A Guest of life


Alexander Csoma de Körös

colour, 35 mm, 79 minutes

Director: Tibor Szemző
Storyteller: Susannah York / Mari Törőcsik
Script: László Sári
Cinematography: István "Taikyo" Szaladják
Editor: Teri Losonci
Music: Tibor Szemző
Paintings of animation: Gábor Roskó
Animations: Károly Kása Papp, Bálint Kolozsvári
Sound Engineer: Tamás Zányi
Assistants to the director: Adele Eizenstein, László Csáki
Production managers: Ferenc Komjáti, András Dávid
Co-producer: Attila Bognár
Producer: György Durst


The life and fate of ALEXANDER CSOMA DE KÖRÖS-has occupied my mind for many years. In the late autumn of 1999 I travelled to the Himalayas, the village of Kanam on the border of India and China. Alexander Csoma had spent perhaps the most important years of his research in Kanam and also compiled most of his famous Tibetan-English dictionary and grammar there. In this place I understood many things about him which the literature and legends failed to tell. The perspective is quite different 'at the top of the world' but the overwhelming experience is difficult to grasp.

I have no intention of producing yet another biography and interpretation of Csoma, although the script was inspired by his person and the circumstances.

Much has been written about Alexander Csoma de Körös's wanderings, and much about the significance of his scholarly work. Yet despite being seen by most Hungarians as one of their great national figures, little can be said about the personality of the man who led such an extraordinary life, how his character was shaped by the events he experienced, the studies he pursued. He certainly never talked to anyone about himself: reticence was one of his main characteristics.

The poor scholar was one of our century's great, original pioneers. As a student, before he started university, together with two other fellow-students, he solemnly vowed to devote his life to the task of penetrating Central Asia in quest of the origin of his nation. In the first thirty-five years of his life he prepared himself for the task in Europe, and during the next twelve years he travelled around as a pilgrim in Asia or lived a life of solitude and privation in the cold of Tibet, learning from Buddhist monks. He spent the remaining eleven years of his life publishing in India parts of the material he had collected himself. [...] His fate was typical of scholarly pioneers. Someone else reaped the rewards of his efforts. To the scholars of his century Csoma was an obscure, Transylvanian figure, abandoned among the Himalayan hills-however, from the summits a giant cast its shadow on Central Asia. (W.W. Hunter)


One thread of the script evokes the folk tales and legends about Csoma. Abounding in humour, these naive stories portray the man as a folk-tale hero. The other thread seeks to conjure up, with the help of original Tibetan texts and other literary sources, the thoughts and feelings captured in these books-heaven and hell, the nether world and hereafter and the intermediate states of existence, philosophy, poetry and religion. All of these shaped Csoma's personality and world-view, guiding him through the final years of his life.
Like the story, the imagery of the film has two different strands. One is the tales of the storyteller, the Csoma legends with animated scenes painted in pastel colours, like the pictures in a Victorian storybook. The images of the other strand are not out to illustrate-we are in the Buddhist world of India, Tibet and the Himalayas. We are following Alexander Csoma's passage through India, as well as his inner journey. Shot on 8-mm this film has a bland colour-world, it lies on the borderland of dream and reality, with unique and consistent, almost still images; now in sync with the flow of multilingual narration and music, now in counterpoint to it. The film is constructed upon these two very different visual idioms.


The film was conceived to give a major role to music-not just the music of instruments and voices, but also the intrinsically musical character of the spoken voice in different languages. This multilingualism seems entirely consonant with the fundamental thrust of Csoma's thinking and approach to the world. In line with his practice over the last two decades, the composer took both semantic and musical aspects as his starting-point to "orchestrate" the texts for the various languages. The texts themselves were recorded as read by a miscellany of "ordinary" native speakers of the languages in question, and the recordings were then incorporated into the musical "score" as musical parts in their own right. By this approach, the aim has been to give Csoma a "voice", to reflect the emotional, intellectual and spiritual tones of his character, in so far as these may divined from his known preoccupations.

One specific inspiration for the composed part of the musical material were the original woodcuts that feature in folios of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.


The shooting of the film and most of the foreign-language recordings-songs and voices-were made on location in India, in Delhi, Sarnath, Calcutta and the Buddhist monasteries of the Himalayas. Our crew also took the opportunity to record the sound effects at these sites, e.g. Csoma's monastery at Kanam, his library room in Calcutta, city streets, and in the mountains.