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Review: The Lost Notebook


- Following in the footsteps of a Soviet-era Hungarian worker passionate about cinema, Danish director Ida Sørensen reflects on the role of fiction in people’s lives

Review: The Lost Notebook

What is reality without fiction? Danish director and anthropologist Ida Marie Gedbjerb Sørensen (Qamar) asks this question in her new documentary, The Lost Notebook, which world premiered at the recent CPH:DOX in Copenhagen and is now in international competition at the 20th Biografilm Festival. Starting from an old diary found in an attic in Budapest in which a Hungarian worker named Istvan wrote down all the films he saw at the cinema between 1942 and 1994 (2158 titles in total), the auteur follows the traces of the man’s descendants and investigates this family made up of four generations of cinephiles (father, children, grand-children, great-grand-children), discovering their secrets, their hidden traumas, and their shared tendency to find refuge in fiction in order to flee a not very happy reality.

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A passion for cinema cultivated for 52 years, in an almost obsessive manner, is what reveals to us the notebook in which Istvan meticulously wrote down the titles and countries of origin of the films he had seen, but more importantly the date and the cinema at which he had seen them, in Soviet-era Budapest. But anyone who, from this premise, would expect a detailed immersion in the cinema that was allowed to be seen in communist Hungary, despite censorship, might be disappointed: this isn’t the focus of the film, and it takes a bit of time to understand what that focus really is. Sørensen wonders why Istvan catalogued all the films he’d seen in this way, expressing his opinions only by changing the colour of his pen (those written in red were the ones he’d liked the most) and, at the end of each year, making an exact count of how many times he’d gone to one cinema rather than another.

To better understand, the director tracks down the eldest son of the cinephile worker, Istvan Jr., and with him his other relatives. Little by little, it emerges that they are all obsessed with cinema and great collectors of DVDs, with a predilection for a particular genre: action films. Sørensen then stays with them and explores their lives: stories of hardship, abandonment, hidden homosexuality, and denied identity come to light. It seems that the only moment when these people smile is when they come together in front of a screen, however big or small it might be. Meanwhile, the director learns something more about Istvan the father, his history, and addresses him directly, in voice over, asking him if his obsession with cinema had arisen from his need to escape a painful reality. It probably had been just like this for Istvan, as it is today for his children, grand-children, and great-grand-children.

Every now and then, we see excerpts of films from his list, whose titles are not specified. Reference is made to historical events (the Hungarian revolution of 1956, for example, during which Istvan did not go to the cinema at all; the successive period, when censorship was loosened and American action films arrived in theatres) and one would like to know more about this – how history has impacted the enjoyment of cinema, in that country and that period. Instead, the director returns to the small, daily life stories of the family today, and the spectator might be left thinking about all that they may have wanted to know and that this film could have said, taking inspiration from the discovery of that precious notebook.

The Last Notebook was produced by Danish outfit Tambo Film in co-production with Hungarian company Little Bus Production.

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(Translated from Italian)

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