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"If you can remain independent inside, in your soul, you can only make good choices"

An interview with ZSOLT POZSGAI | STAY WITH ME | VMA Winner - February 2024

Zsolt Pozsgai, a luminary in filmmaking, has traversed a remarkable journey from organizing amateur theatre in Pécs during his childhood to becoming a renowned filmmaker. His diverse roles as a dramaturg, artistic director, and theatre director underscore his commitment to both the stage and cinema.


Pozsgai's historical dramas, earning him accolades like the Europe Prize, have captivated audiences internationally, from Boston to Tel Aviv. Venturing into film, he garnered acclaim for works like "THE LOVER OF THE SOIL" and "THE DEVOTED", winning numerous awards at global film festivals, including the Golden Fox Award in Calcutta.


Beyond his creative endeavors, Pozsgai has contributed to Hungarian literature, advised the Minister of Culture, and played a vital role in education. Today, we have the privilege of exploring the motivations and triumphs that define Zsolt Pozsgai's remarkable career, unraveling the layers of storytelling, cultural resonance, and cinematic brilliance with a filmmaker whose work continues to leave an indelible mark on the global stage.


Your career spans various roles, from dramaturg and artistic secretary at the National Theatre of Pécs to being the artistic director of multiple theatres and a successful film writer and director. How do you balance and draw inspiration from your diverse experiences in theatre, film, and even advising the Hungarian Minister of Culture? How has each role influenced your creative approach?

I still believe in the Masters. Whose value system you adopt at a very young age. I had a very talented director as my master. So it was clear that when I started writing a drama or a script, I was also looking at the story through the director's eyes. The theatres and film studios quickly recognised this and I was able to direct what I had written almost immediately. And this is still the case today. Of course, there are exceptions when a play is staged by a different director, but I'm happy about that, because it's often interesting to hear another artist's thoughts on my work. But that is rare. In the case of film, I have unfortunately had bad experiences when another director has realised my script. Since then I don't give it to anyone else. Besides the Master Director, I also had the chance to learn from a very good poet, so for me theatre and film are poetry. That's why there are poetic elements in my writing and that's why there are poetic solutions in the realisation.

• Your plays have achieved significant success both in Hungary and internationally, with premieres in countries like the USA, Germany, and Israel. Could you share your perspective on how cultural differences impact the reception of your work? Are there particular challenges or rewards in presenting your stories to diverse audiences around the world?

In plays and films, I deal with issues and problems that apply anywhere in the world. My best-known drama, Liselotte and May, has been performed in 14 languages from Canada to India, and I am preparing to stage it at the National Theatre of China this winter. No matter what country they are set in, they can have historical themes. If you can make it so that, for example, a film about the Reformation can be understood and appreciated by Tibetan Buddhists, then you have created a valid work. People are the same everywhere, circumstances are different. Of course, in the theatre, performances in every other country are adapted to the culture of the country, but that is natural. It is also very interesting. The same in film. My latest film, DARKING WAY, has so far won 348 international awards from countries all over the world. This is the real happiness for me, that everyone can encode what I want to say. I have just seen the Hungarian production of Arthur Miller's drama "Death of a Salesman", which was quite cathartic in its portrayal of our life in Hungary today, even though it is set in America and nothing had to be changed. I would very much like my works to have the same effect on people anywhere in the world, without comparing myself to the classic American writer. In six months' time in China, I will be very curious to see how I can work with Chinese actors on a European story. I'm sure it will be exciting.

I don't see people as a crowd. Each person has their own destiny, their own feelings, their own tragedy. We are all refugees from a world of wars, environmental disasters, moral crises. But where can we go? 

• Your films, “THE DEVOTED” and "DARKING WAY," not only achieved substantial success at international film festivals but also made it to the finals at our physical Gala Night event as one of the top films in its category. Can you share your thoughts on the significance of participating in our festival? How has this particular event and recognition impacted your perspective on the reception of your work on a global scale?

It was a great pleasure and honour to have both films nominated for various awards at the festival. Not one, but both! I was delighted to travel to the awards gala, as it is a great thing just to see the films nominated. But in a country with such a long history of film as the USA, and so close to Los Angeles, the capital of film. The organisation was great, I made a lot of friends. And as I talked to American directors, writers and producers, I realized what a great place I live in Hungary. Because here, despite the small size of the country, there are so many films being made, but so few directors. This means that sometimes I can make a feature film and even a documentary or a short film every year. The others listened to this with envy, because they don't get so many opportunities, there are so many directors and writers. That's the difference. So I came away from a great event satisfied. And I got to tour Las Vegas. Interestingly enough, I felt more at home in the old Las Vegas, at the other end of the famous boulevard, although the new part is a wonder itself.

• Your last project is a script called “STAY WITH ME” and depicts a harrowing and intense situation with a pregnant Sudanese girl involved in a tragic accident. Can you share insights into how the idea for this story originated? What inspired you to explore such a gripping narrative, blending elements of suspense and human drama?

I like to work with what happened. As well as historical events. The tragedy of this migrant girl happened two years ago in Hungary. The reality is that a pregnant illegal migrant, after an accident, made her way to the house of a lonely Hungarian neglected farmer and gave birth to the child. Then the police came, took her away, took the mother to a camp and orphaned the child. But is this how it has to be? In my film, the main characters work together to keep mother and child together and to integrate them into micro society. While the traffickers search for the woman left alive who is an important witness against them. I am motivated by the fact that I don't see people as a crowd. Each person has their own destiny, their own feelings, their own tragedy. And let's not talk about those who flee into a country with criminal intent, there are many of them. But about those who flee, for example, from tribal wars and violence in Africa in search of a better life. While the protagonists try to save the girl and hide her - they must realise that they are also fugitives. One wants to escape from loneliness, one from the memory of his dead wife, one from the destruction of the world, and so on. We are all refugees from a world of wars, environmental disasters, moral crises. But where can we go? 

• The main character, Cyndie, undergoes a traumatic experience in the script. How did you approach developing her character, especially considering the emotional and physical challenges she faces? What aspects of her journey did you find most compelling to portray as a filmmaker?

From fear to mistrust, the main character's journey leads her to acceptance and love. It is a very long road, especially when they cannot communicate. They don't know each other's language, the girl doesn't speak English. This can lead to secrets being hidden which can cause complications later on. These have to be lived and overcome as obstacles. If you succeed, you will realise that despite the inability to communicate, despite the cultural differences, we are all the same people. It is a beautiful acting and directing task.

• The script paints a vivid picture of intense scenes, including challenging weather conditions and dramatic moments. How do you envision translating these elements from the script onto the screen? Are there specific visual or atmospheric details you are particularly excited about bringing to life once the script is realized on film?

I think it's not technically very complicated. What is important is the spiritual content, the processing of the psychological trauma. All this while smiling and sometimes laughing. In every life there is tragedy and comedy. Whatever the situation. In film, I like to find a balance between comedy and tragedy. The real challenge is to create the catharsis in the viewer at the end of the film, which is the elementary intention of any work of art.

In your script "STAY WITH ME," which tackles the intense and sensitive topic of illegal migrants, is there a personal motivation or purpose behind telling such a significant story? Are there specific messages or emotions you hope to convey to the audience through this narrative?

Yes. Recognising when we are asked for help or simply want to help others is why it happens. Is the intention of the person asking for help genuine, or are they just trying to take advantage of us, deceive us or abuse their situation. But if we feel we have a duty to help because the person asking for help is in real trouble, their tragedy is real and they cannot help themselves - then we must do all we can.

• Considering the sensitive topics, you often explore in your work, what aspects do you personally find most crucial when it comes to capturing these stories on film? How do you navigate the balance between storytelling and the responsibility that comes with addressing delicate subjects, ensuring your message resonates authentically with the audience?

By trying to make an independent film. So that I am not influenced by political considerations (in Hungary, politics likes to interfere with artistic independence), or by the producer's opinion, or by the desire to find the cheapest possible solution. This independence is the main part of my work. So far I have presented hundreds of plays, made 18 films and never disappointed the audience. Because every human being has the desire for independence. If you can remain independent inside, in your soul, you can only make good choices.

Whereas the sensitive nature of this project and its big potential, what would you say makes it compelling for distributors to acquire and support your script and turn it in a film?

I would say that the topic is topical all over the world. That the lead roles are an opportunity for great talented actors to give great performances. And if the actor works well and is talented, he has an audience. The other is that this film wants to portray life in its fullness with a unity of comic and tragic elements - so it is an entertaining film. I think it could be a worthwhile film. And there are many films made in the world that are valuable, artistic, abstract and yet can reach a huge audience. Think of All That Jazz or Forrest Gump. All these successes prove that a studio or director who thinks the audience is stupid is making a big mistake. The audience, if they feel that a film was made for them, can be very grateful.

• Can you share insights into your upcoming projects?

In May this year, I will start shooting a Hungarian historical film, but I want to do it in a way that it can be distributed abroad. It is a big budget production, the story goes back to the 14th century. In the meantime I am working on a documentary, which also deals with a sensitive subject. What happens to a homeless young woman when she becomes pregnant. What happens to her and her child? And of course I want to make this film from the script STAY WITH ME, preferably this winter. But I also have other dreams. And the ancient philosophers said that you live as long as you have dreams. I have many. I want to live for a long time. And I want to go to Las Vegas again this year. Stay in that little motel I stayed in last year. I don't know why, I feel more comfortable in a place like that than in a skyscraper. This is where the casino workers or the hookers go to work, I like to talk to them. Have a drink in bustling old Las Vegas. And see my friends from last year.








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