I would like to thank Metro for the opportunity to respond to the article written by Jessica Friedmann about my documentary Lili (2018) in issue 203 of the magazine: ‘History Is Never Finished: Trauma, Revolution and Reconciliation in Peter Hegedus’ Lili’. As a filmmaker, I place great value on having my work carefully considered by critics.
I am grateful to Jessica for taking the time to write about my film. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to respond to some key issues. I am thankful to the author for acknowledging that it was difficult for her to be objective about the work due to her own family background. I feel that it is her strong connection to her Hungarian heritage that makes her article so passionate but also complicated, causing my documentary to be fundamentally misunderstood, in my opinion.
Lili is a creative documentary that examines the political and social impact of some of the tragic events of twentieth-century Hungary on the Gárdonyi family. It tries to understand their very complicated familial journey that spans over three generations and three continents. The film does not intend to specifically examine the massacre of Jewish forced labourers in the town of Kiskunhalas, nor does it attempt to clinically prove evidence of generational trauma. I appreciate that, for Jessica, focusing on these factors may have been favourable given her family has also shared in and carried the burden of what I would term the ‘twentieth-century Hungarian trauma’.
I was somewhat troubled by the article’s suggestion of bringing in various external experts to analyse and elaborate on the various themes that the film is exploring. To put it simply: I’m just not that kind of a filmmaker. I have never been willing to offer up the personal journey of the people in my films for the sake of an intellectual discourse. I treasure the opportunity to be let into people’s lives and regard my relationship with my subjects as sacred. Yes, I am also an academic, but I believe that, with some context, a narrative can and should speak for itself. So subjecting any members of this family or parts of their story to a mediator or a therapist would be unethical in my opinion. My job as a filmmaker is to let the people reveal what they wish to show, and for the audience to draw their own conclusions.
I would also like to respond to the assumption that Young Lili is never given a representative in the film. I regret not having been able to get a closer insight into her journey. We had to work within the confines of what was ethically possible given Young Lili’s request not to be shown in the film. We have created scenes in which we tried to reflect on her plight without spelling it out. And yes, Jessica is right that it is upsetting that Young Lili is misunderstood by her family, but this is what the rest of the family expressed on camera. Again, it is not my role to pass judgement on the people whose story I am telling. My job is to show their world to the audience.
When Jessica writes about the exclusion of Jewish voices from the film, I must again express my disagreement. Yes, Hungary’s anti-Semitic past is well known, and it must be talked about and acknowledged for future generations. My grandmother was Jewish, and almost starved to death in Bergen-Belsen. I am passionate about telling stories about the Holocaust. Lili aims to explore the lives of a family, and their experience only, in relation to and in connection with the Holocaust and other events like the Hungarian revolution. The film never excuses the sins of the father, but rather exposes the enduring devastation of this tragedy on all of humanity.
Nonetheless, I do appreciate the feedback that there are a lot of complexities when it comes to the difficult circumstances the war created and the critical issues around transgenerational trauma. We are currently creating a study guide to further develop the educational potential of the film, so points made around this are helpful.
At the end of her piece, Jessica brings up the scene of the Skype call from Edie and Lili to Judit – which ironically sums up her frustrations with what she perceives to be Lili’s shortcomings:
When Judit asks Lili how she is, she responds in a breaking voice, ‘I can’t tell you, darling. Only my body is here. My heart and soul are with you.’ Edie does not even give this statement the full weight of a breath before jumping into an ironic rendition of ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, to which Judit, a beat later, sings along.
Jessica concludes that:
Lili suffers from an equal unwillingness to give due weight to its protagonists, to treat them with the seriousness of contextualisation. There is so much more to be said about these women, but Hegedus, after their failed reunion, seemingly doesn’t want to hear it.
This was the most disappointing statement from this article, as it highlights to me how little Jessica understood the characters in the film. Having grown up in the ‘Hungarian bubble’, Edie suffered from her mother’s trauma and, to an extent, carries it, as she explains in the film. Edie disregarded her mother’s statement here because she has lived with her mother’s trauma all her life. This is how Edie coped with it, and therein lies the moment and the genuine interaction that I was not going to disrupt, as it spoke about so much. It is what we don’t say that reveals the most.
A story should not be seen as an essay or an academic article. Yes, it can be cut and scenes can be shortened, but too much tweaking may cost the authenticity of our characters and, ultimately, their truth. People are not sentences in a well-structured and well-researched essay. They cannot be stacked up against expert statements by physicians or therapists. They are real people with fears, hopes and dreams, who deserve to be heard without judgement. How do we not cross that line? By respecting our characters’ humanity and relying on our own.
My main observation with this piece is that it is actually not so dissimilar to Lili. It is subjective, passionate and imperfect in parts. Jessica and I have different yet similar stories. I would argue respectfully that Jessica’s writing is greatly shaped by her own familial history – the stories, the passion, the trauma and the pain of her family who left Hungary – just like I have been. I hope that one day she will be able to tell their story the way she wants to.Editor’s note: Jessica Friedmann has written about her family story in her essay collection Things That Helped, an excerpt of which dealing with intergenerational trauma is available on Longreads. See Friedmann, ‘Walking Through the Past into New Motherhood’, Longreads, 2018, <https://longreads.com/2018/04/27/walking-through-the-past-into-new-motherhood/>, accessed 28 June 2021. I can tell you, it is a liberating experience.
|1||Editor’s note: Jessica Friedmann has written about her family story in her essay collection Things That Helped, an excerpt of which dealing with intergenerational trauma is available on Longreads. See Friedmann, ‘Walking Through the Past into New Motherhood’, Longreads, 2018, <https://longreads.com/2018/04/27/walking-through-the-past-into-new-motherhood/>, accessed 28 June 2021.|