Surveillance. Secret Police Film Festival.

Budapest, October 21 – December 2, 2015

Andrea Pócsik
Harun Farocki; Ryszard Siwiec; Péter Forgács; Gábor Bódy; Hungary; Poland; Czechoslovakia; East Germany; Romania; documentary; educational films; archive; film festival; multimedia art exhibition; surveillance; secret police.
Still from Gefängnisbilder / Prison Images (Harun Farocki, 2001, Germany). Courtesy of the Secret Police Film Festival.

Let us imagine a film festival on surveillance under extreme conditions, where every single screening – irrespective of the genre, period, approach, and author – would be introduced by the same film: Gefängnisbilder / Prison Images (Harun Farocki, 2001, Germany). Farocki as “archeologist of the present” (Blümlinger) dedicated many of his works to surveillance.1 His “poetics of the trace” gives an account of the contemporary “politics of the trace”, as Miriam de Rosa puts it:

Reflecting on the way of structuring his cinematographic aesthetics of surveillance Farocki appears provocative as well as engagé and provides a dense interpretation of practices that feature everyday life in both an acclaimed and a subtle way – practices that draw our attention to the production and the consumption of images and determine not only the regime of vision but also the condition of the subjects involved in the scopic activity (de Rosa 2014, italics in the original).

But how Gefängnisbilder might affect the reception of the thematically selected and formally connected films would depend on many factors. The power – or in some cases the art – of curatorial practice comes from a careful review, selection and combination of the right artefacts.

The Secret Police Film Festival was curated by an international team: András Mink, Ioana Macrea-Toma, Piotr Wcislik and Zsuzsanna Zádori. The wide range of institutional facilities to which they had access made selection of material difficult, but the excellence of the results speaks for itself. The Vera & Donald Blinken Open Society Archive in Budapest, the festival’s host institution, is a research centre where traces of the Cold War, the socialist past and many other collections are professionally preserved and reinterpreted through cultural and academic programmes and events.

One festival strand, Moving Walls 22 / Watching You, Watching Me, opened in October 2015.2 Its photos and installations were not just a perfect backdrop to the film event in Galeria Centralis, but they offered an intellectual psyching up for visitors. Born with the widespread use of photography and continued with moving images, the ghost of the scopic regime was thus invoked, and the contemporary experience of surveillance – social, political and personal – evoked.

Moving Walls 22 / Watching You, Watching Me. Image from the Secret Stasi Archives. Stasi agent during a seminar on disguises. Courtesy of Simon Menner / BStU.

The festival programme comprised six events and included, first, screenings of some Communist secret police training and operative films, and, fascinatingly, contemporary surveillance-themed documentaries using secret police films. The screenings mapped nearly the whole European Communist region: Czechoslovak, East-German, Hungarian, Polish and Romanian moving images. Coincidentally, in November, the 12th edition of the VERZIO International Human Rights Film Festival also focused on surveillance, with an excellent selection of contemporary documentaries curated by Oksana Sarkisova, the festival director.3 The German production, Engelbecken (Gamma Bak, Steffen Reck, 2014, Germany), linked the two programmes by being screened in the OSA with a follow-up discussion with the directors.

The different events were intended to attract diverse audiences. Those interested in contemporary art and photography, in human rights, in technological changes and the political history of surveillance, in visual media practices, and in documentary film were able to integrate and filter all these topics through personal experience. The curators thus created a film programme with multi-faceted material, balancing archival materials with reflections upon them. Information on the Communist past was transmitted professionally and with proper contextualisation, connecting it to our almost naturalised social and visual surveillance experience.

Still from Az ügynök élete/ The Life of an Agent (Zsigmond Gábor Papp, 2004, Hungary). Courtesy of the Secret Police Film Festival.

A few examples will show how successful the programme was, even without the imagined Farockian introduction. Most of the events involved screenings of archival films and contemporary documentaries focusing on a specific country. The first selection included training films produced by the special police film studio of the Hungarian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Its archive was not destroyed but preserved by the Artistic Director of the OSA Miklós Tamási, who wrote the script for Zsigmond Gábor Papp’s documentary Az ügynök élete / The Life of an Agent (2004, Hungary). The training films included Belső figyelések végrehajtása során alkalmazott dokumentációs eszközök / Documentation Methods Used in an Interior Surveillance (1975, Hungary) and Titkos letartóztatás / Secret Arrest (1973, Hungary). While watching them I wondered why these tutorials for secret agents exposed the viewer to an almost anthropological observation by examining clothes, hair-style, furniture, architecture? One might feel uncomfortable watching scenes shot in everyday situations and ordinary places. The double surveillance makes the whole training painfully absurd: the techniques are funny and frustrating at the same time. We have to watch how agents were supposed to use handbag cameras to observe, record, and, later, report private encounters with targeted persons. This ambiguity is highlighted by Zsigmond Gábor Papp. He inserted a “pseudo-archival” film between the film chapters; fictional footage shot by the agents, accompanied on the soundtrack by their naturalistic and nasty dialogues. Anxiety can grow into disgust when one recognises familiar places – as it happened to me with Titkos letartóztatás. I could identify my hometown, the locales of my childhood where ordinary citizens involved in the filming were forced to collaborate and keep silent about it. Personal memories evoked by the archival footages is an experience that cannot be compared to anything else: disgraced memories, the worst form of nostalgia one can ever have.

Still from Secret Arrest / Titkos őrizetbevétel (training film, Hungary, 1973). Courtesy of the Secret Police Film Festival.

The all-pervasive fear and anxiety – to be watched, caught, accused, or forced to become an agent – was turned upside down in the next operative film of the programme, Titkos házkutatás / Secret House Search (instructional film, 1960, Hungary), where the agents are taught how to avoid revealing the details of a secret raid. Who fears whom? As the narrator says: “A well-prepared enemy expecting a house-raid can apply a number of security measures. Should we disregard them, we are endangering the secret house-raid. (...) Make sure not to leave any tell-tale signs so you prevent the uncovering of the secret house raid.”

The target persons whose house is being searched are represented as reactionary internal enemies of the system. The rich director of an international company and his wife, who spends her weekdays in the famous Budapest spa, are reminiscent of the bourgeois past. They are set against the heroes of the next film, Supravegheat de Securitate în anii ’70-’80 / Under Surveillance by the Securitate 1970-1980 (Nicolae Mărgineanu, 2009, Romania) about Romanian intellectuals who were watched by one of the harshest Communist secret police, the Securitate. This historical documentary is formally less innovative than others of the time, although its archival footage and interviews with citizens who were under surveillance provide a good historical background. And yet, the dry, factual information is just as shocking as when the viewer learns the consequences of the surveillance through destroyed human fates.

The Polish film selection had the most complex structure highlighting a personal tragedy under the pressure of dictatorship. In the first operative film, Dwanaście filmów operacyjnych / A Chronicle of Operations (1968-1976, Poland), we witness an unusual event in the midst of everyday life: a man pouring petrol on himself during an agricultural festival at a Warsaw stadium in 1968.4 His action was recorded by coincidence, as the festival was surveilled by the secret police. The protest is contextualised by the dispassionate voice-over narration, giving a short description of the action, and the non-diegetic emotionally detached classical music (typical of training films). In order to enrich the context, two newsreels introduced PESEL, the identification system that has been used in Poland since the socialist era. Finally, a lyrical documentary made by the excellent Polish director Maciej Drygas Usłyszcie mój krzyk / Hear My Cry (1991, Poland) revealed the story behind the suicide. Ryszard Siwiec was an ordinary man who set fire to himself. In the middle of a huge crowd, he thereby created an extraordinary memory for close relatives and eyewitnesses to whom his suicide seemed a “vain”’ and “pointless” act. The establishing shot zooming in on his photograph on the wall of his flat and the well-chosen, powerful music accompanying the archival shots from the first film make the viewer reflect not only on the political past but on one’s own relation to it as well.

Still from Usłyszcie mój krzyk / Hear My Cry (Maciej Drygas, 1991, Poland). Courtesy of the Secret Police Film Festival.

The most extended system of our relationship to the socialist past, its solidity, and surveillance practices, was revealed in the films about the former East Germany, which after the reunification with the Federal Republic of Germany became exemplary in memory politics. The protagonists’ and directors’ personal stories and the Q&A of Engelbecken formed the climax of the film festival. The first-person voice-over and the subjective visual narration highlighted the difficulties of coping with the past. The cross-border love and the hunger for freedom juxtaposed with the secret police files reflected the ambiguous regime. Even more bewildering was another documentary from the VERZIO surveillance programme, co-directed by the provocative Eyal Sivan: Aus Liebe zum Volk / Love You All (Eyal Sivan, Audrey Maurion, 2004, Germany, France). The narrator, Mr. B., is the only protagonist in the surveillance programme who was a secret agent, an officer of the East German Stasi. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he makes a “confession” of his blind faith and subsequent disillusions in front of the imagined audience. Meanwhile, we observe his Stasi office in detail as if witnessing a subversive house raid.