I spent most of last weekend sitting down in a darkened room. It was the eighth annual VERZIO Human Rights Film Festival, sponsored here in Budapest by good old George Soros. It presents a number of interesting and sometimes disturbing films about people's lives, focusing on Eastern Europe.
From a personal point of view one of the most interesting looked at the lives of a few refugees living at Bicske refugee camp, just outside Budapest ("Caught between two worlds"). It looked at how people there, who can only stay six months, were preparing for life outside in Hungary, with the language lessons, cultural orientation and so on. Coming to live here was challenging for me, so I can barely guess at how difficult it would be for someone with a traumatic past and a completely different cultural history.
Another interesting film was "Europolis", which looked at the strange town of Sulina in Romania. As part of the peace treaty at the end of the Crimean War a joint 'European Commission' established a port at the mouth of the Danube in the Black Sea. For 20 years or so it boomed, but with the coming of the railways ships started unloading further upstream and its grandeur slowly withered away. But people continue to live there, eking out a living in the collapsing and abandoned infrastructure. A strange story indeed.
While a film which brought tears to my eyes was "There was once...", which told the story of how a Hungarian history teacher started researching into the Jewish community that had existed in her hometown. It had slowly developed through the 18th century, but had then abruptly disappeared on the night of June 18, 1944, when they were all taken away to Auschwitz. She managed to track down survivors to find out their stories, and had then invited them all back to a celebration in Hungary. Sadly the present day fascists, the Magyar Garda, decided to stage their own demonstration and had attacked this peaceful, joyous gathering of octogenarians and their children. A bittersweet story.
My favourite was "Our school", which told the story of the attempts in a small town in Romania to integrate Roma children into mainstream schools. The European Commission had provided money to rebuild a school the Roma children used, so while it was being rebuilt these children went to the local town school. First they were put in their own classroom, then they were allowed to join the other classes, but always sat in the back row, ignored by the teachers. Finally, because they were seen to be academically behind the 'Romanian' children they were integrated into mainstream education in the local school for the physically and mentally disabled. What was particularly tragic was their awareness of what was happening to them: they enjoyed being with the Romanian kids and making friends, but the system would not let them in. And of course, by the time their original school had been rebuilt, they were all 'mainstreamed', so the new school stayed empty.
A thought-provoking weekend, indeed.