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Gabor Kalman, Founding Board Member of IDA, Dies

By Simon Kilmurry

Courtesy of Harrison Engle

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Gabor Kalman, one of the founding members of IDA and the creator of the IDA David L. Wolper Student Documentary Achievement Award, passed away on April 12.

Gabor was a sweet, kind-hearted person, with a profound heart-wrenching story. Born in Hungary, he was ten years old when Hitler's troops marched into his country; Gabor was forced into hiding when his name turned up on the "Jaross List" of Jews from his village slated for "extermination." He survived the Holocaust and World War II, as well as the post-War Soviet occupation. A decade later, while a university student at Jewish Gymnasium in Budapest, Gabor participated in the 1956 uprising; as the Soviet tanks rolled into the capital city to crush the revolt, he fled to the US. 

Settling in California, he majored in physiology at UC Berkeley, then received his master's in communication and film and television at Stanford University. He went to make such films as Keepers of Memory: Stories of Hidden Children, 15 French Architects in Los Angeles,  the Emmy-nominated Turning Points, and Farm Boy of Hungary. His final film, There Was Once… marked a return to Hungary to document the story of a high school teacher in Gabor’s hometown of Kolocsa who was educating her students about the Holocaust amid a national surge of Neo-Nazism. 

Gabor bore witness to unimaginable horrors, but those horrors did not define him. Rather, they instilled in him a resolve to give back—namely, as a teacher at USC School of Cinematic Arts, Occidental College and ArtCenter College of Design. In addition, as a Senior Fulbright Scholar, he taught at the Academy of Theater and Film Arts and the University of Drama and Film, both in Budapest, and in 2014, the US Embassy in Hungary invited him to tour There Was Once... to high schools around an increasingly intolerant country to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. "The right wing was always hanging over us," he recalled in an article in Documentary magazine. "It was a very palpable feeling throughout my stay in Hungary. The prime minister recently said that he has had it with liberal democracies, which he described as a failing system."

Closer to home, Gabor gave back generously to IDA. In addition to being a founding member, he served on the first IDA Board of Directors, for nine years. His enduring legacy from that tenure was creating the David L. Wolper Student Documentary Achievement Award. "I was exposed to excellent student films from schools around the world that were mostly unknown and unrecognized outside of the classroom," Kalman told Documentary magazine, in a piece about the 35th anniversary of the IDA Documentary Awards. "There was a need to recognize, honor and publicize student-made documentaries." Gabor understood that good work produced in an academic context could very well foreshadow greater work to come. In the 32-year history of that honor, Wolper Award winners have included Tina DeFeliciantonio, Eva Ilona Brzeski, Amanda Micheli, Mark Becker, Heather Courtney, and IDA's own Carrie Lozano.

We at IDA are always grateful for those who laid down the foundation in 1982 for subsequent boards and staffs to meet the challenge of building an organization that would serve its community effectively. Gabor was one of those founding fathers, and when he would show up for IDA events, you felt like you were in the presence of a proud parent.