In the villages of north eastern Hungary, between July 2008 and August 2009, a series of deadly attacks took place. The outcome, after 78 gunshots and 11 petrol bombs in nine separate locations, was six dead including a child, five seriously wounded and 55 others whose lives were endangered. What made the attacks all the more poignant was that the victims were all of Roma origin, while the eventual accused were all neo-Nazis with links to the ultra-rightist Magyar Gárda.
Eszter Hajdú, the 35-year-old director of several prize-winning documentaries often dealing with marginalised people, followed the 167-day trial of the four defendants over two and a half years. The resulting film, a little shorter than the trial at just under two hours, wears the necessary stamina and dedication of its director lightly. Instead, it allows the characters, particularly surviving victims and relatives of the dead, to build the picture of the tortuous road to justice. This approach, involving multiple cameras in court and judicious editing, blurs all kinds of procedural lines. The impression, as in Kafka’s The Trial, is that ‘the proceedings merge into the verdict’.
For any outsider, the film provides an extraordinary glimpse into the workings of the Budapest District Court. There are plenty of incidents that would not be tolerated in a British court, not least of which are the verbal exchanges between witnesses, victims and accused. What also emerges is the disastrous cavalcade of technical and institutional mistakes and shortcomings: the paramedic who failed to notice a gunshot wound in a dead child’s head; the fire brigade officer who thought an arson attack might have been an insurance scam; and a senior police detective whose entire report for one blatantly complex crime scene consisted of two pages.
Also in evidence is the mindset of the defendants. For this reviewer, London-born but of Hungarian Jewish origin, the trappings of neo-Nazism are all too familiar. One defendant sports an ‘88’ tattoo on the back of his neck, alpha-numeric code for ‘Heil Hitler’. Another defendant criticises the judge for putting on a show trial, likening it to the post-war trial and execution of Ferenc Szálasi, murderous leader of the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross Party. Indeed, in closing remarks, one of the prosecuting counsels notes that the defendants have the traits of serial killers, including high intelligence and narcissism.
The real power of the film, however, rests in the way Hajdú has pieced together an honest and memorable picture of the range of Hungarian citizens involved, the attempt of the court to make sense of it all, and the broader implications for the whole country. Given the subject matter, the distinct point of view, the editorial decisions as well as the life sentences handed out to three of the defendants, this is without a doubt a political film, one that is bound to attract controversy. As such, ‘Judgment in Hungary’ is very important. Part search for justice, part social document, the film is ultimately a reflecting pool for a society that has yet to face its historical and contemporary racism.
‘Judgement in Hungary’ will show on June 18th as part of the Open City Docs Festival, running from 18th -22nd June 2014 (http://www.opencitydocsfest.com/films/judgment-hungary).