Hungarian born and educated writer/director/actor Can Togay János is truly a man of the world. Born of Turkish parents in Budapest, he has spent extended periods in Finland, France and Germany, where he was the head of the Collegium Hungaricum Berlin and the cultural attaché of the Hungarian Embassy (and now teaches at the Babelsberg Film School). As a filmmaker, he has seen much success, having had his 1992 film A nyaraló (The Summer Guest) screened at Cannes, and wrote the screenplay to the high profile Hungarian film Hídember (Bridgeman). In addition to numerous writing, acting and directing credits, he has authored a volume of poetry.
Below, find a recent interview with Togay, originally published in German in Kultúrpart in November 25 of 2014. The interview was conducted by Ayhan Gökhan.
You are an actor, director, screenwriter, poet, and cultural expert. You are currently teaching in Berlin. Which title do you gravitate towards? Or is that determined by what you are doing at that given moment?
Let’s say that all I really wanted was to become a musician, but since that didn’t come to fruition, all of those activities (the ones you mentioned as well as all the others – all my conceptual work, for example) really take the place of that. This could be one answer to the question. Or perhaps it is that I am a person of all trades; it’s both my strength and my weakness that I have to do lot of different things, so that I keep moving and don’t stagnate. It took a lot of time for me to recognize that I should accept this unstoppable nature within myself and not be ashamed of it. Now, I more freely go after what interests me, and remain flexible in adapting to the demands. And in all of these different areas I am able to quickly identify those avenues through which I can connect to each task. So as not to be trite, I’ve avoided using the word “creative” here, but certainly it could have been inserted here and there. In terms of those different titles, it was never my explicit desire to have a guilded occupation – perhaps quite the opposite. But I wouldn’t say that that was my priority either. From a simple marketing perspective, people tend to erase this multiplicity, and so if I have to, I call myself a filmmaker, because you need a lot of money for that and so you might be asked for your credentials.
Let me make a personal comment. We are both of Turkish descent, but neither of us speaks Turkish as our mother tongue. I’ve heard from many Turkish people – from gyros sellers to the most educated – that those who do not speak Turkish are not Turkish. Still, this Turkish descent has to mean something. What does this Turkishness mean to you – how much to you feel that it is part of your identity? Apart from the simple fact of your descent, how does it manifest itself for you that you are Turkish?
Well, this is not an easy question, so you shouldn’t count on a satisfactory response. There is no more multifarious and complex task than a person’s identity. In any case, I recommend that you rely on consulting kebab sellers on this topic. In my youth, some Turkish guests of my family questioned my manliness, pointing to me and asking, “bıyıksız adam olur mu?” which means “what kind of man has no moustache?” It’s true that my parents are Turkish, or more precisely they consider themselves to be Turkish, seeing that this notion of “Turkish” is a kind of construction that only arose following the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the twentieth century. Even though I have all these Turkish relatives, I have struggled endlessly with the Turkish language and haven’t got nearly as far with it as I have with Hungarian or even German. Besides being a Hungarian citizen, I am also a Turkish citizen, which should otherwise somehow reflect on my identity. Hungarian culture is where I feel most at home, yet through my parents, I have been exposed to numerous other influences.
The flipside of the question is that besides ‘descent,’ ‘foreignness’ is also key here. Clearly, those who have to deal with multiple identities, also have many opportunities to experience ‘foreignness.’ This is a much more fundamental lesson than the question of descent. Wrestling with this is a lifelong endeavor. The paradox, meanwhile, is that this sense of ‘foreignness’ also helps to build a sense of identity – which one the person holds on to, which one they don’t want to give up… at the same time, overcoming that ‘foreignness’ is the most intense urge. One can find meaning in their line of descent if they go after it, if it interests them, if the look into it and it enriches them. But the question of identity is different, and if it emerges in this way, it will never be resolved. It should be a comfort that there are so many different forms of inner divisiveness, and especially this one could be particularly fruitful. The mother of a Greek friend of mine comes to mind. At one time, for the purpose of clarification, she put the question to me: “So now what do you consider yourself: Turkish or Hungarian?”, to which nothing else came to mind than that I should reply, “Someone to whom one could intelligently ask this question”…
Have you thought about what your life would have been like if you had spent your youth in Turkey?
Yes, I have thought about it. At the same time, it’s important to mention that I was born in Hungary. In fact, it is a mathematical certainty that the fundamental precondition of my life, my conception, was that my parents had to come to Hungary. From this perspective, only Hungary can be connected to my person in terms of being a homeland. Actually, Turkey could only have been the place of my youth if my parents had decided at some point in my childhood to return to Turkey, or rather, if they had felt that they could have returned. Considering how their emigration from Turkey, or rather the Cold War, played such a decisive role in their lives, such a decision would have had consequences that I have never even entertained, but that would have fundamentally influenced this imagined childhood and youth. It wouldn’t be very hard to see what this simulated fate would have looked like; it is enough to just look at the lives of my cousins. Upper-middle class in Istanbul, international studies and jobs in the lawyer-psychologist-manager sphere. But the summers of this “childhood” in Istanbul would most certainly have been spent at my grandmother’s on the island of Büyük Ada with the blue sea and many boats on the horizon. My “youth,” however, would have resulted in witnessing several military coups and exciting, though physically dangerous, political action – at least if I look to my father for inspiration and examine Turkish history of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. But as it seems, fate had a different environment and a different youth in store for me.
Let’s return to the theatre. You worked as an actor in Péter Halász’s theatre troupe. What did you learn from Péter Halász that has stuck with you over the years?
As a teenager, I became close to Péter Halász and certainly during that period of time he influenced me in all sorts of ways. Exactly how, I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint easily. If I really try, maybe it was at that point that my skepticism towards every kind of group mentality started. At that time, despite all of his radicalism – and contrary to his immediate milieu – Péter didn’t lean towards doctrinarianism. He was an independent individual. He was never attached to dogma. He didn’t need it. He was a very intelligent man. If this is teaching, then let’s consider it so – and try to learn from it.
You have a book of poetry entitled Railroad Crossing and Train [Fénykutya és vonat]; you wrote the screenplay for The Bridgeman [A Hídember] with Géza Beremény; you have appeared in several award-winning films; you directed the films The Summer Guest [A Nyaraló] and One Winter Behind God’s Back [Egy tél az Isten háta mögött]. What are you working on at the moment? A book of poetry, a film, a screenplay?
You’ve left several different types of children off that list of names, most notably those that I did for others or together with others. Let’s think of them for a moment so that they don’t feel abandoned. In terms of my next projects, as I mentioned, I usually work on several plans at the same time (in this I am certainly not alone). Among them there is a screenplay, a separate film project, an art installation, an architecture PR project, all kinds of probable and hopeful business. In terms of poetry, that first volume was a selection of 30 years worth of work and really it was only the weight of the work that had amassed that pressed me to publish some of it. So it kind of operates according to the laws of physics – mass and time, rather than intentionality. I especially like it like this, because the lyric, the verse is my own private garden and inner need, and it’s important to me that I should be able to wander about it freely and without intent. Meanwhile, what signals an interesting new phase of my life is that after a long break I’ve been asked to do some acting again, so it’s going to happen for sure next summer; one way or another, I am going to work on a film-set again.
Until this summer you were the director of the Collegium Hungaricum in Berlin. What kinds of changes did you bring to the institution? How do you see the role of Hungarian culture in the broader scope of European culture? Does it stand up in a European context, or is there still a lot of catching up that needs to be done?
The seven years I spent at the CHB were a big adventure for me. It saved me from a somewhat stagnant and frustrated period of my life. I was able to take all of my pent up energy and in one fell swoop direct it toward my work at the institution. It was an energy to which the ministerial and administrative mechanism was not accustomed. But in just a short time, that energy invigorated my colleagues and those at the institutions we worked closely with, and in spite of their resistance at the beginning, I noticed that they also started to enjoy that we were able to do everything with such a fundamentally vague institution as a foreign cultural institute. My goal was to entirely reposition the Berlin Hungarian Institute along with its cultural diplomacy activities and corresponding school of thought. I decided that instead of operating purely as a foreign cultural institute, we should make a cultural centre in Berlin that could offer the Hungarian perspective on broader European questions. These are big goals and I surprised myself too that, as it turned out, in the end the biggest challenges didn’t prove to be exaggerations. The Collegium Hungaricum Berlin is currently still by far the most innovative foreign cultural institute in Berlin, and I only dare to say that because my colleagues running the other foreign cultural institutions have convinced me of it. At the same time, Berlin itself considers the CHB to be an important part of its local cultural industry. This is the opinion rather of the municipal Senate of Berlin and the German institutions and foundations that have financially supported our work in crucial ways.
In terms of the role of Hungarian culture, I assume that the question doesn’t mean whether or not it has a role in European culture – if not there, then where else would it have a role? – but rather how intense its presence, how much it has an impact creatively? I don’t have an instrument with which to measure this. It is true that compared to how things were several decades ago and those hidden ambitions, Hungarian literature has carved out an almost unbelievable position for itself internationally, especially if we consider the undeniable linguistic isolation that should have implied acceptance by so few. This suggests that anything is possible. There are few things that can place a nation on the international map like an open, effervescent, and exciting cultural life. For this, you need two things: an open, effervescent, and exciting cultural life and support for that. But this isn’t just a question of the arts; the reality is much broader and more complex. Despite its sharp conflicts and inconsistencies, and precisely because of them, the cultural life in Hungary is undeniably exciting. This is something of great value that should be supported, and I think that one could draw a uniquely interesting and exciting picture of Hungary. One just has to accept it with all of its conflicts. At the same time, this is all only possible through collaboration. I believe that the Collegium Hungaricum Berlin only became successful in its activities because it combined high quality work with a constant renewal of its fiduciary mandate, and because through open dialogue it was able to agree upon what would be in the best long-term interest of Hungary.
They named you the director of the Hungarian Institute in Istanbul. Did you turn this opportunity down because of another career path, namely so that you could teach at the Babelsberg Film School? Why did you make this decision? You were not so attracted to Turkey, or you just wanted to keep working in a German-speaking environment?
I need to correct something. It was not that I turned down the opportunity. In fact, I applied for the job and I was happy when they offered it to me. At the same time, a long time before my Istanbul application, I had applied to be a script development teacher at the Babelsberg Film School in Berlin. Because of the very long hiring process in German academia, I only received positive feedback on my application after the Istanbul offer. When I got the offer from Istanbul, I told my bosses that if the Berlin job came through, I would give up my post as director of the Hungarian Institute in Istanbul. Considering my Turkish roots that we have already discussed, this wasn’t an easy decision, but I felt that it was time to return to film if I wanted to give myself another opportunity for creative work in that field. Working with young people and project plans, the energy of film-making definitely held the promise of a very exciting reconnection for me. The short time that I have spent there has already confirmed this. I enjoy my work, and I have even been able to make time for my own film projects. Judging from my years in Berlin, I wouldn’t have been able to do that while working in Istanbul. In terms of Turkey, I expect that after I get into a bit of a routine at the university, I will be able to continue my adventure there, that has started with the opening of the Istanbul Institute but as a personal endeavor rather than as an official mandate.
Interviewer: Ayhan Gökhan
From Kultúrpart, November 25, 2014
PPM Film Services is a Budapest-based film company offering an inspiring and creative work atmosphere for its host of clients from around the world. Since our inception, our focus has been providing the best of the best in terms of local production resources, locations, cast and technical teams to ensure that whatever the production we’re charged to create, we do it with no compromise. To sign up for the PPM Hungary newsletter, have a look here.
Read Full Post »