Der Untergang

Film students unleashed?

After 70 days of resistance, students of the film and theatre university SZFE have given up due to the pandemic. Have they been silenced – or just unleashed?

The Orbán-government has been cronifying universities under the disguise of “turning them private”. The recipe is simple, but easy to sell as something innocent to wilfully blind rightwingers in the West.* The universities are handed over to a foundation and the foundations receives a bunch of shares in national champions. Ostensibly to go and live off the dividends. In reality, to be at the mercy of the state every single year for extra funding. To have to beg for money. To have to prove loyalty to get it. That is how autocracy works – everyone must be financially dependent on the king, one way or the other.

And of course, the new head of the foundation’s curatorium, the new overlord of the universities would be a political appointee, an Orbán-loyalist.

The loyalist assigned to lead SZFE, the country’s most elite and elitist university for film and theatre, has a long track record of occupying things for Orbán, including the National Theatre and another art university in Pécs. And students were not having any of that.

They occupied the buildings of their university and refused to let the new appointees in. Their teachers went on strike and continued classes in the occupied buildings.

Orbánists, in turn, appointed a former military officer as chancellor, after telling the old chancellor that he was going to resign or else. The colonel was not allowed in the building either, but he resorted to more petty tools: shutting down the internet and removing the cables, sending people to shut down the rooms while the students gave a press conference, withholding striking professors’ salaries and shutting everyone out of the university’s electronic system. They were just moments away from shutting down the heating and water to force the ungrateful children to “go home to their parents and cool off a little” when Orbán announced a new state of emergency and sent soldiers to enforce it. The students decided not to test it.

Their protest was probably the scariest form of open resistance against Orbán’s system so far. The reason for that is a combination of factors.

Firstly, and most obviously, the film profession had an international outreach that commanded high-profile international celebrities to speak up and wear the #FreeSZFE hashtag. It makes it more difficult for Orbán to dispatch eager loyalists to tell his version of events abroad – his go-to move to isolate and misinterpret less communication-savvy protest movements.

Secondly, the students of film and theatre are by definition communication-savvy and … well, theatrical. They knew how to stage a protest, how to make it fun, and they have managed to keep politicians out like a pro.

The symbol of their protest became the red-white ribbon they used to cover their building – in coincidence with the colors of both the Belarus protests and the Polish opposition protesting against the political Christianism of the Kaczynski regime. The three protests also happened simultaneously.

The third component of the toxicity is youth. Youth is every autocrat’s kryptonite – and Orbán is no different. After the 2019 municipal election defeat that shocked Fidesz to its core, Orbán gave the command to lean into communicating to youth and do something to make people forget the neglect of healthcare. (And while he showered uncounted billions on “talking to youth”, he refuses to waste anymore of our tax money on healthcare.) A student protest – a first of its kind – is thus very bad news.

The #FreeSZFE protest came just after, the most important news site of the country has been Orbanized – and its journalists resigned en masse. It was an unexpected act of resistance to Orbán, sending shockwaves through every resonant segment of society. Seeing that there is an option to resist, that there is no rule of nature commanding that resignation and silent submission will happen, SZFE students must have had an inspiration.

They might also have realized that they had nothing to lose. They would never have received degrees under the new leadership regime. So they decided to prove that a university is not a building – and an education is not just a degree. A university is people who follow certain principles. And just like was struggling to exist without all of its journalists and staff, SZFE will no longer be SZFE when all the students and their professors refuse to do it.

Finally, the demographic setup of SZFE students is a cause for concern for Orbánists. Not only are they a niche and extremely tight-knit community, many of them coming from just a handful of families of artists, they are the very definition of the “youth” Orbán fears. They will surely have places abroad, even if Orbánism ultimately wins. Therefore they are unlikely to go down without more fight – not after the last 70 days.

And they are the living conscience of students elsewhere, whose universities have submitted to the regime long ago. Students, whose universities have been under loyalist chancellors for five years now – longer than some of them are students there. They have so far been not organized and those who were active politically were only so individually. Even individual professors were strongly discouraged from speaking up (read: fired), even when other universities submitted, even when CEU was chased into exile. And these students lacked the leadership that suggested them that they are people, too. Grownups. Hungarians. They were not communicated that students can protest, too. Until now.

Naturally, SZFE can and will be staffed with loyalists, just like was. Students from reliably nationalist backgrounds and from faraway places will be recruited and will never hear of the principles they shun because their teachers will be talentless loyalists pulled out from rightly forgotten places. They will be grateful for the opportunity and honestly believe that writing ethnic rock operettas and directing national grievance movies on taxpayer money is art and demanding to undo the Versailles treaty is an artist’s utmost goal. And writing on political command is normal. That attacking segments of society, types of people, enemies of the regime is what art has always been about.

But the students, the real students of SZFE will be liberated and unleashed.

If they really bring their protest with them and use their potential, network, and communication skills for a broader cause as they claim they would, they could be a formidable enemy. They could ferment society. They have learned how to.

SZFE students have already declared their support for healthcare workers – the other weak point of Orbán, even before Covid.

Featured image:

*State funded universities have their problems, but that does not excuse playing them into the hands of loyalists and making them even more dependent. Dependent on Orbán’s personal mercy, not even that of the government.

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