Conversation / 17 May 2021

A Point of No Return

Or the euphoria of resistance in Hungary, 2020

Authors of the Week: Hungary

Below you can read a conversation between Zsófi Kemény, poet, writer, slammer and 2020 screenwriting graduate of SzFE, and writer-screenwriter Gábor Németh, associate professor of film dramaturgy, creative writing and screenwriting at SzFE. They discuss the situation prior to the university model change undertaken by the political powers, professional dilemmas and issues, university occupation, and opportunities to continue the resistance.

Zsófi Kemény: It’s going to be a bit of a strange interview situation to talk to you like I don’t already know a lot of things that you’re saying, but I’m definitely unable to pretend that we barely know each other. Because from the onset, you have treated us students like peers, with whom you gladly discussed ideas, to whom you readily recommended films to watch and books to read. You moderated our discussions about them, even if they were wars to the knife, lasting until dawn the following day, their location somehow always changing to a nearby coffee shop. Not only were (or are) you our teacher, but you’re also our friend, or if we had to say it in one word, our master. What did university teaching mean to you, and how did you get to SzFE?

Gábor Németh: I got to the university in 2001 at the invitation of Éva Schulze, whom I knew from her being the dramatistof our film Presszó that I had co-written with Tamás Sas. Éva and László Jakab Orsós developed a new type of dramaturge training, increasingly moving towards the direction of scriptwriting. Shortly after, Orsós received a significant invitation and became the director of the Hungarian Cultural Centre in New York. This is how I got more and more involved in the training of the class at the time. When intense political transformations took place at the Hungarian Radio in 2008, I left the institution within the framework of the so-called Voluntary Departure Programme, and this was when we started our first class with György Báron. That’s how I became part of the staff.

ZSK: We filmmakers studied in a so-called 6x6 system, which means that (every two years) the university started a class that trained 6 students in each of the six most basic film professions: director, screenwriter, cinematographer, editor, sound engineer, and production manager. We attended some of the theoretical lectures together, and we were able to put together 6 mini-crews for each practical task. From day one until our BA graduation films, we had been working (thinking, planning, living) together. This was a very good set-up and it gave us a lot of wonderful experiences and work as well. (And also, even more conflicts.) You are one of the developers of this education system. What role did you play in creating it?

GN: It was a small and dedicated team that worked out this system, and luckily, there exists a European Union programme called Leonardo, which is similar to Erasmus, but this programme allows teachers to broaden their professional perspective abroad. As a result, several smaller groups visited different Western European countries. I was lucky enough to see how they teach in Denmark and in the London Film School, and based on these teaching experiences, it seemed like a good direction to have practice and practice-based theory to provide a conceptual framework for teaching. For a year and a half, we, teachers, met a lot and tried to adapt this system to our circumstances, which ultimately meant a meaningful change and led to visible results.

ZSK: - What were the advantages and disadvantages of this system, what conflicts emerged?

GN: In principle, there was a consensus that the BA programme would provide the foundation, so the students would learn the basics of the professions, and that it would be a slightly more rigorous and objective training for the applied genre. The original idea was that when students would finish this 6-semester course, a freer, more personal, and open form of education would begin, this being the master’s degree. In practice, however, the BA programme functioned as a kind of small Master’s programme, with directors being given full authority from the beginning, which led to conflicts, typically between writers-playwrights and directors. However, there is a much more far-reaching problem in all of the SzFE university education, namely, what this institution should do with the strange contradiction that it is basically an academic art school, but that it has shifted to a university status due to certain ambitions. Therefore, it had to operate as a university: it had to function as an academy of art and a university at the same time, and apparently, this was difficult to cope with.

ZSK: Do you notice a difference in the general education in recent times? Do you really see a decline?

GN: This is a popular narrative that I don’t share because there has always been a big difference between some people in terms of their level of literacy. It may be said that secondary education in Hungary has probably really deteriorated. Or at least it has failed to pass on a solid general education similar to that of the decades before World War II, or even the 1960s. But there may be various reasons for this, and the school system is not necessarily the problem. The structure of culture has changed fundamentally. My generation still grew up in a concentric culture, which, furthermore, was also hierarchical. So at the top, there was the homogeneous high culture that everyone had to know. And education referred to unquestionable values: what is good, what is beautiful — this being the point of comparison for what is not. In contrast, the reality is that these questions must always be answered over and over again, as strong works have a particular tendency to set new rules, and then you should somehow be able to move along with that. It is also a more democratic situation. And from this, it follows that as teachers and students we can exchange roles, for we can easily discuss a topic with which you are much more familiar than I am. And I need to recognise when I have to give the floor to someone more informed or, at the moment, more inventive than I am. And one can only operate like this in a much less hierarchical and more democratic system than before. Our desperate attempt to introduce the concept of the student republic was one expression of this.

ZSK: When the authorities announced that there would be a “change of model,” that is, an arbitrary advisory board — consisting of outsiders who had refused to negotiate with the university’s legitimate senate for a second — would be placed above the university, we suddenly  realised, in shock, that it was us that comprised the university, and that we had to take control of things. In only a few days, the decision was made that the students would occupy the university, that precisely when the power would finally be willing to negotiate, we should be the ones to oppose them, and not leave you, the teachers, to hold the sack. We had nothing to lose, or a university degree at most, but you could lose your existence, your salaries, or your pension funds. We felt it was time for us to protect you and, incidentally, of course, to protect ourselves, along with our university. And there were many of us, and as the days went by, more and more of us were no longer willing to negotiate. We thought that if the power wanted to drive us out, we would wait until they sent the special forces or launched their water cannons on us. We are strong and young; we can handle it. We are unwilling to give them anything that is ours, be it our buildings, our teachers, or our spirituality, we thought. The idea was not to pretend that teaching was going on in order, but to turn the university occupation into a permanent work of art: we were constantly demonstrating our artistic and human freedom. The most radical among us hoped that other professions, social strata, and universities would stand by us and that the power would be forced to back down. The student republic, that is, the decision to have access to education anyway, (almost) as if the situation was normal, and in the meantime to try to negotiate and to manage at least to preserve the autonomy of the university disappointed many of us. In hindsight, I think that because the power did not back down one iota, they never sat down to negotiate with either the teachers or the students, they razed our university to the ground, they took away our buildings, our theatre, we were still better off running our student republic. Because the teachers undertook to continue teaching (some for a salary, some for free, terminating their employment), and the students wanted to learn from them for as long as possible. We didn’t just leave in September, but we completed another semester, by ourselves, for ourselves. Which, of course, has been ruined by the virus anyway, but it will at least remain a beautiful memory. When you announced the student republic in early September, did you already suspect that there was nothing we could do, that everything had already been decided, and that we were basically flinging a rapier at a tank division?

GN:  In retrospect, I think that it was a very critical moment. I received a phone call out of the blue to go to the university because there was to be a discussion before the forum. It was at this forum that the decision-makers were preparing to decide on possible directions for “how to proceed”. They split into four “parties”. And then I found that the gaps were very deep. One thing was clear: after the vote, the majority of the “losers” would end up feeling bad either way. If thinking about problems emerges as a kind of competition, meaning that someone has to be a winner in any case, to win in the given situation, then it is deemed to cause such serious emotional and psychological damage that shatters unity. There will be the satisfied winners and there will be the three other defeated directions, and they will experience this as a failure, frustration. Then I came up with the concept of the student republic. I was confident that if we threw this in and pushed the reconciliation of interests and discourse rather than competition, we might be able to survive. This was important because, unfortunately, the situation carried the risk of a rupture which coincided exactly with the goals of power. Apparently, the most important thing for months had been to drive a wedge into this community.

ZSK: For me, the transformation primarily meant the danger that if a university was not maintained by the state, this university would be expected to generate profit. Already in the process of education, if possible, but after that, definitely. Such a university produces professionals, not artists. We would be producing money, not culture. Do you think this will actually be the case? Do you think the new SzFE will do the same?

GN: There are two defining “guiding principles,” that are visibly different for theatre and film. Theatrical transformation is an idea enforcing some kind of national-Christian culture, which, on the one hand, is actually revanchism — so apparently nourished by the perceived or real grievances of some very frustrated people —, but on the other hand, it is also a desperate attempt to translate political intentions into the language of culture. Some kind of national-Christian coherence would be the desired goal that the works should serve. I think this is an absolutely fucked-up idea of the role and nature of culture. Let theatre appear as the handmaid of politics, build the idea of the nation; this is a thought reminiscent of the Horthy-Baroque. The basic idea of cinematic “renewal”, on the other hand, is quite different: the university’s job is to serve the film industry; film is an applied art, a permanent structure in which the word “art” is said rather softly — meaning that the goal is to confidently produce so-called quality entertainment products. And in our case, this goes hand in hand with mythicising the “profession”: yes, it is possible to learn to write scripts, there are those twenty textbooks, just go ahead and read them. They show how many sequences there should be, when the turning point is, how the first ten pages work, whether there are one or two midpoints, where the point of no return is, etc., and if we know these even in our sleep, then we can also make nice, orderly films that nice, orderly people will sit in on.

ZSK: What was the point when you saw the whole thing had failed? The point of no return. If there was such a point.

GN: I do not think it failed.

ZSK: So when the buildings were closed with regard to the pandemic and the university occupants had to leave, people from a security company crashed into our place and our stuff had to be taken out if we didn’t want them to be scattered on the street, wasn’t that a failure?

GN: It was quite obvious that another phase would start with this because we had lost a very important surface: the “analogue” reality that can affect people the most. The street presence, the symbolic occupation of a building, the delivery of our charter to the Parliament at the rather large mass demonstration on October 23, and the list does not end here. All of these together made a very strong impact, and although we had lost, I didn’t think for a moment that it was all over. Because we could see that a lot of people had joined in on this with heart and soul, they did not allow themselves to be deceived, and did not allow themselves to be tired out spiritually.

ZSK: We have learned an awful lot from it, even I have, although I wasn’t there every day. If I just think about this: I learned about myself whether I was there every day or not. Those who were there were truly tireless. I am actually very proud of them. If there was a change of government, could everything be reversed? Or not? Or would it not be the same anymore? Would it make sense at all?

GN: If examined by an impartial constitutional court, the court would have to find the change of model unconstitutional. Not only ours, but also the rest of them in general, as this eliminates the freedom of education. After all, it is a verifiable statement that the guarantees of university autonomy have been abolished and that the advisory boards have taken on the guarantees of autonomy. This is definitely illegal, and in particular unconstitutional. It does actually matter because if something comes to existence in an unconstitutional way, one of the possible consequences is that the original situation can be ordered to be restored. If this does not happen, then — and apparently the government is playing on it —, the state will lose all contact with these foundations in the meantime and their place will be entrenched forever. So, if we do not go back to the original state, but say that this is already a legally embedded fact, we would need brutal renationalisation, which is very, very difficult to communicate well. So, if there is only one regular change of government, I think it is very important that these legal matters go through and that we win them all one by one.

ZSK: What can we then set as a realistic goal? Do you envision the possibility that there will be another Ódry Stage and even that our 156-year-old university will live its 157th year?

GN: The way I see it, there are two goals. The immediate goal is for students who choose, for whatever reason, to leave the university, to graduate. The new association could provide the place and the form for this. And the long-term goal could be to create a completely new type of higher education institution. But that takes years. It would also be very exciting, though. This situation has brought to light a lot of really important things we need to change, and a(metaphorically speaking) “greenfield” investment would provide an opportunity to develop new models, new types of cooperation, and the incorporation of a new cultural approach stemming from the new cultural structure.

Foreword and editing by Ferenc Czinki

Translation by László Mózner

Portrait photos by Gergely Máté Oláh


Gábor Németh

Gábor Németh was born in Budapest in 1956. Writer, screenplay-writer, editor and university teacher. He studied pedagogy and journalism, founding member of Örley Társasága literary society and Szépírók Társasága (Society of Hungarian Authors), editor of several newspapers, periodicals, and the literature department of the Hungarian national radio until 2007. He published more than ten books and co-written several feature films. He was a teacher of film dramaturgy, creative writing and screenwriting and head of the faculty of dramaturgy at the University of Theatre and Film Arts Budapest from 2007 to 2021.


Zsófi Kemény

Kemény Zsófi was born in Budapest in the November of 1994. In High School, she spent a year studying in Berlin. She obtained her first degree, in psychology, in 2016. Now she studies screenplay writing at Színház- és Filmművészeti Egyetem. She has performed on multiple occasions at slam poetry events since the age of seventeen. She was nineteen when her first novel (Én még sosem, Tilos az Á kiadó), and twenty when her first collection of poems (Nyílt láng használata, Libri Kiadó) was published. She has translated the poems in Polli, the novels of Guus Kuijer. Her second novel (Rabok tovább, Jelenkor kiadó), and her rap EP (Piaci rés) were both published in May 2017. Apart from this, she has written short stories, songs, advertisements, scripts, theatre monologues and is currently working on a rock opera and a web series.