Márta Elbert (1950–) is an editor, reporter, producer, founding member and editor of the video periodical Black Box, and a documentarian of the changing political system in Hungary and in East-Central Europe.
Filming was destined to become her profession. In her early childhood, she was fond of watching all films, as she recollects, and instead of school she often went to the cinema from the age of ten. Later, she was enrolled in a technical institute, and her father, a furrier, wanted to pass his own profession on to her, but she felt little affinity for this line of work.
She started to work for the Hungarian Film Factory in 1970, at first as an assistant cash-keeper, which was really the lowest rank, but she was still delighted to get into the exclusive world of filmmaking. This had a great influence on her, to have the chance to come close to the celebrated actors of the age, whom before she could only watch and admire on the cinema screen. The staff hierarchy was sometimes overwhelming, but in spite of this, her compensation was having the chance to often enter into private conversation with actors and actresses. She eventually rose in the ranks of the film industry, and worked for twenty years as a recording and production manager.
In 1973, she was assigned to the television show department, then became a full-time recording tutor of Béla Balázs Studio (BBS) that had been formed as a part of Film Factory, but later became a separate entity of young Hungarian filmmakers. It was the legendary era of BBS, and Elbert herself assisted actively at the birth of a series of important films. She contributed to both documentary and feature films as a colleague of renowned directors, such as Pál Sándor, Márta Mészáros, Pál Schiffer, Gyula Gazdag, Béla Tarr, and others. During her work she realized the main challenge of documentary film, whether or not a real-life story can be presented from enough distance and strict editing work from start to finish. After she had been declined twice, Elbert in 1979 was finally admitted to the Theater and Cinema College as a student of production head training.
She recalled the atmosphere of teamwork at shootings in one of her interviews: “In 1973, we worked on the film ‘The Message of the Emperor,’ directed by László Najmányi. We badly needed some 150 extras, so Ábel Kőszegi and myself went to recruit them from the neighboring summer camps for foreigners, organized by the Hungarian Communist Youth League [KISZ]. And we managed to recruit a hell of a crowd of students of many races and ethnicities, and shoot that feature film of 50 minutes at almost no cost. And the cast was just great with all the Hungarian dissidents and young underground artists, like Péter Halász, László Rajk, Péter Breznyik, István Eörsi, and others. We camped in tents in Visegrád along the Danube bend. And at the same time I had my duties in another film shooting too, that of ‘God’s Field,’ directed by Judit Elek. So I had to keep shuttling daily between Visegrád and Nógrád County, on the other side of Danube. At the dawn I bought 150 eggs, 50 cents apiece, at the village location of ‘God’s Field,’ rushed with them back to Visegrád, and by the time the actors and staff members were waking up, I managed to fry a gigantic omlette for them.”
These years were a busy time for her, and she felt wonderful to be among people of similar interest and thought. They had house parties, a big social life, and of course worked hard, with days never ending by 8 o’clock. “My duties and responsibilities have hardened me. It is a hard job physically, as you keep running all day, and of course mentally too, since you must not forget anything in preparation for shooting. Still it was a great school, and it taught me to work hard and steadily. It bothers me a bit that I didn’t keep a diary. Incredible stories transpired during the shooting of films. And more than once I had to work on a feature and a documentary film at the same time.” In the meantime she studied sociology at the ELTE University, Budapest, which was not at all a strange choice for her, given that documentaries often involve similar subjects and expertise.
Filmmakers’ work, of course, was often disturbed by the censors. At Béla Balázs Studio (BBS) there was a system of post-censorship, not the script but the completed film was censored. Elbert also shares her memories of how it worked: “It happened several times that the Chief Director of Film Production sent his secret cops to the laboratory during the night. There they kidnapped the negatives and the working copy of a film just completed, and then locked it into one of the safes of the censorship office in its Báthori Street headquarters. And from that point on, the film did not exist anymore. I think the invention of the video has greatly contributed to the fall of communism, as this has enabled the showing of events without political manipulation. In fall of the Eastern European systems, the freeing of media played a crazy big role.’
The dissident artists’ films produced by BBS belonged in most cases to the category of “tolerated,” under the vigilance of the state security agencies. As Elbert remembers, “In 1976 we worked on the film Cséplő Gyuri. Its director Pál Schiffer was not really on good terms with ‘the comrades’ of cultural policy, nor was its scriptwriter, the dissident sociologist István Kemény. It was obvious that the secret police kept a keen eye on us. They followed us all the time, wherever we went. And when we screened our freshly shot raw materials in the Pasarét studio of BBS, strange gentlemen regularly appeared in the projection room.
A decade later Márta Elbert became an active founding member of Black Box. A new and independent documentary staff was selected at her apartment, and its clandestine editorial meetings were held there with the participation of István Jávor, András Lányi, Judit Ember, and Gábor Vági. Elbert was in close contact with Jávor during the shooting of Cséplő Gyuri. Jávor at that time had a home video camera and proposed that they start filming together. As Elbert recalls: “If someone at that time had a video camera, it was such a great thing, like a privately owned satellite would be in our day. Jávor’s was medium size with a separate recording unit of 8 to 10 kilos. For more than a year this was the only technical device of Black Box.”In 1990 Elbert left BBS, and from then worked only for Black Box. She has been involved in over 130 films as editor, reporter, and producer. In addition, in 1994 she founded Black Box Roma Media School and taught there for ten years. In the mid-1990s, political themes were replaced by the themes of sociology. In the meantime, she has changed production management for the substantial tasks of filmmaking.
- Budapest, Hungary
- Huhák, Heléna
- Nóvé, Béla
Barabás, Klára. „Megsemmisülsz, vagy felrepülsz a csillagokig....” Elbert Márta filmrendező-producer, a Fekete Doboz alapítója.” 2003.12.14. https://filmkultura.hu/regi/2003/articles/profiles/elbertm.hu.html.
„A rendszerváltás fekete doboza – beszélgetés Elbert Márta filmrendezővel 2007.04.04.” http://www.pecsinapilap.hu/cikk/A_rendszervaltas_fekete_doboza_____beszelgetes_Elbert_Marta_filmrendez__337_vel/56307.
Elbert, Márta. „HAVASSAL BARANYÁBAN, HAVASSAL PÁRIZSBAN.” 2016.03.15. http://beszelo.c3.hu/onlinecikk/havassal-baranyaban-havassal-parizsban.