Drama featuring amateur actors wins praise for nuanced portrayal of both refugees and Hungarians.
Amateur actor Marcelo Cake-Baly is seen in the door of a tram in Budapest, Hungary. Marcelo Cake-Baly, who is originally from Guinea-Bissau, is a Budapest tram driver and performs as a refugee in the Hungarian movie called ‘The Citizen’. The film is about an African refugee coping with casual racism, struggling with bureaucracy and trying to fit into Hungarian society.
Miskolc, Hungary – Cinemagoers in this industrial city in northeastern Hungary are earnestly discussing “The Citizen,” a film that is winning awards around the world for its portrayal of an African refugee trying to fit into Hungarian society.
“I think he was happy for a while, sitting down by the Danube,” drama teacher Zoltan says of the main character. English teacher Eva adds: “It wasn’t our fault he left. He left for personal reasons.”
But a woman named Eszter feels the movie shows Hungarian officials in a harsh light. She thinks citizenship examiners demanded arcane knowledge from the African refugee, “instead of trying to integrate him.”
For lead actress Agnes Mahr, who plays a Hungarian teacher preparing the refugee for his citizenship exam, it’s rewarding to discuss the film with this Miskolc audience just after they’ve watched it.
“It is gratifying,” she says, “that the movie has generated debate not only about the plot and characters but about the wider issues of the refugee crisis.”
Az Allampolgar, to give “The Citizen” its Hungarian name, was planned back in 2012, well before hundreds of thousands of refugees passed through Hungary in 2015, but proved to be prophetic.
“I won a scholarship in Berlin,” says Hungarian director Roland Vranik. “They needed a director’s note. I wrote, ‘sooner or later we are going to have a critical mass at our borders and society and politicians will have to react.’ It’s scary, from my brain why did I write that?”
The film, which takes a nuanced approach to the experiences both of refugees and local people, will be featured at the UNHCR Refugee Film Festival in Japan from 30 September to 29 October. It has been scooping up awards at film festivals from California to the Netherlands since it opened in Budapest in January.
The story is about supermarket security guard Wilson Ugabe. While studying for his citizenship exam, he falls in love with his teacher Mari, a frustrated Hungarian housewife. In a tender moment, she plays him the music of Bela Bartok “so that the name Bartok Street will mean something.” In return, he introduces her to the songs of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti and soon they are dancing.
Mari leaves her family for Wilson but he is living with and trying to protect a fellow refugee, a young Iranian woman called Shirin. Lacking legal paperwork, pregnant Shirin has given birth at home. (Wilson is not the father and there is no sexual relationship between him and Shirin.)
For a while, Mari, Wilson and Shirin live in an uneasy threesome, but Mari’s concern for mother and baby mixes with something closer to jealousy. The film ends in lose-lose for them all when Mari, thinking she is being helpful, calls the authorities. Shirin is deported. Mari and Wilson split up and Wilson, who has been told repeatedly he would be “better off in the West,” leaves Hungary for a low paid job in Austria.
“The film is not black and white,” says Arghavan Shekari, who plays the part of Shirin. “I can understand the character of Mari. She had left her family. In a way, she was a refugee too.”
Marcelo Cake-Baly, who plays Wilson, is less forgiving of Mari. “She doesn’t understand the solidarity between the two refugees. Their situation is complicated. Those who are not in that position cannot understand the details and sensitivities.”
Shekari and Cake-Baly are amateur actors while Mahr, who plays Mari, is a professional actress with over 100 theatre and film parts to her name. Currently, she is working in repertory theatre in Miskolc.
Shekari, an artist and fashion designer, was born in Iran and studied in India, where she met a Hungarian who was to become her husband. She was granted her Hungarian citizenship during the shooting of the film.
In his day job, Cake-Baly is a Budapest tram driver. He came to Hungary from Guinea-Bissau as a student in Communist times. Although he has a PhD in economics, he feels racism has held him back in his career. He started driving trams to support his sons through university. “It happens that I enjoy it sometimes,” he says with a grin.
Director Vranik accosted him on a downtown street and offered him the part. Vranik “was sitting in a café when I walked past,” Cake-Baly recalls. “Suddenly this guy in a hoodie and sneakers jumped up and started to chase me. He said he was a movie director; that he’d seen my face and it would be perfect for his film.” Although startled, he instinctively knew “it was not a scam.”
Vranik takes up the story: “There are not many Hungarian-speaking black men. I had to grab him. He was gorgeous.”
But working with non-actors was not easy. “At the start the amateurs didn’t know the simplest things about acting,” says Vranik. “It was very frustrating, like a kindergarten Christmas show. But in the end, they realised they had no chance but to be themselves. This is what I was wanting all along. It sounds simple but it is the hardest thing.”
Perhaps the key scene of the film — explaining refugees’ difficulties and Hungarians’ sense of isolation because of the impenetrability of their language to outsiders — is the moment when Wilson recites the Szózat (one of two national anthems) at his citizenship exam:
“To your homeland without fail
Be faithful, O Hungarian!
It is your cradle and will be your grave
That nurses and will bury you.
In the great world outside of here
There is no place for you…”
In the audience at the cinema in Miskolc, there was laughter when Wilson, having listed the Magyar chieftains who conquered the land that became Hungary, declared: “In 895, we settled down.”
But the director and actors agree that there is nothing so particular or obscure about Hungary that would prevent the country, an EU member, from being a good destination for refugees, if only there was the political will. They point to the character of the butcher who befriends Wilson in the film as an example of a typical Hungarian.
“The real Hungarian is the butcher,” says Mahr. “He doesn’t care about hate speech and TV propaganda; he just drinks with his friend. Hungarians are inclusive and kind to foreigners but they are frightened by the authorities.”
“I don’t like to use the word ‘simple’ but simple people are the friendliest,” says Vranik. “I think Hungarians are super welcoming. This is a small landlocked country; nobody comes here. So people are happy when outsiders come. We must remember that populist politicians are not the people.”
By Helen Womack, Bela Szandelszky and Zsolt Balla