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Pair make Svalbard part of Hungarian series on global hot spots
The war in Gaza, the exiled peoples of Tibet, human rights abuses in Cambodia…the ice in Svalbard?
It's a logical part of the group – really – say two Hungarian filmmakers producing a television series about places experiencing globally significant events.
"In our show we have extremely interesting locations, human interest stories and something happening as news," said András Takács, who began working on the series in April with Eszter Cseke. They met as students three years ago at the Hungarian Film Academy and have been capturing some of the world's more notorious controversies and cultures since.
Svalbard and its role in global efforts to combat climate change will be aired as part of "On The Spot," a series of documentaries scheduled to be broadcast on Hungarian television from November until next July. The Norwegian Arctic, far more remote and free of the military conflicts in many other areas they've covered, was motivated by this month's visit by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as part of his campaign to combat global warming. The issue is expected to be at the front of the international stage during the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December.
"It doesn't have to relate" to other locations and issues in the series, Takács said.
Going to prominent global hot spots means documenting stories covered by thousands of other journalists. What, if anything, are they doing that will result in a tale not already told?
"We're not going to be as polite as other journalists," Cseke said.
Such bluntness was reflected in the perceptions and questions they had about Svalbard when they arrived.
"You have a village, a town, a community that isn't really real," he said. "You don't have births, problems, deaths. If you have somebody with problems you send them away. It is absolutely extreme."
"The strong survive, the weak go away," Cseke said. "What society works that way?"
Takács said he has a better understanding after a week in Svalbard why the area has some of the rules it does, but doesn't know yet what kind of narrative the show will feature.
"We understand a lot during the trip, but while editing even more, so I can't tell you exactly," he said.
The pair wasn't sure of their plans on their first full day in Longyearbyen, but by the end of it they were on a boat headed for a quick weekend trip to Barentsburg and Pyramiden before returning for Ban's arrival that Monday.
"We really like the spontaneous work," Takács said. "It's really important to us."
But capturing events on the fly does mean nerve-racking moments, Cseke said.
"Sometimes you can stick around for two days and just be pale, saying 'Wow, is it working?'" she said.
Careful planning is also part of their process, and it paid dividends in Svalbard as Takács got one of the few available media spaces for Ban's trip to the Polar Ice Rim and scored a one-on-one interview at the end of the U.N. leader's trip. It was, Takács said, another time when questions outside the norm proved useful.
Other journalists were granted two questions apiece and generally made the same inquiries about global warming, Takács said. He and Cseke asked Ban for specifics about the effect of CO2 emissions on China's economic development and presented evidence argued by climate change skeptics.
"It was definitely the longestest interview (by the media) here," Takács said. "We loved it."
But the direct approach doesn't mean animosity. Ban, described as relaxed and friendly when not before the larger media packs, engaged in some playful individual moments with Takács while traveling to the ice rim and touring the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, including guessing the distance of a glacier the secretary-general was interested in walking on.
"He came back and talked to me and asked 'What is you guess? How far is the glacier?'" Takács said. "I thought one-and-a-half kilometers...I asked him what was his guess and everybody was laughing." (Turns out the glacier was 16 kilometers away).
Among the other locations in the series are Bolivia, Ethiopia, the Middle East and Everest Base Camp in Nepal. The latter focuses on exiled people from Tibet.
"We wanted to check how they live and they also have a lot of inner conflicts," she said.
Visitors attempting to climbing the world's tallest peak - or just making it to the camp at 5,360 meters above sea level - will be profiled as well since "we're also interested in how Western people react to reaching their dream."
Takács and Cseke said they have escaped serious mishaps so far, although there have been some close calls.
"We went down into the smuggling tunnels in Egypt and Gaza," Takács said. "Two days later they collapsed and one person died."
Getting into tumultuous areas where journalists aren't always welcome hasn't been a problem so far, Cseke said.
"Our country's small," she said. "We're not in the political spotlight."
The television series isn't their first foray into the world's controversial issues and areas. Takács said he had started a documentary about Gaza when he met Cseke three years ago and decided she would be an ideal working partner. Earlier projects one or both of them have worked on include a documentaries about persecuted author Salman Rushdie, UNICEF refugee camps and the struggles of women in repressed areas.
Their gear is minimal: A tiny but professional-grade video camera, two sets of audio cables and a laptop computer. Much of their editing work takes place back in Hungary between trips, where each are also able to catch up with loved ones.
Takács said the most interesting encounter so far has been in Gaza with the military wing of Hamas.
"We drank coffee with them and talked to them, and tried to understand them," he said.
The most interesting experience in Svalbard, at least for Cseke, was seeing restoration efforts in Pyramiden as Russia tries to turn it into a tourist destination with Longyearbyen's appeal.
"It is very, very important for the Russians to be here," she said.
Such encounters - along with the discussions with longtime residents, meals in people's homes and societal oddities - mean the program that airs will be considerably different than originally envisioned, Takács said.
"When we came we thought we'd come for the interview with the secretary-general," he said. "There's been no interview ever by a Hungarian journalist with the secretary-general because we're too small and unimportant. It turned out this is really a place where we should do a whole program for its own reasons."
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