DECEMBER 9, 2016
ON OCTOBER 23, 2016, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gave a speech to a large crowd gathered on Kossuth Square, in front of the Parliament. Thousands of people attended the celebration that marked the 60th Anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the failed uprising against the Soviets. For days beforehand, hundreds of posters advertised the anniversary, and citizens received recorded phone messages urging them to attend the commemorative event. It was an occasion with strong personal significance for the prime minister.
Orbán’s first public speech about the history of the Revolution took place in 1989, at the reburial of Imre Nagy, a revolutionary government leader. The young Orbán had then urged Hungary to break its chains from the oppressive Soviet rule. This time, 27 years later, he echoed many of the same sentiments but against a different power: the European Union. He spoke of Hungary’s thousand-year-old Christian tradition and decried the “Sovietization” of Europe by Brussels, insisting that Hungary must remain a nation-state. He called for stronger borders to “protect the country against the dangers refugees pose to Christian Hungarian values.” His speech struck many as ironic, given that over 200,000 Hungarians fled the country in 1956 as refugees and found new homes elsewhere. But this rhetoric was not unprecedented for the prime minister, whose almost three decades-long political career has shown a marked right-bound trajectory.
And this year, 2016, has been full of such statements from Orbán. His responses to the worst international refugee crisis since World War II made international headlines when he voiced suspicions that a “master plan” was in place for importing “future left-wing voters into Europe” with the hope of creating one European superstate. He also insisted that refugees presented a terror risk. He used these theories to justify erecting a fence along Hungary’s southern border to keep migrants from entering the country, and just after the European Court of Human Rights condemned Hungary’s unlawful detention of asylum seekers, Orbán authorized the army to shoot rubber bullets and tear gas at them. On October 2, he called a vote on a referendum refusing the EU-sanctioned refugee quota set for Hungary, which after an extensive propaganda campaign, garnered a 92 percent majority vote, which was declared invalid, however, due to low turnout.
During his October 23 speech, a few hundred protesters blew whistles and horns. They yelled “diktátor,” which was not a first for the prime minister, whose right-wing party has governed the country in an increasingly authoritarian fashion for years now. Most of the protesters were promptly removed.
On the same day, two emigrants 3,000 miles away — my husband and I — attended the 16th Hungarian Film Festival of Los Angeles. We watched Veszettek (Home Guards), a movie highly recommended by my mother-in-law. My husband bought the tickets and I made the mistake of not checking what the film was about.
Less than a dozen people gathered at Laemmle Theatre, in Santa Monica, on the day of the screening. Quiet chatter filled the lobby, and not unexpectedly a middle-aged couple gave my husband and I a few puzzled stares. Both of us were born and raised in Hungary, but while he is blonde and green-eyed, I am decidedly kreol. I have brown skin and eyes, and almost black, wavy hair because of my father’s Congolese heritage. Most Hungarians are startled to hear me speak Magyar because they assume I’m Latino or Middle Eastern, maybe Greek. Anything but one of them.
Growing up biracial in an extremely monoethnic Hungary wasn’t always pleasant. As a child, I was proud of my heritage: the country’s rich folklore, stunning architecture, and heartfelt poetry. To this day there is no language more beautiful to my ears than Hungarian. But due to the decidedly racist and xenophobic attitudes by the mid-2000s, it became hard for me to tolerate life in Budapest. I left my homeland at the age of 19, and I have not once regretted that decision. I have found that the attitudes that led to my discomfort and eventual emigration are not held — or at least not as openly expressed — by the Hungarian immigrants living in California. This has made it much easier for me to appreciate my heritage from afar. The Hungarian Film Festival promised to be an opportunity to enjoy some of the best films made in the past year in my birthland, and I was looking forward to sharing that experience with my husband. Unfortunately, Home Guards left me feeling disappointed and sad about the state of modern Hungarian cinema, and about Hungary.
Originally released on October 22, 2015, Home Guards is a 115-minute drama based on an online novella by László Czető Bernát. The screenplay was written by Réka Divinyi, directed by Krisztina Goda, and produced by Gábor Kálomista. The three of them have worked together on comedies like Just Sex and Nothing Else (Csak Szex és Más Semmi) (2005), in which a young woman realizes that her fiancé has a wife and decides to get pregnant by the first man she can find by placing an ad for a no-strings-attached fling, and Chameleon (Kaméleon) (2008), which tells the story of a gigolo preying on lonely women and eventually choosing the wrong one to try and outsmart.
The film received 700 million Forints (€2.2 million) from the Hungarian National Film Fund (which is backed by the government and funded by tax revenue derived from the No. 6 National Lottery), making it one of the most expensive productions ever produced in the country. It premiered in 54 movie theaters, yet only 3,016 people purchased tickets in the first four days to watch it — an average of 12 showings a day per theater, and only three or four tickets sold per show. The 4.2 million forints (€13,207) the movie made during its premiere period is a miniscule fraction of its almost 1 billion forint budget. Since then the number has increased to about 10,000 viewers — still an enormous failure by any standard.
Home Guards is set in Tarnád, a fictional small town in Northern Hungary, plagued with poverty, crime, unemployment, and despair. The story is centered around two brothers: Máté (Ifj. Attila Vidnyánszky), who dreams of escaping from the town by becoming an award-winning runner, and Joci (Viktor Klem), who seems to have no goals in life. Their mother is dead, their father is in prison for manslaughter, and their friends live in similarly dire circumstances.
The movie’s opening scenes suggest a lighthearted slapstick comedy in line with director Krisztina Goda’s previous work. Joci and his friends are mistakenly accused of stealing a statue from the town square. In an attempt to escape police and get rid of a bag of weed, they set fire to the community center’s library, which is interpreted by local media as an act of protest against the lack of jobs and entertainment options in town.
The boys spend 10 days in jail, only to have their luck turn when a new police chief, János Ács (Iván Fenyő), comes to Tarnád. He rides into town on a motorcycle, dressed in head-to-toe black — the iconographic outlaw — and offers the group a chance at setting their lives on course in the form of early morning runs and martial arts training sessions. Soon, the charismatic police chief becomes the leader of the gang, giving the young men a sense of purpose: to clean their town of crime.
This is where the narrative gets tricky.
Over time, the group morphs into a militia called Home Guards. Its members shave their heads, and begin to wear military boots and armbands with their dark uniforms. As the group grows tighter, they become more ruthless, too, while turning their patrol into a for-profit business. The violence escalates as the story unfolds, and the Guard members catch more and more criminals in action. But by now, the protagonists are part of a militarized group of skinheads spouting Neo-Nazi rhetoric and conducting a racially motivated cleanup campaign of their town. The antagonists, thieves and burglars all happen to be “Northsiders,” (“telepi”), played by Roma actors. It is a vigilante race war.
As the film nears its conclusion, it is clear that the Guard has taken over the town. Máté — who is established early on as the “good brother,” but whose conduct is as questionable as that of the rest of the Guard members — is the only one to try to escape from Tarnád and from the ranks of the militia. The movie ends with a trifecta of events: the town elects Ács as its new mayor with 63 percent majority vote; Joci is killed by his fellow Home Guard members for protecting his apostate brother; and Máté runs away, hitchhiking to Budapest. It is anyone’s guess what will happen next.
The movie clearly uses elements of American History X (1998), but it does not utilize the most important of them: regret and redemption. American History X garnered mostly positive reviews because it took a moral and political stand while depicting racism and hatred openly. Its characters were fully rounded human beings, not manifestations of stereotypical attitudes. And unlike Home Guards, that movie did not rely on coded speech.
On Monday, my mother-in-law called to find out our opinions about the movie. My husband told her that we could not remember the last time we had been more disappointed. He reiterated to her that the attitudes shown in the movie, and the very fact that she felt like recommending it, were the reasons I no longer lived in Hungary.
She maintained that she found the subject compelling and representative of current-day Hungarian reality, and that she had no regrets about being one of the 3,016 people who went to see it when it opened in theaters. It reminded her of another film she had seen, the German Neo-Nazi movie Die Welle (The Wave) (2008). Then she expressed her hope that we do not think her a bad person for recommending the movie.
That made me wonder about the target audience of Home Guards. Those who condemn racism are not likely to watch a film about the triumph of a Neo-Nazi militia in a small town. Those who sympathize with the movement may find the movie’s depiction of the Guard members too negative, as they are shown turning against each other as well, or too soft because of what sympathizers may see as unrealistic “politically correct language.” A quick search on the internet reveals that some refused to watch the movie because of its poster showing a young man’s shaved head and a trailer featuring what looked like members of the Hungarian Guard. Other critics called the movie’s language “too toned down” to be an accurate description of “gypsy crime,” and called for more profanity and racial slurs in the name of truthfulness.
I agree that the movie may not have been brave enough to speak in the manner people of a certain belief speak, but it was hardly out of decency. The film’s racially charged message was so carefully distributed among a number of characters — the mayor, who complained about minority leaders being overzealous; the head of the chamber of commerce who expressed his belief that dishonesty was in “those people’s blood”; or the police chief who felt that it was “us against them”; and of course the members of the Home Guard who called their token Roma friend “darkie” and Máté’s love interest “dark meat” — it is hard to see how the addition of the words “Roma” or even “Gypsy” could have made the prejudice more pronounced.
While the troublesome minority in the movie is called “telepi,” the literal translation of which is “one from the housing project,” but which gets (mis)translated as “Northsider,” those characters are played by Roma actors, and the stereotypes traditionally ascribed to the Roma population in racist rhetoric are all present in the movie.
They are shown repeatedly as thieves who have no qualm about stealing statues from public squares, breaking into warehouses at night, or stealing vegetables from old ladies at the farmer’s market. The stereotypical “gypsy criminal” outfit of long leather coat, greasy ponytail, exaggerated body language and dialect are all used in the movie. Aggressive, loud, and dark, this group is established as the source of all troubles in the small town.
There are two exceptions to the criminal portrayal of Northsiders, two characters who are broken down and removed from the picture before the movie’s conclusion. Máté’s running coach, Tibi bá (Oszkár Nyári) is shown as a generous would-be father figure, and his daughter, Máté’s almost-girlfriend, is also a positive, albeit not exactly layered character. She is played by Franciska Törőcsik, a Hungarian actress in brownface. In an interview with Origo.hu, the director stated that she could not find a qualified Roma actress who was the right age to play the role. But with eight percent of the country’s population being Roma, this excuse sounds dubious and calls into mind the long history of blackface and brownface in the United States.
It is unclear why the filmmakers avoided naming the group as Roma. Perhaps it was done in an attempt to maintain the façade that the Guards’ crusade was not racially motivated but rather a fight against crime. Yet, Guard members are shown attacking a “Northsider” for pushing his bike down the street, because they assume he must have stolen it. In another scene, members of the Guard throw “Northsiders” out of the town’s disco and stand in the door, refusing entry to all of them based solely on their appearance.
In fact, prejudice toward the Roma is deeply ingrained in the Hungarian psyche. The racially motivated hatred perpetuates itself: the innate racism makes it difficult for the Roma to get the same quality of education, jobs, and opportunities that are available to white Hungarians. Inequality breeds inequality and economic crime as well as racially motivated hate crimes. The average Hungarian’s response to the plight of the Roma is callous disregard and victim-blaming, supported by personal anecdotes and myth.
The way the Roma are portrayed in the movie, in other words, is a realistic expression of the majority of Hungarian people’s attitude toward them. It is reminiscent of the dehumanizing depiction of African Americans in the Jim Crow era. I couldn’t help but wonder under what circumstances the US government would fund a movie like that in the 21st century.
And yet, in today’s Hungarian political climate such portrayals and rhetoric are not only tolerated but encouraged, and the Roma are shown as either a minority group that’s fallen behind and presents a close to unsolvable problem, or as individuals incapable of being productive members of society. These views are often voiced by the leading party Fidesz, but most clearly articulated by the far-right party Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom (Movement for a Better Hungary), or in short Jobbik, whose rhetoric has been explicitly anti-gypsy, anti-Jew, anti-foreigner, and pro-Hungarian from its inception. In the 2014 elections, the Jobbik party won 20 percent of the popular vote, giving them 23 seats in the Parliament, which made Jobbik the country’s third largest political party. Their World War II–era Nazi-costumed paramilitary wing called Hungarian Guard (Magyar Gárda) seems to have served as the inspiration for the movie. Before its release, Hungarian papers referred to it as a “gárda film” and as “a Neo-Nazi film.” The director, Krisztina Goda, has denied this, but the similarities are glaringly obvious.
The fictional Home Guard — whose vigilante justice rhetoric and methods of intimidation match the Hungarian Guard’s — are clearly a depiction of the group. Is it possible that anyone might not associate the guard members’ black uniforms and their armbands, featuring red and black targets, with Neo-Nazi symbolism?
The movie’s representation of women is equally retrograde. No voice or action offsets the tired, misogynistic points the protagonists make about women. They serve limited purposes — they are decoration sitting in the boys’ laps in the Diszkó, they flash their naked breasts at the Guard members marching by to cheer them on, and serve as career ladders for male ambition. The young women at a gym at first turn their noses up at Joci’s gang, but love them after they form the Guard, enraptured, we are urged to think, by their Neo-Nazi uniforms and newfound “masculine” attitudes.
The movie contains two instances of violent sexual assault, neither of which is addressed in any way. Joci chases Veca — the bartender he’s had his eye on — into an alley, slams her against the wall, rips her underwear off, gets behind her, and brutally rapes her. She cries, tries to get away, but it makes no difference. After the rape, Joci leaves, and his victim is left battered in the alley. Later she is seen wiping her tears, getting up, picking up her underwear, and walking away. She is never shown again during the course of the movie, never reports the rape to the police, nor is it ever mentioned. What message does that send to viewers?
The other victim is one of the boys, who owes money to Vlado, the Serbian drug dealer notable for being the one non-Roma enemy the Guard Members have. After the boy offers to work off his debt by distributing a batch of drugs without pay, he is forced to his knees, and made to fellate Vlado while the drug dealer’s bodyguard watches. There are two references to this assault later on. One is made by the Gypsy Mafioso character who says it’s no big deal, he’s heard Joci’s father has gotten used to “doing it” in prison rather quickly. The other instance is toward the end of the movie, when Vlado gets beaten and urinated on by members of the Guard in a display of machismo. These portrayals trivialize sexual assault in a society burdened with a deeply ingrained rape culture. Using sexual violence for voyeuristic pleasure is always morally reprehensible, not to mention a triggering event for survivors, and treating such blatant sexual abuses as banal issues and facts of life further enables it.
Goda has stated in interviews that her movie is not a political one, nor does it represent any stance; it simply depicts a facet of Hungarian reality. But given the radicalization of the right across Europe, and the emergence of paramilitary groups just like the one depicted here, and the spread of racialized violence, she did not really have that option. Leni Riefenstahl tried to claim the same for Triumph of the Will (1935), an artistic film commissioned by Hitler. She said her concerns were artistic not political, and that her movie was used for propaganda without her intent or knowledge. But as acclaimed playwright August Wilson said, “All art is political in the sense that it serves someone’s politics.” And whose politics does Home Guards serve? The far right’s. An artist, like anyone else, can be oblivious. But are we meant to believe that absolutely nobody involved in the production pointed out these obvious problems?
By displaying racially motivated hatred and violence without condemnation the movie sends a message. Giving the antagonists a much larger platform to speak than their victims sends a message. Leaving the story at a point where the instigators have triumphed and those who dared question the new order have been chased away sends a message. I am hopeful that it is a sign of positive change that so few in Hungary cared to listen.