Diary for my Children
English Title: Diary for my Children
Original Title: Napló gyermekeimnek
Country of Origin: Hungary
Studio: Budapest Játékfilmstúdió, Mafilm
Director: Márta Mészáros
Producer(s): Ferenc Szohár
Screenplay: Márta Mészáros
Cinematographer: Nyika Jancsó
Editor: Éva Kármentö
Runtime: 104 minutes
Volume: East European
Returning to her native Hungary from the Soviet Union in the wake of World War II, the teenage Juli mourns the death of her exiled parents whilst struggling to come to terms with life alongside her guardian, Magda, a political activist working in fervent support of the prevalent culture of Stalinism. Juli soon begins to skip school in order to frequent the cinema, and her home life becomes increasingly fractious. However, she develops close relationships with a boy at school and in particular with a male friend of Magda’s named Janos, who becomes a surrogate father figure for her. As the years progress from 1947–1953 Juli becomes ever more intent on leaving home, but the political realities of her society begin to impact more and more on her life and those close to her.
‘Don’t be afraid, it’s only a film, the people won’t die really. They’ll go to another film and be someone else’. These lines, spoken to the protagonist of Napló gyermekeimnek/Diary for my Children (1984), Juli, while she watches a film with her mother as a young girl, resonate across the narrative of Márta Mészáros’ twelfth, and arguably most famous, feature. Film viewing, indeed spectatorial activity in general (from the opening scene of the main character looking out over Hungary from a plane to the recurrence of films, plays and political rallies), forms the thematic backbone of Mészáros’ largely autobiographical story, and goes some way to explaining the subsequent desire on Juli’s part (followed across an initial trilogy of which this is the first chapter) to become a director. That is, she does not desire to escape from reality – her reaction to the numerous different modes of films she watches, from newsreels to propaganda to apparent social realism and, of course, Hollywood entertainment, barely register any marked difference of feeling; nor does she really wish to capture and record it. Rather, it is the power to mould and shape, ultimately to create, reality that fascinates and drives the protagonist; and the seeds of this future career for the character are carefully sown in this narrative, in which the personal turmoil of the adolescent Juli stand in marked contrast to the increasing turbulence of Hungary as it built towards the seismic events of the 1956 revolution.
The youthful vigour and abandon inferred in this scenario are fully elucidated by Mészáros in Diary for my Children. She manages to tread a fine line between seeing the world through Juli’s eyes yet never for a moment marginalising or excusing her manifest flaws – her selfishness, indolence, self-absorption and, at times, her own petty rebellion. The writer/director makes it clear that her young protagonist’s careless assumptions about her elders’ various traits and beliefs are variously ill-informed if not unfounded (her insatiable cinema-going is, after all, made possible by a pass stolen from her foster mother) and that her idealized recollections of life in exile with her parents, which are shot like fragments from a film, are at least in part her own fantasies triggered by a less than happy real life.
Juli’s story is largely Mészáros’ story, and a teenage protagonist is an especially apposite central focus for a narrative concerning the vicissitudes of political, social and cultural awakening and awareness. This is because her typically adolescent search for an identity carries within it a particular emphasis on receptivity to exterior influences and determinants. Juli does not simply frequent the cinema and the opera; she is also taken by Magda to a fashion show, and immediately following this outing is a scene in which she is shown putting on make-up and fixing her hair, influenced as she has clearly been by what she has experienced whilst watching the glamour of style and excess. It is a prescient moment, as much of the film will play out through close-ups of Juli; that is, as figuratively seen by her and processed through her consciousness. However, this particular strategy also pays off in other moments, ones in which the narrative is momentarily suspended and Mészáros’ documentary background comes to the fore. Chief in this regard is the scene in which Juli visits a public toilet, and Mészáros lingers over the aged woman who sits at the door. This cragged face speaks an untold narrative all of its own regarding lived experience in Hungary, and a simple, wordless close-up is worth more than a thousand words.
Along with Agnieszka Holland, Wanda Jakubowska, Věra Chytilová, Larissa Shepitko and Kira Muratova, Márta Mészáros remains one of the pre-eminent female directors in East Central European cinema – an arguably feminist figure who was never dogmatic, and whose clear-eyed and thorough understanding of women at a particular socio-historical juncture never precluded a sympathetic consideration of what was at times a more prevalent feeling of emasculation. Over and above the broadly autobiographical content of Diary for my Children, the context in which the film itself was made had a personal resonance for Mészáros, coming in the wake of a frustrating period for the direc
Author of this review: Adam Bingham