The film was followed by a few moments of silence that felt like an eternity in the crowded Uránia theatre. Only afterwards was there applause, but subdued and careful, as if for lack of a better response the viewers who had assembled for the premier had felt compelled, out of respect for ceremony, to put their hands together.
Undoubtedly it would have been somewhat absurd to show approval of Csaba Szekeres’s documentary Örvény (Maelstrom) with noisy applause and celebration. There is indeed little to celebrate in the fact that at the close of the first decade of the 21st century the camera shows third world conditions in Told, a Hungarian village near the Romanian border. Told is the country’s second poorest settlement, which is perhaps this precisely why the director chose it when the opportunity arose to make a film funded by the Open University on this topic, since 2010 has been designated as the year to fight child poverty. In Told, however, not only the children are poor, but also those considered locally to be rich. The only light in the hopelessness in which the inhabitants of the village live is that, as if as the result of some miracle, bright blue trash cans appeared one day, serving to illuminate more vividly the general degradation and omnipresent grayness.
The operator-director follows the lives of three Roma families for a period of six months. This decision was perhaps unfortunate from one perspective, since at least officially the Roma community in Told does not constitute a majority, and as a result one may have the impression that the film equates the Roma with squalor, or vice versa, which misleadingly ignores non-Roma inhabitants who also live in poverty.
A man warns the director from the outset that he will not be accepted, he will be driven away. Szekeres, on the other hand, was able to handle the situation without much difficulty, as for more than a decade now he has made documentary films and done performances about the circumstances and plights of the disadvantaged. In fact, the history of the three families could just as easily be the history of one family. Somehow the destinies seem to trickle together, and one barely notices when the film switches to the life of a different figure, since everything seems so repetitive. Someone is always sick, everyone is unemployed, and the poverty, misery, and the absolute defenselessness are far more poignant than any depiction offered in any type of misery literature. Everyone lives under the burdens of compounding interests and the ever-present threat of the custody board.
The most spectacular story is that of Mária, who is as protective of her children as a tigress. She is under the constant surveillance of the custody board because of her oldest daughter Lulu’s truancy. Lulu is about 14 years old, but she is in the same class with eleven and twelve year-olds and she is always in danger of flunking. She dreads school and even when she gets as far as the gate she usually simply turns back. Through her eyes the viewer begins to understand that she does not belong either in the school or in the class, since the shame, failure, and hurt she has suffered have made it unbearable for her. She is in constant conflict with her mother because if she does not attend school the custody board will reconsider whether Mária is at all suitable to raise her younger child, and indeed as the viewer learns neither her health nor her financial status enable her to provide humane conditions. She threatens to commit suicide if her two young children (Armand and Jennifer) are taken from her. If Lulu was to move in with her older sister Samantha, who is already a grown woman, she still would not escape the responsibility of attending school. As a result the young child often runs away from home, or hunkers in a corner without speaking. She is convinced that she is hated and wonders whether she is perhaps not even her mother’s child. It is not surprising that her mother threatens to commit suicide since the young girl has already attempted it. This is what “role model” means in their home.
No less disturbing is the situation of the two custody board women, who in principle should be able to handle the families’ problems. They are aware of the fact that the social network is always fraying somewhere and that the problems they are supposedly addressing are no longer merely social issues, but this is their job. They do it because they must, they weep from helplessness, but they move on. It is not the calling of their vocation, but rather a sort of obstinate “what else can I do” attitude that drives the two tortured women from house to house. Their drama is no smaller than that of the Roma, since they are also pulled down by the maelstrom of helplessness.
In the other house, there seems to be good cause for placing the children in the custody of the court, since often there is not a single morsel of food in the house and the filth and negligence is immeasurable. The woman is obviously an alcoholic, but she suffers not only of the tribulations of illness but also the predatory practices of loan sharks. Her four year old son has not yet learned to speak, but there is no point in taking him to the doctor, since only complex and specialized therapies offer any promise of help and these are unattainable for the poor in the small development located in Berettyóújfalu. When informed that the young boy often has nose bleeds the doctor brushed off his mother’s concern, saying only for that at least he will not suffer a stroke.
In the third family, the father used to accept temporary jobs, but when his son got cancer, taking him to the doctor compelled him to remain in the development. The thin, bald adolescent youth is waiting for a bone marrow transplant and his parents are unable to make heads or tails of the paragraphs specifying how they can receive reimbursement for travel expenses for visits to the doctor.
There are those who offer help of course, for example a woman nicknamed Piri, who unselfishly is ready to give anything to help the little boy receive the treatments he needs. Aid packages arrive as well, gifts like dolls, teddy bears (perhaps from Holland bales), and they are distributed among the needy children by a kind woman. The people do not actually suffer from any want of clothing, though they perhaps have never worn anything that was entirely new.
One of the few reviews of the film was critical of the director for presenting stereotypical images, but in fact it was not the images that were stereotypical, but merely the realities of poverty. It is familiar to the point of boredom, and consists of faded memories: a child scratches at an empty plate because it would be nice to have a little more food. The unmade bed is the children’s indoor space, which they share with the dog. Flies swarm on the baby’s bottle, the mother wipes the child’s runny nose with her own T-shirt, etc. Such conditions are not uncommon in Roma settlements from Albania to Hungary. Only stereotypes of well-being change, because technology changes, fashions change, one moment a particular cellphone is considered trendy, the next moment a different one, one moment a particular hairstyle is the rage, the next moment a different one, even fashions relating to health food sometimes seem capricious. And the film depicts Roma as loud, demanding beggars, even as young children? And this, as a result, strengthens our prejudices? Maybe. However, because the film shows us these unbearable conditions in such concentration, affording us no possibility of escape, it demonstrates that educational institutions, health care, custody boards, and aid actions are simply not adequate, and partial solutions that address only symptoms but not underlying causes can hardly do much to better the conditions of either Roma children or children of any community living in poverty.
Present at the film’s premier was Zoltán Balog, the Secretary of State responsible for social integration, and – miracle of miracles – he did not blame the past eight, twenty, forty, or however many years for the current situation. He only stated that now it is our task to get this film into the hands of those whose responsibility it is to address the present situation. He stated that his office received fifty DVD-s in exchange for sponsoring the film. Thousands more are needed so that the film can get into the hands of teachers, custody officials, mayors, and political representatives so that they can come face to face with the distressing situation and the film can initiate new dialogues. For if the old adage holds true anywhere, then it holds true in social policies and the Roma issue: “we should start everything from scratch. Every word should be re-uttered.”