Vujity Tvrtko – Discovering a Life in Media Change Making

Vujity Tvrtko is a Hungarian journalist and filmmaker. Among his many accomplishments, his storytelling led to the freeing of the last Hungarian World War II prisoner of war and started a national conversation about the challenges facing the physically disabled in Hungary. His is currently the host of The Sunday Diary, a nationally broadcast news program on the Hungarian channel TV2. This interview for mediaforchange.org was conducted by Jayesh Ganesh.

PROMOTIONAL PHOTO: Katedra

Background

I grew up in the Hungarian countryside, 130 miles from Budapest. My father was a coal miner and my mother was a teacher in a small village. I wrote an article in the county newspaper as a teenager but I never thought I’d be a journalist. I dreamed of going to the USA to learn English and I wanted to play basketball professionally and join the NBA. I had applied to the University of Croatia in the former Yugoslavia but by the time I got through, Yugoslavia no longer existed!

I belonged to the small Croatian minority, but I could speak Hungarian and Serbian perfectly well. In 1991, when the Yugoslavian War broke out, I was recruited as a translator for a small Hungarian TV crew assigned to cover the conflict. I was nineteen and I struggled to travel from home to the conflict ridden cities every day. This meant I had to sleep over in the cities in order to join the crew there every morning. One night, the army blockaded Osijek, where I was staying, and overnight I became the only foreign journalist in the city. I was suddenly the best source for unbiased new reporting from the region and I started corresponding with many television and radio stations, as well as newspapers. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful journey.

In Hungary, there were no opportunities and very little exposure to the world outside. Circumstances were very different then, and those who did not grow up there can’t grasp the sense of exclusion. When I went to the free world it was a big cultural shock for me. I spoke my first English words in my early twenties in the United States. I found a job feeding horses while learning the language and culture.

Journalism gives me a chance to share powerful stories with the world and I think this makes it the best profession there is. One story in particular changed my life. Fourteen years ago, my crew and I located Mr. András Toma, the last surviving P.O.W. of World War II and brought him back home to Hungary. I worked closely with the psychologist who oversaw Mr. Toma’s recovery and when he returned home after fifty-six years, it changed my life. I realized that this was not just a story, but a part of world history.

To a lot of people, traffic jams and slow Internet connection are great challenges. But for me, after seeing what I have seen, these things don’t seem like problems at all.

Tvrtko in Osijek, Croatia in 1991 during the blockade that turned him from translator to a world media reporter. He was 19.
PHOTO: Kricskovics Antal

From Journalism to Film Making

After the Yugoslavian War in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I realized that my words were being read by millions around the world. They were no longer notes of assurances to my parents or love letters to my girlfriend. I understood then that this power in journalism should not be misused. Talking to an audience is a powerful experience. Writing a book intended for a wider audience is more powerful and a television broadcast reaching hundreds of thousands is more powerful still. To me, filmmaking is a way to bring the story to every home. It is the most empowering experience.

I like to work with the best camera and sound men in my country. I appreciate good lighting, well composed frames and excellent sequences if it is possible. Eighty percent of my films are shot with a crew. If my cameraman needs an extra fifteen minutes to get the perfect shot, it is important that he has it and we wait. But this is not always possible and we are constantly on the move.

I travelled around the world with my small camera to show people two things. First, I wanted to introduce everyday heroes to the world. Second, I wanted Hungarians and the world to be grateful for the food we eat and the place we have to sleep – something that eludes many populations. Hungarians are among the more pessimistic of people and I want society to be more tolerant and respectful of the real heroes and the real problems.

Inside the infamous Ntarama church near Kigali, Rawanda that now serves as a genocide memorial. This photo was taken in 2007 during the production of a story over 12 years after the horrific event in 1994.
PHOTO: Szilvási József

A Career in Television

In 1997, I joined TV2 as its first reporter. Back then, there were only two national television channels. Later, two commercial channels began; one was based on an American format and the other was German. Working in television has been an empowering experience. My program, The Sunday Diary (Napló), has been the top show in Hungary for seventeen years and for the past five years, I have assumed the role of moderator.

Since we have few TV channels in Hungary, I realized that anything we showed on our program could be the general topic of discussion the very next morning in the trams and buses, offices and restaurants. For example, when we investigated the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, it immediately became a topic of discussion in the national assembly. Television has opened my eyes to the tremendous responsibility of reporting; there can be no mistakes and the stakes are high for the people and communities whose lives we set out to change.

Tvrtko’s original TV report (in Hungarian) on the conditions inside Chernobyl and how nuclear contamination spread and impacted the lives of many who were not even living in the vicinity.

Journalistic Ethics

When I first ventured into journalism my motto was, “Do whatever you want, just don’t lie.” Fourteen years ago when I first went to an asylum in Russia, I realized that I could not be honest about my intentions of having Mr. Andras freed. I prepared a cover story and entered the remote Russian region of Tatarstan as a bear hunter with a camera. I told people that the camera will be used to record the hunt and the dead bear as my trophy. We bribed many people to get into the asylum. After the initial recording, we noticed a gentleman speaking fluent Hungarian. When we shared our findings back home on national television, more than two thousand families called us or wrote letters telling us about their links and relations to Mr. András Toma, the Hungarian in the asylum.

This part of Hungarian history had had no closure. Thousands of people had gone back to railway stations at the end of the WWII waiting for their fathers and grandfathers and brothers and lovers. Many of them had not returned. Most of them were dead, but Mr. András was not. He had been tucked away in a remote USSR asylum and forgotten for fifty-six years. Six weeks after we brought him back, we reunited him with his brother and sister. His name had been engraved in the statue commemorating the martyrs – he had been considered dead.

This journey made me rethink my ethical position towards journalism. I reframed my motto to, “Do whatever you want, even lie – but if you have to lie, you must also make the world aware that you have lied.”

Tvrtko in 2000 with Toma András, the last P.O.W. from World War II whom he found in a Russian mental asylum and brought him back to Hungary. András’ identity was confirmed through psychological and DNA tests before reunification with family members. Andras lived until 2003.
PHOTO: Talán Csaba

What Can Media Change?

Let me share with you Fanni’s story. Fanni is a beautiful woman who had been abused by her father and by people in her neighborhood because she is deaf by birth. She was forbidden to use sign language as her father claimed it made her look like a monkey. Her grandparents forbade her from using a hearing aid as they thought it was shameful to be deaf. When we started working together, I started learning sign language to be able to communicate better with her and Fanni sought empowerment from me and our work together. We worked together to raise awareness about the physically challenged in Hungary and abroad.

In our society, equality is only on papers and documents. Through our work, I wanted to show that she is powerful and she could communicate despite her disability. If it is raining outside, people park their vehicles in handicapped spots just to be closer to the entrances and exits of buildings. And these are people who are perfectly fine. This needed to change. The recognition she was able to gather led to her being voted Miss Intercontinental, Hungary in 2011.

Fanni is now a role model for thousands of people. She is among the best violinists in Hungary and sang using sign language in a duet with one of Hungary’s best singers. In the Hungarian National Assembly, she spoke in her own voice about handicapped people and about how we can help them. For the past two years, since a minute after the national anthem on New Year’s Eve, Fanni has been accompanying the president in his address to the nation as the official sign language translator. She is now very well known, but more importantly, she is a strong, independent woman who believes in herself.

This story is representative of why I like being a journalist. This is what media can change. By empowering one person, we can empower society.

Tvrtko in Haiti with Fanni Weisz in 2012.
PHOTO: Dr. Szilágyi Béla

Looking Forward

I am firstly a father and a husband. I have three sons whom I would like to see grow into fine gentlemen. Professionally, I have been on the move around the world and in my region to capture and share my stories of everyday heroes.

I will continue working on my prime-time television show and I am focusing on my writing. My books are written in Hungarian but they have been translated to multiple regional languages. Last year, I held fifty-four presentations in national theatres, movie halls and cultural centres in Hungary and neighbouring countries for a largely Hungarian audience. I would like to continue this effort of sharing. I would like to continue talking to as many people as I possibly can and in the coming three months, I have up to twenty-five presentations already planned.

I am currently planning two films. The first of these will explore the aftermath of Idi Amin’s dictatorial regime in Uganda. The second film is also interesting. There is a small autonomous polity in Europe called Mount Athos which is largely unknown. This polity is constituted of twenty monastic districts. Members of this society do not trade with money and since 1046 A.D, the island has been closed to women under a decree by the Byzantine Emperor. I would like to capture this.

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