TV Judit and video Andras: an interview with Judit Kopper and Andras Solyom.
During the first months following the collapse of the communist regimes, uncensored television debates on government-building and national policymaking took place in many former Eastern Bloc countries. In Hungary, a country with a tradition of independent film-making through respected institutions such as the Bela Balazc Studio, the national television administration (Magyar Television or MTV) was put under the direction of Elemer Hankiss, who began exploring new avenues of media culture. Hankiss' regime lasted from 1990 to 1993; during that time, he attempted to dismantle the old centralized bureaucracy in favor of a more democratic system of independent and autonomous production units. Rather than import the majority of its news and programming from the West, MTV under Hankiss supported television production by Hungarians, as well as media programming that would address the many difficult questions facing Hungarians as they tried to establish a political democracy.
Hankiss' independent vision for Magyar TV was immediately challenged by certain members of the parliament. Conservative nationalist leader Istvan Csurka asserted, "If the largest media is the most important power factor, it is justified for the newly elected leaders, the winners of the first free election, to gain possession of it." The vehicle for this was a Mass Media Law - the Hungarian equivalent of U.S. Federal Communications Commission regulations - now being debated in parliament.
Thus, from 1990 to the present, the so-called Media War - the battle for political control over the national television and radio services - has been a major event in the struggle to democratize the political system and legally secure a free press in Hungary. In 1992, demonstrations of up to 10,000 citizens challenged the increasingly harsh and restrictive controls being imposed by the government over television and radio resources. The national elections in May 1994 will finally determine the outcome of the Media War.
From 1989 to 1993, Judit Kopper produced "Videoworld" ("Videovidag"), an encyclopedic TV series on contemporary media issues in Hungary, the (former) Soviet Union and media scenes in both Eastern and Western Europe. A reflection of the new openness at Magyar TV during the Hankiss regime, "Videoworld" questioned Hungary's emerging relationships with international media culture. Kopper and her colleague, director Andras Solyom, reported on phenomena as diverse as the building of hundreds of underground Soviet television bunkers during the Brezhnev era ("Bunker TV in Lithuania") and the home-video archive of well-known Hungarian writer Mihaly Kornis, who observed: "You can't trust television. Regimes come and go; who knows what part of Hungarian and world history Hungarian TV puts away for the future? Maybe they save everything, but I can imagine they might not show it to me"
In their program "TV Boris and Video Misha," Kopper and Solyom studied the recent struggle on Soviet television between what they described as Eastern word-dominated and Western image-based cultures. This remarkable program featured a Soviet general reciting his own maudlin poetry about the responsibilities of being a military public servant, as well as the home video of Mikhail Gorbachev in exile, taken by his son-in-law and smuggled back to Moscow for national broadcast during the attempted coup of 1991. "Videoworld" concluded: "The shapers of modern history don't need to be heroes, but rather moving images. They need not answer to an immortal God, but rather to the immortal television viewer. The politician or political style that is unwatchable is inherently doomed to failure"
Kopper recently won the Hungarian equivalent of the Emmy Award, and she and Solyom have received international attention for their innovative productions. Even so, "Videoworld" was cancelled in December 1993, shortly after this interview was conducted. It was another casualty of a culture war that is still raging, as the nationalist conservative forces exercise their growing influence on news and cultural programming at MTV. (Judit Kopper's tapes are distributed by Video Data Bank, a not-for-profit distributor of independents' and artists' tapes in Chicago; 312-345-4550.)
The Humanist interviewed Judit Kopper and Andris Solyom on November 20, 1993.
The Humanist: Judit, tell us about your work as a producer for Hungarian state television. What was the concept behind "Videoworld"?
Kopper: "Videoworld" started on MTV in January 1988 and ran at night between 10:00 pm and 11:00 pm. At first, our goal was to show viewers that video can be an art like painting and sculpture and so on. We visited from festival to festival and did interviews and made compilations: for example, women video artists in the United States, people like Dara Birnbaum - we were the first to show the work of this very famous, very important video artist in Hungary. Later, we began to concentrate on the media itself - not just on video but on the links between the media and politics. So we started as an art program and then we became more political. We've made about 50 programs now.
Solyom: Fifty-three or 54....
The Humanist: What led you to create such a show? And how did you get funding for it? How does that work with Hungarian TV?
Kopper: I'm an employer at Hungarian TV -
The Humanist: Employee?
Kopper: Employee - sorry! If you don't understand my sentences, please tell me. So I have worked there for 20 years, and I made student programs for the School TV Department. Later I started to make art programs, but I don't remember exactly when I first had the idea to make "Videoworld." Maybe it started ... yeah, I remember: a lot of schools got video camcorder equipment at that time - this was five years ago - and my boss asked me to make a program for the students about video. So that was the first step, because the camcorder became very popular; the pupils got camcorders in the secondary schools and the universities and wanted to learn how to use them.
The Humanist: So at first you made shows that were part of a curriculum for students -
Kopper: Yes, yes. Then it changed.
The Humanist: One subject you've dealt with a lot on "Video World" is the influence of the media as a kind of culture; you're interested in what happens when people watch TV. For example, one of your shows featured a famous Hungarian writer, Mihaly Kornis, showing you his video archives - essentially tapes he'd made from the news. He talked about how official television might record all this material, but it would never be made available to him, and so he had to create his own library. You also went to the Soviet Union and did a show on the "television bunkers" that were created during the Brezhnev era. You also did a show - "TV Boris and Video Misha?" - that compared the way Gorbachev and Yeltsin used television and camcorder footage. Could you talk about the role that the media plays in Eastern Europe, especially after the fall of the communist regimes?
Kopper: In the last couple of years, as the political situation has gotten more and more intense, the role of the media has become increasingly important. In the past, we knew that what we heard on television was a lie - the same with radio and the newspapers. But during the end of the 1980s, this situation changed; the media started to deal with at least some of the real issues. That happened in television and radio and in print journalism as well - I am most familiar with the TV part of it. People were able to say what they really wanted to say; the possibilities for expression were much greater. Also, in the past the politicians didn't know how to use the media, and they didn't need to; it didn't matter to them because they were the power anyway. But at the end of the 1980s, the media became a living thing, and so people realized that it was necessary to use the media.
The Humanist: The media became a living thing?
Kopper: The media became a living thing. And that's when people began to analyze the media and develop the discipline of media theory. So our programs were a part of this whole analytical process that was taking place.
But Andras also has something to say, because he has a completely different perspective on this.
Solyom: Between the two world wars, there was no censorship of film in Hungary. Although there were few cameras in the country, a lot of good material was being produced. This is the material that Peter Forgacs examined in his film Private Hungary. If you can see it, you should. But after World War II, under the communist government, no amateur or independent films were allowed in Hungary. It was even worse in radio; there was absolutely no independent radio at that time. And this is the situation that existed for most of the Cold War. The really big changes happened in 1968, and they coincided with the student revolution in Paris in May and then the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August.
On August 21, 1968, as Hungarian soldiers marched into Czechoslovakia with the Soviet troops, the official Czechoslovak radio was being broadcast - in Czech - from Rudi Sandor Street in Budapest, Hungary. That was the real lie for the Czech people; no matter what they did in Prague, the radio was coming out of Budapest. So that is a good example of how the totalitarian system worked with respect to the media. And in Hungary, as elsewhere, the people in power were afraid of independent thinkers and tried to manipulate them, to force them out of society. So in the 1970s, people like George Konrad and Edit Biro were simply sent out of Hungary because they were such a threat. Of course, there were two sides to this: one of them, obviously, was bad, but it was also good because, once these people were abroad, they were able to let the world know what the situation really was like in Hungary.
In the 1960s and 1970s, there was no independent TV in Hungary. The most important Hungarian radio was out of Munich, and that was Radio Free Europe, which was paid for by the U.S. government. Since then, the American government has decided to discontinue broadcasts to Hungary; but during the 1970s, everyone listened to Radio Free Europe. Also in the 1970s, the samizdat movement began. These were small, independent presses which circulated material that the government was trying to suppress. And the government became increasingly hysterical about stopping these presses.
The Humanist: Trying to get rid of them?
Solyom: Well, the influence they had. But there was a lot of help from abroad, in particular from the United States, for the samizdat presses, and a lot of their material was circulated abroad. By the 1980s, these independent movements had developed serious financial backing and popular support, and the communist government increasingly had to allow this.
Parallel to this, in the mid-1980s, video became popular. It started with VCRs and cassettes; people started to produce material abroad and in the United States which was sent back to Hungary and shown on VCRs there - in particular, material about the rebellion in 1956 that had never been seen before because the material was, in fact, out of the country; it wasn't in Hungary.
The Humanist: So this was film that had been shot in 1956 that came back in the form of videotape and was shown on VCRs in Hungary in the 1980s?
Solyom: Yes. Perhaps the material did exist in Hungary, but it was locked away; it was unavailable. And so people started to get cameras into their hands and to record the events that were going on. More and more demonstrations were taking place on the streets, and more and more people were recording them on video.
The Humanist: Some people have pointed out that, while the 1956 revolt was captured on film, the revolt was defeated by the time the film had been developed. So has the difference in technology had an impact in the 1980s as opposed to -?
Solyom: I think so. It's also important to remember that many Hungarian artists and others went to Berlin and elsewhere in order to work, and so from the early 1970s on there was more and more information coming into Hungary about the outside world. In the 1960s, the country was completely closed off, but in the 1970s this information started to come in. And by the middle of the 1980s, people were free to travel outside Eastern Europe. Before then they could only travel as much as they wanted within Eastern Europe; there were separate Hungarian passports for traveling within Eastern Europe and in Western Europe.
Kopper: We had three kinds of passports!
Solyom: And this led up to the 1989 revolution, which was euphoria in Hungary. It was complete freedom. I mean, it seemed there was nothing we couldn't write about or discuss; we were able to talk about anything.
Kopper: The last real communist government, which came after Kadar died, was Miklos Nemeth, and his government just could not control what was going on.
The Humanist: And how were the videotapes being shown? Was state television taping these demonstrations? Or was it mostly people with camcoders and independent video collectives like Black Box doing this kind of work?
Kopper: The tapes were illegal, unofficial tapes. They were like the samizdat; they went from hand to hand.
The Humanist: So it was a kind of black market?
Kopper: Yes. It was similar to sex tapes. The sex tapes and the political tapes had a similar distribution. [Laughter.]
Solyom: So as a result of all of these things, there wasn't a bloody revolution in Hungary. A new elite took over, and at first they went along with what the people wanted. For this reason, they were voted into office in 1990 by popular election - the first legal election in Hungary since World War II. But in the three years since then, it has become clear that even this government lies. It seems that basically the same people, the same communists who were in power before, are still in power now; they simply changed their slogans. To me, this particular regime is actually worse than what we had four years ago. It doesn't allow free radio, free television, or free newspapers. And now the political parties are preparing for the next election, which is to be held sometime this spring - nobody knows exactly when. So the situation is much more difficult, especially as far as the media law is concerned.
The Humanist: What do you mean?
Kopper: The government in Hungary is a coalition government made up of the six political parties with seats in Parliament. And the reason the media law hasn't been passed to this day is because the opposition and the government are not cooperating. So there's a stand-off.
The Humanist: You should explain what the media law is.
Kopper: In every country, there is a media law.
The Humanist: You mean a telecommunications policy - like the FCC in this country?
Kopper: Exactly. It sets the basic policy. But Parliament can't agree on the law, which needs to be passed by a two-thirds majority. And basically the disagreement is this: who is going to have control over the media? Is power going to be in the hands of the people, or is it going to be in the hands of the parties or the government? Where is this power going to be?
After the elections in 1990, the government appointed a new director for television and for radio. In both cases, they installed somebody who was pretty independent from the government. But the parties in power soon realized that this independence was not good for them, and so, after three years, they got rid of them. This took place in January 1993. But during that three-year period, the head of MTV, whose name was Elemer Hankiss, decentralized state television. It was his idea to create a system of independent production units; I was the head of one of these offices. So basically, the pyramid structure was finished, and it became a much more lateral structure under Hankiss. This gave us opportunities to create independent, autonomous programming. But then they got rid of Hankiss and put in his place a man who was much more in sympathy with the present government. And the first thing he did when he was in power was to destroy the system that Hankiss had established and restore the old structure. That's how I was dismissed from my position as head of one of these units. All of the production units were stopped. Because I've been there for 20 years, I can still do occasional programs, but that will happen less and less. I have no idea what will happen when I go back.
The Humanist: How many independent units were started by Hankiss?
Kopper: About 20.
The Humanist: And they're all gone now?
The Humanist: What was happening in Hungary right before you left?
Kopper: When we left Hungary two weeks ago, there were constant demonstrations at the MTV building. A lot of artists and writers have taken back their programs and refuse to work with the present system. Composers, conductors, and others are not allowing their work to be used by Hungarian television. So it's a kind of boycott, essentially. That was the situation when we left. But the government claims that these independent movements don't bother it much, that it's just a bunch of hysterical intelligentsia who are of no interest to anybody. They say the intelligentsia doesn't represent the masses.
The Humanist: And does it?
Kopper: It's a complicated question. It's possible that in numbers it doesn't represent the masses. But the intelligentsia's role in Hungary has always been very influential and very important. This has never been measured, but it's bound to have an impact.
The Humanist: Will the media law allow for the sale of channels on state television to commercial owners?
Kopper: This is what they need to decide. At the moment, Hungarian television is such a mixture that it gets complicated. In Hungary, people who watch television pay for it; just as you pay for cable in this country, we pay a certain amount. That's one part of where the money comes from.
The Humanist. But you pay for television in general - a general television tax?
Kopper: Yes. But this money doesn't go directly to Hungarian television; first it goes to the government. Money also comes in from advertising separate from the government money. That's the way it's been, and what's being discussed now is whether it should continue this way.
Solyom: At the moment, there are two channels that are broadcast by Hungarian television: Channel One and Channel Two. There is also a satellite broadcast, which is on for just a few hours per day - and the satellite is completely owned by the government. This is called Duna TV; it was developed during the Hankiss period, when the government decided that it needed its own separate channel. So the two national channels and Duna TV are competing for resources, and a small country like Hungary can't really afford that kind of situation. The media law is meant to determine how this finally works. But at the moment, the structure is still developing, so it's not at all clear how it's going to end up.
Kopper: In addition to this, there are about 200 small cable stations.
The Humanist: These are independent companies that can go into a town and set the cable up?
Kopper: That's right. As a matter of fact, most of the cities in Hungary have their own cable stations. And these small stations get money from sponsors and from the viewers. So the media law is needed to determine what people get in return when they give money to these cable stations - what kind of programming they are going to have.
The Humanist: This is very similar to what's going on in the United States right now, in terms of the new 500-channel "information superhighway" and the issues it raises. In fact, as you talk about the media law in Hungary, one of the things that's being discussed in the United States - at least among people involved in the media - is whether or not there should be a national telecommunications policy. Because as these US. companies merge, they are creating incredible monopolies, and the question really is, should our government set the policy first or wait until these companies have settled their territories? - which seems to be the way they're doing it.
Solyom: There was an Italian company that wanted to buy one of our national channels and run regular advertising on it. This was vigorously opposed, and I say it's natural we should try and stop this. The danger is both in the fact that the channel would be owned by a foreign interest and that it would be a completely commercial interest. And with the elections coming this year, there's a danger that a political party might decide to buy one of the channels. That's why the media law is necessary - to protect Hungarian television from such events.
The Humanist: But it must be very tempting when a foreign company offers to buy one of the national channels because Hungary, like most East European countries, is cash poor. So the media is one resource, essentially, that can be sold for cash.
Kopper: In my opinion, it's possible that one of the channels may go to a commercial interest while the other remains a national channel.
Solyom: We both have our opinions on this, but nobody in the government is interested in them.
The Humanist: You're in America now working on a documentary about Noam Chomsky, and I'm sure that you've been observing the media here. What kinds of things interest you about the American media? What kinds of problems or contradictions, what kinds of developments, do you see happening here?
Kopper: For a long time we thought that anything and everything that happened in America with respect to the media was wonderful, because here there is a lot of television and radio, and what we observed by watching satellite television in Hungary is that the stations here are much freer. But at many of the video festivals we have been to, we have met with independent video artists whose work is never shown on American TV. So we can see there's just as much of a need in the United States for free and independent video as there is in Eastern Europe.
Solyom: The thing I like most about the United States is that everybody's very nice and does a lot of smiling. We've been here for about 10 days, and I've noticed that it isn't just on television - Americans do smile a lot. I like that. I like the fact that people do a lot of smiling here. Because I can't imagine it's all that easy to five in this part of the world.
The Humanist: I think it's important for American readers to understand how currently television is constructed in other countries, because we take it for granted that virtually 100 percent of our television is produced in America (except for some British imports, like "Masterpiece Theater"). I believe you were saying that 60 percent of your television is produced in Hungary and the rest is imported. Could you describe what that other 40 percent is?
Kopper: Most of it is American. There are a lot of American programs on the air now in Hungary - things like "Dallas" and "Miami Vice." In the evenings there are often very good feature films from all over; animation films also. But most of the remaining 40 percent is American.
Solyom: And American television is very popular. The programs are produced in such a way as to attract the greatest number of people. And this is having an effect - in Hungary, they are programming more and more for a mass audience. What I don't like are the violent programs. It's a generalization but my observation is that American television is very violent, and this is being copied by Hungarian producers - although when they try to imitate this kind of violent show, it isn't as successful on Hungarian television. Also, the tempo of American television is too quick. As a filmmaker, I try to learn from this tempo, but in general it's too much for Hungarian audiences; they're just not used to it.
Kopper: And I have noticed, as I turn on the television in Hungary, there are more and more quiz shows and advertisements. And this is a result of the fact that ratings are increasingly important in Hungary.
The Humanist: Well, that brings me to a question I have about what we call narrowcasting. In this country, it's very difficult to argue for the legitimacy of narrowcasting, because all of our television is commercial with the exception of public-access and PBS. And the networks have problems with the idea that you should design a program that does not appeal to everyone but, instead, to a limited group - a specific, interested group. It seems that your own program, "Video World," was designed for just such a group - people who are interested in culture, in video art, in what is happening in other countries. I wonder if you can say something about that.
Kopper: My programs have always appealed to a narrow audience, and it became very difficult for me when they started to use ratings because my programs new had and never will get that kind of rating. But even though my viewership was small, it's quite possible that it was more influential than that of these other shows. With many of these very popular commercial programs, the truth is they don't really have much influence in terms of ideas.
The Humanist: Do either of you feel - and maybe this is an extreme interpretation - that too many people are becoming addicted to television? Do either of you see any danger in that?
Solyom: We made a program once for "Videoworld" called "Video Narcotic," which was about this whole phenomenon. I think it's possible that, to a certain extent, this kind of addiction may be necessary for people. In particular, for older people, it may be that television is their only connection with the larger world. I don't see this as the problem. I see the problem as being whether television should broadcast only one kind of narcotic. I see a danger in doing just one kind of programming - commercial programming. There should be programs that are educational and cultural or that enrich a person in some way. I think the ideal situation would be to have one station that deals just with these kinds of educational and culturally enriching programs.
The Humanist: You pointed out earlier that, once people started using camcorders, a whole new dialogue opened up in your country. What kind of effect will that have in the future?
Kopper: I think there will be quite a huge effect, because a lot of the programming for the 200 cable television stations may come from independents. That's where a lot of independents already work, at or around these small stations - although I don't necessarily mean that they're independent-minded, just that they're not professionals and they work nonprofessionally. Just because somebody's learned to use a camera doesn't mean they've learned to think.
Chris Hill has been the video curator at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center in Buffalo, New York, since 1983. She is also an independent video producer and has served since 1990 as president of the board of Buffalo's public-access television operator, BCAM.
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|Title Annotation:||television producer and director|
|Date:||May 1, 1994|
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