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The Forgotten Faces

  •  - U.K.
  •  - amateur
  •  - 1960
  •  - 18 mins


Joseph Gomez continues his account of my amateur films in Peter Watkins, Twayne Publishers, Boston 1979:

“The Forgotten Faces (1961), a film reconstruction of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, won Watkins another amateur Oscar, and to this day, the film is praised in England as "one of the most memorable amateur films ever made". The Forgotten Faces advanced the methods of realistic reconstruction that he initiated in The Diary of an Unknown Soldier. Surely Kevin Brownlow must have supplied some encouragement in this direction, since, like Watkins, he also worked at World Wide in part to fund his own film project about what would have happened in England had the Nazis taken over [It Happened Here]. Watkins also found some inspiration in Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups and in the work of the Italian neo-realist directors who, if they did not attempt to capture a newsreel effect, at least frequently used non-professionals in location sequences filmed with available lighting. The films of Rossellini, de Sica, Olmi, and early Visconti, however, had little direct influence on Watkins' dismissal of traditional cinematic artifice in his attempts to realistically recreate events.

“Most of my feelings about this kind of what I would call documentary or reconstruction of reality came from studying photographs. I think that's where my feelings about grain and people looking into the camera came from ... especially those very strong photographs taken in the streets of Budapest and published in Paris Match and Life. That was my first in-depth encounter with an actual situation ...”

The "feel" of these photographs permeates The Forgotten Faces as the close-ups of students, workers, children, and grandmothers stare out from the frame and incorporate us, the audience, into their world. The effectiveness of this technique depends, to some extent, on the editing and on the convincing nature of the street sequences, most of which are filmed in long and far shots. During these sequences, the camera is jostled and jerked and occasionally thrown out of focus as it moves through the action and records an ambush by police snipers, the wrecking of a vehicle disguised as a Red Cross truck, the execution of three members of the Soviet-controlled secret police, the flight of an escaping freedom fighter, and the stringing up of a man by his feet after the storming of party headquarters. Similar techniques are used in capturing intimate expressions of grief and quiet moments when the members (students, workers, and soldiers) of the revolutionary forces argue their diverse political views ... Watkins communicates the sensation that the camera is recording events as they actually happen because, as Tony Rose notes, he successfully breaks two deep-rooted cinematic conventions - the pretences that actors do not see the camera and that an "invisible observer always knows what is going to happen next so that it [the camera] is always pointing in the right direction, correctly focused and framing the picture nicely.” In The Forgotten Faces, the camera is fooled or surprised and must be quickly brought into focus. Also, its presence is almost always noticed by the people being filmed. Watkins has these faces of the inhabitants of Budapest stare out at us not so much to arouse our sympathy as to reinforce one of his dominant themes which is verbally articulated by the narrator near the end of the film...

“There has to be a right and wrong in any human conflict. This most tragic of revolutions can be no exception. But in any conflict between two major creeds, one of which you believe in, there has to be a final taking of sides. And if those who happened to believe - as these Hungarian freedom fighters believed - had also taken a strong moral stand on their behalf at a time when it most mattered, then it is more than likely that more than 20,000 of these people need not have given their lives or their liberty for this belief.”

The Forgotten Faces is not a one-sided, simplistic political tract. Watkins is clearly sympathetic to the revolutionaries, but still his camera and narrator do not refrain from revealing some of the atrocities carried out by mobs seeking revenge on members of the A.V.H. (secret police). The commentary even goes so far as to raise serious questions about the possible behaviour of the revolutionaries, had they won. "If the freedom fighters had actually won the revolution, would any of them have donned similar uniforms to hold these men [members of the A.V.H.] in check?" In the final analysis, Watkins' film convincingly depicts a situation in which numerous people died as the result of the failure of others to take "a strong stand." [- in this case, NATO and the Western powers, much involved at that precise moment in the invasion of the Canal Zone in Egypt - PW] As such, the film is not simply about an historic event; it is an appeal to us, the audience, to take positions, to give expression to our feelings and beliefs when it is necessary for us to do so. With this film, Watkins began his commitment to rouse us from the false security of our blissful apathy, and while his career has been plagued with frustration and personal hardships, he has never lost sight of this intention nor abandoned his belief in the dignity of the individual who defies the forces of a repressive society.

Watkins may not have formulated all of his reasons for wanting to be a filmmaker at the time he was making The Forgotten Faces, but he knew that he wanted to experiment further with the techniques of realistic reconstruction. The directing of large-scale amateur productions also made him realize that filmmaking under certain circumstances can be a gratifying communal experience and that amateurs, when given a special framework, can achieve levels of intensity and enthusiasm missing from more conventional ways of making films.

The enthusiasm and intensity which abounded during the nine days of shooting The Forgotten Faces resulted, in part, from the participation of most of the members of Playcraft, which formed the core of the cast. The chief location for the film was a dead-end street in Canterbury [Gas Street] which contained the city’s abandoned gas works; to make the area resemble a Budapest street in late October, 1956, small trees were wired to the pavement and piles of rubble were carted in. The shooting was non-stop during daylight hours, and since the script was never completed, Watkins improvised as necessity or good fortune dictated. At one point, for instance, a tourist passed by on his way to a nearby chapel. In a matter of minutes, he was in a soldier's uniform and thrust against a wall, about to be shot. In the final film, this sequence is especially effective because of the tourist's uncanny resemblance to one of the A.V.H. men depicted in John Sadovy's famous photograph of the actual incident. There were no speaking roles for any of the participants, with the exception of the narrator's commentary which was added after the film was edited, so Watkins simply worked with his cast in terms of movement and facial expressions. Finally, after exposing over sixty minutes of film, Watkins spent months editing down his material to its final form of seventeen minutes ... Not only was this period "the happiest" in his entire career as a filmmaker, but, for Watkins, the amateur years were essential. Without them, his work in film most certainly would have taken an entirely different direction. “I think not only did my work artistically stem from my experiences as an amateur, but I think that my ability to fight, to stick it out, and to develop and pursue my own kind of personal vision ... has its roots in that experience.”

© Peter Watkins 2024