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08 May 2019

Let’s Educate Audiences About Documentary Films!

In recent years Julianna Ugrin has produced socially conscious and formally inventive documentaries through her Budapest-based independent production company Éclipse Film — films about Hungarian gay communities during the Kádár era (Hot Men Cold Dictatorships), a Somalian refugee (Easy Lessons), a Bhutanese family (The Next Guardian), teenagers with a troubled home life who work at the Children’s Railway (Train to Adulthood) or modern-day slavery (A Woman Captured). She has been selected as one of the European Film Promotion’s Producers on the Move in 2019.

How did you become a producer specialising primarily in documentary filmmaking?

I got into filmmaking through documentaries. After graduating from university with a Masters in French Philology, Italian Philology and Culture Management, I went into business and soon discovered that I prefer culture. I started working at a film production company and, after hearing a lecture, applied for Eurodoc, an international workshop for documentary producers. It was then, when I first saw incredible documentaries made for the big screen, that I fell in love with documentary filmmaking. After that it was a long road, of course, until I got to make films — I founded Éclipse Film in 2011.

How do you choose your projects? What do you look for when you hear pitches from directors?

The most important thing is whether I can embrace and identify with the story, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to represent it. Every documentary is a challenge that spans several years. Even Easy Lessons, for which we received financing through the National Film Fund’s Incubator Program, presented many road blocks and new developments along the way. I have to be able to fight for a film wholeheartedly. And then there are budgetary constraints and time limits, of course, which also determines how many projects we’ll be able to juggle at the same time.

Julianna Ugrin

With documentaries one generally works with an extremely small crew. Do you find it results in a tighter personal and professional relationship between director and producer? And do you have to wear more than one hat?

Yes, but the same goes for the production manager, or anyone in the crew, really. We simply don’t have the resources to have a different person for each and every task. For example, with A Women Captured, the director [Bernadett Tuza-Ritter] shot the whole film by herself. Multitasking is an inherent part of documentary filmmaking. Sure, we usually have a treatment as a starting point, but with a doc, where you follow someone for a prolonged period of time, you just can’t write a whole script. A story takes shape as it is being developed and is finalised during editing; and I’m there for the whole ride. A producer has much more of a creative role, with a strong personal and working relationship with the director. It’s my responsibility to resolve legal problems and protect the film, while at the same time guarantee the safety of the subjects, see to it that no one takes advantage of them and that they won’t regret making the film.

Is it difficult to decide when a documentary’s story has run its course and when it’s time to end it, knowing that an interesting event might be just around the corner?

There are directors who’d love to shoot forever, and I have to be smart about saying: okay, we have to finish it now. We cannot go over the budget, and post-production is not cheap, and editing always takes longer than it does with a feature film — we have to build a story from 100 or 200 hours’ worth of footage, without a scripted shot list. We have constant discussions from the get-go about where the story is heading, how we can build a narrative, what would an optimal endpoint be and when we can expect it to come true.

How many sources can you draw the budget from for a documentary film?

Well, in Hungary there’s the Hungarian National Film Fund which supports feature-length films intended for theatrical release. There’s a TV fund called MTVA Mecenatura; the TAX incentive; and HBO Europe, which is extremely important for documentaries. What makes it a bit more complicated is that it’s not really possible in Hungary to combine these different financing sources, and during the planning or development phase we often have to prove that our film is not only for TV, but that it has a place in movie theatres as well. There are also international sources: for our Hungarian–Bhutanese production, The Next Guardian, we successfully applied for Creative Europe MEDIA funding from the EU and we had help from the IDFA Bertha Classic Fund, which supports projects from developing countries, and the IDFA Bertha Europe Fund for European co-productions. We also resorted to crowdfunding and had KRO-NCRTV as our co-producer from the Netherlands.

Julianna Ugrin

In the last couple of years there has been a new boom in Hungarian documentary films, wherein more and more documentaries are distributed in cinemas — Easy Lessons, A Woman Captured, Nine Month War —, and so are able to reach a bigger audience. How do you find this new wave?

It’s a confluence of many different forces. The three films you’ve just mentioned were all distributed by ELF Pictures, a company dedicated not only to distribute but also to produce documentaries. They spend a lot of time and energy bringing these films to theatres so that more people can see them. Soldivision also represents films in alternative distribution, bringing The Next Guardian to cinemas, for example. We had to bring a few high-quality docs to the table to convince them that they are worth showing on the big screen. At the same time, we have to educate audiences and try to get them accustomed to seeing documentaries in movie theatres, because it can be a wonderful experience. There is still a misconception about docs being boring, and my hope is that we can eradicate that.

Can you tell me about your future projects?

Sure. We have Above the Line by Anikó Mária Nagy, which is about a mother and her two daughters who are professional swimmers and about cultivating talent from the viewpoint of a parent. Liquid Gold by Tamás Almási is about the Aszú from Tokaj seen through the work of three winemakers; it will be premiered later this year, followed by cinema release. Our Father, co-directed by Márton Vízkelety and myself, is the story of a Catholic priest who decides to renounce his vows and abandon his profession to assume the responsibility of having a family. And Wardens of Memory, by Klára Trencsényi, is about a rapidly evaporating Jewish community in Cochin, India, and those who want to preserve its memory for the next generations. We’re also developing two features: Beauty Queen by Áron Mátyássy, which is based on a real, tragic story from the 1980s, and Recordings, by Diana Groó, a formally experimental project about an infamous blood libel from the 19th century. This last project is part of this year’s ScripTeast, and the last rounds of pitching will happen at Cannes, which we’re very excited about it.

András Huszár

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