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SZFE: Art students fight for independence in Hungary’s intensifying culture wars

Students in Budapest, backed by academics, occupy the University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) to protest government interference.

The University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE), situated in central Budapest is one of the most prestigious institutions in Hungary. Its alumni include legendary directors such as Béla Tarr, Ildikó Enyedi, and Miklós Jancsó. Students are taught by the finest cultural figures in the country. The start of this academic year, however, was rather unusual, and not because of the coronavirus pandemic.

This becomes clear for everyone upon passing the university’s iconic building. Banners are hanging from its windows and masked protesters are guarding the entrance. Only current students and employees can enter once their temperature is checked. In the afternoon, in what is often an intimidating sight, masked guards, usually made up of notable alumni, patrol the balcony in silence.

The occupation is the culmination of events which started this year and accelerated during the summer.

“Jewish junk paper”

The government recently privatised a number of universities in Hungary. In practice, this means that the universities cease to be in the hands of the state, and are taken over by a foundation with a board of trustees (appointed by the government) in charge. Earlier this year, the government announced that SZFE would be the next institution to change to this model.

The university’s leadership requested time to prepare for this, however that was not an option: according to the new legislation, the model change would happen as soon as September 1. As a compromise, the university’s leadership even recommended a number of apolitical figures to be on the board of trustees.

But the government did not listen. Not a single person suggested by the university was appointed, instead, the board is largely composed of figures close to Fidesz, some of whom do not even come from artistic circles. In charge of the new board is Attila Vidnyánszky.

“It is not just the way in which they enforced the change”- Bálint Antal, a final-year director student at SZFE told Kafkadesk. “There are personal problems too. I have no issues with Attila Vidnyánszky as a director or a teacher. However, the way in which he is constantly lying about us in the media is highly problematic.”

The occupation of SZFE is the culmination of events which started this year and accelerated during the summer. Photo credit: Ábel Bede

Vidnyánszky is a universally respected director, however he is often said to have been made Hungary’s “culture pope” under Viktor Orbán’s tenure. He was appointed to be the director of the Hungarian National Theatre in 2013 and he is also the head of the acting department at Hungary’s no.2 arts academy in Kaposvár. Born to a Hungarian family in Ukraine, Vidnyánszky rose to prominence as the founder and artistic director of the Hungarian National Theatre in Beherove.

The conservative Vidnyánszky often talks about his negative experiences in the generally liberal-leaning Budapest art milieu. The director claims that he was not accepted and was even bullied by the metropolitan liberal establishment. Viktor Orbán and his intelligentsia also tend to articulate similar offences from their past. This, alongside being from a village outside Hungary’s present-day borders, makes Vidnyánszky a perfect cultural representative of Viktor Orbán’s state-building.

The director argues that the new board of trustees will only offer a different option in addition to SZFE’s existing philosophy and the university will now be more open to “national-Christian ideas,” which in his mind, the institution lacks.

“His accusations are totally unfounded. When we asked him what a national-Christian theatre was, he could not answer.” – says Antal. “In order to decide whether this is a valid criticism, I’d need to know what national-Christian theatre means in the first place. The only concrete example he said was that our exams don’t include plays about historical figures like Ferenc Rákóczi [an eighteenth-century Hungarian revolutionary figure]. But that is only historicism. You cannot build an entire curriculum on historicism.”

But Vidnyánszky’s ideological motive is not the only problem for the students. “Look at Kaposvár (where Vidnyánszky is also in charge). “We have a good relationship with the students there and know that he failed at the changes he proposed. The teachers at Kaposvár are only ideologically motivated and are not necessarily exceptional in their fields. Lessons keep getting cancelled and classes are continuously let down”

Two former Kaposvár students recently gave an interview to Partizán, a current-affairs themed YouTube channel, where they openly expressed these concerns. They stated that Vidnyánszky’s classes were often cancelled last minute and that on some other lessons they were taught that Nyugat, the most influential Hungarian literary journal at the turn of the century, was a “Jewish junk paper.”

Red and white stripes

The move that pushed the SZFE students into radical action came in the last days of summer when the new founding document approved by the board of trustees took all serious powers from the University’s Senate (composed and chosen by students and academics) and gave it to the board.

According to Anttal, though it was briefly discussed during the summer, the blockade was not exactly a planned move: “After our protest on August 31, we were a bit desperate and people made some great speeches. At a highly emotional moment, someone asked: should we occupy the university? And we said yes.”

Vidnyánszky’s accusations are totally unfounded according to Bálint Antal, a final-year student at SZFE. Photo credit: Ábel Bede

Despite the occupation’s spontaneity, what is striking about the protesters is their organised professionalism. They hold regular press conferences and to get an interview, one has to contact a designated press officer. Protests also take rather innovative forms.

On September 7, protesters formed a human chain from the SZFE campus all the way to Kossuth Square (approximately 4 metro stops) and brought the university’s original founding document to the Parliament. Other well-attended protests included an open day with lectures from prestigious academics, such as Oscar-winner Ildikó Enyedi as well as a vigil with board games and live music. 

Despite the blockade, teaching continues. The students founded a so-called Republic of Education. All classes are held, but students and teachers are free to decide how much they would like to incorporate it into the occupation or follow the lessons by the book. According to Antal, the goal was to merge the students’ desire to study with the act of resistance.

“We have loads of transferable skills. For instance, organising a protest is basically a director’s job. The actors write songs and learn speeches. Those who study documentary filmmaking film everything. TV-students are writing our press releases. The point is that we must not get tired of the occupation. The two greatest dangers to occupations are exhaustion and division. We have to avoid these at all costs.” 

The protests that the students organise enjoy widespread support from the Hungarian public. Red and white stripes, that became the symbol of the university occupiers, can often be found hanging from Budapest windows or statues. On public transport, one can often notice people wearing yellow masks that express solidarity with the students.

A reason for this might be that the students explicitly asked political parties to stay out of their business, providing a sharp contrast with the demonstrations of the previous ten years that were largely organised and led by opposition parties. “It would be so easy for people to attack us if we accepted the support of political parties. We feel that our cause is so true and we are so right that we don’t need political backing. Our case reaches many people, even those who feel uneasy about party politics.” -said Antal.

It was shortly after his 2018 election victory that Viktor Orbán declared a culture war in Hungary. “We need to embed the political system into a cultural era”- he said. It is perhaps telling that in their latest move, the board of trustees appointed a military officer, Colonel Gábor Szarka as the new Chancellor of the university. He, in an open letter, asked the students and striking academics to finish protesting in exchange for a pay rise. If his offer is not accepted, he threatened the protesters with invalidating the semester.

At a press conference, the protesters announced that they would continue the university’s occupation. Viktor Orbán might have won decisive struggles in the academic battlefields of the culture wars, but it seems he faces a much tougher battle for the soul of Hungary’s independent art scene.

By Ábel Bede

Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and is currently studying History at Durham University. He wrote his dissertation on early 20th century Hungarian politics and culture and published several pieces in prominent Hungarian newspapers. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!

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