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Post-colonial film club in Budapest. An interview with Tamás Gerőcs and Tibor Meszmann, Helyzet Group of Public Sociology.

Mariya Ivancheva interviewed Tamás Gerőcs and Tibor Meszmann about the post-colonialism film club of the Public Sociology Working Group ‘Helyzet’ on 18 February 2014, in Budapest.

We are now at the Gólya Community Centre in Budapest. I would start with a question about how these three things, namely the Gólya (Stork) centre, the Helyzet (Position and situation) working group, and the post-colonialism film club are interrelated?

Tibor T. Meszmann: Gólya is a community centre, and operates as a cooperative. Their idea is to attract leftist groups and offer them a location for their various activities. They are organizing more and more programs: theatre performances, experimental live radio shows, dance clubs, concerts, parties, and more and more film clubs. Helyzet was among the firsts to produce such film clubs.

Helyzet is a public sociology working group. Most of our members are doing / have done PhDs, many of us are doing activist work as well. Yet, it is not easy to define ourselves, because we are constantly learning also who we are and thus we occasionally need to re-define ourselves. In general, we strive towards a more open and critical form of collective knowledge production. As researchers and (self)educators, we aim at connecting existing knowledge on global and supranational relationships with local knowledge and thus try to find common reference points in our analysis of Hungary with that of the regional and the global. The starting theoretical point here is that we observe contemporary Hungary as part and parcel of contemporary European and global power relations.,. The ultimate goal is to give a reconstructed vision of Hungary, interconnected with the regional and the global environment, but also to strengthen or even create new leftist intellectual and social forces, increasing thus also chances of empathy and solidarity within Hungary, but also regionally and globally.

Tamás Gerőcs: To start from the beginning: how Helyzet relates to Gólya? The more general thing is that we try to build a movement together. People can overlap (there are members of Helyzet who are members of the Gólya cooperative), but Helyzet plays a distinctive role: producing knowledge on the recent situation in Hungary, Eastern Europe, or the global periphery. Gólya is a hub in Budapest, but also an experiment in an economic sense: as a cooperative it tries to be autonomous from the market situation. Helyzet – among other groups – uses the space here in Gólya.

And how does this all relate to the film club?

Tibor T. Meszmann: It is a project run by Helyzet. We started 2 years ago with the film club. There were 3 kinds of events being organized by Helyzet: public lectures (presenting our own work or inviting guests), internal reading groups (to come up with important topics, including variously designed seminars, with intensive, productive, rewarding discussions, with a much more open atmosphere than in university settings). This second is a core activity of Helyzet, because you can feel that you are working on something intellectually, but intensely collectively. The film club is our third kind of event. Its main aim is to open up to a broader audience. Back then, Gergő Pulay started with the documentary series on Ózd by Tamás Almási (which presented steelworkers’ lives during the transformation period in an industrial town). For this event, the location Frisco Café (the predecessor of Gólya) was too small, so we rented out a cinema (Bem mozi). This screening was a big success, as we could find films everyone wanted to watch. It was successful in bringing in people, inviting guest speakers. Still, I might say we are still experimenting with the format and contents of the film club: our ultimate goal is not stopping to learn.

Could you describe your transition from Hungarian to post-colonial films?

Tibor T Meszmann: I would say, it is because of Tamás, and his idea of linking the film club with world-systems theory. And Márton Piroch also plays a role here, he is the 3rd organiser of the film club, who unfortunately could not be here today for this interview. So the three of us gathered, and we decided to take roughly one film from each continent’s post-colonial setting – then distributed the task (and the continents).

Tamás Gerőcs: My story is quite different from what Tibor explained. As mentioned earlier, Helyzet has the reading seminars (one of them on world-systems theory, the post-colonialism film club was more closely related to this). The core function [of the reading seminars?] was to start with knowledge production about Hungary / Eastern Europe using these concepts. We are in an academic situation here in Hungary. We use different kinds of knowledge to describe our position in the world, but we are mostly dissatisfied with the theories we knew (from mainly Western literatures).  Simultaneously we wanted to bring this knowledge production to an external audience in this early phase, namely to the community around Gólya. This community consists of very different people: activists, local residents, intellectuals etc., but we might say that they are the ‘natural’ target groups for us. We wanted to reach out to people who were similarly engaged in changing politics from a leftist perspective.

Tibor T. Meszmann: I would like to add two important things in terms of community and knowledge production. I would say, the Gólya community is not that specific, and the filmclub does not attract a predefined, in a sense, homogeneous group, quite to the contrary. Namely, some films build more on some target groups than others. It’s exciting in a way to see who will show up at the current screening, and what will be the focal points of the discussion. The film club is thus a joint work with the audience: for some of the films (like the Videoton documentary series by Pál Schiffer on a dissolving company in the electronic industry around 1990) we could bring in the internal perspective of the people in the film for the post-screening discussion: e.g. trade unionists. It was a very rewarding thing to do: we could support them with our broader perspective and knowledge, and learn theirs.

World-systems theory is a way to look at post-colonialism. But it is a very Western centric way to do that and can be challenged. What do you think, how these films on the post-colonial condition can speak back to you in Hungary?

Tamás Gerőcs: It is a very important question, and that work has not been completed. In the post-colonialism film club we did not deal too much with Eastern Europe as a site for films. Although by arranging the discussions after the screenings, we always wanted to theorise the context of the films from our points of view in Hungary and Eastern Europe.

But why post-colonialism? It is a simple thing. With this process of understanding and demonstration through films we aim to show that our situation is not a unique one here in Eastern Europe. There is a comparative beginning: although these films represent other regions and other people in different geographical contexts, we can still find parallels with our situation in Eastern Europe. This is also a message we learnt from world-systems theory: there is a global structure, global capitalism, which produces very similar conditions in the world. We have in some sense much more in common to Latin-American countries than to Austria. Post-colonialism is a useful tool in this sense, but it is true that one shall make distinctions between neo-colonialism, anti-colonialism and post-colonialism.

Tibor Meszmann: My personal take on that is that I am sort of semi-stranger in Hungary. I would even say that I understand the post-Yugoslav situation better than Hungary. Therefore for me, it is very difficult to answer the question what post-colonialism brings to understanding Hungary. Concerning the general Eastern European condition: for me the post-colonialism film club is a vehicle to deal with more cultural/theoretical issues, which pushes us in understanding ourselves in a broader sense. For example, having watched the Senegalese film Hyènes together made me think about how and why Hungary is a racist country, and how this limits our imagination and provides obstacles to learn from others. This film was so powerful, it played out really well what was happening in any peripheral or semi-peripheral environment, how difficult it is to remain a human in a system run by a monetary logic or dictatorship.

As we started with the film club, we obviously fell into the trap that to differentiate between post-, anti- and neo-colonialism is not easy: some of the films we screened showed more the anti-colonial story (such as Lumumba, or The battle of Algiers); but in the discussions after watching the film we could bring in some elements of post-colonialism, and the ambiguities of the post-prefix. Such as in Lumumba: in the film, the Congolese leader wears a nice suit, but his successor – a military general – wears leopard-skin stuff: it shows how interesting transitions are in these settings. That is one example why our learning was very intense and dynamic during the film club. I recognised for example that what I learnt in political science is very conservative. Of course, this film club is not only a scholarly thing, but also a visualisation of the general drama coming through this post-colonial thematic. So the film club has a not-so-modest aspiration to offer cathartic collective adventures or experiences.

Tamás Gerőcs: For speaking about the specific Hungarian setting, there is another film club by Helyzet, running since the autumn 2013. The other internal reading seminar we had was about the inter-war Hungarian narodnik popular movement. This intellectual heritage had an impact on film-makers in the 60s in Hungary, for whom this inter-war era had an important political message. The post-colonialism film club represented more the global view. But with the two film clubs running parallel it was our definite purpose to let these two lines converge, and we were constantly sharing experience with the organisers and audience of the other film club.

There was the late 80s idea here in Eastern Europe of ‘coming back’ to Europe. My question is that although you never equate post-colonialism and Hungary don’t you nevertheless help start conversations about similar themes in Hungary by showing the parallels? To put it in another way: how does the Eastern European semi-periphery relate to the post-colonial history shown in your film club?

Tamás Gerőcs: Our purpose was to demonstrate how things are similar, let’s say in Latin-America, to our everyday Eastern European experience. We showed how the system of global imperialism works. Maybe we are in a different position in Hungary and in Eastern Europe in general, but we wanted to point to those general forces. In most of the cases, the films do not represented a classic semi-periphery, but more a periphery. For many films therefore, our main goal was not to create a distance between these categories, but to find the direct links between different regions, between centre and periphery.

Tibor Meszmann: And the medium of the film is also important here. As we tackle the drama of humanity, as I mentioned, there is often a cathartic effect involved. We had several films in which you could sympathise (or not) with the protagonist, you could learn from it individually. This aspect is also important in the potential of political mobilisation, for social movements. Thus, Hungary is also in the story in a way. We can then ask the questions: which of the general forces Tamás described can be counter-weighted? What are its limits and dangers? For example, interpreting the 2006 story in Hungary can be interestingly tackled from this perspective.

Tamás Gerőcs: It is certainly true that we used the films for our purpose in the discussion. For example, some films we screened were really not so much enjoyable. We then had to explain why we watched that (e.g. this was the fact with some of Lumumba’s clichés, or with El caracazo in some sense). If you discuss that afterwards with the audience, it becomes a different story, it becomes more about knowledge dissemination, and not a production. Very positive experiences rolled out also for these events, as we deconstructed and reflected certain terms (such as violence or nation) based on our everyday knowledge.

I would come back to what Tibor raised, 2006 as a starting point of the present situation in Hungary. Speaking of knowledge production and reflection: did the post-colonial film club change your views on Gyurcsány/Orbán governments or more generally, on present-day Hungary?

Tibor Meszmann: 2006 is plain and simple for me, at least there, that the 2006-2010 governments were despised by the local population, but enjoyed the support of international organizations. El Caracazo depicts a similar story in some sense: there were promises, but then everything erupted, people became nervous, everything went out of control. It was clear after the 2006 economic, social and political crisis, which the global economic crisis of 2008 only intensified, that something had to change (the crisis governments between 2006–2010 were very shaky, as their legitimacy was questioned). For me the main disappointment of these happenings was how these movements were channelled in a wrong direction: this included the right wings’ rise and aspiration to skim off the cream of protests’ crucial messages, categorization of protest issues by pre-existing simplified patterns, and limiting information and knowledge about the ‘other’ social classes and groups. To interpret what is possible, or what is ‘out there’ in Hungary relates again to Helyzet’s mission. Our intention is to go back to much earlier traditions and happenings in order to understand present-day Hungary: at least back to the 60s, but probably even earlier.

I would still in some sense think that there is a big elephant in the room in Hungary (Orbán, Gyurcsány, Bajnai), but you do not explicitly touch upon current phenomena in Helyzet or in the film club (but discuss for example inter-war or post-colonial heritage). You pile up all other substances, but how could you then target the current reality?

Tamás Gerőcs: To target the current reality goes far beyond the reach of the film clubs (although sometimes this topic showed up in the discussions after the screening). We in Helyzet are still in the phase of producing knowledge, which is so far an incomplete work. Still, I think we have a strong impression as knowledge producers for the outside (such as in academia or among activists and leftist thinkers). 2006 is certainly a good starting point for doing this: Hungary has been under the rule of severely repressive forces. There was an anti-establishment, anti-systemic force coming from the population (from different classes); the first thing we could understand is how it was channelled into a rightist movement, and what are the causes and the results that this didn’t come from the left. No leftist force was able to collect these anti-establishment feelings – and none was able to form it into a movement. It resulted in several questions, but this was also the time we in Helyzet started to understand the forces behind: we had a reading group on the anthropologies of post-socialist transformation. Through that, we could understand forces structurally, and ask questions like: Where can we find an answer? How do political parties function? What is the class composition that might be affected? How does class formation work? I would here refer back to the post-colonialism film club, as many of the films covered ask exactly these questions: what is the role of the state, of the military, who are the technocrats, how does class formation take place, etc. Films in this sense served as a mirror helping us to understand and work out our current situation in Hungary.

To wrap up the discussion, how do you imagine this film club going further? What is the next step? Would it be a perpetual post-colonialism film club, or is there an end?

Tibor Meszmann: We have certain capacities: the post-colonialism film club is run by the three of us. Post-colonialism will remain, not perpetually, but we would like to continue with it: there are already plans for two more sessions running half year each. The first is more a theoretical one, a more ‘culturalist’ series, the second would go more into the details of the operations of the system (it takes a political-economic perspective). But there are other plans, too: the third organiser, Márton Piroch is keen on ecological issues, for example.

Are there any opportunities to bring the screenings out of Gólya?

Tamás Gerőcs: Not in a long perspective. It is so to say our duty to have it here, in Gólya. There is an agreement between Helyzet and Gólya: Helyzet brings in ‘contents’: film clubs, but also public events for example. Helyzet and the film club need the community, and we have very important feedbacks from the community of Gólya. But I emphasise that we are still building this community together in and with Gólya.

Tibor Meszmann: The interrelations of Gólya, Helyzet and the film club are very positive ones: a film club is something you can do, but certainly, you can do it more intensively, reaching other audiences. You can for example put the discussions – we started recording some of the discussions just recently – and putting these  on YouTube in order to bring more people into the project, that is true. This is the extensive part of the story – build a larger community, with more voices included. The other way is to be more intensive: such as the Balkan Federation idea, and there were some examples of the film club in which it was there (such as the Ózd and the Videoton series we mentioned earlier in the discussion): we spoke about worker rights, with representatives of the labour movement, or with the film-makers themselves. For example, the director of the Ózd documentary series came to the last screening, or one researcher who made interviews for the Videoton series was also a guest at one of the screenings. Bringing those people together, and organising this network of people is also a mission of the film club. But how this intensive part might work in the future is also a question of capacities: the whole Helyzet shall have a more solid infrastructure and financial background for that (for example to rent the Helyzet office and pay the utilities here in Gólya), to do this politics in the broader sense; with our current resources we can only aim to be ‘timidly’ there, but we certainly do some empowering work for activist groups, because of our close alliances.

Tamás Gerőcs: The way I look at Helyzet, Gólya, the community, or the movement in general is the following. The whole has a function: to channel anger, anti-establishment feelings into a leftist direction, which is a very political thing. It is extremely important to have the ‘right’ (leftist) content. Our impression is that you can easily get trapped in the political jungle in Hungary if you do not know where you are going. The mission of Helyzet and Gólya is to establish this correct path. In this sense you cannot go much further out of Gólya. But it is also true that we think regionally, internationally. We will only go further with this grand project if we sustain allies, and establish connections (and do not get stuck locally in Gólya and in this part of Budapest). This part is also crucial.

Transcription: Márton Czirfusz