In 2008 and 2009, a group of Hungarian right-wing extremists committed a series of vicious attacks on members of the Roma community. Six people were killed, including a five year old boy.
The most damning theme to emerge from Eszter Hajdu’s kammerspiel-esque documentary on the court case that followed is that anti-Roma prejudice is not just confined to fringe radicals, but is ingrained both in the state structure and the society as a whole.
In one scene, a paramedic is unable to explain why he recorded the cause of death of the child victim as “smoke inhalation”, despite the boy being covered in blood and bullet holes. In another, an experienced national investigator is lambasted for producing a crime scene report so incompetent and badly written that the judge says it has more place in a rubbish bin than in a court of law. To make matters worse, basic crimes scene procedures were ignored and the case is almost thrown out due to this technicality.
At one point, the prosecutor shows the court a photograph of one of the defendants posing with a machine gun in front of a Nazi flag and a bust of Adolf Hitler. “I don’t see what you’re trying to prove,” responds the defendant. Arrogance? Maybe. But what the film suggests, purely through letting the defendants and witnesses speak, is that maybe they are being genuine, maybe they don’t see what is wrong. Anti-Roma prejudice is so ingrained in Hungarian society that casual racism and far-right worship are seen as normal. The meteoric rise of the extremist Jobbik, who came second in the 2014 European elections, seems to suggest social stigmas are now being normalised politically. We despise these people and yet we are forced to confront the idea that they have been brought up in a society that ignores – perhaps even foments – their hatred. They simply don’t see anything wrong with what they believe.
Witness after witness relays this message. “He believed that gypsies were parasites,” says one. “And you weren’t concerned?” the judge asks. “Not really. Everybody around me believes that,” she replies, with a passive shrug of the shoulder. “This is more biased than the Szalasi trial”, snorts another.
As the film, and court case, draws to a conclusion, the tension becomes more and more unbearable, and despite seemingly incontrovertible DNA evidence linking the accused to the crime, we are still left wondering whether they will be convicted, or whether the bumbling police force and ingrained anti-Roma prejudice will win in the end.
I asked Eszther Hajdu, director of the documentary, some questions:
oD: What inspired you to film this particular case, and were the participants receptive to being filmed?
EH: Since my childhood, I have always had strong connection with the Roma community. In the neighbourhood where I was raised, there were lots of Roma families at the time. Since the fall of Communism, anti-Roma sentiments are getting stronger and stronger, and not only in Hungary, but in the region, and also in Europe as whole. I felt the urge to make a documentary about the everyday discrimination of Roma people for years, and with this trial I found a "right" frame to tell the story. The claustrophobic courtroom is a perfect setting to tell the intensified drama of the Roma people. The happenings in a small courtroom, where all the segments of society can meet and give their testimonies, tells us a lot about the society as a whole. All the people involved in the case and present in the courtroom was really glad that this historical trial would be documented, which was a favourable situation for our documentary.
oD: Has the situation for Roma in Hungary changed since the court case?
EH: Yes, the Roma people live in even more fear. If they hear a noise at night, they immediately think that someone has come to kill them. Parents don't let their children go to school alone, even if it is very close.
oD: I found the judge to be a very interesting character - at times he seemed unnecessarily rude and irritated, and yet sometimes he showed surprising wisdom and experience. What was your opinion of him?
EH: The judge is an extraordinary character - very passionate and charismatic. Actually he is the central character of the film, and he makes a great protagonist, because he is very complex and has a multi-layered personality. He was very harsh and sometimes rude with the family members of the Roma victims, which was very bad to experience. On the other hand, his main goal was to find justice, and to solve the case.
oD: Two themes in the film struck me: one was that anti-Roma prejudice is active at the state level, and the other was that anti-Roma prejudice had become normalised in society, to the point where many people simply don’t see anything wrong with being racist towards them. Are these fair observations?
EH: The main problem in Hungary, and in the region, is that the perpetrators are only the "acting hands", but the society is the body behind them. Anti-Roma prejudice is so widespread and so ingrained in society. The media constantly prints anti-Roma propaganda, not just in Hungary, but in other parts of Europe too. We hear the theories about the responsibility of media, but in these crimes the theory becomes practice. Perpetrators read or listen to these racist reports about Roma, then they take their guns and go kill them.
To hate Roma people is totally "normal" in the region. There are extreme right-wing parties in the region’s parliaments, like Jobbik, which have the effect of further legitimising discrimination towards Roma people. It is a serious problem, with deadly consequences.
Judgment in Hungary will be shown at the Clapham Picturehouse in London 20:30 on 18 June. Director Eszter Hajdu, and producer Sandor Mester will be present and in discussion with Michael Stewart after the screening. Watch the trailer here and get tickets here.
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