“What attracts me to stories and what makes me commit to telling them is that I begin to sense and feel contradictions in the people and the overall story,” says Peter Hegedus, whose latest film, Lili, will premiere at the Sydney Film Festival, in contention for the Documentary Australian Foundation Award.
“This is what I felt about Lili’s story, not because I thought that she was not telling the truth. Rather I felt overwhelmed with compassion and empathy for her. I saw how she was struggling with her own inner demons just like everybody else. How could this sweet old lady abandon her own two-year-old daughter?”
Back in 2016, Hegedus was introduced to 82-year-old Lili by his friend and cinematographer Zoltan Vladucz. She had led Brisbane Hungarian radio for 30 years and was finally retiring.
“Zoltan said that Lili had an interesting story and we ought to make a short documentary about her life,” Hegedus tells us today. “I was somewhat reluctant to get involved in a new project given my commitments, however, as a favour to Zoltan, I went to see her. We spent two hours together and she told me her life story: about how as a child she witnessed the massacre of 199 Jewish forced labourers and then in her early 20s she helped freedom fighters in their cause to beat the invading Soviet troops by collecting the dead bodies of their comrades. It was when she told me that she had to leave her child behind in communist Hungary that I thought we need to explore this story further with the view to making a film.”
Lili took 3 years to complete, which included 4 months of shooting and editing in Hungary. As the footage and story came together, were there certain themes that guided the filmmaker, especially when writing the script during the editing process?
“In developing this project, I researched a number of documentary films that dealt with issues of familial trauma such as Stories We Tell and Once My Mother,” he tells us. “While these films eloquently explore these issues, I knew that our documentary had the potential to explore family trauma and abandonment from a new perspective, examining how it can become cyclical in a family. What happens to people who are victims, but then become active agents of abandonment? And most importantly, how does the new generation break this cycle? If they can at all?”
If you explore Peter Hegedus’ filmography, it becomes very clear that he has an interest in his Hungarian roots, which must have been a major factor that drew him to Lili’s story.
“It is hard to describe, but I think the older I get the more drawn I am to my mother country and passionate about the issues that Hungary and its people are facing and dealing with. Given the growing impact of globalisation, Hungary and Australia, or the rest of the world for that matter, are not so isolated anymore when it comes to certain issues. So, I feel that the issues I am dealing with are universal.”