IDFA 2022: Budapest Silo
IDFA Competition for Short Documentary
In Zsófia Paczolay’s stunningly cinematic short doc, selected for IDFA, happy worker József lives and works within the largest operational grain silo in Budapest, descending via ropes and pullies into its gloomy depths to clean the walls, a process which has severe effects on his health. The director talks to SEE NL's Nick Cunningham.
Budapest Silo by Zsófia Paczolay
When director Zsófia Paczolay began to explore the harbour area of Budapest, she didn't expect to come across the enormous and austere silo building standing by the water’s edge.
“We were walking between these containers in this crazy neighborhood. And then there was this building which was already calling from far, huge and monstrous,” she explains. After receiving permission to go inside she and the co-director Nora Ananyan were equally mesmerized by what they saw.
“If anything, it was more impressive inside than outside, because inside it's terrible. It's super dusty, stinky, rats running around occasionally. It's really not a nice place. But its atmosphere with all the working machines [and] their noises is exceptional. From the beginning it felt very special, it made our minds moving, so we decided to make a story in this place and started to follow the workers,” Paczolay comments.
After a while, it was just the one worker that the directors and DOP Ezequiel Salinas focused on – József, who has worked on the harbour for the past 30 years. When he started there, jobs were passed down through family generations, and he has filled many posts, from electrician to crane operator to postman. Now he is cleaning the silo, a job of high status given the dangers it entails, as the vaults into which he descends are hundreds of metres deep.
When the filmmakers first encountered József he was both very helpful and curious as to what they were doing there. But he soon began to take on a quasi-mythical status among the production team. “We started to see him as some kind of an angel, because he's strangely sticking out with his soft and bright presence within this very harsh environment. We were wondering why he was there,” says Paczolay.
He was obviously sharp as well, as we see him playing online chess in the cabin where he lives on the harbour site. In his place we can also see a poster of a diver, and in one of his phone call monologues we hear him say that one day he would like to try diving as well.
The shots of him descending into the chamber are as stunning and dramatic as anything shot in a natural subterranean environment, his descent accompanied by a bright light, attached to a long snaking cable, which illuminates the circular base of the vault. At times, József resembles an astronaut landing on a small moon. At other times the base of the silo looks like a petri dish upon which József moves like a live culture. The visuals are presented within a dramatic industrial soundscape of machines turning, grain flowing and the entire building playing a symphony of idiosyncratic murmurings.
All the time the work throws up grain dust, whose billions of particles fill the air - and József’s lungs. We are told early in the film how he suffers from cumulative headache syndrome and nasal septum deviation, as well as cervical spine and sleep disorders. At one point in the film he makes a wholly different descent, into the innards of an MRI scanner for head and chest assessment.
József is very humble and was embarrassed to be teased by his fellow workers about being the star of the film (which was why Paczolay at times turned the lens on them, not that so many of these scenes made it into the film). He has also never stepped onto a plane, a fact which will be addressed in advance of the film’s world-premiere at IDFA. “He's going to come for the screening. For the first time in his life, he's gonna fly. And he's kind of excited about it,” says Paczolay.
One particular ambition of the director is to project the film for the workers within the silo building, onto one of its dusty walls, even amongst the contaminated air, insects and stray vermin that occupy the space. “Actually just the rats,” the director comforts the future Budapest audience. “The insects are not visible. And the workers will let us know when they have just used insecticide - then one should not enter!”