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Zala Multiplies, As It Were
by Steve Middlestein
On the set for a music video for Oakland singer Bonnie Maxwell, a distinct change of pace for Zala Films. photo: courtesy Zala Films
MATHEMATICS HAS BEEN GOOD TO
Zala Films. Indeed, the work has multiplied, as it were, since 2010 when CineSource last checked in on the Oakland-based company headed by George Csicsery.
" was the big one, a biography series for the web. Zala Films produced, it entailed the life stories of two dozen of the world’s greatest living mathematicians, and a smattering of physicists. The conversation-based videos, five to 25 minutes long, covered each person’s biographical and general as well as scientific story.
"With up to 30 sequences per person, you can really get an intimate picture of each character," explained Csicsery, who founded Zala Films 35 years ago.
While production and editing of "Science Lives", an initiative of the Simons Foundation, dominated their schedule from 2010 to this year, Zala Films also completed a feature bio, made progress on two other big math films, and started a couple of new projects.
Taking the Long View: The Life of Shiing-shen Chern
" (2011) was a dream project come true, commissioned by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley. It involved production on both coasts of the U.S., in China and in Germany. The film has shown in China, France, at the Roxie in San Francisco, and is currently playing on public TV stations via NETA syndication.
Csicsery started in math with "N is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdös" (1993), the mathematician. Since Erdös would have been 100 in 2013, they prepared a 30-minute piece called "
" for his centennial celebration last July for two screenings at the Academy of Sciences in Budapest, Hungary. They were attended by 700 people.
George Csicsery, founder and director of Zala Films. photo: courtesy Zala Films
"I’m going to keep tinkering with this film until I’m satisfied that it is finished," Csicsery said.
Last year, Zala Films started production of another math bio-pic about Yitang Zhang who, after making a breakthrough on the old "Twin Prime Conjectures" problem, was catapulted to fame overnight.
They started shooting in September and, with several more shoots lined up around the country, plans are to finish by the end of this year. Working title: "Clarity and Intuition". This project was sponsored by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) which got Zala involved with Playground and the Berkeley Rep.
On February 17th
presented six plays on the theme, "A Passion for Primes." This year's collaboration between the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute and the Berkeley Repertory Theater was inspired by Zhang's work on the Twin Primes Conjecture.
Csicsery participated in discussions with the playwrights and showed them clips from the documentary before they set out to write their plays, and was part of the team selecting the six plays to be performed.
In March, Csicsery was able to participate in another dream project, directing interviews and coordinating production of a large-scale video documentation of the bi-annual Gathering4Gardner event in Atlanta, Georgia. One of the wildest collection of people you'll ever see,
are all dedicated to the memory of the popular math writer Martin Gardner.
Pulling in people from dozens of fields—recreational math, skeptics, philosophers, magicians, puzzle and game designers, sculptors, and artists of all stripes—the gathering is a one-of-a-kind, invitation-only event, fully documented by a professional crew, this year. "It was a great experience to be part of that team," Csicsery said.
Sister Margit Slachta, a Hungarian nun who saved 1,000 Jewish children during the Holocaust, is the subject of an upcoming Zala Films documentary. photo: courtesy Zala Films
Not Only Math…
Is that enough math? Well then, you'll be happy to learn that Csicsery has also made incremental progress on an historical project he started back in 2005, "Angel of Mercy". It tells the story of Sister Margit Slachta, a Hungarian nun who saved 1,000 Jewish children during the Holocaust in Hungary in 1944.
This year marks the Hungarian Holocaust’s 70th anniversary, and Csicsery just returned from a conference in Florida on that subject. He hopes to raise completion funding and organize the final shoots in Hungary, Israel and perhaps Canada later this year.
Meanwhile, Zala Films has created a project Web page, where you can watch an 18-minute sample reel that gives you more than a taste of the film "
Angel of Mercy
A Change of Pace…
Another exciting change of direction for Csicsery is a music video, their first since a 10-minute ballet film in 1977 called "Tealia" for the San Francisco Ballet. This time it is for Oakland vocal artist Bonnie Maxwell and it will be released alongside her new album .
"When I first heard her sing, 'Grand-Daddy Took a Train'," which is about Maxwell’s grandfather fleeing the south, Csicsery remembered, "I had one of those flashes, and pretty soon all the elements fell into place. We were able to shoot with Bonnie twice at the Niles Canyon Railroad Museum in Sunol, which has fantastic period trains meticulously cared for by a dedicated crew of volunteers."
"I had plenty of help from cinematographer Ashley James, and other filmmakers, notably Hilary Morgan and Tal Skloot. We’re in post now and expect the five-minute video to go up on the web any minute now."
In addition to "Taking the Long View" being syndicated to public TV stations via NETA, which should have it popping up on TV at all hours for a few years, Csicsery is looking forward to finding a broadcaster in China for this film, since Chern is such a revered figure in that country.
In the edit room at Zala Films in the Oakland hills. photo: courtesy Zala Films
Another film Csicsery completed in 2011, "Songs Along a Stony Road", will probably see its first broadcast this year in Hungary on Hir-TV, a small channel that presents documentaries. Although they are very tolerant about content, they have strict guidelines about length and he had to cut the film from 69 to 52 minutes.
Moreover, he just signed an agreement with Kanopy for streaming two documentaries to colleges and universities worldwide. Institutional streaming will soon replace DVDs in the educational distribution field, so Csicsery is very curious about how this will work out.
"Kanopy, an Australian company, recently opened a San Francisco office," Csicsery said. "They’re very interested in meeting Bay Area filmmakers and signing up films for their streaming services."
Finally, Csicsery resurrected one of his oldest films. "People of the Current" (1971) is now available on DVD from
. "It’s an experiment for me to release this through Amazon’s Create Space instead of manufacturing and distributing the DVDs myself, which is what I’m used to doing," he said.
The 1971 ethnographic documentary is an early attempt to use 1/2" black & white reel-to-reel videotape for field recordings. The tape was then transferred to 16mm for editing, and the film was originally released in monochrome 16mm prints.
Due to the insurgencies and fighting, for many years this film was the only window on the culture of the Tausug people who live in Jolo in the southern Philippines. Zala was spurred to release "
" again by a recent surge of requests.
There are two very exciting documentary projects starting up in the next two months, but Csicsery said, "I dare not breath a word."
"Let’s just say that between wrapping up some of the films I’ve described and these two new ones, I might be pretty busy for the rest of the year."
Steve Middlestein is a writer and editor and can be reached
Posted on May 06, 2014 - 04:15 PM