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Csicsery: Math Films, Yes - But So Much More
by Doniphan Blair
Csicsery (center), studying a subject, the Oakland police, he would later do a documentary about. photo Courtesy Associate Press
Reality TV, please!" exclaimed George Csicsery (pronounced "Chi-cherry"), almost spitting out his baklava, when I asked about trends in documentaries today and referenced the dreaded aforementioned.
"This is a dead horse and a cash cow for broadcasters who want to spend nothing," Csicsery fumed. "It's too fake to be tolerable. If that's the future for documentaries, get me into fiction, and fast. Some shows have come pretty close to reaching some core of inanity beyond which there is nothing - nothing at all."
A filmmaker and writer since the late 1960s, George Paul Csicsery was born in Germany in 1948 to Hungarian parents headed west, and he arrived in the US at age three. Best known as the "Math Doc Guy," he has directed and produced 28 films on various subjects, but with an uncanny predominance of mathematical subjects, hence the moniker.
Indeed, his most successful film remains his first math piece, "N is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erd”s" (1993), about an eccentric wandering Hungarian mathematician. "Why was 'N' so successful?" I asked.
"Erd”s is a compelling character. It is all about casting. Casting and scriptwriting are wrapped into one when it comes to documentaries. For example, a number of [Werner] Herzog documentaries are great because he chose the right subject at the right time and let the subject carry the film. Look at 'Grizzly Man' or 'Little Dieter Needs To Fly.'"
The last two years have been almost all math for Csicsery. Aside from two shorter pieces funded by the Mathematical Association of America, there's the monumental "Julia Robinson and Hilbert's Tenth Problem," about an American - and female - mathematician and her grueling years cracking one of the famous quandaries of the 20th century. It was grueling years for Csicsery as well, almost nine to complete and seven before funding.
And then there's "Hard Problems," which, like "Julia Robinson," premiered in January 2008. It follows a team of American high schoolers who travel to Slovenia for the 2006 International Mathematical Olympiad, and just showed on KTEH, San Jose.
"Before doing anything about mathematicians, I had made documentaries about pirates, prostitutes, and romance writers," Csicsery recently told "SF Weekly"'s Michael Fox, who cited him as the Bay Area's most prolific filmmaker. The last topic Csicsery referenced is his most critically acclaimed film "Where the Heart Roams" (1987), about women who read and write romance novels, which played well on the festival circuit and aired on P.O.V.
"I am interested in people who can find happiness in creating their own world," Csicsery told me. "That is true of mathematicians and romance writers. These people are creating universes different from where they live."
Ah, the Docs of Youth Csicsery hanging with Muslim pirates, while shooting an film about them, the Philippines, circa 1971. photo courtesy Zala Films
An Oakland resident, with a BA in comparative religion from UC Berkeley (1969) and an MFA in film from San Francisco State (1972), Csicsery has become quite the Californian, with an abiding love for hiking and climbing in the Sierras, despite an old country fondness for good edibles. From 1982 to 1997, he taught at San Francisco's pioneering Film Arts Foundation, the closing of which he considers "tragic."
"I was there from the beginning and watched it unravel. Times change, and younger people find different ways of doing things. In a way, its demise is part of the changing media landscape." He also taught at SF State and UC Davis, one semester each: "I was teaching film history [at State] to 350 students trying to satisfy a humanities requirement. I enjoyed crafting the classes, but I don't think the students [enjoyed them]. I would love to do seminars, but the lifers are not going to give that away to lecturers."
"Lots of people are drawn to documentaries because of the fiction/non-fiction dichotomy," George continued, waxing more philosophical while wiping some crumbs from his vest. "I've always felt that there is no such thing as non-fiction. Some documentaries reflect realities in interesting and compelling ways, but all of them engage in narrative storytelling."
"Newsy documentaries are another matter. Years ago these would have been journalistic tracts or political manifestoes. But ever since people stopped reading beyond the tweet level, documentary has assumed the function of packaging information with attitude - propaganda. Most of the films in this format follow what a good friend once called the 'complain-explain' format."
"You identify a burning issue, show how it's destroying the world, then bring on salvation with your good guys. Not much innovation since the silent Westerns: bad guys still wear black hats. It's a tedious genre, but doc films and TV has adopted it as standard fare."
"Narration and celebrity hosts are the twin evils that define the high-end information documentary. There is such an intrinsic fear of showing uncooked footage that almost every documentary becomes a scripted essay, images filling up space dominated by narration on the soundtrack."
"To me, narration represents failure," Csiscery stated. "It represents storytelling, although in some films I had to resort to it. 'Where the Heart Roams' and 'Hard Problems' have zero narration. 'N is a Number' and 'Julia Robinson' have very little - we tried to hide it. 'Julia Robinson' has a celebrity narrator, Danica McKellar, a Hollywood actress, from 'The Wonder Years.' But she's great, also a mathematician, in fact."
In Hungry for Monsters the teen making charges of incest and Satanism plays with her pet bird. photo courtesy Zala Films
"Troop 214" (1997) details Hungarian Boy Scouts exiled in the US and their return to Hungary. It was co-produced with Duna-TV and broadcast in Hungary. Duna aired many Csicsery films, starting with his first math film. He still gets back to Hungary periodically to see family and develop projects.
More recent Csicsery films include "The Right Spin" (2005), about how the American astronaut Michael Foale helped save the Soviet Mir space station, and "The Thursday Club" (2005), about Oakland police officers who put down anti-war demonstrations in the 60s. George himself was one of the students getting his head busted during the 1967 "Stop the Draft" protest in Oakland, as indicated in the Associated Press photo on page two.
"I blacked out for a minute," he told me. "I lost the Zeiss Ikon [camera] which used to be my father's. There's an awkward moment in the film when one of the cops admits they were going around cutting camera straps."
Although such evidence seems like a slam dunk for a docmaker, Csicsery followed his more esoteric instincts - look at what you don't know - and finds the officers are essentially liberals who prefer fighting crime not kids. This is not the only edgy Csicsery fare. "Hungry for Monsters" (2003), about false charges of child molestation and Satanism, caused an uproar at the Bermuda and Locarno Festivals in 2004.
Csicsery has been synonymous with controversy from the beginning. He did "Hookers" in 1975, about prostitutes organizing a union in San Francisco, which is being re-released by Whole Earth Film now that Harvard paid to digitize it from 16mm; "Let's Get It Over With!" (1970), about students protesting the invasion of Cambodia; and "People of the Current" (1971), about the Tausug, a tribe of Filipino Muslim pirates.
"Pure ethnography. I was hired by the anthropologist Thomas Keifer," said Csicsery, smiling in recollection of an exotic filmic youth (see photo p2). "The Tausug are matrilocal; their houses are owned by women. If you want to get married without paying a lot of water buffalo, you abduct a girl. If you can get her to a religious figure's house before the family shoots you, she's yours." Around that time, he also worked with Errol Morris ("Gates of Heaven") and Barbet Schroeder ("Koko").
"What do you think about more artistic documentaries?" I asked.
"Well, sometimes films are made because the filmmaker wants to describe something without condemning or praising it. There are very few such films, and most are not made in the US. Broadcasters rarely tolerate a raw look. It's got to be interpreted, explained, and narrated."
"For a few hours on September 11, 2001, the networks showed the events in shocking silence. It took almost a day for 'wrappers' [titled intros] and narration - for the networks to regain their stranglehold on how news is packaged. They didn't even come up with 9/11 theme music until the next day. For those first few hours, the public saw raw documentary."
"Do you see any trends in documentaries?"
"As production gets cheaper, funding tighter, and attention spans shorter, we're looking at a hideous train wreck. That will perpetuate all the bad things happening today. Look for more personal stuff. Of course, if you get a million filmmakers making personal films, you will get a few gems. I see more very short pieces designed for multiple platforms. Most of these will combine the 'complain/explain' genre with the music video format."
Csicsery has also kept busy writing: to date, four screenplays and numerous articles, which have appeared from Salon.com to the "SF Chronicle" and the "East Bay Express." His article on his doc hero Les Blank was included in the book "Burden of Dreams," (North Atlantic Books, 1984), an anthology that took its title from Blank's acclaimed film on Werner Herzog.
Csiscery Today enjoys good food and drink as well as mountain climbing and other adventures. photo courtesy Zala Films
"I loved [Blank's] 'Burden of Dreams.' That is a case where the subject [Herzog] created the basis for the film." In addition to Blank and Herzog, Csicsery's short list of fave documentarians includes Dennis O'Rourke, J. P. Gorin, Nick Broomfield, Joan Churchill, and, of course, Frederick Wiseman. But in terms of distribution, he learned the most from Blank.
"I have done two articles about him. He always self-distributed. Anyone who has made a deal with a distributor knows what happens eventually - you don't get anything. Internet democratization has helped everyone but DVDs are going to die and how are we going to get money out of downloadables? With DVDs, if you sell 3 - 4000, that's not bad, but in downloadables that won't buy you dinner. This is the most important subject facing indie filmmakers - who's going to come up with a revenue model?"
Currently in production for Csiscery is "Songs Along a Stony Road," about Transylvania's folk musicians. "It is almost finished and has great music and images. I have another project on a Holocaust subject in Hungary called 'Angel of Mercy.' It is the story of Margaret Slachta, a Catholic nun, who saved a lot of Jewish children in 1944. Everyone has heard of Raoul Wallenberg, but there were others doing similar things. I was researching this and found she was an early feminist. And then my old friend of forty years, Marika Somogyi, a sculptor in Berkeley, said to me, 'I have to tell you something, I am one those kids.'"
"I've done four days of shooting, one in Hungary, and three in Buffalo, where Slatchta founded an order. I am hoping do more shoots in Hungary, and a few in Israel, but I haven't raised any funds. It is time to get serious."
As if that wasn't enough, true to his new California and old contrarian roots, he is also looking into Joaquin Murrieta, the Gold Rush-era bandit and Robin Hood figure for poor Mexicans, who was the prototype for Zorro.
"I want to find what is true, what people believe, and how a legend is created," said Csicsery, smiling, "And, of course, there are also seven or eight more math movies."
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Posted on Mar 08, 2010 - 04:34 PM