Earlier this month, we had the opportunity to sit down for an interview with Réka Pigniczky, a Hungarian-American journalist and documentary filmmaker whose work often touches on deeply personal topics related to her own cultural upbringing.
Pigniczky, who lives in California, was in Budapest for the premiere of her latest film, Cold Warriors (Lövészek). Over the course of our discussion, she touched on her personal background, her directorial style, and the controversial paramilitary group at the heart of her new documentary, as well as her work on the Memory Project, a program aiming to document the oral histories of Hungarians who left their homeland for various reasons.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision, and translated from the original Hungarian.
You often introduce yourself as a journalist and documentary filmmaker. Which is more important to you?
In the past, I was more of a TV journalist, mainly at the Associated Press TV, but nowadays I work more with documentaries; I see this as a natural evolution toward longer and more involved topics. My journalistic background certainly has an impact on my films, in that I do a lot of research before filming, but they are not all necessarily TV documentaries. Director Zsuzsanna Varga-Gellér once memorably told me that a documentary is not just a document, but also a film. I wanted to evolve to that point, and I hope that I have.
When did you decide to get into filmmaking?
It actually happened accidentally. After my father—who had never returned to Hungary after the 1956 revolution was crushed —passed away, my sister and I decided to find out more about his past, since he had never spoken much about it. We were curious as to what, exactly, he had done as a freedom fighter in the revolution. We decided to film everything we could over the course of our research, and, while I hadn’t planned on it while we were recording, it was this material that ultimately became Journey Home.
In addition, I had studied documentary filmmaking at Columbia University, although I ultimately chose broadcast news, because it was a field where you could actually make money. When I decided to make Journey Home, I applied for two grants from the Hungarian government and won both of them; this really launched me onto my current path.
Most of your films have some sort of thematic connection to Hungary. Is this deliberate, or have things just worked out that way?
It’s not deliberate. In Journey Home, there’s a roughly six-minute segment where I explain the perspective I was coming from in making the film, as well as my relationship to the 1956 Revolution. As a Hungarian-American who grew up in an ethnic “incubator,” I have a different view of 1956, as do others who grew up this way. When I showed a few scenes from the film in Hungary, people were surprised by some of the archival material [on Hungarian-Americans]. People had no idea how large and vibrant the Hungarian-American community in the United States is.
Later, I decided to make Inkubátor. This film paints a picture, for Hungarians in Hungary, of how Hungarians who fled to the US, as well as their descendants, live, while also examining Hungarian-American identity.
Your latest film, Cold Warriors, is about the Hungarian-American Rifle Association, a group of Hungarian emgirés undergoing paramilitary training in preparation for a second Hungarian Revolution. How did you find this topic?
Andrea Lauer Rice, who co-founded the Memory Project with me, was actually the one who found the story. A colleague of hers on the board of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania told Andrea about a certain farm in the area [also in the film], where Hungarians were ‘constantly shooting.’ According to her, it was like a small army. After this, she learned that the farm’s current owner kept some the group’s paraphernalia left on the farm, and had made a small exhibit of sorts out of them. Andrea called me the next day, asking if I’d heard of this group. My only answer was “No, I think you’ve been drinking too much coffee,” since through the course of my work I’ve gotten to know nearly every Hungarian-American organization, and I thought it was impossible that a small Hungarian army existed here without us knowing about it.
Despite this, I looked into it. It turned out that there really had been a boy scout-esque, militaristic group, but no one really wanted to talk about them. The sense I got was that they didn’t want to talk about them because they were afraid we would mix them up with the Hungarian scouts, who had traditionally had a poor relationship with this paramilitary group. After a bit of searching, I found András Ludányi, who had thoroughly documented the group’s past, and who as very happy to find a way to save the group’s memory.
In an earlier interview, you mentioned that you originally conceived of a trilogy of films dealing with Hungarian-American identity; Cold Warriors is now the fourth film on this topic.
That’s true. After we completed Heritage, I actually was planning on taking a break from films about Hungarian-American topics, since I’ve already dealt with questions concerning Hungarian-American identity, with 1956, and with how Hungarians abroad live their lives. The story of the Cold Warriors was one that I found to be quite fascinating, as it was something that very few people knew about. Just like the rest of my films, this one was also financed mostly through grants, in particular Hungarian ones tied to the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Revolution. I have to add that these are not the only topics that I would like to make films about; and if these grant opportunities hadn’t presented themselves, I might not have been able to tell these stories.
The Rifle Association was decidedly militaristic in nature. Considering that, historically speaking, such groups were often closely tied to extreme-right political ideologies such as fascism, to what extent was this true of the group?
I didn’t want to make a film about an Arrow-Cross [Hungarian Nazi] organization, because that’s not something I’m interested in. To start with, politically speaking I lean towards the liberal end of the spectrum, as those who are familiar with my work already know. Despite this, there are people I know who didn’t even come to the premiere due to the film’s subject matter. I’m sad that they made that decision, because it shows that they are not open enough to get to know more about a topic that is alien to them. The people in the film are more patriotic than nationalist, and these two terms have very different connotations in the United States than in Hungary. I read all of the publications of the Cross and Sword Movement [Kereszt és Kard Mozgalom—the organization that sponsored the Rifle Association], and spoke to multiple historians regarding the group. Based on this research, I would say that the Rifle Association was not an anti-Semitic group, but it is true that there were older members who supported the Arrow Cross Party. Nevertheless, among the younger generation the group’s politics were simply anti-Communist. Overall, then, the Rifle Associations’ members, the ‘Shooters,’ weren’t extremists, but it was a conservative group.
Didn’t a paramilitary organization of this sort raise alarm among America’s security services?
One thing is certain, that this group never could have come into being in Germany or France, while in the United States it received an official charter. They did receive a few visits from the FBI, since it was an armed militia after all. Since they were anti-Communists, though, no one was worried by their activities, since this was during some of the hottest years of the Cold War. Their political views fit with America’s Cold War stance. My film tries to concentrate on all that these people were willing to do in order to bring freedom to Hungary. They would have, in all seriousness, set off to war with the Russian army, even if it would have put their lives in jeopardy (András Ludányi, who I mentioned, and who is in the film, had never even been to Hungary at this time).
Do films on this topic interest American audiences?
Surprisingly, Cold Warriors decidedly did. Many people wrote to me on Facebook, asking me why I don’t host a screening in San Francisco. This Hungarian-American militia caught peoples’ interest.
Two years ago, you launched the Memory Project, a digital visual history archive, which works to preserve the stories of Hungarians around the world in long-form interviews. What is the goal of this project?
The Memory Project is a bit like a start-up company, and we’ve now gotten to the point where we need to expand. We have conducted 125 interviews so far, but going forward the two of us, Andera Lauer Rice and I, won’t be nearly enough, since we would like to expand the project globally. It is particularly important for us that this project should bring Hungarians living abroad and those living in Hungary closer together. I hope that through this project we can help establish a dialogue of sorts between these two communities.
What topics do you plan to work on in the future?
There is a topic I’ve been working on for close to six or seven years. It’s about the legalization of marijuana in California, and with the exception of one participant it has no Hungarian connections at all. We’ve collected tons of material on it over the years, and have spent plenty of money on it. Full legalization, which is coming in January, will be an interesting, explosive development.
Reporting by Balázs Horváth and Tom Szigeti
Images via Tamás Komporday (Instagram: @tamaskomporday) and Réka Pigniczky