Steven Bognar is not the first novice documentary filmmaker to turn the lens on a loved one, but the tale of his father Bela, with global sweep and haunting resonance, deserves--and gets--a superb chronicler in the subject's son.
Young Bela Bognar joined the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, a decade after the country was liberated from the Nazis and transformed into a USSR satellite. With the uprising, Hungary spontaneously shrugged off Russian domination and established a non-Communist government. The Soviet empire struck back,
and the Red Army rolled into Budapest. Many Hungarian rebels went into hiding; others fled abroad. Bela Bognar's father told his son, "I would rather see you dead and buried right here than leave the country." Nonetheless, Bela joined the mass of political refugees. He wed a Belgian woman and
migrated to the United States, dwelling in Wisconsin, California, and finally settling in a college community near Dayton, Ohio. A charming, witty professor, Bela Bognar seems to personify the American immigrant success story, but nurses an inner torment over departing his homeland. As 1986
approaches, Bela decides to commemorate the rebellion of 30 years earlier by revisiting Budapest, in defiance of Moscow's still-firm grip. Steve accompanies him, armed with a Super 8mm movie camera.
Then, as Steve and Bela were returning to the USA, East Bloc bureaucrats confiscated the film, claiming that the subject matter was "illegal." Bela's long-distance protests seem futile, until Communist authorities abruptly release the precious reels, unprocessed. (Steve's taped soundtrack,
however, is replaced by an Elvis Presley cassette.) Bela delights in footage of his reunion with old friends and family members, but far from bringing him peace of mind, the trip only has served to sharpen his sense of unease and loss. In the '90s, the USSR crumbles, leaving Hungary free but
chaotic. Bela's malaise deepens. He leaves his wife, residing first in a motel, then in the Ohio countryside. Final scenes render him as a solitary figure wading through a snowy landscape as bleak and inhospitable as Siberia, fabled land of exiles.
Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's 1984 film NOSTALGHIA tried to convey the crippling melancholy that afflicts the uprooted and the displaced. PERSONAL BELONGINGS accomplishes the same task in nearly half the time, as the personable and sophisticated Bela Bogner, feeling neither a part of
mainstream America nor a changing Hungary, is consumed by fissures in his soul, the end of his long marriage seeming to echo the collapse of the Soviet Union that molded and defined his existence. Steven Bognar had been reporting on his father's eventful life since the sixth grade, and this
intimate portrait has a poignance few fictions can match as the work-in-progress takes an unplanned turn from travelogue to tragic dissolution of a family. PERSONAL BELONGINGS played film festivals--including the Budapest Fall Festival, with both Steven and Bela Bognar as guests--and was
particularly well-received by audiences from the Czech and Hungarian-American communities.
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- Released: 1995
- Rating: NR
- Review: Steven Bognar is not the first novice documentary filmmaker to turn the lens on a loved one, but the tale of his father Bela, with global sweep and haunting resonance, deserves--and gets--a superb chronicler in the subject's son. Young Bela Bognar joined… (more)