Modern-day slavery in Hungary

It took Netflix to bring to my attention a 2017 documentary about modern-day slavery in Hungary because the domestic news cycle somehow failed to mention it despite a Sundance success and an Oscar nod.

Nationalists just can’t shut up about international accolades that other Hungarians receive. Yet, they were oddly quiet about the festival successes of Bernadett Tuza-Ritter, whose poignant documentary about modern-day slavery in Budapest is a better watch than it sounds.

To say that the film is unbelievable is not to say that it is not true. It is the apparent normalcy of the arrangement that strikes us as difficult to believe. It is shocking, for instance, that the slaver, Eta, simply allows a filmmaker into her house to film one of her slaves (she has three) because she regards the arrangement as normal and she is proud of it.

She explains (with her face never seen) that the arrangement is actually very good for the slave. The slave, Marish, is allowed to drink as much coffee and smoke as much tobacco as she likes, for instance. How is that not generous? (Corporate employees with free coffee are allowed to laugh derisively now.) “Even family members have to restrain themselves, right? Not even family members smoke as much as they want,” the slaver exclaims, forgetting to mention that she also takes Marish’ salary and the slave is only allowed to eat scraps of food left after dinner. She is not allowed to leave the house – or else she is beaten. She is also beaten for trivial things like too much sugar in the coffee. The family also takes out loans on her behalf, leaving her in financial indenture as well as psychological and physical captivity.

Indeed, the slaver is so proud of her clever way of making a living that she bragged about it in public. That is how she met the filmmaker who has paid her for access to Marish, the modern-day slave with a shockingly expressive face but no teeth, leaving her looking twice her age. The slaver’s family is not seen, only heard, but that is enough to make you want to punch them. The casual threats that come without any provocation, the arrogance that they simply don’t think it could backfire.

We see nothing spectacular like chains or on-screen beatings. The story of Marish, the 53-year-old modern-day slave of a lower class Hungarian household is much less dramatic – yet disturbingly logical if we think about it. Marish (spelled ‘Maris’ in Hungarian) is not even her real name. She received a “slave name” from Eta when she arrived in the household 11 years earlier. And now that she mentions, ‘Marish’ does sound like a maid’s name from a turn of the century operetta, fitting for the turn of the century practice of keeping servants.

Sundance’s website calls Eta’s house an “upscale” Hungarian household, but that is wrong – and it matters.

It is a cheap dump even by Hungarian standards. And only if you are aware of this does the enormity of the situation strike you with its full force: It doesn’t even take an affluent household to keep slaves. Just a bunch of lower class bullies without inhibitions.

They groomed Marish (whose real name is Edit) in a hospital where she was recovering from her injuries she had sustained in an even more abusive household. Among other things, they kicked all her teeth out. Unsurprisingly, she was receptive to the offer of safe shelter in Eta’s house in exchange for domestic work.

Before enslavement in various households, Marish was enslaved in a marriage. 22 years serving a man who only made money in the first two. Then he was one more mouth to feed and one more family member to serve. Even to this day, men for Marish mean only someone to serve and keep – and she feels better off without one.

(It would be interesting to know just how many of these “traditional” families of macho men have a female bread winner. If prostitution is anything to go by, women are all to ready to keep a man financially. The statistics might undermine the evolutionist truism that men are natural breadwinners somehow. Maybe the entire “traditional” family is better described with women as a property of men, who use them as sexual, emotional, domestic and reproductive slaves – and rent them out for cash.)

Apart from a husband, Marish also had children, most of whom are gone. Only the youngest remained with her – but even she had left for state custody at 16 to escape the abuse in Eta’s household. Marish can’t even meet her.

This is the setup we arrive in and slowly follow Marish going about her daily routine, taking orders so naturally you would believe she is just a helpful female relative who serves the family freely and happily – if it wasn’t for the frequent threats and arrogant lectures she receives.

The way Marish gradually regains her sense of self just by being seen teaches us something about the power of receiving attention.

The invisible filmmaker stays behind the camera and doesn’t ask too many questions. She only reacts to Marish’ prompting but even in those short responses she provides a sense of feedback to Marish, who is gradually reminded that what is happening to her is not normal. So when Tuza-Ritter asks Marish is she had eaten that day, it is not just a question. It becomes a loud, if unspoken, statement that people normally eat every day. It may confirm a belief Marish may once have had about normalcy.

Being beaten and physically abused may also have passed as normal for Marish before the filming started. But months into the shooting and with a filmmaker who wanted to know why the new beatings happened, she was reminded that beatings should at least have a reason and these ones didn’t. Despite the countless beatings she had endured throughout her life, maybe beatings are not even normal.

The filmmaker has earned Marish’ confessions only after months spent quietly in her presence. According to her, people who are worked as slaves 1) prefer to deny it and 2) are ashamed of their situation. Like every single abuse victim is always ashamed about their abuse. Yet, with time Marish drops details that are new even to the filmmaker: That her factory salary is all taken away the moment she receives it, that she sleeps on a couch and doesn’t eat some days, that she tells her colleagues that she is lucky to live in this household because some of them know Eta and she can’t trust anyone. How is anyone expected to maintain a sense of self when she is not allowed to share anything with anyone?

Marish even asks the filmmaker not to report her situation to the police because it would just make her situation worse. (The filmmaker calls them nonetheless and is told that they are aware of it but it is all legal.)

After a few months, the desire to become free grows on Marish and she begins to plot. She is visibly influenced by the subtle difference it made that someone was listening to her and provided the tiniest feedback about what is normal and what is not. We watch her trying (in vain) to find her documents that were taken from her, then we watch her leaving the house one early morning, after finishing the night shift and receiving half a month’s salary in an envelope.

With the grand sum of 55 thousand forints (150 euros) Marish takes off to start a new life and somehow earn the privilege to get her daughter back. She meticulously destroys the old cell phone that has been her leash, and calls a domestic abuse shelter from a land line. There they explain to her that although she was abused and although she is in danger of violence if she is found, they can’t take her because technically, she was not abused by a family member.

In a heartbreaking moment she buys a small gift, a shower gel, to the filmmaker and hands it over in gift wrapping. She is clearly on a high embarking on freedom, but she has no place to stay and no job for now. But she is nothing if not generous and good-hearted (and a shower gel is an appropriate gift in certain parts of society). The filmmaker is breathless from the unnecessary gift and quickly reciprocates by taking Marish out for breakfast.

The documentary is at times excruciatingly slow if you watch it on Netflix and not in the immersive darkness of a cinema. Long shots and even longer silences are the distinctive pose of the Hungarian filmmaking tradition. Film students in the land of Béla Tarr learn to equate slowness with craft and the pain of boredom with art. If one long shot of an expressive face is genius – thirty-seven of them must be even better!

But despite the film school pretentiousness the documentary remains compelling as the bizarre story carries it on its back. And despite everything you know about depressing Hungarian stories, this one ends on a hopeful note.

In just two weeks Marish lands on her feet, finds a job (as janitor in the parliament) and a place to live – and eventually gets her daughter back. Her under age daughter is already pregnant but it is still a happier ending that one could have hoped for. We hear nothing about how she could handle the loans taken out in her name or whether any consequences befell the slavers.

There are an estimated 22 thousand modern-day slaves in Hungary and one and a half million in Europe. Everything about this arrangement might be legal, but the lines between consent and coercion are non-existent here – not least because we can’t even begin to imagine how we would react if we only had the life experiences of these people. Going from one form of dependence and exploitation into another and never even meeting anyone whose raised eyebrow would tell us that it is not normal can only be compared to the isolation of victims who are born into a cult and never knew any better. Once we saw Marish’ subtle transformation by the sheer presence of someone who sees her and takes her side, perhaps the first person in her life, we understand how poor our approaches of emancipation are. Had she received money without any perspective change, it would have ended up in her slavers’ hands. But attention shifted her perspective and it made all the difference. Give her money now and it will buy baby food for her grandchild. Or she uses it to pay off the debt her slavers took out in her name.

As the consequence of the documentary small changes have started in the institutional handling of these cases. When humanity gets over its limp of using other people as slaves – in one form or another – is another matter. But pushing for women’s ever-deeper dependence on men on a policy level and with all the economic and political might of the state is definitely not a move in the right direction.

A Woman Captured – Bernadett Tuza-Ritter (2017) Netflix

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