Don’t miss Hungarian documentary filmmaker, Ágnes Sós’ prizewinning Stream of Love (72 minutes) at the OpenCityDocsFest, filmed over three years in a Hungarian-speaking village in Transylvania, Romania, where she invited an amazingly vibrant group of elderly villagers, male and female, to reflect upon their love lives past and current, and speak frankly about things some of them have never spoken about before.
Sós, who has twenty years experience as a director of documentaries, wanted her subjects to be “completely open with me, even when I had a camera in my hand.” Of course it would take time for them to trust her completely, as they cheerfully, chivalrically, conspiratorially do - but the results are astonishingly emancipatory, I believe, for all of us.
In fact it’s rather amusing to see how often reviews of this little gem of a film include a very firm frame to keep its messages at a distance. In particular we are told, the village is ‘remote, with its aura of bygone days’, ‘a nostalgic look at old-style country living’ in an ‘isolated rural world’, ‘caught in a time warp’, or that the film chronicles, ‘a bygone way of life that probably won’t outlast the village’s inhabitants’. I really wouldn’t bet on this last surmise. Apart from anything else, thanks to Sós, these octagenarian faces so lovingly observed have all the unforgettable splendour of Rembrandt’s portraits of old age, including his self-portraits – shining truth, wit, cherished memories, a sense of adventure, and above all a very non-digital order of things which sees wisdom of many kinds acquired with age and not with youth.
Perhaps in the opening sequence before the title goes up, you might be tempted to say, as one review puts it, that ‘time has stood still here’. Janos Masik’s charming accordion music sets the daily rhythm of repetitive work as a dog and a donkey climb a hill, we see a cow being milked, a mug of milk handed to a child who drinks it - is this the stream of love we wonder? - dusk falls on silhouetted farmers taking their forks and spades and turning their backs on a haystack left in a halo of lingering light. And so to bed, perchance to dream, the music stops.
And then the title rolls against a field of ravishing wild flowers in a daylight world, and the music starts up again on a new day. From now on, as we are privileged to accompany Ferenc, our ageing Lothario, cap set at a jaunty angle on the first of his visits in his new horse and cart to the “two or three really fine women” he has identified among the, “ 25 widow women living in the area” – time does anything but stop still.
There is the daily rhythm, dawn to dusk, sun and storm, and the seasonal rhythms of picking and planting, harvesting and snow – a wonderful journey through a snow-filled landscape full of glittering diamonds to balance the gorgeous fields of grass and summer flowers. There is birth from a midwife’s supremely practical even courageous perspective, and death, as it touches a rejected husband who is nevertheless proud of his devotion to his now-departed philandering wife, and much cheered by dreaming of her. As with the music, which subtly adapts to wedding dance or funeral observance, which sometimes has cow bells, and sometimes a human sound that could be laughing or crying, it is repetition that marks the changes of season, and each new setting forth on the road is a fresh adventure for the heart.
Maybe the camera puts Ferenc in a more than usually generous mood on his next trip, but “Hello my little lovelies”, he calls out to two old ladies en route, and the film takes the time – perfect timing – for these surprised belles to register the provocation, and to laugh heartily at the compliment. On more than one occasion, and this is one of them, we find out just how beautiful a toothless smile can be.
We are never quite sure where Ferenc is going, but the air of promiscuous possibility is certainly catching. After a while, we begin to feel that the stream of love embraces many people in this community - there is so much greeting and laughing, confiding and story-telling, and dancing, including a wonderful account of waltzing into 50 years of marriage - that links them in turn to the beautiful rhythms of the landscape. One sequence of a man with a scythe cutting grass, and cleaning the scythe with a bunch of grass in an elegant arc with a flourish to the camera segues into a fantastic monologue on how best to enjoy sex – the whole performance an act of beauty. Stories are told and jokes made as fruit is washed, nettles are picked (“nothing better than nettle seeds for potency”) dough is kneaded for the wedding feast, and cabbage leaves are cleaned, a few of them handed to the much-loved, glorious white horse waiting his turn patiently at the kitchen door.
This is no rural idyll though: there is vanity, hard work, suffering, ignorance, bigotry, even murder, and much contestation over sex and love as over everything else – shaking of heads over modern day mores, revealing notions of gender and above all, the impression of too much that was not said (though sometimes what is not said can be truly heroic too, as in the case of the devoted husband).
But not any more. You have to marvel that, quite the opposite from a village in aspic – this is one where a revolution has taken place, at least for a lucky few of its older inhabitants, in a series of revelations, single or plural, that were achieved before the film team arrived in their midst by people who were willing to find things out for themselves and share it with each other.
Surely we must salute their indomitable, adventurous spirit. What does seem to be true of this remote region of Transylvania, is that its community is relatively indifferent to the progress going on around it, and that the lucky ones have worked out for themselves and helped each other to come to the conclusion that, “We used to be so foolish – we were so afraid and missed out on so many good things – but not any more!” Yes I believe we have much to learn from these people. If you can help it, don’t miss this ravishing film.
openDemocracy is an Open City Docs Fest media partner.