Birmingham’s Flatpack Film Festival, running from April 4-9th 2017, is one of the most wildly creative film festivals: Kino Trains in the middle of New Street; live music; short films; Holoramas; discussion panels; documentaries; silent films.
Having barely scratched the surface of last year’s festival, I volunteered. After a long day handing out flyers and a frantic writing session at Starbucks, I arrived at The Old Rep, one of Birmingham’s best stage venues: its impossible slope of seats assaults the eye. I entered the performance without expectations, nor any interest in football either.
In History History History, Pearson relates the story of the failed Hungarian student revolution of October 23rd 1956 that resulted in military intervention and her grandparents leaving for Canada: tied up within the fate of a film, starring her grandfather, repressed by Soviet censorship to filled seats the following year. History History History has already been performed across the globe, with upcoming dates in Edinburgh and Australia.
Pearson’s premise should be simple. But history is never simple, comprised of many narratives. All films owe something to our own lives, relating something about the world around it: our lives and histories. As a seemingly innocuous football comedy starring Ferenc Puskás, the film may never be canonized as a masterpiece. Pearson highlights the difficulty of availability: occasionally played in Canadian cultural centers; a VHS tape she grew up with, symbolically fetishized with meaning whilst unable to decipher intent; downloaded off the internet; unavailable within Hungary itself. Its very existence is politicized.
Pearson’s focus on preserving film and searching for meaning seems at antithetical to Communist reality: objective truth, a singular dictator, shared communes. Yet Soviet reality is slippery, constructed within film and propaganda – eliminating people from existence, in present and past, constructing national sentiment. Vertov’s mechanical kino-eye created constructed reality through editing; Eisenstein’s masterworks recreated the 1905 and 1917 revolutions as cinematic epics. But the documentary medium itself relies upon artificiality in creating an image of reality.
Pearson constructs her “live documentary” through various sources: projecting sequences, narrated over; a small, framed screen, playing the film in the background of the performance; drawings, illuminated through magnifying glass on a classroom-esque projector; archival photographs of family and revolution; a placard held by Pearson, adding a third dimension to the image whilst making faces within more visible. Pearson researched her own history, travelling to the Corvin Cinema and conducting interviews with screenwriter Tibor Méray, her mom and grandma, narrating the film in absence of translation. Pearson injects the piece with mock subtitles, like a game of Mad Libs or an episode of RiffTrax, attempting to understand a language that isn’t her own yet means so much; the Downfall (2005) meme on a personal level.
Film acts as a document, with a trace of a past that has come before. Pearson allows us to situate ourselves, within the theatre, in the embodied space of the present moment, and contemplate the time before: our legacies and ancestors that intersect together. But those narratives are constructed: the stories we tell ourselves, or our told by our parents; the things we’re allowed to remember, or allow ourselves to remember. The camera will never capture everything, for all its power and presence.
History History History is so strong it deserves to be enshrined as a film of its own; it does not deserve to be ethereal, but that is part of its beauty.