A Matter of Life and Death

in 12nd Jameson Cinefest – Miskolc International Film Festival

by Neil Young

I was one of the lucky ones: in the hot September of 2015 I made it across the border from Serbia into Hungary, where I passed through Budapest’s suddenly-infamous Keleti Station–and survived a face-to-face neo-nazi encounter on the street of another city–before eventually arriving in the hospitable, civilised haven of Germany. But while my itinerary coincidentally mirrored that of hundreds, indeed thousands much less fortunate than myself, it was by no means the desperate trans-European flight of a refugee or migrant.            

My movements were dictated by professional film-festival engagements, not dire economic necessity or the need to escape domestic political turmoil: jury-duty in Pancevo, Serbia, just down the river from Belgrade; an evening of horror films at the Dead Lake film/wine event in Palic, 125 miles north, then the next day a taxi-bus ride through pouring rain into Hungary to serve on the FIPRESCI jury at Jameson Cinefest–a.k.a the 12th Miskolc International Film Festival. Then one week later I flew via Budapest and Frankfurt to Oldenburg, for the joint FIPRESCI-European Film Academy deliberations deciding the five Discovery Award nominees. Like I say, I was one of the lucky ones.                

At each stage of my fortnight-long sojourn in central Europe, media-headlines in each country–and far beyond–were dominated by one subject, invariably referred to as the “migrant crisis”: the mass exodus of people, including individuals and whole families–from war-torn areas of the middle east, often involving a hazardous and potentially lethal crossing of the Mediterranean, up through the Balkans towards Germany. The headlines were often accompanied by indelibly dramatic photographs and video-footage: days of turbulent chaos at Keleti; the corpse of a 3-year-old boy prostrate in cold sea-water; scuffles, anguish and tear-gas clouds on semi-fortified rural borders.          

And as the storm raged–to the exasperation and consternation of all onlookers, regardless of their political stance–Hungary found itself the centre of attention. Thus, while my primary focus on the Miskolc jury was, of course, watching the 19 features in contention for the FIPRESCI prize, I would have been remiss in my status as a journalist, a traveller and a European citizen if I had cocooned myself off in the comforting “bubble” within which all film-festivals exist. The times dictate engagement.      

But while to friends back home in England I seemed to be within a torrid geo-political maelstrom–not to mention a harrowingly volatile humanitarian crisis–the “eye” of the storm was, as usual, eerily calm. By the time I got to the imposing Hapsburg-era bulk of Keleti (“East”) Station, just a couple of days after it grabbed worldwide attention, there was no sign of anything out of the ordinary. It might easily have been an equivalent cavernous terminus in Scotland, Finland or Portugal. 

And that neo-nazi “encounter” which I “survived”? Brief proximity with a menacingly pool-cue-wielding, shaven-headed teenager–his political allegiance signalled by a black Blood & Honour t-shirt–as I walked past a noisy if sparsely-populated pub near Miskolc’s train-station on my final night in town. The thug, evidently hungry for “action”, barely seemed to register the presence of a pasty-faced Caucasian–but things might have turned out rather differently if I’d been black, Asian or Roma. Wrong face, wrong place, wrong time: broken bones.              

Such things happen on the streets of Hungary every week, a country where–according to opinion polls–one in five adults publicly expresses support for the unapologetically and militantly fascist party Jobbik (with those under 25 the figure is much closer to a third). Jobbik attracted 21% of the votes in 2014’s mayoral elections in Miskolc (up from 17% in 2010), the fourth-largest city in Hungary and main conurbation of an area in the country’s north-east that has experienced a tough couple of decades.          

The decline of the heavy industries upon which it has long relied has led to a falling population–down from over 200,000 in 1980 to 161,000 today–but the city retains a certain elegance and vibrancy that comes as a surprise to visitors expecting vistas of poverty and squalor.        

Areas of relative deprivation do exist, especially around the football stadium on the edge of town, but plans announced in 2014 by mayor Akos Kriza–representing the right-wing Fidesz party which also dominates the national government under hardline Prime Minister Viktor Orban–to clear these “slums” set off an considerable outcry. It emerged that the Roma families who largely inhabit such areas–to be replaced by a new, bigger football stadium (Orban is a renowned footbal aficionado who dreams of Hungary hosting the European Championships) and extensive car-parking– would not be offered alternative accommodation in Miskolc. Rather they would be given a cash sum, inducing them to relocate to another (any other) municipality.        

The policy was dubbed “ethnic cleansing” by leaders of the Hungarian Roma community, who petitioned the European Union earlier this year: “Hungary is our homeland, but Europe is our home. Hungary treats us as a bad step-parent, thus we are looking for Europe’s help!”          

An ironic backdrop indeed for Radu Jude’s Cinefest competition contender Aferim!, which deals with anti-Roma prejudice in the Romania of 1835, and which was the winner of the FIPRESCI jury prize. Even more piercingly topical was Jonas Carpignano’s Mediterranea, which chronicles the nightmarish progress of an economic migrant from Burkina Faso through Algeria and Libya to Italy, and the exploitation and racist violence which await him there. Further irony: the festival’s guest of honour, Claudia Cardinale–rightly hailed as a living icon of European cinema–is in fact as much African as European, having been born and raised across the Med in Tunisia (at that time a ‘French Protectorate’).        

A disproportionate number of cinema’s pantheon-enshrined greats are what we’d now label “refugees” or “economic migrants.” Or both, in the case of Miskolc-born Emeric Pressburger, who fled Hungary to France in the 1930s before hopping across the channel to London, where the bustling Hungarian community included Michael Korda (who gave Pressburger his first job) and Arthur Koestler, son of a Miskolc textile-importer.            

This somewhat obscure corner of Hungary is known as the “cradle of Hollywood”, as pioneering moguls Adolph Zukor (or Paramount) and William Fox were born elsewhere in the same county before crossing the Atlantic to make their fortune. Pressburger’s house is just a short walk from the centre of town, a place where (from my admittedly limited but eagle-eyed observations) various races and ethnicities currently mingle freely and without evident friction, and where the cultural life–including, but by no means restricted to–the film-festival, would put many larger UK cities to shame. After all, this is the “City of the Open Gates”; and Europeans residing in a place that lives up to such a nickname are the luckiest ones of all.    

Neil Young