre of poets who have lived through wars, genocides, political purges and have documented their times through poetry. Initially, the film was going to be about poetry of witness and Radnoti was one of five poets I was going to interweave their stories. It soon became apparent that what I was proposing was something really complex and ambitious. We weren’t sure it was going to work, so we decided to take one figure that exemplified this idea of poetry of witness and tell his story. When I think about the film now and when I think about Radnoti, I think about this man who tried to apply his craft under the darkest possible circumstances and continued to believe in the value of what he was doing, especially when he was on a forced march and people were being killed all around him. He must have known at this point that there was a good chance he wasn’t going to make it. To continue to write poetry under those circumstances when you don’t even know if anybody’s going to read these poems, I think it shows a great belief in the importance of creating art.
TFPN: Do you have a background in poetry and/or Hungarian history?
Perez: I had never been to Hungary. I don’t speak Hungarian. When I started to go to Hungary and interview people and do research, everybody thought it was the funniest thing that a Cuban American from New York would be coming to Budapest to make a film about Miklos Radnoti. One of my great goals for the film was to let the world know and encourage people to find out more about Radnoti and to read his work. In Hungary, everybody reads his work. School children memorize his poems. In the United States, outside of academic fields, he’s totally unknown. His work (the translations that I used) is currently out of print in this country. I was hoping at some point, a publisher might become interested in republishing his work in this country.
TFPN: How did you find the people interviewed in the film?
Perez: I was very fortunate because one of the people in the film, Zsuzsanna Ozsvath, whose translations of Radnoti’s poetry I used in the film, wrote Radnoti’s only biography in English, In the Footsteps of Orpheus. I saw that she was teaching at U.T. Dallas. She runs the Holocaust Studies department there. I emailed her. She was the first person I interviewed. Coincidentally, she has a daughter who lives up in Albany and she came a few days to visit her daughter, so I drove up to Albany and spent a day with her. She was incredibly helpful. It was through Oszvoth that I made my first round of contacts and my first trip to Budapest. She gave me a list of people to start with. Every time I interviewed somebody, people would say, ‘you should talk to so and so.’ For instance, Radnoti’s niece I only found out about a year and a half after my first visit to Budapest. I feel like I was really lucky. I was introduced to Ferenc Gyozo who was one of the other Radnoti scholars who speaks in the film. Through him, I found out about Ferenc Andai who had been at the labor camp with Radnoti. We made a trip down to Serbia together to visit the site of the labor camp. It’s kind of like solving a mystery. You start off with one person and they lead you to five other people and so on. At the end, I think I wound up doing 60 interviews and we only wound up using six or seven people in the finished film. One of the things I was up against was the fact that a lot of the people I was interviewing were over 70, so I was wasn’t sure which were going to be the key interviews. I didn’t want to risk missing something. Instead of doing pre-interviews, every interview I taped. Of the people in the film, thankfully everybody is still alive, but of the people that I interviewed, at least six of them passed away. Outside of the film, I now have this archive of interviews, which I hope to donate to a Hungarian institution at some point.
TFPN: The film took part in the 2006 IFP Market (Now Independent Film Week). What was the process like and how did it help you get the film to where it is today?
Perez: I recommend the IFP Market to anybody who’s got a work-in-progress documentary. I didn’t get any funding from presenting the film there, but I did start some relationships with people that have helped get the film seen. It definitely put the film on the radar. It was a really positive experience. There are certain places where the independent documentary community comes together throughout the year, and the IFP Market is definitely one of the watering holes where you can go for four days and wind up seeing a lot of people.
TFPN: Tim Sternberg and Francisco Bello, the director and producer/cinematographer respectively of the ACADEMY AWARD® Nominated short Salim Baba, also participated in the making of your film. How did that collaboration come about?
Perez: Francisco and I have known each other for about five years now. He’s cut two of my narrative shorts and both of my documentaries including Summer Sun, Winter Moon, an ITVS-funded film. Some of the initial cutting that they did on Salim Baba they did in my edit room. He’d be cutting for me during the day, and at night he’d be working on Salim Baba. Tim Sternberg I got to meet through Francisco and he’s also been a wonderful collaborator.
Perez: I have never been a big fan of narration and I resisted it for a long time, but then at a certain point, we did a rough-cut screening in Boston. After that screening, Francisco and I looked at each other and said, ‘we’re going to have to go with narration.’ Once I made that decision, then it was ‘how can I tastefully and eloquently work narration into the film?’ There is so much of his life where I could spend five minutes of screen time piecing together interviews to explain something that could be expressed with 10 seconds of narration. A friend of mine from college saw the film and she said, ‘Patricia Clarkson is a friend of mine, I can get the film to her, would you be interested in having her narrate the film?’ I thought, ‘Wow! She’s wonderful.’ She’s got a very beautiful voice that adds a really nice quality to the film. I should note that before sending the film to her for her consideration I knew that she had a love of poetry and that she might be interested in participating in the film because of that interest.
TFPN: Do you plan to do any educational outreach with the film?
Perez: I would like to do an educational outreach campaign that targets more creative writing and poetry than the Holocaust, although certainly the Holocaust is an important topic. The thing that makes the film unique is the way in which it examines the craft of poetry in relation to social issues and social injustice, and the ability of writing to describe something like the Holocaust, which is otherwise hard to talk about and encompass. I definitely want to do an educational outreach, but all of that is contingent upon finding the right partners who are willing to fund the initiative.
TFPN: What are you working on now?
Perez: While I’ve been working on my documentaries, on a parallel track, I’ve been working on my narrative fiction work, which is very different than the documentaries. They’re dark comedies in the vein of Pedro Almodóvar. What I’m working on right now is developing my first feature narrative called Immaculate Conception. It’s a modern-day re-imaging of the Virgin Mary story in Miami. I was supported by the Tribeca Film Institute Emerging Artist Award last year for that project. I’m also writing a science fiction short, which I hope to shoot this summer. And, I’m executive producing a documentary by David Felix Sutcliffe, Why AdM>ama, which was at the IFP Market this last year.
Below: Two Deleted Scenes from Neither Memory Nor Magic.