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Cinema’s Alchemist

The Films of Péter Forgács

2011

Bill Nichols and Michael Renov, editors

Cinema’s Alchemist

Multiple views of the famed Hungarian filmmaker and installation artist who turns home movies into history

Péter Forgács is best known for his award-winning films built on home movies from the 1930s to 1960s that document ordinary lives soon to intersect with offscreen historical events. Cinema’s Alchemist offers a sustained exploration of the imagination and skill with which Forgács reshapes such footage into extraordinary films dedicated to remembering the past in ways that matter for our future.

There are film makers who have created a documentary opus of great significance, and have thereby deepened our understanding of the past. Péter Forgács, Hungarian film maker and media artist, is such a man. He composes films as if they were musical compositions—by using found material.

from the 2007 Erasmus Prize Laudatio

Péter Forgács, based in Budapest, is best known for his award-winning films built on home movies from the 1930s to the 1960s that document ordinary lives soon to intersect with offscreen historical events. Cinema’s Alchemist offers a sustained exploration of the imagination and skill with which Forgács reshapes such film footage, originally intended for private and personal viewing, into extraordinary films dedicated to remembering the past in ways that matter for our future.

Contributors: Whitney Davis, U of California, Berkeley; László F. Földényi, U of Theatre, Film and Television, Budapest; Marsha Kinder, U of Southern California; Tamás Korányi; Scott MacDonald, Hamilton College; Tyrus Miller, U of California, Santa Cruz; Roger Odin, U of Paris III Sorbonne–Nouvelle; Catherine Portuges, U of Massachusetts Amherst; Michael S. Roth, Wesleyan U; Kaja Silverman, U of Pennsylvania; Ernst van Alphen, Leiden U, the Netherlands; Malin Wahlberg, Stockholm U.

Cinema’s Alchemist

Bill Nichols is professor of cinema at San Francisco State University.

Michael Renov is vice dean of academic affairs and professor of critical studies in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.

Cinema’s Alchemist

There are film makers who have created a documentary opus of great significance, and have thereby deepened our understanding of the past. Péter Forgács, Hungarian film maker and media artist, is such a man. He composes films as if they were musical compositions—by using found material.

from the 2007 Erasmus Prize Laudatio

Péter Forgács is indeed an alchemist, as this insightful compendium of essays proclaims; his extraordinary process transforms ordinary home movies into works of profound and sometimes mysterious beauty. This volume brilliantly articulates the qualities that make his work so distinctive and important, not only as acts of cinematic archaeology but as transformative art. Michael Renov’s concise appreciation of Forgács’ devastating reimagining of pre-Holocaust Jewish family movies in The Maelstrom, and Bill Nichols’s and Scott MacDonald’s revealing interviews with the filmmaker himself, are among the gems to be discovered.

Peter L. Stein, Executive Director, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker

The series in which this book appears offers some of the strongest collections of documentary film criticism available.

Choice

Cinema’s Alchemist is a useful introduction to Forgács’s work.

Cineaste

Cinema’s Alchemist

Contents

Introduction
Bill Nichols

Part I. Setting the Scene
1. Péter Forgács: An Interview
Scott MacDonald
2. The Memory of Loss: Péter Forgács’s Saga of Family Life and Social Hell
Peter Forgács and Bill Nichols, in dialogue

Part II. The Holocaust Films
3. Towards a New Historiography: The Aesthetics of Temporality
Ernst van Alphen
4. Ordinary Film: The Maelstrom
Michael S. Roth
5. Historical Discourses of the Unimaginable: The Maelstrom
Michael Renov
6. Waiting, Hoping, among the Ruins of All the Rest
Kaja Silverman
7. The Trace: Framing the Presence of the Past in Free Fall
Malin Wahlberg

Part III. Other Films/Other Contexts
8. How to Make History Perceptible: The Bartos Family and the Private Hungary series
Roger Odin
9. Found Images as Witness to Central European History: A Bibó Reader and Miss Universe 1929
Catherine Portuges
10. Re-envisioning the Documentary Fact: On Saying and Showing in Wittgenstein Tractatus and Bourgeois Dictionaries
Tyrus Miller
11. The World Rewound: Wittgenstein Tractatus
Whitney Davis
12. Taking the Part for the Whole: Some Thoughts Inspired by the Film Music of Tibor Szemzö
Tamás Korányi
13. Analytical Spaces: The Installations of Péter Forgács
László F. Földényi
14. Reorchestrating History: Transforming The Danube Exodus into a Database Documentary
Marsha Kinder

Acknowledgments
Filmography
Contributors
Index