The Radical Vision of FreeSZFE at Yale University

On January 27, Yale University Library held a Zoom conference on “Art, Education, and Protest in Hungary: The Radical Vision of FreeSZFE.”  In September 2020 the entire faculty and students of the Theater and Film University went on strike and occupied their building to protest the privatization of the University by the government, the transfer of national assets to a board appointed by Orbán, ending 155 years of independence.  Their strike lasted 71 days, until COVID restrictions forced them to leave.  They created a free university and have operated successfully ever since.

The last legitimate rector of the university, László Upor, award-winning director Ildikó Enyedi, and former student Nóra Aujeszky presented an update of the creation and functioning of the free university ever since its foundation a year and a half ago.  They recalled the heady days of the protest when students and faculty created innovative productions that paraded through the streets of Budapest, their march to the Parliament to present their protest joined by 30,000 citizens.  The government was surprised by their immediate and unanimous defiance. The police sent to disperse or control them ended up being of assistance. No such reaction had happened when other universities were deprived of their independence.  They showed video footage of the torch that was lit by the director and passed on to faculty and students.  The torch, red-and-white ribbons signaling emergency, and a mask with an outstretched hand became the symbols of the movement.  And that movement was a call to defiance that gave life to the forces of opposition to the dictatorial rule of the Orbán regime.

Deprived of a building and of a diploma, faculty and students found other sites and got the cooperation of five different universities of theater and film in Germany, Austria and Poland that have agreed to offer diplomas to the students who have continued their work with their professors.

Ildikó Enyedi, acclaimed director of MY TWENTIETH CENTURY, ON BODY AND SOUL, and the latest THE STORY OF MY WIFE, spoke of the difficulty of the democratic process in making decisions by such a large and diverse body working together against governmental oppression.  She spoke of the success of the artistic community working together, the elation that fueled their creative protest, what she termed “humble resilience” that stood against the regime.

Upor and Aujenszky talked about other ways in which FreeSZFE confronted the autocracy–by filing law suits to invalidate privatization, by staging public events and performances, demonstrating the vitality of the new organization.  They pointed to the integrity of all at FreeSZFE, not accepting any private bargains offered by the government.

But the vibrant opposition of the free university is constrained by political realities.  Asked about the press, Upor admitted there was a modicum of free and independent electronic and paper media, but they cannot possibly compete with the barrage of government propaganda.  He also gave his sober opinion that even if the opposition were to gain control in the April elections, it is unlikely that the independence of the university would be reinstated.

And the Orbán propaganda machine immediately swung into action to discredit the Zoom conference, attacking Enyedi on Facebook as ungrateful and two-faced for attacking the government while accepting financing to make her films.

Despite the hardships the best and brightest of Hungarian theater and film faculty and students have continued to study, work, and create, and in so doing have lit a torch of freedom that is creating light in a country ruled by an oppressive “democratically elected” autocracy.

Here is the video recording of the zoom conference.


Steven Kovacs

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