ferenc groot

‘Hungary would be the first country in the world to introduce internet tax, as far as I know. They either want to make a lot of money, or it’s a way of directing attention away from the corruption in this country. Either way, it didn’t work. The situation has exploded now, tens of thousands of people will take to the streets in an hour.’

It’s a grey Sunday afternoon; we’re sitting in a café in the centre of Budapest. It’s a cosy bar and an unmistakable bastion of Budapest’s leftist community. Ferenc orders two sodas, one for himself and one for me, since the waiter is completely ignoring me.

In October of 2014, the Hungarian government introduced a new tax law that would force Hungarians to pay 50 eurocent for every gigabyte they used. The internet tax seemed to fit into a recent pattern of laws limiting the freedom of Hungarians, even though the political Fidesz party claimed the tax would be used to balance the national budget.

‘There used to be a movement called MILLA, One Million for the Freedom of Press. We organized rallies with thousands of people attending. It began to take on an epic form; MILLA was like the semi-official opposition.’ ‘That’s amazing.’ ‘It is, but the socialist party which is the official opposition, used their money and influence to steal our audience, and with that our success.’

‘Kind of an anti-climax’ ‘It was, our ideas were hijacked by the politicians. That’s when I went back to being an artist. I opened an anarchistic theatre.’

Recently, Ferenc introduced a few low-budget plays to the public, with provocative names like Multiple Orgasm. Needless to say, the plays deal with social subjects in a way that would never allow them to be shown anywhere else than in small theatres like Ferenc’s.

‘I’m a director; I don’t want to be part of politics, but I am. Two weeks ago we had a show playing, Zöld Sofia. During the show, two policemen entered. Or maybe they weren’t policemen, but security guys dressed in armour; it looked very scary. Supposedly the alarm went off and they came to check if there was a robbery going on.’

‘Nonsense, of course.’

‘Total nonsense, it was an excuse to intimidate us. Also in 2008, my first play Gecy was attacked by extreme rightists. It was a play about the Hungarian tragedy in which several Jewish actors appeared, so they felt like the Jews had provoked the Hungarians, or something. We were all over the news, they used my play as anti-Semitic propaganda.’ ‘How can you live now, under these conditions?’

‘Everyone has their tricks’, Ferenc replies with a grin. ‘My mother died a while ago so I have some inherited money. But it’s not much, meaning that I’ll probably have to leave the country in a few years.’

‘What was the situation like between 1990 and 2006? Was it better?’

‘It probably wasn’t, I was just too naïve to realize what was going on’, Ferenc sighs. ‘We used to learn from our parents not to get involved in politics, because nothing would ever change. This idea is engrained in the minds of my generation. This made us unprepared for what’s going on now; a situation where we have to participate, not politically but socially. And a lot of people don’t even want to open their eyes. They want to be guided, to be punished and rewarded.’

‘Has anything changed since Hungary became part of the EU?’

‘No. The new government has its base on the right, but there’s this mob. Extreme right activists are melting together with football hooligans. The government used this mob to oppress the city, after which they blamed the socialists for it. It’s crazy; it’s like a banana republic. It’s happening in the middle of Europe and the EU does nothing, they’re so apathetic.

‘I agree. They don’t stop them, they don’t take action.’

The government is constantly referring to their autonomy, saying that the EU shouldn’t mess with our internal politics, that it’s not their job. The prime minister wants out of the EU. He would never admit it but he does.’

‘Why would he want to leave the EU?’

‘Because someday they will throw us out anyway.’

‘They can’t just kick him out because they don’t like his ideas, right?’

‘No, but in order to re-establish the one party system they deconstructed the democratic institutions in a way that is not in line with European standards. Anti-Semitism and racism became mainstream ideologies; if you’re not homophobic, you’re gay; if you’re not anti-Semitic, you’re Jewish. That’s why most of the intelligence has fled the country. They always crossed the line. People said you’re fucking with the freedom of press. And then they sent bureaucrats that rewrite it – they don’t really rewrite it, but by doing this they’ve managed to remain a one-party fascist government in the middle of Europe, without anyone stopping them. That’s a scary thing to have to say about Europe.’

‘Do you think there’s something typical about the European mentality?’

Ferenc shrugs his shoulders. ‘I don’t know. I have a problem with this whole European mentality thing, because I don’t see how saying ‘we’ all the time adds to the picture. Europe is what you make of it. My own opinion is different than my country’s or that of other countries.’

‘What is your opinion, then?’

‘It’s nothing like the US, for instance. They have the same culture, the same morals, everywhere you go.’ ‘A lot of symbols that united them; we don’t have that in Europe.’ ‘That’s ok. That’s what’s good about Europe, better than anywhere in the world: we have this amazing diversity. That’s what makes the political community exciting as well. I haven’t read the declarations they probably wrote at the beginning of the EU, but I bet this diversity was the whole idea behind it. It makes perfect sense.’

(interview by Mark, written by Sophie Moerman)