The wa­ter war

A new film about an Olympic wa­ter polo match be­tween Hun­gary and the Soviet Union at the time of the 1956 Hun­gar­ian up­ris­ing has proved to be smash hit. Di­rec­tor Krisztina Goda tells Don­ald Clarke about the bur­den of drama­tis­ing a ma­jor event in Hun­gar­ian

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

THE UN­SUC­CESS­FUL 1956 up­ris­ing against the Com­mu­nist regime in Hun­gary is re­mem­bered for many things. In west­ern Europe, news footage of Soviet tanks ram­pag­ing through Bu­dapest fi­nally con­vinced all but the most blink­ered of Stal­in­ists that the Soviet Union was no work­ers’ par­adise. In Hun­gary it­self, the in­sur­rec­tion and its vi­o­lent sup­pres­sion have be­come holy events. Oc­to­ber 23rd, the day it all be­gan, is a na­tional hol­i­day; Imre Nagy, the lib­eral politi­cian around whom the un­rest gath­ered, is a revered as a great Hun­gar­ian mar­tyr.

All this is well known be­yond the Carpathian basin. But, as a fine new film called Chil­dren of Glory re­veals, one sig­nif­i­cant part of the leg­end has, to this point, barely reg­is­tered with non-Hun­gar­i­ans.

In late 1956 the coun­try’s wa­ter polo team went to the Olympics in Melbourne with two scores to settle. One year pre­vi­ously the Hun­gar­i­ans, the most re­spected na­tion in this ob­scure sport, had lost to the Sovi­ets in Moscow. As the Red Army stormed Bu­dapest, the Hun­gar­i­ans faced their great ri­vals in the bat­tle for the gold medal. Thoughts of the ear­lier sport­ing de­feat and the greater catas­tro­phe en­gulf­ing the rebels com­bined to fire the team to­ward a fa­mous vic­tory.

Krisztina Goda, the di­rec­tor of Chil­dren of Glory, ad­mits that she knew lit­tle about wa­ter polo when she took on the project.

“It is still very big in Hun­gary and I re­ally don’t un­der­stand the ex­pla­na­tion,” she says in strong, dis­ci­plined English. “I talked to two mem­bers of the Olympic team and they helped me re­con­struct the games. It is a very hard sport to work out. What is re­garded as le­gal and il­le­gal in the game seems a bit sub­jec­tive.”

Yes in­deed. I have heard that wa­ter polo is at least as vi­o­lent as ice hockey (with­out all that pro­tec­tion) and that the Melbourne match was par­tic­u­larly sav­age. “That is true. It’s very phys­i­cal and some of the wrestling is al­lowed and some is not.”

Chil­dren of Glory, which fol­lows an apoliti- calmem­ber of the team as he is forced to take a stand, has a some­what pe­cu­liar his­tory. Pun­ters ex­pect­ing a high­brow for­eign-lan­guage ex­pe­ri­ence may be sur­prised to en­counter Joe Eszter­has’s name among the writ­ing cred­its. The fa­mously ram­bunc­tious screen­writer of Fa­tal At­trac­tion, Jagged Edge and, erm, Show­girls was, in fact, born in Hun­gary and had long pon­dered the idea of set­ting a story in his home­land. Pro­ducer Andrew Va­jna, an­other Hun­gar­ian emi­gre, even­tu­ally talked his old chum into knock­ing to­gether a script based around the ris­ing.

“Andy felt very strongly about mak­ing a film on the revo­lu­tion,” Goda says, “and asked Joe to write a screen­play. It was orig­i­nally a long, long story that took us all the way up to 1989. Then an­other three writ­ers worked on it for 14 hours a day for three weeks and turned it into some­thing a lit­tle shorter and more Hun­gar­ian.”

Krisztina Goda does not seem an ob­vi­ous con­tender to di­rect such an epic project. Now 37, she left Bu­dapest for the UK in the early 1990s to study at the Na­tional Film School in Bea­cons­field. Then she spent time in Cal­i­for­nia at UCLA be­fore re­turn­ing home to di­rect Just Sex and Noth­ing Else, a suc­cess­ful ro­man­tic com­edy.

Many direc­tors say it’s more im­por­tant to look as if you know what you are do­ing than to ac­tu­ally have the knowl­edge. Author­ity and self-con­fi­dence count for ev­ery­thing on a movie set. “Yes, in some ways,” she says cau­tiously. “But it is also im­por­tant to know what you are do­ing. Of course, I had a lot of help from the tech­ni­cal peo­ple.”

Goda re­lied heav­ily on her sec­ond-unit team – the peo­ple who shoot se­quences that don’t in­volve the ac­tors – to de­liver con­vinc­ing ac­tion se­quences. Aware that many of the in­sur­rec­tion­ists are still with us, the film­mak­ers con­stantly re­ferred to news­pa­pers and television footage to en­sure his­tor­i­cal ac­cu­racy.

“But, you know, you can never re­ally be sure the his­tory is right. We were shoot­ing a demon­stra­tion and this man came along and said he wanted to talk to the di­rec­tor. He said he had been there and he pointed to the ban­ners the stu­dents were hold­ing and said they would never have any­thing like that. Well, we had copied ev­ery­thing about them from pho­to­graphs: let­ter­ing, slo­gans, size. Ev­ery­thing. So, you can’t please ev­ery­one.

“Mind you, those who protested loud­est about sup­posed inac­cu­racy were those who weren’t ac­tu­ally there.”

With all that in mind, it must have been faintly ter­ri­fy­ing to screen the film to a do­mes­tic au­di­ence. Chil­dren of Glory was fin­ished in time (just) for the com­mem­o­ra­tion of the 50th an­niver­sary of the ris­ing. It seems to have gone down pretty well, and whingers ap­pear to be in the mi­nor­ity.

“Yes. I think so. There were some ob­jec­tions. But au­di­ences mostly loved it. About 500,000 peo­ple went to see it out of just 10 mil­lion Hun­gar­i­ans. To give an ex­am­ple, the av­er­age Hun­gar­ian film usu­ally has about 10,000 vis­i­tors and a big Amer­i­can movie will get about 100,000. What sur­prised me most was the num­ber of young peo­ple in­ter­ested. When I started work­ing on the film, I thought they wouldn’t care.”

Let’s hope au­di­ences here are as re­cep­tive as the Hun­gar­i­ans were. Most of all, we must hope the wa­ter polo com­mu­nity re­mains on Goda’s side. If Chil­dren of Glory is to be be­lieved, the men in bathing caps can get nasty if riled.

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