In Marcell Gero's documentary Cain's Children, prisoners convicted of murder as children are interviewed as adults, in order to better understand them, the act of murder and the effects of the prison system on those incarcerated so young. The film is a follow up to cult Hungarian doc Bebukottak, where the same prisoners were interviewed as children and the the harshness of prison life in Communist Hungary was exposed. In this interview, Gero explains the importance of the original film and how he came to make his own, and goes long on youth incarceration and the Hungarian prison system.
Could you tell me something about the original documentary (Bebukottak)
It was shot in 1984 in Hungary. At that time it was a Communist regime in Hungary and that is why it is quite hard to believe they managed to shoot in a prison, especially a juvenile penitentiary. They managed six interviews with inmates, young guys aged between sixteen and eighteen who were all convicted for murder, and who are sentenced for around ten years starting from the age of fourteen/fifteen. They are expected to be released when they are around twenty five/twenty six.
The film is based around these interviews of the inmates, and between the interviews you see images of everyday life in the prison. It depicts an inhuman, extremely brutal universe. The whole film is very powerful. You almost feel the touch of the walls, and the smell of the terrible food they are eating. It is very powerful, very sensory. We both (Gero, and co-producer Sára Lázlo) think it is a masterpiece.
It was banned at that time. I think the only way they were able to shoot it is that no one thought it would be made. Finally when the director (András Monory Mész) finished the film he it sent it to an international festival, over the iron curtain, and the film won. This is how the central command of the penitentiaries came to really know about the film. It became famous. They organised a screening back in Hungary, which caused a large public outcry. The Deputy Commander of the prison was fired, and the film was banned.
So no one in Hungary got to see it?
It was a special film, from a technical point of view. It was one of the first films shot on video. The censorship system was thinking about film, about copying and distributing film. They were unfamiliar with the paradigm of video, and how easy it is to copy video. Thats why there were able to make many copies and circulate in at university clubs and in intellectual circles.
Where did you get to see it?
I saw it on Youtube. It was shot in 1984, and in 1989 there was a regime changed and Hungary began democracy. The film’s ban was lifted. Sometimes national television showed it, It became public and it is a really special film. Everyone in our society knows about it. You can even see it has some kind of subculture. Someone who loved it very much put in youtube. The rights owner does not care.
Did you get to speak to the director before making your film?
Yes, it was the first thing we did. Sara met him. Hungary is a small country, and the film industry is even smaller. Everyone knows everyone. The first we did was meet him, and ask him if it bothers him. He said no, he made his film and he doesn't plan to continue.
He wasn’t involved in the production?
We asked a few questions to him when starting to find the characters, but he didn’t remember. He wanted to help, but he couldn’t.
Was it hard to find the prisoners?
It took around two years. It was a long procedure. it was some kind of private detective game for us. We are not detectives. We don’t have the techniques, the knowledge. We only had a small amount of information and we started the game of finding these people.
They wouldn’t be on public records, I presume?
As we are normal civilians we don't have access to police archives, penitentiary archives. No real information was available to us. We tried to find other ways. Finally we succeeded.
Did you say there was six prisoners originally. Did you choose the three you used? Or were they the three you found?
We chose these three. We were seeking them all as we didn't know who was alive and who was findable. It was a very pleasing coincidence that the three we decided were the most interesting were the three we found.
The three most different as well? It felt like selection.
Selection, and luck. Even if i don’t believe in luck.
How did you gain their trust?
It was very different for each. In the case of the guy who has the children, it was very easy. He said yes the first time I asked him. He was in and the next day we were shooting with him.
At the other end of the line, the guy in the psychiatric ward was very difficult. He was very distant for a long time. We met many times in different cities in Hungary. I didn’t want to convince him to participate, I wanted to convince him he didn't have to be afraid of me in any way. I didn’t want to abuse him or wrong him. It took a long time and it was a very tense relationship and remains that way today.
Did you feel bad about digging up the past?
No, because from the moment we started there was a very simple rule. I told them that our job is to be very curious. We will ask whatever comes to our mind, but they always have the right to say stop, I don’t want to go in this direction. It happened a few times, doors were closed. This rule created some kind of security for them. We do not enter their lives aggressively. They say what they want to say. Finally they said more than they planned to, but not through pushing them.
In the film, some of the harder questions come from other people in the film, not your interviewing. Was this deliberate attempt to step back and retain their trust?
In the preparation for the shoot. We shot fifty days of principal photography and ten days of preparatory shooting where we tried to find the visual style of the film and I tried to find my method. I’ve never made documentary before. In these first days there was a situation where I interviewed the guy with the children and the discussion stopped for some reason. I didn’t know how to continue. I asked him if it bothers him to invite his mother into the frame. As soon as they were together, speaking about the past, each other and the father who was killed, I saw the extreme tension in the image and the frame between the two of them. From then on we tried to create these double interview situations when two people speak about their past. it was important that they had to have something confrontational between them. This became the style of the film. it was deliberate to create these situations.
*You said about the look of the film? Were your shorts fiction, not documentary? *
A lot of documentaries look very plain. This is far more visual, lots of closeups and low depth of field. Was this your intention?
Absolutely. From the moment I started film school, I’ve never imagined I would do documentaries. i thought I would only do fiction. I’m interested in the technical aspects of filmmaking. For me, film is the personality of the characters, the story, and almost as importantly, the visuals. Film is a visual art. its important to be visual.
We worked with the DoP (Rudolf Kiss) who has an opposite feeling. He is very open to be directed. He is less interested in technical details, but appreciates it is important. We spent two or three months to choose the right camera for this project. We tested six cameras. In the end we chose the smallest one and the most primitive, the Canon 5D. Its not really a filmmaking camera and every DoP hates it. Rudolf mastered the how to use that camera in these kind of situations. We spoke for days about how we shot. After twenty days we stopped talking about images. it became obvious where the camera has to be, where the movement will be, how the focus will be held. Sometimes we looked at the image, and then each other and said “no, its not Cain.” We found a style for the film, a system.
Do you plan to continue to make documentaries?
I’m absolutely open to that. It was an unbelievable experience for me. I’m really pleased with the result and I hope others will be. I’m planning fiction, but if we find a subject which intrigues us I’m open to documentary. Documentary is not so far from fiction. Now, I’m looking at fiction because I completed a four year documentary project so I’m ready for something different. What I have found as a filmmaker is that there is not a great distance between fiction and documentary. This is a great discovery.
Would you say this film is a hybrid then?
No, it is pure documentary, with a visual approach which was was informed by fiction.
Lastly, what is the Hungarian prison system like today? And the legal system?
Many things have changed since then. i had a chance before shooting Cain to shoot in the same prison that the original film was shot. I spent eight days there and had an insight into what is happening there now. There are many conditions that are better today. The essence of a penitentiary cannot be changed. The moment you use walls and bars and enclose children, the essence cannot be changed. It will become brutal. it will become hierarchical. It will torture the soul of the inmate.
When we were making Cain, a new law was introduced. In special cases, the age for criminal responsibility was lowered from fourteen to twelve. In very violent cases, a twelve year old can go to the same facility you see in the original film. This is hard to accept. What is happening in Hungary is that the government tries to create a feeling of security in the people by putting more police on the streets and being very strict in the courts. The legal system is very penalty orientated. The prisons are overflowing. It is not ideal.
Because of this film, I’ve been to prisons a few times. it is horrifying to imagine spending years there. I think that someone has to be held responsible if they break the law. I wouldn’t say the idea of prison is wrong, we need something similar but I can see how terrible it is to be there.
Has making the film changed your opinions regarding prisons and prisoners?
Yes, absolutely. It’s difficult to identify the difference. The eight days I spent in the juvenile prison was an extreme experience. For weeks before I was having bad dreams about it. These places have an extreme gravity. You know where to sleep, what you will eat and you know that all that matters is your position within the hierarchy. Life is very difficult within this civilisation. There is something tempting about this simple, brutal and archaic society, but at the same time I see how cruel and terrible it would be to live there.
We moved freely in the ward. I don’t understand how we got this permission. Around us were normal guys. I know they all broke the law, but we had a lot of fun. We were something different to them. They spoke to us, and it felt like a sincere relationship.
Since my youth, i have organised summer camps for children. The relationship with children is important for me. in the prison I had the same feeling. These are kids who made bad choices. It changed me a lot.
Cain's Children played in the New Directors section at the 62nd San Sebastian International Film Festival. This interview was published in abridged form in NISI MASA’s San Sebastian Nisimazine.