Interview: Barnabás Tóth’s Short Film ‘Chuchotage’ Brings Laughs And Love To The Translation Booth

Barnabás Tóth’s short film Chuchotage, the only comedy short film shortlisted for an Oscar this year, tells the story of two Hungarian interpreters whose day is enlivened by a mysterious woman.

Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to Barnabás about the film, writing a declaration of love, reactions from the interpreter community, and much more.

Q: Beyond Audrey Hepburn in ‘Charade’, I’m struggling to think of many films that take us inside the interpreters’ booth. What attracted you to this setting?

A: I did a conference interpreting job for one day in my entire life and it was a nightmare. Fortunately, only a gentleman from Luxembourg was listening to my French channel. At the end of the day, I excused myself as I was so poor at the job.

It was 20 years ago but last year when I saw a call for a short film script contest, I entered the contest with this idea and won a small budget to produce it with Laokoon Filmgroup.

Q: When did you come across the term ‘Chuchotage’? You transform it into something rather romantic in the film.

A: It sounds romantic, doesn’t it? So French. Although this term exists in English as well with the same spelling. It also exists in Hungarian as “Susotázs”.

Anyway, I didn’t hear this word until I contacted a professional Hungarian interpreter while writing the script, and she told me about it. At first the movie was called “Flirt”, but after the shooting I realised Chuchotage is much better. Nobody knows it since it’s so specific to the interpreting milieu. I also won’t spoil the exact meaning until the reader has a chance to see the film (it is online until 14 January)!

Q: Did you have a muse when writing the declaration of love from Pál Göttinger’s character?

A: Yes, himself! I wrote the first few sentences, Pál came to a rehearsal (which I filmed) and he improvised 80% of it! At home I wrote it down, found it perfect and integrated into the script.

Q: Pál Göttinger and Géza Takács are wonderfully funny. What were they like to work with?

A: Pál is just perfect. He is very disciplined but at the same time funny, wise, playful and being a theatre director himself, he knows and feels exactly the amount of humour and acting needed for such a dramedy. Funnily, he already played an interpreter in my previous short, Operation Stone.

He introduced me to Géza, and advised strongly that I cast him for his partner. They are indeed very funny together.

Q: Andrea Osvárt is integral to the film, but obviously has a mostly silent role. What qualities were you looking for when casting this role?

A: Being charming, attractive but also “approachable” so a kind of natural beauty without too much glamour. Also she had to speak Italian fair enough, and Andrea perfectly met all these requirements.

Q: ‘Chuchotage’ is the only comedy shortlisted for the live-action short film Oscar. I find that particularly amusing coming from the surprising from the production company (Laokoon Filmgroup) that gave us ‘Son Of Saul’. How fun has it been for you to show the world the Hungarian sense of humour?

A: All my early shorts and my first feature were (supposed to be) funny and met with a larger and enthusiastic audience in Hungary and in Europe, too. Then I made 2-3 serious shorts, which I think were pretty good, but they didn’t work neither in festivals nor on the internet.

So this film is a comeback to my lighter, funnier side and I’m relieved I still can do it. And the fact that it shows the beauties of our isolated little language and has this central-European character adds to my pride.

Q: Have you had any fun reactions to the film from translators who have seen the film?

A: Oh, a lot! This worldwide community of interpreters just discovered my short this very week as it’s released on the net temporarily. I’m invited to several conferences to screen it!

Mostly they are really enthusiastic and grateful, underlining how realistic and detailed my perception is about their work. I also meet some unhappy reactions about how irresponsible my heroes are, and its against the ethics of their work. In this case, I always say it’s not a documentary, it’s fiction and everyone gets what he deserves at the end.

Q: What is next for you in 2019?

A: I’m full of projects – shorts, long ones, even TV series. Various genres from comedy to historical drama, personal love stories to socio-critic zombie films. I can’t wait to show it to producers and start developing them together.