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City of Lost Souls: 'There Was Once...' Chronicles a Quest to Reclaim the Past

By Bob Fisher

The seed of inspiration for the production of There Was Once... was planted in filmmaker Gabor Kalman's mind and heart when he received an e-mail from a stranger halfway around the world. Gyongyi Mago, a high school teacher in Kalocsa, Hungary, introduced herself  and explained that she was doing research about the history of  the  town for a dissertation she was going to write in order to earn an advanced degree. 

There Was a 103-minute documentary produced and directed by Kalman. It documents how the Nazi invasion of his homeland and the subsequent Holocaust affected the people who lived in the town where he spent the first ten years of his life.

In subsequent e-mails and telephone conversations, Mago explained that she was shocked to discover that 511 of the approximate 12,000 people who lived in town prior to the World War II were Jewish. At least 393 of them were murdered in concentration camps. None of the approximate 18,000 people who live in Kalocsa today are Jewish. Mago had been searching for survivors and relatives of  the victims and asking them to share their memories and feelings.


                                            Gyongyi Mago, subject of Gabor Kalman's There Was Once....


If Kalman's name sounds familiar, it may be because he was a founding member of the International Documentary Association in 1982 and a member of the board of directors for nine years. His story could inspire a script for a feel-good Hollywood movie. He was ten years old when the Nazi army invaded and occupied his homeland. He survived by hiding. The Soviet army drove the Nazis out of Hungary in 1944 and established a communist regime.

Kalman was a college student in 1956, when the  people of  Hungary made a valiant effort to overthrow the repressive communist government. After the Russian army invaded Hungary and brutally crushed the revolt, Kalman was able to cross the border into Austria. He subsequently migrated to the United States as a political refugee. 

Kalman earned an undergraduate degree at the University of  California at Berkeley and a masters degree in film and television from Stanford before launching his career as a documentary filmmaker. When he wasn't producing and directing documentaries, Kalman taught at the USC School of Cinematic Arts from 1987 to 2007. He is currently an adjunct professor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.  

Kalman never forgot his homeland. He was a Senior Fulbright Scholar and taught at the Academy of Theater and Film Arts in Budapest, Hungary, in 1994 and 2008.

"I was totally taken by the fact that 65 years after the Jews were taken away from Kalocsa, a young high school teacher, who is not Jewish, was interested in what happened," Kalman says.  "Gyongyi told me she was planning to restore the vastly neglected Jewish cemetery in Kalocsa. She wanted to invite survivors and relatives of victims to a memorial. I was so impressed by what she was doing that I told her I wanted to make a film about her."

After Mago agreed to participate, Kalman contacted Gabor Garami, a Hungarian producer and asked for advice for recruiting the right cinematographer to collaborate with him. Garami provided a list of candidates. Zsolt Toth of the Hungarian Society of Cinematographers (HSC) was on the list.

"Zsolt was one of my students when I taught at the film school in Budapest," Kalman says. "We stayed in contact over the years. I knew he was the right choice for this film. 

"Contrary to what I believe and teach my students, there was no script or treatment," Kalman says. "I was much too familiar with the subject. Zsolt and I had long discussions about finding the right look. I had some nostalgic memories of my childhood days in Kalocsa. I envisioned something in between a pure cinema vérité look and my dream-like memories."

They began production in Kalocsa in 2008. The camera crew consisted of Toth and a soundman.  Toth recorded images with a Sony EX-3 camera. "We followed Gyongyi around and covered her interactions with people sharing their memories and thoughts," Kalman recalls. "I tried to tell the story through Gyongyi's eyes and from her point of view while shooting in cinema vérité style. There were no Jewish families in town. Gyongyi suggested that we interview older people who knew them.

"Most people didn't remember what happened to their Jewish neighbors or didn't want to remember," Kalman continues. "An old lady who Gyongyi interviewed read names that she had written on a piece of paper. She said that one of them had a variety store where she shopped. In one scene, Mago is talking with someone who shows her an old photo album with pictures of my family and her parents. Most people, including Gyongyi's colleagues and students, were very receptive. Other people were friendly, but there was also an underlying current of resentment."

Mago provided Kalman with a list of survivors and members of  the victims' families who lived in the United States and Canada. He tracked them down and requested interviews.

Jon Dunham, who was one of Kalman's students when he was teaching at USC, was the cinematographer who collaborated with him in North America.  "There were no sponsors," Kalman says. "I had to watch every penny. When Jon and I were in Canada, we were scheduling two or three interviews a day. We would interview someone in the morning in Toronto, fly to Montreal and do an interview or two there." Dunham covered the interviews with a Sony EX-1 camera.

Mago organized a memorial service at the Jewish cemetery in Kalocsa in 2009 to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the emptying of the local ghetto and deportation of  Jewish citizens to Auschwitz and other concentration camps.  "It was attended by a handful of  survivors of  the Holocaust, their descendents, Gyongyi's students, the mayor of  Kalocsa, other city officials and the Archbishop," Kalman notes. "Jon traveled to Hungary with me to help cover the memorial.  He and Zsolt were generally working side by side. At one point, one of them was covering the memorial service while the other one documented a neo-fascist demonstration near the memorial service. During the service, one of the neo-fascists used a slingshot to hit a visitor from New York with a rock; the fascists are the second largest political party in Hungary."


                                                         From Gabor Kalman's There Was Once...


In all, the filmmakers recorded between 40 and 50 hours of content. "It wasn't a case of more is better," Kalman explains. "The interviews and all of the events were tightly scheduled. The first time we were in Kalocsa for a week and our second visit to Hungary was less than a week. The whole thing was done on a shoestring budget."

Kalman met Kate Amend, ACE (Association of Cinema Editors), when they were both teaching at USC. Amend was first recipient of the IDA Outstanding Achievement Award for Editing in 2005. Her credits include several Academy Award-winning documentaries. "I assumed that Kate was busy working on projects with bigger budgets," Kalman says, "so I told her about the film and asked if she would look at some footage and recommend an editor. After she looked at some of the footage, Kate told me that she wanted to edit the film.

"We had an incredible, wonderfully close relationship," Kalman continues. "I kept teasing Kate and asking her, When are we going to disagree about something and have an argument? But we never did." 

There Was Once... blends black-and-white still pictures and film from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s with contemporary color moving images. Some dialogue is Hungarian with English subtitles. Some critics have characterized it as a Holocaust film.  "The theme is universal," Kalman maintains. "It is really a story about Gyongyi Mago and what one person can do to influence how future generations see the past. I believe she is a true heroine."

Kalman is not alone in that opinion. Mago received the Medal of Valor from The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, in 2010, which also screened the film. There Once Was...  has also screened at the Laemmle Sunset 5 theater in Los Angeles, the IFC Center in Manhattan and the International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Budapest.

 "My goal is to bring it to as broad an audience as possible," Kalman concludes. "I believe that through Gyongyi's story there are important lessons to be learned." For more information visit


                                                  Gabor Kalman, director/producer of There Was Once...



There Was Once...will screen February 15 at 7:00 p.m. at The Ray Stark Family Theater in the George Lucas Building at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. For more information, click here.


Bob Fisher has written more than 2,500 articles about narrative and documentary filmmakers over the past 50 years. He has also written extensively about the importance of archiving yesterday and today's films for future generations.