the eastern beat

Manuel F Contreras

documentary film director

Manuel F Contreras has worked in documentary filmmaking both independently and for TV networks. His films depart from intimate places and explore the big decisions of everyday life and family life. Now based in Budapest, he works as festival programer for BIDF and Déli-Doku.

Where are you from and what brought you to Budapest?

I'm from Bogotá, Colombia and I came to Budapest around 7 years ago, because one of the semesters of my M.A. in documentary filmmaking was held here. I stayed longer to continue PhD studies and that’s what I'm doing now.

The MA programme under which I came to study in Budapest is called DocNomads - it’s a masters degree in documentary filmmaking within the Erasmus Mundus programme. It’s organized by three universities - one in Lisbon, Budapest and Brussels. The idea is that you travel from one city to the other and grow as a documentary filmmaker by getting to know different cultures. As it’s an international program, it focuses on bringing people from different countries. 

I have also been working as the programmer of the Budapest International Documentary Film Festival. It is a young festival, I have been with them from the beginning and at some point I got  involved in programming. The films presented at the festival are very creative and with very strong dramaturgy. 

There’s another festival I work with, the Déli-Doku Festival related to contemporary Latin American documentaries. As there are a lot of films from Latin America about big social issues, we didn't want to make it too heavy. We want to show the bright side of South America to keep the balance. It’s a small festival, but every year we have more visitors.

In your own documentaries, is there a topic/region you specialize in?

I have always made films with different topics, but when it comes to my personal work the films are connected to my personal life or someone’s personal life- there's no politics or current affairs. Nowadays my films are very much connected with my own experience in my family. 

What made you become a documentary filmmaker?

Documentaries have touched me deeply, there is the saying that reality can be more interesting than fiction. I never did fiction, it was always very complicated for me to make up a story, while with documentary it was easy for me to find the connection, to develop something. Whenever I tried making fiction I never felt I was authentic doing it, I felt I wasn't being honest.

Are there any projects you made that are related to Budapest?

There's a short documentary movie I made in Budapest and I think it changed many things in the way I work. When I made that film I started thinking differently, it gave a new twist to my work. It was special also because it was the first time I put myself in the film. It’s a film that I made in Budapest, in a shop that sells clothes for people who are mourning. The shop was called Fekete Feher, someone told me about it and it was completely new to me to have a shop like that. It turned out to be very unique, it was not as usual as I was told. I went there, met the owner of the shop and her husband. We became friends, almost like a family. When I went there the first time I couldn't really speak Hungarian but luckily the owner’s husband spoke perfect English. From the beginning they saw me as the kid who could be their son. Before shooting I was going to the shop quite often, talking to them, building the relationship. As I was asking myself why I was going there in the first place, at some point it was clear who this film was going to be really about.

What are you working on at the moment?

My upcoming project is about the search for my half brother whom I had never met. From the beginning I knew I couldn't do this without revealing myself as well. I'm looking for my brother because of my own personal crisis and it was really tough - it can be about all the other people ,but in the end it’s about me. For me it is never about the things that are happening in front of the camera. It is, whether you want it or not, a story about the person behind the camera. Even for fiction films they say that every film is to an extent an autobiography of the director. Even in photography, it’s not the landscape in the photo, it’s the inner landscape, the way you see what’s in front of you. Whatever the means of expression, you choose a topic for a reason. I do find my brother in the end and it is only the setup of the film - the film evolves and becomes an exploration of paternity, constructing a new family. 

When you had the opportunity to come to Budapest, were there other places you were considering?

I had lived abroad before and then I went back to Bogotá, but I don't really like living there. I applied for the masters program knowing that if there is a place that I like I would stay there, and that's what happened to me. When I came to Budapest I liked it almost immediately. 

What was the first thing you liked about Budapest?

I think the river was really important for me, I always wanted to live somewhere by the water. Then I made some friends very quickly, I liked the vibe of the city and the fact thats it's so alive. The reason I don't live in Bogota is that I feel quite lonely there. It’s a very big city and the weather creates a different routine for people, people wake up very early, work a lot and when they go back home they don't really want to do anything. As I spend a lot of time working at home alone it’s very important to know I can meet people easily.

How have you been dealing with the virus situation, how is it affecting you?

I was very fortunate because since I'm studying here with a scholarship. But of course I see a lot of artist friends who are struggling, they had to use all their savings and get their family help. As for the things I am doing, I actually relaxed a little bit because at some point there was so much work that I told myself I would take it easy. 

Read more about Manuel on his website

January 2021

Photos: Anna Jopp

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