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New film portrays music legend Mihály Víg – director András Kécza talks to We Love Budapest

Writers

  • Peterjon Cresswell

22/08/2022 10.50am

The most fascinating figure from the underground scene of the 1980s, composer of film scores for Béla Tarr, enigmatic Mihály Víg rarely opens up about his life and work. Now a unique documentary being premiered in Budapest this week, Ott torony volt (’There Was a Tower’), focuses on the man involved in seminal underground bands Balaton and Trabant. With Tilda Swinton as one of the executive producers, this full-length film with English subtitles was directed by András Kécza. He talks to We Love Budapest about his intimate portrayal of a Hungarian music legend.

While Budapest’s underground bands of the 1980s had a lot to shout about, two groups in particular expressed the zeitgeist with achingly beautiful songs recorded on cheap cassettes and distributed among the cognoscenti. A loose association of alternative musicians fronted by the incomparable Marietta Méhes, Trabant mainly played in their bedrooms before director János Xantus captured some of their magic in the 1983 film, Eszkimó asszony fázik.

Trabant broke up a year later, having only played a few select dates to promote the film. One of their regular number, guitarist/composer, Mihály Víg, had already formed a band of similar ilk, Balaton, in 1979. In the early 1990s, Víg reformed Balaton to play regularly round Budapest, then began his long-term collaboration with acclaimed film director Béla Tarr.

Víg not only created the film score for Tarr’s Sátántangó, but also had a starring role in the seven-hour classic.

A student at the University of Theatre & Film Arts Budapest in the 1980s, András Kécza often saw Balaton play. He then worked as Tarr’s assistant on Sátántangó.

Now Kécza has made his own documentary about one of the last remaining music legends of pre-’89 Budapest still active today, Mihály Víg. Ott torony volt (’There Was a Tower’) is the result of four face-to-face interviews Kécza conducted with Víg, with just the camera running, and two further conversations with a two-man crew present.

Photo: Cirko Film

Rare archive footage, some of it never seen before, is woven into the 103-minute profile.

The film is being screened as a pre-premiere this Thursday, 25 August, at Budapest’s Szeszgyár, before a live performance by Balaton at the Gólya bar next door. The documentary will then go on to be shown in cinemas across Hungary.

Photo: Anna Fodor

A co-production between Cirko Film, Kontra and Gallivant, Ott torony volt runs with English subtitles which should help further its international appeal. Tilda Swinton is among the executive producers.

A few days before Thursday’s pre-premiere, we sat down with director András Kécza to find out how the documentary came to be:

We Love Budapest: Why did Mihály Víg attract you as a subject – and why do you think now is the time to assess his career?

Photo: Cirko Film

András Kécza: I started shooting this film five years ago. Originally, I wanted to map the alternative/underground world of Hungary in the ’80s. Therefore, with a camera, I visited my acquaintances who played a significant role at that time and started interviewing them. One was Mihály Víg. But when he started telling me about his life. It was so interesting and captivating that I decided it was worth a movie on its own. Of course, I haven't given up on my original plan either and I’d like to do it at some point.

WLB: How much did you know about Mihály Víg before starting the project? You were a student in Budapest around the same time when Trabant and Balaton were in their heyday in the 1980s – did you see any of their concerts back then?

Photo: Cirko Film

AK: I have known Mihály since 1985, because his close childhood friend, Zoltán Gazsi, was my classmate at the Drama Academy. Of course, I went to many Balaton concerts, but I got to know him personally through Zoltán. Then during Sátántango, where I worked as an assistant, this acquaintance deepened. In other words, I knew quite a lot about Mihály, but at the same time, there are countless moments in his life that were new to me as well.

WLB: If I'm not mistaken, you made several documentaries for Duna TV in the 1990s, but never a full-length one. How easy is it to work with material, knowing that you have to engage the viewer for a longer time?

AK: That information is not accurate, because my film Magánterület (‘Private Territory’) completed in 2015, is 84 minutes long, ie full-length. Anyway, for this film, it was not decided how long it should be. The material determined the length, and the fact that it couldn’t run longer than a certain period of time. Therefore, to my great regret, quite a few interesting parts had to be left out of the film.

Photo: Cirko Film

WLB: How easy was it to work with Mihály Víg, a rather secretive personality, knowing that you needed his co-operation to make such a film, in which he would be the sole focus?

AK: I can't say it was easy. We had to fight our little battles. But I think it was worth it.

WLB: This film also has an international dimension, with English subtitles and executive producers including Tilda Swinton. Was it an additional pressure that you had to think about the foreign audience when making the documentary?

AK: There was no pressure. When it became clear that the film would be about Mihály, it was also clear that it could be interesting abroad because of Béla Tarr. And the wonderful Tilda Swinton came into the picture in such a way that when we got stuck with the film due to lack of money, she helped us out with her generous support. I wrote her an email, she responded immediately and sent the money with no conditions attached.

Photo: Cirko Film

WLB: Where did you find such rare archive footage?

AK: I got the photos from many sources and the videos from my friend mentioned above, Zoltán Gazsi, who documented these bands at the time.

Event information

There Was a Tower – A Portrait of Mihály Víg
Szeszgyár 
1086 Budapest, Szeszgyári utca 12
Thursday, 25 August, 7.30pm 

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