SHIFT selected filmmaker fighting to free SZFE A report with exclusive footage about the demonstrations going on in Hungary, led by students.
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SHIFT selected filmmaker fighting to free SZFE

A report with exclusive footage about the demonstrations going on in Hungary, led by students.

On 1 September students of the 155-year-old University of Theatre and Film Arts, Budapest, occupied and blockaded their institution, fighting to keep its autonomy. The filmmaker Áron Farkas (director of 8563), who has just won the Special Jury Award at the SHIFT Film Festival, is one of the many students who plays a central role in this protest, which has already found supporters from all over the world such as Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellen. Here, Áron and the media team of the movement exclusively report what has happened so far.

"The university community fears for the school’s autonomy."

18 september 2020

SZFE - Who are they?

"The 155-year-old Hungarian University of Theatre and Film Budapest (SZFE) is the oldest art institution of higher education in Hungary that educates theoretical and practical professionals in the fields of theatre, film and television. Apart from actor-training, it remains the only state-funded higher education institution to train theatre and film professionals, one where traditionally the best masters of their respective fields train the new generations. Oscar-winning artists like Michael Curtiz, Vilmos Zsigmond, István Szabó studied at SZFE. Over the past decades, the majority of today’s prestigious Hungarian actors and directors got their diplomas at this institution."

What's all the fuss about?

"On July 3rd, the Hungarian parliament proposed a bill to fundamentally change the structure and the working model of the University of Theatre and Film Arts of Budapest. This proposal was preceded by no discussion with the stakeholders of the university. The bill became law over the strong protest of students, faculty and management. The university community fears for the school’s autonomy."

How it all began

"In November 2019 the university senate — the institution's highest decision-making body, which consists of delegates of students, faculty and administrators of the community — elected a new rector. For the first time in its history the school had two equally competent and outstanding bids for the position and the decision followed a series of debates open to all students, faculty and administrators. The first sign of trouble was that the responsible ministry did not appoint the rector-elect while also refusing to answer any and all inquiries as to why. All of this happened shortly before the disastrous new theatre bill, which tens of thousands protested against in December 2019."

"In February of 2020 vague government plans about a remodeling of SZFE's entire working structure started to surface. From day one, there was no dialogue with the management or leading faculty of the school, and details remained unclear as to the timing or any other specific propositions, apart from the fact that the state-owned and subsidised institution should be turned into a foundation and be privately owned from now on. Whereas the university does not reject the idea of this so-called remodeling in principle, students, faculty and management voiced serious reservations about doing it hastily or without a well-devised, long-term plan discussed between and agreed upon by all stakeholders. In addition, no one thought it would be a good idea to let the state withdraw from the funding of a university, which has about 350 students, 80 doctoral students, 45 faculty members and a hundred administrators at any given time, in its three huge buildings full of expensive equipment."

The past six months

"None of the questions or concerns of the university were addressed and the ministry basically refused to discuss their plan with the stakeholders. It has also become increasingly clear that those so intent on the change are not only clueless about how to do it, but have also very little to no idea about the way SZFE is built up, how it operates, what courses are taught or what degrees are offered here (for instance, the MP proposing the bill seemed to be unaware of the over two dozen different professions taught at the school and kept talking about the actors only). The change was originally planned for January of 2021 and the university made every effort to postpone the far-too-short deadline until September of 2021 at least. Instead, the proposed bill brought the change forward to September of 2020, a practical impossibility."

"The rector-elect along with SZFE's management and leading faculty kept trying to start real in-depth discussions with the responsible parties, which kept making these uninformed unilateral decisions, to no avail. Once the bill passed, they spent their entire summer meeting and discussing the issues, putting together the key legal and conceptual documents in order to implement the change — all of that at the ministry's direct request. According to the bill passed on 3 July the university is to be managed by a foundation and run by a Board of Trustees. Neither the faculty, nor the management, let alone students of the university were consulted at any stage in the process and they had no say in members of the board either. In fact, none of their highly qualified candidates were taken into consideration. The legal documents they worked on, which would have guaranteed that the democratically elected senate remain the key decision-making body of the institution, the one to decide about curricula and launching programs, the one to elect the rector and invite faculty, were also ignored entirely."

The man behind the curtain

"Less than a month after the bill passed, the list of the board members was announced: it had two oil company managers, one film producer, one theatre actor/director with no teaching experience and as chairman the one man who has decided about every major issue in the theatre for the past ten years: Attila Vidnyánszky. The man is the director of the Hungarian National Theatre, artistic director of his home theatre in the Hungarian diaspora of the Ukraine, head of two professional organisations, director of a major international festival and deputy dean of the only other actor-training higher education state institution, where he took over in 2011 with no academic qualifications. As both students and faculty report in some detail, he loosened the strict first three-four year actor training to such an extent that after the first year or two, there are almost no classes, students are sent away to train at different theatres all over the country. He also fired most of the highly qualified, successful and well-liked faculty to bring in partially highly questionable characters in their place including a priest."

"The list of the board members — five men without a single name from among the university's proposed list or anyone who knows the institution — was the last straw for many. Gábor Zsámbéki, former founding director of the Katona József Theatre and one of Hungary's most defining stage directors of the past five decades, who trained generations of actors for 41 years, resigned right away, along with Máté Gáspár, former manager of Árpád Schilling’s world-famous independent theatre, Krétakör and head of the Institute of Art Theory and Mediation. They were soon followed by Gábor Székely, one of the other great legends of contemporary Hungarian theatre and mentor for most stage directors under fifty including Viktor Bodó and Árpád Schilling."

"By then, an unprecedented series of vicious attacks was launched against the university in general, and some of its leading figures personally. In numerous cases, the attacks rose to the level of slander and libel and they were always packed with false claims, innuendo and unproven facts, each of which were refuted by the newsletters and statements of the university over the summer in great detail and in a civilised tone much unlike that of the attackers, including several board members."

The end of university autonomy

"Without having looked at the basic legal documents put together by the senate and a legal team over the summer, who took great care to keep the autonomy of the university and the senate as its main deciding body and went into great detail about all other professional and legal issues, the board provided their own documents already signed, sealed and delivered four days before the change was to take place, leaving absolutely no room for discussion."

"Neither the bill, hastily passed in parliament without any discussion with the stakeholders, nor the legal documents thrown together in similar haste (including irrelevant lines clearly copy-pasted from a different university's deeds) guarantee the university's autonomy. The new deed of the private foundation strips the democratically elected university senate of most of their decisional powers and hands them over to a privately owned foundation, whose board is thoroughly unfamiliar with the university."

"Since the foundation is defined as one 'for theatre and film arts' and does not include the name of the university, theoretically all of its capital (including the three buildings which will now also be owned privately) can be spent on any goals related to film or theatre."

"Given no other choice, the senate and the management of the university resigned in unison, effective midnight 31 August."

#freeSZFE

"The autonomy of the university is in grave danger. Therefore, on the eve of 1 September, after months of discussions, votes and self-education running parallel to the events described above, we, the students of the 155-year-old University of Theatre and Film Arts, Budapest felt we had no choice but to occupy and blockade our school and to refuse to leave until our following conditions are met:"

— We demand full autonomy for our university!
— We reject the Remodelling Law in its current form.
— We reject the way in which the Board of Trustees and the Supervisory Board are supposed to be    appointed, therefore we reject the current Board of Trustees and the Supervisory Board.
— We reject the basic deed of foundation in its current form.
— We reject any and all managers appointed arbitrarily.
— We demand the restoration of the powers of the university senate.
— We demand the ratification of the basic deed of foundation formulated by our former senate, who have now resigned in protest.
— We demand the resignation of the current Board of Trustees.
— We demand that the rights to form a foundation, which would own and run our university, not be transferred from the state to any private foundation, including the present one.
— We demand that the state not withdraw entirely from funding the university.
— We demand that the term ’university’ be added to the name of the foundation.

Solidarity

"Schools, theatres, film companies, professionals, students or private people can show their solidarity with statements in which they join our demands or insist on our school’s autonomy, or by wearing a yellow mask like we do. Please use the hashtag #freeSZFE for supporting statements or just write this phrase on your palm, hold it up to the camera and send the photo to our press team via [email protected]"

(c) All visual material is used with permission.

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