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'Belongings' Tells of Father's Painful Exile


Bela Bognar may regret that he ever left his beloved Hungary right after the failed revolution of 1956, but had he never come to the United States and married a woman named Andree, he would never have had a son named Steven.

Steven Bognar's first film, airing on PBS' "P.O.V." series tonight, is proof that Bela made the right decision.

A kind of diary/tone poem of a film, combining style and personal reflection in equal measure, Steven's "Personal Belongings" records and reflects upon the nagging pains of exile. And almost without Steven knowing it, this is his oddly public effort to understand his father.


Bela was the only dad on Steven's block who was a revolutionary, though he wasn't one of the leaders in the Hungarian opposition to Soviet rule. The revolution failed, Bela fled to Belgium and met Andree. Like so many before them, the couple reinvented themselves in the United States, with Bela eventually earning a sociology professorship to teach at UC Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin. (Those school's huge anti-war protesters were "phony and spoiled," Bela says, compared to his brave Hungarian comrades.)

Of course, Steven can't resist his own comments, and his running voice-over narration retains an honest, almost spontaneous tone, as if he were watching the images with us and commenting on them. He must comment, because once the 30th anniversary of the Hungarian revolt comes around, Bela starts pulling a series of surprises that startles Steven and the rest of the family.

Bela, for instance, stands in the middle of Budapest's central square where the revolt began 30 years earlier, and the only ones around are Steven filming him, and Hungarian undercover police filming Steven and Bela. The ensuing misadventures with Steven's footage are enough for a wacky comedy in itself but a stark reminder for Bela that little had changed back home.

This is nothing, though, compared to the turmoil Bela puts his family through after the end of the Cold War. Steven records a man losing his emotional moorings, as Bela seems to completely jettison his family for his own personal post-Cold War freedom binge.

With quicksilver editing and a charming economy of means (including a lot of hand-held super-8 camera work), "Personal Belongings" looks into one man's deeply torn heart, and the irreconcilable divisions that define his life.

* "Personal Belongings" airs on "P.O.V." at 10 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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