The dynamic duo behind On the Spot on why they get up close and visceral

The documentary series On the Spot covers extreme geographies and themes that defy simple explanation, except, perhaps, this one: it’s as far from “fake news” as you can possibly get.

by Todd Neff

Eszter Cseke and András S. Takács, first partners in film and now partners in life, have recorded the aftermath of a bombing in Gaza; female circumcision in Ethopia; United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in Svalbard, Norway; President Evo Morales in Boliva; former child soldiers in Sri Lanka; American troops in Afghanistan; and residents of the slums of Johannesburg, South Africa. That was just season one.

In the nine years hence, Cseke and Takács have been around the world again and again, recording with digital video cameras small enough to be confused for those of tourists or soccer moms. They form a crew of two, doing the advance work, the travel planning, the producing, the filming, the editing, the coffee-making and about everything else.

The duo’s films are, as Financial Times columnist Peter Aspden put it, “Up close and visceral.”

“The idea of the documentary as eyewitness is hardly new, but rarely has it been taken to this degree,” Aspden wrote. “Takács and Cseke plunge their cameras into the heart of the action, asking questions that are normally suppressed. What happens to a body when it is blown up? And who, literally, picks up the pieces?”

Their film-making philosophy derives from a quote from the famous Hungarian photographer Robert Capa: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”

While they hope to avoid Capa’s fate (stepped on a landmine in Vietnam, dead at age 40), they continue to tempt it around the world. They have no pretenses about solving the world’s problems. But without reporting on the human stories whose accumulation sometimes makes the news (and sometimes doesn’t), there will be no fundamental truths — just more generalization, more spin, more decisions made without grasping their true implications.

“By telling all these small stories, we are working to give a bigger picture,” Cseke told Aspden.

While their tools may look like those of hobbyists, their productions are on a much higher plane. On the Spot manages to squeeze a lot from their pint-size cameras. Their storytelling style, while far from being slow TV, is patient. They recognize and capture dramatic moments with Capa-style tightness.

“The attention of the international media is shifting from story to story, but the people behind the news do not go anywhere, they stay,” Cseke and Takács toldDiplomacy & Trade. “The U.S. army might be out of Afghanistan in a couple of years, but the Afghan people will still live in the consequences of the war. We are covering their stories, not the news. But you need these stories to really understand the news.”

The approach has won them international fame. Their trophy case includes a Hungarian Pulitzer, a Golden Nymph for best news documentary at the Monte Carlo Television Festival, and a Press Freedom Award from the Council of Europe, among a host of others.

Along the way, Cseke and Takács have spent more and more time in front of other people’s cameras. Forbes named Takács, then 28, to its 2016 “30 Under 30 Europe — Media” list of movers and shakers. Cseke, while only 35 at the time, was a bit too old for such youthful distinction. She has, as consolation, graced the cover of the Hungarian version of Marie Claire, among those of other magazines.

Recently, they have focused on children. In 2014, they aired “Children of Dictators,” which sought insights into the lives of dictators including Idi Amin, Hermann Göring, Fidel Castro, and Augusto Pinochet and others through interviews with their children and other relatives. In 2015 and 2016, they followed with “Around the World in 9 months,” a series about birth around the world and “what awaits them in a tribal hut, a war zone, in the biggest Syrian refugee camp, and more,” as they described it.

Another birth followed: that of their own baby boy. If past is prologue, we can expect him to have a (small) camera in his hand sooner than later.

Cseke and Takács of On the Spot are two of 60 masterminds slated for Brain Bar Budapest 2017, part of a stellar lineup of the thinkers, creators, innovators, doers on tap for this year’s festival.

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