Thriller film sinks teeth into Hungary's opposition

  • Published
Media caption,

The film tackles a stormy chapter in Hungarian politics

"We screwed up," reads the giant billboard on the highway into Budapest.

It shows the outline of former Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany's head, within which you can make out the dome of the Hungarian parliament, and the profiles of at least four of the lead characters of Hungary's new "political crime thriller".

The timing of the film is perfect - for Prime Minister Viktor Orban's governing Fidesz Party at least.

It is six months ahead of an election Fidesz is painting as a battle between good and evil: 12 years of fairy-tale rule versus the wicked Gyurcsany government which preceded it.

Ferenc Gyurcsany himself is not taking part in the election, but a six-party opposition alliance is.

'We lied'

The quotation "we screwed up" is taken from a notorious secret speech Mr Gyurcsany made in May 2006, just after the Socialists had won re-election.

Image source, Mega Film
Image caption,
Ferenc Gyurcsany was challenged in a TV interview in 2006 over whether he had been lying

To win, he told shocked MPs, "we lied, morning, noon and evening", in an ugly speech brim-full of expletives.

When the speech was leaked on Hungarian radio in September that year, Mr Gyurcsany refused to resign, triggering large street protests.

The film is Hungary's first political thriller based on those events, and it is released on 21 October. The English-language version is called The Cost of Deception.

The Democratic Coalition, the party Mr Gyurcsany founded after leaving the Socialists, is a prominent member of the opposition alliance, and his wife, Klara Dobrev, is its candidate for prime minister in primaries due to conclude this month.

Mr Orban and his Fidesz party, which has ruled Hungary almost unchallenged since 2010, portray the whole opposition alliance as a puppet show, dangling from Mr Gyurcsany's bony fingers.

'Fog of forgetting'

"For children's movies, the perfect timing is just before Christmas, for political thrillers the perfect time is just before elections," Gabor Kalomista told me unapologetically. He's head of Megafilm, the company that produced the film.

"We Hungarians are famous for forgetting our own history. It feels more comfortable to remain in the fog of forgetting, than to face up to certain facts."

He denies receiving public money for the film, but declines to list the names of his financial backers.

The film includes the remake of riot scenes from 2006, when protesters broke into the almost unguarded state television station, smashing windows and burning a presenter's car, as well a largely peaceful demonstration, when riot police opened fire with rubber bullets and tear gas.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Protesters attacked Hungary's state TV in September 2006

Many Hungarians who witnessed those events will be watching the film closely for clues to explain the peculiar behaviour of the police: sometimes over-passive, sometimes over-aggressive.

The right wing in Hungary has consistently argued that they were under political orders from Mr Gyurcsany himself.

"After much research, we put together the political puzzle… and then we were quite clear exactly what happened," said the film's producer Dorottya Helmeczy.

Dorottya Helmeczy
Mega Film
We just needed to add a little bit of fiction to make it a movie
Dorottya Helmeczy
Producer, The Cost of Deception

Fast forward to October 2021.

Late last month the six opposition parties, ranged from left to right, held primary elections to choose a single candidate to run against Fidesz in all 106 individual constituencies next April.

The primary was an experiment, and an unprecedented success, mobilising activists and opposition voters across the country, in towns and villages with almost no opposition presence since 2010.

But selecting a joint candidate for the prime ministerial post is proving more awkward.

Controversial candidate

Klara Dobrev, a 49-year-old lawyer, won the first round.

But in this week's run-off that starts on Sunday and ends on 16 October she faces independent conservative Peter Mark-Zay.

Ms Dobrev has vowed to defeat Mr Orban next spring and to "restore the rule of law and lead back Hungary to the family of European nations".

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Klara Dobrev won the first round of the opposition primaries, but many feel she is not the right candidate

Many in the opposition, however, fear she cannot attract the more conservative and middle-of-the-road voters the opposition must woo to win.

That is largely because of her ex-prime minister husband, and her own family's Communist party history.

Gabor Kalomista's film thriller could prove a killer blow in the propaganda battle already begun by Fidesz.

"For Fidesz she is the dream candidate. But Peter Marki-Zay would be a Fidesz nightmare," said Robert Laszlo, of the Political Capital think tank.

That is why, after weeks of political bickering, the man who came runner-up in the first primary, Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony, pulled out at the last minute to give his opposition colleague a clear run against Klara Dobrev.

Mr Marki-Zay is a charismatic, provincial mayor and a practising Catholic with seven children.

Only a centrist or conservative candidate can unite the country against Mr Orban in 2022, they argue.

It sounds like the plot for a different movie.