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The Citizen: A Powerful, Poignant Film about One Refugee’s Quest to Become Hungarian

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Director Roland Vranik’s new film, The Citizen (Az Állampolgár), was shown last week at Budapest’s ToldiMozi theatre.

The film portrays the struggles of a middle-aged refugee name Wilson, and his attempts to find his place in Hungarian society.

 After viewing the film, we were able to sit down for quick discussions with Mr. Vranik as well as the star of the film, Dr. Marcelo Cake-Bialy, to discuss the process of creating this gripping, powerful film, as well as the ongoing refugee crisis that this film seeks to address.

In the film Wilson, whose family was killed during an outbreak of civil war in Guinea-Bissau, fled to Budapest as a political refugee, and ended up working as a security guard in a grocery store at the age of fifty. The story follows his quest for Hungarian citizenship, and he is aided in his preparations by Mari (Ágnes Máhr), a history teacher; during the course of his trials he also meets Shirin (Arghavan Shekari), a young Iranian woman whose only hope to avoid deportation is to marry a Hungarian citizen.

The Citizen opens with Wilson taking an oral examination before Hungarian citizenship authorities. There, he is asked long, complicated questions about Hungarian constitutional law and Renaissance history, questions to which Wilson does not know the answers. He does, however, know the Szózat, the famed 19th century Hungarian patriotic poem by Mihály Vörösmarty. The poem, which is regarded as a second national anthem of sorts, opens with “To your homeland without fail be faithful, O Hungarian!”, words which resonate with Wilson, a man who feels that he has finally found a home in Hungary. When pushed on this point by the examiner, when asked why he left his own homeland, Wilson calmly responds by telling the examiner about the murder of his wife, about the horrors of civil war, before asking him “what would you do?”

 Despite this knowledge of the Szózat, however, Wilson fails the exam, and is advised, not ill-naturedly, by the head tester to “wait awhile” before trying again.

Wilson is a good, man, and a kind one; when he sees a young man attempting to steal from the store he works at as a security guard, rather than detaining him for arrest, Wilson quietly removes the stolen item from the man’s bag and warns him to leave the store before someone else catches him.

Early on in the film, Wilson’s flat-mate, a fellow African expatriate, decides to move to Austria, and urges Wilson to come with him. Wilson, however, refuses; he has come to feel that Hungary is his home; that, in the words of the Szózat, he must “live and die here.”

And despite the suggestion of the head tester, Wilson is determined to take the test again. To help with his studying, Wilson’s boss introduces him to her sister, Mari, a middle-aged tutor who lives in the suburbs of Budapest. While traditional and reserved at first, Mari grows closer to Wilson as she takes him around the city, explaining to him the intricacies and nuances of Hungarian culture.

 But while she teaches, Mari finds herself learning, and falling in love, as well. She introduces Wilson to the music of famed Hungarian composer Béla Bartok; he, in turn, shows Mari the music of Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. They even dance together, something that Mari hasn’t had the opportunity to enjoy “in years.”

But while he prepares for the citizenship exam, and grows closer to Mari with each meeting, Wilson must deal with another, even weightier issue: Shirin, a young Iranian woman who shows up pregnant at his flat one night. She is looking for Wilson’s flat-mate, but even though he is already gone, Wilson agrees to let her stay the night.

That very same night, Shirin goes into labor; terrified of the authorities, who will deport her back to Iran (where she might be executed), she delivers the baby in Wilson’s flat. After the child’s birth, Shirin holes up, paranoid, in the apartment with her child, afraid to even go for a walk, lest someone report her to the police.

The rest of the film sees the growing relationships and growing tensions play out between Wilson, Mari, and Shirin. As Shirin’s child gets bigger, and Mari and Wilson’s relationship grows, tensions, conflicts, and fears all eventually come to a head, leading to a powerful, and painful, climax.

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An Accidental Star

The topics raised in The Citizen are by no means new to the film’s star, Dr. Marcelo Cake-Baly. As we have previously written, Dr. Cake-Baly is himself originally a refugee from Guinea-Bissau, and his life mirrors that of the character he plays in many respects. Fleeing war in Guinea Bissau, Cake-Baly went to Senegal, where he joined a school program that provided excellent students with a scholarship to go to Europe to complete their university studies. It was through this program that he came to Hungary in 1976. He has lived here ever since.

After earning a degree from Karl Marx University of Economics, Cake-Baly worked for some time as an economist for banks, while at the same time writing his PhD dissertation. He lost both of his positions at banks, however, due to the fact that he was not a Hungarian citizen.

He eventually gained Hungarian citizenship in 1995, and has worked for Budapest Public Transportation (BKV) since 2005, after beating out dozens of other candidates. He currently helps direct the flow of traffic in the Hungarian capital. He is married with two children; the younger child, his daughter, is in 5th grade and suffers from health problems, while his older son has become involved in Hungarian politics, and is currently the director of the opposition party Dialogue for Hungary (Párbeszéd Magyarországért).

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Honest, Painful, Profound

Overall, it must be said that The Citizen was a powerful, well-executed film, one that achieves the rare feat of provoking sympathy and understanding without falling into the trap of sentimentality and simplification.

The film does have some slower moments, and does have points where the dialogue feels a bit wooden, especially in the early stages of Wilson and Mari’s relationship, but the honesty and intensity of Cake-Baly more than makes up for any possible shortcomings.

The pain and horror that Wilson has experienced as a refugee is shown to the audience in subtle, yet powerful ways. While teaching Wilson about Hungarian culture, Mari describes Hungarian King Saint Stephen, the founder of the medieval Hungarian state, in expectedly positive ways; Wilson, on the other hand, sees in Stephen’s brutal executions and mutilations reminders of horrors that he has seen firsthand, horrors that claimed his family.

The Citizen is a film that is full of life, full of humanity; it has some incredible moments of joy, such as when Wilson and Mari spend a week of bliss together at a spa resort, a reward Wilson won for being ‘best employee of the year’ at the grocery store he works at. Spinning around a current pool together without a care for what anyone else may think, one almost wishes the film to end right then and there, with Mari and Wilson paddling off into the sunset.

But make no mistake, this is not a happy film, nor does it have a happy ending. And, ultimately, that is to The Citizen’s Credit. A happy ending to this tale would have felt like a cop-out, a Disney solution, a refusal to recognize the pain, fear, and rejection that refugees have to live with on a daily basis.

Ultimately, then, while the Citizen certainly has brilliant moments of levity, it is not a happy film. But it is an honest one.

A Discussion with the Men Behind The Citizen

After viewing the film, I had an opportunity to speak to Dr. Cake-Baly and the film’s Director, Roland Vranik, who were both present at the ToldiMozi to take questions and speak about their film. Considering the ways in which The Citizen addresses the plight of refugees, I asked the two of them about the refugee experience, as well as the current European migration crisis.

When asked about the current refugee situation, Marcelo Cake-Baly, the film’s star, started by emphasizing the complex, huge nature of the crisis, adding that

I’m not sure you can even find a good solution. The situation is not good for receiving countries, because too many people are coming, but it clearly is not a good situation for refugees either. Ultimately, this is a problem that the politicians need to work to solve.

When I asked Dr. Cake-Baly how his own experiences coming to Europe, or how the issues faced by his character Wilson, stack up to problems confronting migrants coming to Europe today, the star of The Citizen emphasized the danger of lumping people into “huge groups,” of making generalizations about people coming from all over the world, who arrive in Europe with different experiences, different cultures, different backgrounds.

He did, however, admit to a type of discrimination in Europe that seems rather commonplace, saying that “I have been in many countries throughout Europe, and I can say that many of the problems I have experienced are in fact European problems. A black man, an African, will face these same problems in any European country.”

Director Roland Vranik (center) directing stars Marcelo Cake-Baly and Ágnes Máhr on set.
Director Roland Vranik (center) directing stars Marcelo Cake-Baly and Ágnes Máhr on set.

Speaking with Roland Vranik, the film’s director, I first asked him about the relationship between The Citizen and the ongoing refugee crisis. Surprisingly, Mr. Vranik said that “When the idea for this film was born, this situation had not yet begun. A film usually takes 3-4 years to create, from script writing to completion, and we began this script [for the Citizen] in 2012.”

Discussing the refugee crisis, Mr. Vranik added that he “had always thought that there would come a time when migration would reach this point. And then, after production of the film was already underway, real life caught up with us.”

I also asked Mr. Vranik about how typical or atypical The Citizen’s protagonist, Wilson, is, in his decision to stay in Hungary and his push to familiarize himself with both Hungarian language and culture. Mr. Vranik responded that

It’s not very typical, but it does happen. Those who do decide to learn, go into it with full force…Many of these people are alone, they don’t have jobs, they don’t have much else to do with their time…In addition, from a travel perspective, Hungarian citizenship is a powerful motivator. Once you have a Hungarian passport, the world effectively opens up before you.

For those readers in Budapest who are interested in seeing The Citizen, the film will be shown, with English subtitles, at the Cinema City Allee this Friday, January 20th (for more information, check out the event page here).

The Citizen opens in theatres throughout Hungary on the 26th of January, 2017.

By Tom Szigeti

Images via The Citizen Facebook page, artmozi.hu, and Toldimozi

Video via Stockholm Film Festival YouTube Channel