Archive for Octombrie 2015

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“I don’t think that law is the solution. The solution is always education.” – Interview with Benny Brunner (part II)

19 Octombrie 2015

After talking about his most recent movie, The Erpatak Model, the discussion naturally went to comparing Romania with the rest of Europe. Benny’s interest in Romania has to do with the fact that he was born in Romania, in Bârlad, a small town from the North-Eastern part of the country. So we’ve tried to understand why Romania has no far-right political movement right now and what would be some possible explanations for that. We’ve ended talking about Romanian mayors, so we went back to the point where all started: mayors in Central-Eastern Europe.

Benny Brunner @ Visions du Reel

Iosif Prodan: As I’m looking to this mayor guy of yours from Romania’s point of view, he looks very exotic, almost like a clown if we look at his clothes and the way he acts publicly.

Benny Brunner: Yes, most of the people are using this term – clown – to talk about him.

IP: And the thing is that there is this rise of the far-right movement all across the Europe, while in Romania it’s decreasing almost to extinction.

BB: Then you’re the exception I think, in Europe. Seriously. If elections will take place tomorrow in Holland, the party to get the most votes would be the fascist one ruled by Geert Wilders. The same goes for Denmark, I’m not sure about the Front National in France, might be also the case in Italy. Yeah, I think the liberal idea of principles on which EU is based on… I think we’re conducting a lose battle, we’re fighting while retreating.

IP: In Romania it was approved, a few months ago, this law that is very harsh on nationalist and fascist ideas or behaviors. Could this be a way to put up against the rise of extremism?

BB: On one hand, such harsh laws really curbes free speech, no doubt about this. It seems to be effective here, in Romania. But I was just walking in Sibiu the other day and I noticed the office of PRM (n.r. Great Romania Party, former nationalistic party now almost extinct).

IP: I saw that as well, but it’s just a relic, this party doesn’t really exist anymore.

BB: Then, you have to weigh what principle you sacrifice, which core values you sacrifice in order to have an efficient way to combat the spread of this far-right, fascist ideas. If you take Chomsky’s position on the right of a neo-Nazi to deny the Holocaust, for example – that’s a limitation of expressing his views, he says. There was a case a while ago, I think 6-8 years ago, in France with a big headline news all over the place, and Chomsky strongly defended the rights of these guys to express their views. But I think you also have to look per each country’s case, because countries that have more stable, deep-rooted democratic institutions maybe they can afford it more than countries that are more fragile with newer or less implication or existence of the civil society. What is the local criticism of these measures here in Romania?

IP: Yes, this last law that was passed 2-3 months ago was highly criticised, and not mainly from the far-right but also it had to do with this presumably limitation of the free speech. We had some important writers back in the ‘30s who had a strong contribution to the rise of the far-right and now it’s somehow prohibited to publicly praise their biography. And besides this, some other criticism would come from this attack to our identity and renowned literary valued writers. Now things got calmed down but the discussions might erupt again with the first case of conviction or imprisonment that will be done under this law for praising fascism, for example.

BB: To praise fascism is one thing, and actually discussing it in a civilized way is another. Or maybe in academic way if you want to research it.

IP: The law specifically says that if you want to research it for educational purposes you’re totally allowed to.

BB: Well, there is this very good example of Celine, the french writer, with The End of Night – bloody fascist! But I think we can separate between research and appraisal. So if I want to write an article after reading the book and let’s say I really liked it and I give a bit of a context with all the fascist ideas, can I write about it?

IP: Yes, as long as you don’t praise the fascist ideas.

BB: So not to propagate them. I don’t want to judge without knowing the exact stuff here, but do you think that the decline of the far-right here is due to this law or they just run out of steam?

IP: Well, it’s actually both, but this specific law that was approved a few months ago has its own history. It was first approved back in the early 2000s when the main thing was to incriminate the denial of the Holocaust and that was a first big problem for the nationalistic groups. Until that moment we had far-right parties in the Parliament, a nationalistic candidate to run in the final election for the President in 2000 etc. And now, with this second law that would complete the previous one, it’s almost impossible to have far-right – fascist public opinions without being prosecuted and convicted.

BB: Which government legislated this?

IP: The first law was passed by the social-democrats who are the former communists, and the second one was passed also by them, but it’s a project coming from the liberals and it was assumed by Klaus Johannis, the actual president, which had the support of the liberals in the elections.

BB: But the first law, the one that would make denial of the Holocaust a criminal offence was it initiated internally or it was a jewish-american organization to do it?

IP: There was a big talk about that. The far-right organizations were accusing Soroș of jewish propaganda, „we have our own country and we should do whatever we think”. But there was, of course, a pressure coming from Washington. The good thing is that we’ve accepted that in time. But again, do you think that legally incriminating fascist ideas would solve this general issue that Europe has?

BB: Not really, I don’t think that law is the solution. The solution is always education. You must educate your people about the past, to have them know what happened in the true history, not the re-written one. You have to teach that there are many narratives, it’s better than letting people know that there is only one interpretation. I’ve been looking at the Germans, they really repent and that really strengthened the democracy. The Germans combat the extremist parties with a very high entry percentage for the Parliament – 5%, which is huge.

IP: That’s also the case here in Romania, we have 5%.

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Mayor Mihály Zoltán Orosz in one of his regular oufits

BB: Well I think that’s great, although there is a natural criticism of this, that huge amounts of population are not represented.

IP: Indeed, that’s also the main criticism of this entry level here because you have smaller parties that never get the chance to go in the Parliament. But it also worked in keeping out the far-right out of it.

BB: I think for Romania is good, and for Germany is also good. So I think also that it’s good to have this combination of the law and the entry level to get into the Parliament. Yes, a lot of people are left out, but it’s working. Maybe the bigger parties should open the door a little bit for more moderate groups.

IP: For example in Romania we don’t have greens in the Parliament, we never had actually, or pure leftists, like a real socialist party. The actual social-democrats have so many center-right policies that you couldn’t consider them as left.

BB: But are the social-democrats going to lose in the next elections?

IP: Yes, very probably they will. And they will also lose a lot of local elections.

BB: Because of the scandals that are unveiling right now.

IP: That’s right, a lot of social-democrat mayors are being detained or suspended from their positions because of corruption cases. The mayor of Bucharest was caught while taking money that were marked with “bribe”. But the perverse part is that a few hours before that he was offering an interview for a TV station where he would say that well, not all the mayors are corrupt, there are some honorable individuals among them – of course, he was pointing out to himself, but, you know, hypocrisy is a mild word for this.

BB: And he’s still in the office?

IP: No, he’s imprisoned. The process hasn’t started yet, but while the prosecutors are building the case his rights are restricted.

BB: So all these mayors that had corruption issues are social-democrats?

IP: Most of them, some are liberal as well, but not as many as the social-democrats.

BB: In Holland they just passed a few days ago a law that makes all budgets – income and spending – of the local authorities, open. All of them. You can see anything that comes in and out: who’s got paid, how much, total transparency. There was an NGO that is called Open Data that pushed this law into the Parliament.

IP: But were there any big corruption scandals in the Netherlands lately?

BB: In the past, when the father of the former queen abdicated and his son took over, so her father got huge kickbacks from Lockheed, it was like 40 years ago. But there is a lot of corruption – not in-your face, though – everywhere. Where you have people there is corruption. Power corrupts; a lot of power corrupts a lot. But what about Johannis? Is he “clean”?

IP: Well… we just find out a month ago that he might be involved in a case of faking inheritance documents from which he got several buildings and flats in Sibiu. His wife seems to be more involved than he is and that’s quite strange because he definitely doesn’t look like a crook.

BB: Someone told me that when he was a mayor here in Sibiu, his nickname was “The Dictator”.

IP: Never heard of that. What he was known for, though, in all the country, was the high percentage of votes he got in all the local elections, around 70-80%. But since we’re talking about mayors again, I was willing to tell you about the mayor from my hometown, he is suspended now for this disgraceful case he got into – he was spying on his mistress using the local police.

BB: (smiling) Ah, that’s nothing, in Israel there was a similar case with a mayor that named a street after his mistress. There was a huge scandal on that!

*You can read the first part of the interview HERE

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„He’s not mad! And he’s dangerous because he’s not mad” – interview with Benny Brunner (part I)

17 Octombrie 2015

I met Benny Brunner at Astra Film Festival 2015 in Sibiu, RO. His last film, The Érpatak Model, was shot in Hungary and it’s following a mayor whose key part of its success (just won the forth mandate) is „divide and rule”. He’s a fascist, he commemorates Nazi soldiers and, as you might’ve guessed, a member of Jobbik. Far-right movement is rising all over Europe and Érpatak, an unknown village from Central Europe, gives one of the most shocking examples of what might happen if we don’t defend democratic principles. The first part of the interview is about his movie and the whole story of mayor Mihály Zoltán Orosz; the second one (you can read it HERE) is more like a dialogue about another exceptional case, Romania, where far-right is almost extinct.

12118721_10153328809349139_7183979529355518007_nBenny Brunner @ Astra Film Festival 2015 (photo by Cornel Moșneag)

So your film is about a mayor in Hungary that has a very fascist, dictatorial way of ruling. From what you’ve said at the Q&A, you’ve found out about the subject from a journalist, Keno Verseck. Was there some personal reason why you selected this subject? Is there any general interest you have about fascism or politics in your movies?

If there’s a red thread that goes through all the work I’ve been done so far in my films, it’s anti-nationalistim, anti-fascism, people or organizations that place their country in the centre of their value system. It’s my – if I can paraphrase the mayor – „mission in life” (laughs). No, i’m just busy with these subjects for many-many years.

Then how is this subject different than what you’ve done so far?

On an abstract level it’s not much different. The point in this film is that it takes place in a very confined, defined geographical space which makes it very fascinating for me; I couldn’t do it before. Because of the mayor’s multiple activities, his hyperactivism basically, there were a lot of situations I could follow in my film – and that made it super interesting for me. This idea of telling the story without having to narrate or to get interviews.

Did it shocked you the way this mayor was showing off?

I wouldn’t use shock, but I was somehow taking a back seat to his extent of fanaticism, of his total belief that all he does is good – it’s good for his country, for his nation, his culture. I thought, of course, in the beginning, I assumed that he might be an opportunist, but I don’t think he is, I think he’s in it, from his point of view, out of pure motives. What surprised me when I started to get interested in Hungary was how quick and how far towards a dictatorship like system that is in place there, how fast it went into a country that it was probably the most relaxed communist wise during the communist era, especially in the ’80s when – you’re probably familiar with the term goulash communism; I mean, Hungary was really relaxed, people could easily travel abroad, private property was allowed, the art scene was kind of more opened than in other countries, but not as much as Poland, of course; and not for nothing Nemeth in ’89 made it possible to end this system.

So where is this „model” coming from, what are the mayor’s roots of this nationalism?

I think that more than 4 decades of communist dictatorship suppressed a lot of national feelings and the moment this lead was taken off, this forces that operated underground just burst into existence and got in the center of the stage. But Hungary, of course, it’s a special case – losing 2/3 of the territory after WWI and almost 40% of the people which remained as minorities in the neighbor countries, the biggest one being here in Romania. And then you get this intellectual or semi-intellectuals who reconstruct a historical imagery and remember how great Hungary was, what a great empire, what grandeur, as the French call it – these were the processes that took place. And as the former communists became the social-democrats in Hungary and kept screwing it up big time and reaching themselves, all sorts of populists found very fertile land to plant these seeds.

And about this political configuration in Hungary, I was surprised to see what a big problem is to be a liberal from this mayor’s point of view.

Well, he compares liberalism to be as evil as the communism. It’s “the new evil force”, he actually says it. It used to be communism, now it’s liberalism.

But aren’t any political opponents in this village/town?

Yes, he has opponents, the biggest one is Gábor Szőllősi, the civil rights activist, he’s a liberal par excellence as we can call him as well. He’s fighting for civil liberties, democracy, freedom of speech, end of intimidation, he’s also against staging of all these far-right nationalistic commemoration events that’s being done an a bi-weekly schedule there. It’s incredible the amount of stuff that’s going on there.

But the one who came second in the elections was from FIDESZ and number three an independent. If the opposition forces would have been united, close their nose and agree on a common candidate, they would’ve won. People that voted for the opposition candidates were many than the ones to vote for this guy from Jobbik. You know, it’s classic divide and rule, it’s textbook. It’s so old it’s amazing that people still fall for it.

Mayor Mihály Zoltán Orosz

And it’s as surprising as this guy has now the forth mandate. What are his key strategies in surviving in this leading position?

Have you heard about the concept of vested interests? Again, it’s so old that it amazes me each time how come it’s possible. You are in a system in which you are unhappy, but you have vested interest in this system to keep going because you have it better than I. And who knows maybe your little privileged position will remain. So every person that has a little bit better condition than the others, are dependent on the system. It’s, after all, about making a living. In this towns’ case it’s about having access to the workgroup program that the mayor controls. He is the one that gets the budget from the government for so and so number of people. If you’re against him, you are out of the program, you have nothing to work.

And the landowners, the ones who make a living out of leasing parts of land to the people that don’t own any, also have some vested interest in the system, so they’re also supporting the mayor. But again, all in all, at absolute numbers, the people who are against him are more than the ones who are with him, but they’re divided.

So do you think that one point they will be able to understand this and put up together to win the elections?

I talked with Gabor at the end of April and he told me that he’s not going to run for mayorship this time, he did in the previous election, but as the last elections come closer he decided to run. And I’ve told him “You, guys, have to unite, you’re going to lose like this”. He replied that he’s aware of this and bla bla bla and then he decided to run and he came last, he got something like 16 votes and here’s how much support he gets in the village. Even if he says in the film that he gets a lot of calls from the people that are having problems with the system, or if they need juridical consultation, they come to him. What can I say… ? People tend to be stupid, it’s a problem that they’re uneducated, they’re misinformed… If you follow the state media in Hungary – I don’t know if independent televisions like ATV or RTL that don’t support Orban have signal in this village, you can only get them on cable and they have no cable TV service in the village – it’s really depressing.

But how large is this “model”? Because you said in the Q&A that we can take this particular case and use it to speak about Hungary as a whole. Is that really the case?

It’s not really the same everywhere, that’s why I brought Orban in the end of the film. There are two reasons actually why I did it: the obscene idea of the democracy that is not liberal, and that we’re going to switch from a welfare system to a working state. This idea of the working state is the key part of the “model”, everybody has to work; even if you get benefits you have to work. The idea of using criminal law to solve social problems it’s… (looking disappointed). He (n.r. the mayor of Érpatak) probably didn’t articulate as neatly and legally elegant as the state does but…

… that’s how Orban’s ideas are put in practice.

Yes. Orban signed an agreement with the head of Jobbik 5 or 6 years ago which would state that every municipality run by Jobbik must put in practice “The Model”. But now, before the last elections in Hungary (n.r. April 2014), when Jobbik changed their appearance and downed their rhetorics with the assistance of some American/Western consultants – they all look nice, they’re very young, all the candidates look like young executives from a big corporation; I don’t think there’s someone older than 40. And they all look successful, kind of, the person you would want to be – it worked for them in the last elections. Also I think they’re distancing from the guy (n.r. the mayor) now; in the last month I think someone came to talk to him, he stopped wearing these clothes – the so-called traditional costumes – he’s now in a suit, he even came to the screening we had in Budapest in a suit.

You also said that right now there are some lawsuits against him, the central administration also has a problem with him.

That’s what I heard, yes. I can’t really follow the Hungarian media, but Keno Verseck helps me with this. It’s not clear, but probably following the film they’re going after him; but not because the central administration are good, law-abiding officials, not at all. It’s just the war against Jobbik, they’re a big threat for FIDESZ. So they’re probably going to remove him.

There was question at the Q&A that someone asked about the morality of your movie. Because we can think that this mayor agreed to show up in the movie in his madness…

He’s not mad! He’s obsessed. I think it would be a mistake to regard him as mad, he’s dangerous because he’s not mad.

But couldn’t he use your movie in becoming a star in the eyes of his Jobbik fellow colleagues, something like “Hey, look at me how fabulous I am, how I rule this city with an iron fist”?

I don’t know what he had in mind when he agreed to cooperate, he was really enthusiastic, maybe he thought that this idea of “the model” would spread to the West, in Holland (n.r. Benny Bruner is Dutch) and Germany (n.r. Keno Verseck, the journalist in the movie is German). I think he’s so self-centered that he cannot look at himself or think about himself in any critical manner, whatsoever – he also has a terrible lack of humor. To me it looks like he’s living in a cocoon, nothing from the outside could penetrate him, until a film eats him. He really thinks he’s doing God’s work.

You know what’s his favorite movie? Excalibur, the legend of King Arthur. I think he portraits himself as a knight. When we talked with him about Excalibur, we were in the village where gypsies are stealing electricity, and he actually expanded the explanation why he likes the movie – bringing justice, protecting the culture and the purity of the people.

14223The Érpatak Model (movie poster)

But do you really think that your film could help him propagate his ideas? Like “any publicity is good publicity”?

Maybe if he shows it to his people and omits the parts that are critical towards him. When I finished the film and Keno saw it, he said “I think the mayor would like it, actually”. And my Hungarian editor also said that without the critical voices, his enemies, “the destroyers”, he might like it. Also the poster, don’t know if you saw it – my graphic designer, a Dutch Israeli, he did an Internet search for nationalistic posters and came close to a Nazi poster of the student union supporting the party and the ideology – there was this young soldier with a Nazi flag and I had a photo of the mayor in a same posture.

I think it’s too much in to your face to be any enigma. As I said, I don’t think he’s crazy, he’s only obsessed, maybe pathologically obsessed. He’s also obsessed with cleanliness – he said I think to one of his supporters, the exact quote “People tell me that when you look at Érpatak from Google Earth, it looks like Switzerland”. Clean, everything is in order (smiles).