The course discussed in the present case study is for the so-called Hungarian University Film Award (HUFA), an educational project and film award created by the Hungarian Society of Film Studies with the participation of several universities in and around the country. At MOME, the course has so far taken place twice (in the spring semesters of 2021 and 2022) and was led by Judit Bényei (Institute for Theoretical Studies), Natália Fábics (Media Institute) and Zsolt Gyenge (Institute for Theoretical Studies). In addition to working with the selection of Hungarian feature and documentary films put together by the members of the Hungarian Society of Film Studies, each semester the MOME course leaders added a wide range of further films, thus creating the basis for enhancing the course with additional educational aspects and topics of discussion, with a special focus on social sensitization, increasing awareness of diversity issues, skills (research, writing, analysis, cooperation, etc.) development and awareness of Hungarian film culture.
The course is part of a larger project organized by the Hungarian Society of Film Studies, with the participation of several universities nationwide, called the Hungarian University Film Award (HUFA). As formulated by the initiators, the program has been designed in accordance with the principles of the European University Film Award (EUFA), and its main goal is to increase the knowledge and the number of interactions regarding contemporary Hungarian cinema among students enrolled in programs that include courses on film history or theory (Magyar Egyetemi Filmdíj, 2021 & 2022). The organizers expect that, beyond an enhanced awareness of newly released Hungarian films, the project will also help to develop the students’ analytical and critical attitudes, and contribute to a more thorough understanding of Hungarian film history. Beyond these very general goals, each professor and thus each course can define other aspects that seem relevant to the films selected or specific to the students of their own institution.
In order to achieve the aforementioned goals, the process of the HUFA has been designed to follow three steps.
1. The first is the ‘selection process’, which takes place in the fall, when participation is invited and the films competing for the Award are chosen by those teachers who commit themselves to initiate a HUFA course during the spring semester. In order to ensure that the films will be available for screening, the Hungarian Society of Film Studies has decided that the selection will always focus on films released two years in advance; thus, in 2021 the award goes to films released in 2019, in 2022 for films released in 2020, and so forth. Each year, six films will compose the HUFA competition program. That number has been determined by two factors: to accommodate the 12-week length of university courses in Hungary and also to take into account the number of films produced annually in Hungary. The genre is not restricted in any way (fiction, documentaries or animations can be part of the selection), but the films have to have a feature-length format.
2. The longest and most important part of the project is composed of the courses held at each participating university; in 2021 there were nine, in 2022 eleven universities took part in the project. The methodology, and the analytical approach or form of discussion of the films is completely up to the individual course leader, the only central rule being that all competition films must be shown during the semester, and that students vote to identify the films that made the greatest impression on them.
3. The final step of the project is a two-day workshop towards the end of the semester, for which two students are nominated by each course. During this workshop, students have the opportunity to discuss and debate the films, and also to meet the creators (directors mostly; in some cases we had the producer or leading actor). At the end of the workshop, they vote to establish the winner of the Hungarian University Film Award.
The HUFA course at MOME was organized (in both years) in the form of a RDI course (Research, Development and Innovation) which provided a very useful framework of four 45-minute classes each week. The course had three tutors: Judit Bényei, Natália Fábics and Zsolt Gyenge.
The concept of the course was based on the idea of contextualization, an approach that seeks to help the analysis of films in competition through the screening and comparative analysis of other films. This conceptual choice was fueled by the tutors’ previous experience that even art university students have little background in the history of film. Thus, screening other thematically or stylistically similar films not only provides for a deeper analysis of the films in competition, but also widens the cinematic knowledge and sensibility of the participating students. This is intended to enable the sensitization of students towards complex cinematic languages – a skill that could have benefits extending beyond the practical scope of the HUFA project.
The second reason for choosing this approach was based on the impression of the three tutors that Hungarian filmmakers – even the most progressive ones – seem to have a relatively narrow social focus: their films rarely go beyond the topics, situations, locations and characters relevant to their own social class, i.e. middle-class. This is why we consider it important to show students films that tackle similar issues or use similar stylistic, narrative devices in the context of very different socioeconomic situations. This is how diversity became one of the major and central issues of the HUFA course at MOME in both semesters.
Announced as an RDI course, the HUFA course at MOME has also had to meet certain practical requirements. In order to make good use of the given timeframe (2x90 minutes per week), as well as to offer additional works and ideas for a more thorough contextualization of the HUFA nominee films, the number of films (six) included in the basic curriculum was almost tripled to include sixteen obligatory films and several more recommended ones. Each semester, eleven films are watched together by all students, with the rest watched individually at home (students write half-page reviews of these films, in which they briefly present their initial thoughts/reactions to each one). Each week, there is a half-hour introduction given by one of the course leaders before watching the ‘film of the week’. After the film, we have an open discussion with students for about 1-1.5 hours depending on the length of the film.
At the end of the semester, students work in pairs and choose one of the six films nominated for the Award that they would like to discuss in a research paper they create together. First, they give a short presentation in front of the entire class about the focus of the planned research paper. Based on the feedback from course leaders and fellow students, they then finalise their approach and prepare the research paper.
When selecting the accompanying films, the most important consideration was to support the primary aims of the course, namely:
The Hungarian University Film Award (HUFA) selection from the national film output of a given year is an interesting starting point for examining representations, as it makes the content of the course suitable as a basis for discussing diversity issues and building awareness among the participating MA students who can join regardless of major and grade. With the additional films, we further strengthened the representation of diversity topics already raised in the HUFA films with the following focus: sexual harassment, physical and verbal abuse, women in society, women in film and the representation of the underprivileged reality.
This is one of the most often referred-to topics in both semesters’ films. Typically, there are two versions. One group of films deals with the harassment of minors by adults, in most cases of a sexual nature, while verbal and physical abuse also appear, sometimes as part or precursor to actual sexual abuse. The other group of films deals with the harassment of teenagers by teenagers, which can happen in the form of online bullying, physical or verbal abuse, even leading to rape, or as the result of adults creating an environment of abuse in which the children emulate the behaviour, or become the tool, of their parents, teachers and others.
Sexual harassment, physical and verbal abuse is in one form or another present in all the 2021 HUFA films, and they were also evidently of key importance when selecting the accompanying films.
The sexual abuse of a teenage girl by her otherwise admirable teacher is the focus of Zoltán Nagy’s On the Quiet (Szép csendben, 2019), while Those Who Remained (Akik maradtak, 2019) by Barnabás Tóth in some respect deals with the issue. One of the documentaries, Not About Family (Csak családról ne, 2019) by Anna Kis, follows a group of socially underprivileged youngsters participating in a coaching program intended to offer them a better future. In their lives, abuse by family members or friends is a natural part of everyday existence.
Many forms of the abuse of teenagers by teenagers are present in Hartung’s FOMO: Fear of Missing Out (FOMO – Megosztod és uralkodsz, 2019). Online bullying, verbal and physical abuse of each other and disadvantaged people (e.g. the homeless), sexual harassment, rape - the entire range is shown in the everyday life of the film’s mostly privileged, educated teenagers who have high future expectations.
Another film of the semester, Szász’s Tall Tales (Apró mesék, 2019) has several scenes of domestic abuse (against children and women), making it the dramaturgical turning point of the story, while The Euphoria of Being (A létezés eufóriája, 2019) by Réka Szabó tells the story of a woman surviving Nazi concentration camps and cannot help having references to abuse.
In the 2022 HUFA selection there were two films, both documentaries, focusing on the topic. Schwechtje’s Give Me Shelter (Védelem alatt, 2020) shows us the life of underprivileged women who have virtually no other choice but to become prostitutes. Growing up in extreme poverty, they learn early on that there is no future for them; being “used” and abused is their normal way of existence, and they inevitably become the victims of abusive pimps already as teenagers. Oláh’s Return to Epipo (Visszatérés Epipóba, 2020) takes us to a very different segment of Hungarian society, the life of the liberal elite of the 1980s, whose children have the exceptional and envied privilege of spending three weeks each summer in a camp run by Pál Sipos, celebrated teacher and youth television programme host of the time. In the camp, they face systematic physical and verbal abuse, and several of them suffer ongoing sexual harassment by the admired Sipos. One of the fictional films of the semester, Treasure City (Békeidő, 2020) by Szabolcs Hajdú, runs several parallel stories from which one is the dramatization of a sexual harassment case that has been publicly discussed in recent years as part of Hungary’s #metoo hype. Several of the accompanying films were selected to add further perspectives to the discussion of the topic.
Women in society, women in film
Issues related to women’s role in society were discussed already in the 2021 spring semester, but it was 2022 that brought the representation of women in the film industry to the forefront. Three of the semester’s HUFA films were directed by women; two of these are feature films, while in the previous round the two documentaries were created by women.
If we look at the list of the accompanying films, women are almost exclusively documentary film directors, the only exception being Ágnes Kocsis, from whom we selected additional films with the purpose of presenting a woman’s career in the very male-dominated Hungarian film industry. We used statistical data, film festival competition and Oscar award nominee lists, as well as related literature sources as a basis for discussion.
Several questions were raised in the classroom that highlighted related and equally important topics as well. The issue of who should/could tell whose stories was a topic that came up again and again. In addition to the importance of giving women opportunities to tell women’s stories, granting similar rights and space to different social and other groups (gypsies, the LGBTQ community, victims of abuse, the underprivileged, etc.) to tell their own stories has been discussed.
Representation of the underprivileged reality
Having the right and the chance to tell one’s own story is an especially complex issue in the case of the underprivileged, to be the voice of people whose lack of education, financial and cultural resources make it virtually impossible to stand up and talk for themselves. What should be our approach? For students at an arts university, some of whom will be filmmakers, some photographers, others who will work in management and theory fields related to arts and culture, it is a very valid topic to discuss. They may consider themselves privileged in many respects, the most important one here being that they already have or will have the knowledge, the skills and the financial support to create content; our students have a big responsibility as to what stories they tell and how. Should they tell stories that are not their own, but that they consider very important, or should they step back and help the underprivileged to gain enough knowledge and learn the skills to be able to tell these stories themselves?
In the 2021 spring semester, only one HUFA film, Not About Family (Csak családról ne, 2019, Kis) focused on socially underprivileged youngsters, but we chose two accompanying films with the very aim of showing students’ different perspectives. Daniels’s 2009 Precious, which tells the story of a young black girl living on the dark side of US society, who is expecting her second child by her own father (just like her first child), was an addition to the topic of sexual abuse of teenagers by their teachers and/or family members. In addition to its qualities as a feature film, Precious was selected to take us to another part of the world, showing a reality of US metropolises rarely seen by our students. Another addition to the semester was Easy Lessons (Könnyű leckék, 2018, Zurbó), a documentary about a Somali refugee girl who, running away from the harsh reality of poverty and being forced as a young teenager to marry a man three times her age, at some point grew tired and decided to stop. She happened to be in Hungary at that point; she settled in this strange country, learnt the language, went to secondary school, graduated, became Christian and began a career as a fashion model - in short, began a life of her own.
Not About Family, Precious and Easy Lessons helped us show our students the universality and complexity of poverty in its many different forms, and how it is related to many other problems in our world, like abuse, war etc. In each case, we also discussed the importance of telling these stories, and that the responsibility of the filmmaker does not end when the credits roll, but in many ways starts there: personally participating in school screenings, in talks about his/her film, raising awareness in the media, even participating in legal battles and so on.
In 2022, two competing films discussed issues related to the underprivileged. Ádám Visky’s Tales from the Prison Cell (Mesék a zárkából, 2020) focused on men in prison and how that affects their families, especially their children. The additional films were selected to offer more information on the topic of prisons. The Fallen (Bebukottak, 1985) directed by András Monory Mész, an outstanding work of Hungarian documentary filmmaking and its sequel, Cain’s Children (Káin gyermekei, 2014) directed by Marcell Gerő, both examine life in prison. The sequel goes back to the characters of The Fallen and talks about their lives and the lives of their children, and paints a very harsh picture of social determinism.
Give Me Shelter was a HUFA film in 2022 that also dealt with the different issues underprivileged women face. In order to show how layered this topic is, we added Sabaya (2021, Hogir Hirori) and A Woman Captured (Egy nő fogságban, 2017, Bernadett Tuza-Ritter), both of which examine modern-day slavery, albeit in different forms and against very different cultural backgrounds. Sabaya takes place in the Middle East and follows a group into Syria’s dangerous territories where Yazidi girls and women are kept as sex slaves by ISIS soldiers. A Woman Captured, on the other hand, was shot in Hungary, and concerns a woman kept as a domestic slave who decides to run away. Earlier in the semester, we watched Gummo (1997, Harmony Korine), which also addressed how people can lose control of their lives while still young, from which point they have neither the psychological strength nor the social support to move on, let alone to tell their own stories.
The course methodology supports sensitization to diversity in many ways. This process starts with the conscious selection of film coupling. The student work begins with a film watched at home. At the beginning of the course, teachers introduce relevant concepts and analytical aspects for later discussion. Then, after the joint viewing of the second film, a varied form of processing follows. This can be driven by teacher questions; increasingly, however, students' independent observations are determining the topics for analysis. Teachers facilitate this process by providing the knowledge necessary for professionalism, and acting as moderators during the discussions. Finally, the students work in pairs to prepare independent analyses, in which they further develop their critical sense and prepare for the national workshop debate at which the university film award of the year is chosen.
Entries are selected jointly by the course staff of the participating universities from the films (both fiction and documentary) of the given year. While this necessitates a certain limitation regarding diversity issues, it reflects what issues filmmakers and the film financing system consider important and worthy of being discussed by society at large. (The Hungarian and European systems do the same, since the majority of films are supported by the EU Media program and, in several cases, by the film funds of various European countries.) The professional interests of the selectors and, of course, their personal tastes, also provide a filter. The team is mixed, composed mostly of researchers and educators dealing with film theory and film history, but there are also anthropologists, specialists in social sciences and pedagogy. Only by assessing the nature of their professional interest and social sensitivity would we be able to ascertain how aware they are of taking diversity issues into account. How important is this aspect in judging the quality of films? However debatable that may be, we can say for sure that the diversity approach is present and thematicized at the joint selection events.
As indicated earlier, we believe that Hungarian filmmakers - even the progressive ones - seem to have a relatively narrow social focus, in that their films rarely go beyond the topics, situations, locations and characters relevant to their own social class, i.e. middle-class. Documentary films tend to be different though, and are willing to also tell stories about the socially underprivileged.
Therefore, pairing the competition films with outstanding pieces of Hungarian and international film history not only offers a more complex interpretation in terms of film language and aesthetics, but also presents an opportunity to raise awareness of many topics in the field of representation. Based on the film list at the end of the case study, we can see that diversity themes have played an important role in the selection so far. Their contingency may be due to the selection of competition films in that year. This can and should be counterbalanced with more care.
The issues of diversity in our course are integrated into the joint discussion of film theory, film language and social issues. The general method is for students to watch one of the contextual films at home in advance, then write a short summary of the issues arising. They arrive at the class in preparation for the competition film. Prior to the screening of the competition film, there will be a short presentation and discussion about the film they watched at home, which may already provide aspects for assessing the competition film. After watching the film, we will process it together based on the given perspectives and following the interests of the students.
Another goal of the semester course is to prepare students for the national workshop, where their own representatives, together with the representatives of the courses at the other universities, decide which film should be awarded. Therefore, in order to develop reasoning and debating skills, students, working in pairs, compare an exam film with a film of their choice at the end of the semester.
They will first expound their arguments in an oral presentation and then write an essay about the films and the topics they raise in light of the problems encountered in the literature studied during the semester. The national workshop will process each film in discussion groups. They will then vote for the Hungarian University Film of the Year Award. Both the nuanced explanation of the themes represented by the films and the use of the film language tools of the representation play an important role in the selection.
The ultimate goal, to prepare for a professionally sound selection of the winning film, is also a matter of development, so it is just as much a tool as a goal to equip students with the debating skills necessary for critical thinking.
The role of teachers in the introductory lecture is paramount, while the discussions of all the films are based on collaboration. We consider the introductory lectures to be important, as they provide a professionally sound basis and properly filtered knowledge and interpretive frameworks, so that students can later find appropriate literature and other resources for the preparation of their own discussion material and essay. The role of the teacher may be gaining ground in the post-truth world, but the development of scientifically grounded interpretive frameworks must always be reinforced by the student’s active, exploratory learning.
The argumentation process of critical thinking can only be based on authentic information and knowledge. It is important to teach students the ability to search and filter information and reuse it so that they can participate in discussions with a well-founded independent opinion.
To be able to think critically, it is important for students to take an active role as often as possible if they are to develop the necessary cognitive skills (Haber, 2020).
The process is initiated and moderated by teachers’ questions, but the goal is for as many students as possible to express their thoughts and argue their position. During the joint discussion, we consider it important to create a safe environment so that each student can share their own experiences, and in which their peers respect and participate in the discussion with a sense of responsibility for each other. At the same time, we are aware of the presence of authority inherent in the role of the teacher, which can take the learning process into a hierarchical direction. As teachers, all three of us believe in our supportive role as "facilitators", and agree that teaching and learning are tools for exercising freedom and resistance (Freire, 2005; hooks, 1994).
Preliminary questions usually follow these principles:
What did we see (initial observation)?
What makes us think that? (descriptive analysis)
What questions does this raise? (problem-solving analysis) (Kovács, 2009)
Part of the process of understanding is the examination of representations. The diversity of representation raises many aspects, as it is organized around a wide variety of social groups and issues whose perspectives may be different. It is important to be aware that not everyone have the same opportunity to discuss different topics, and we do not have the same access to gender issues, racial issues, class aspects, representation of people with disabilities, and so on, not in the classroom, nor via the films available to us. The frequency and nuance of representations of different groups vary in films, depending largely on their advocacy capacity. The possibility of their access to depiction and filmmaking also limits this. Intersectionality is a useful approach to the cumulative presence of disadvantages, but parts of this may carry the previously mentioned shortcomings.
This exploration method can be aided by several visual interpretive strategies and analytical methodologies from social sciences. (See thematic articles/blurbs on this website)
We have chosen two examples from the two years of the HUFA to illustrate how the methodology of contextualization through films provides the possibility of tackling issues of diversity and offers the opportunity for social sensitization.
Szabolcs Hajdu’s Békeidő (Treasure City, 2020) and Zoltán Nagy’s first feature, Szép csendben (On the Quiet, 2019) both address very important issues regarding relationship dynamics, parental roles and sexual harrassement, but both seem to completely overlook the socio-economic determination of the situations and characters they represent. Thus, though both seem keen to design a subtle presentation of human emotions and interactions, they do not acknowledge the fact that all they represent could not have happened in a different environment.
This is why, in 2021, we chose Lee Daniels’ Precious (2009) to accompany On the Quiet, and Harmony Korine’s Gummo to accompany Treasure City. The screening and discussion of these accompanying films enabled us to point out intersectionality as an unavoidable characteristic and to make it clear that: aggression is often linked to low income neighborhoods; obesity is commonly due to poor-quality and cheap food; emotional exploitation often goes hand-in-hand with some kind of addiction that results from narrow or non-existent life opportunities. These films helped students understand how misleading the personal and emotionally involving cinematic presentation of psychological abuse can be if the authors fail to take into account the crucial role played by the social circumstances of the characters. We believe that this approach has not only helped students in the evaluation of the films brought into this discussion, but also influenced the final choice of the winning film, which in 2021 was a socially conscious documentary about an educational program in a distant, poor, rural community (Csak a családról ne / Not About Family, 2020).
1. HUFA film:
Szász, A. (Director). (2019). Apró mesék [Tall Tales] [Film].
Haynes, T. (Director). (2002). Far from Heaven [Film].
Török, F. (Director). (1995). 1945 [Film].
2. HUFA film:
Tóth, B. (Director). (2019). Akik maradtak [Those Who Remained] [Film].
Mendes, S. (Director). (1999). American Beauty [Film].
Szabó, I. (Director). (1999). A napfény íze [Sunshine] [Film].
3. HUFA film:
Nagy, Z. (Director). (2019). Szép csendben [On the Quiet] [Film].
Vinterberg, T. (Director). (2012). Jagten [The Hunt] [Film].
Daniels, L. (Director). (2009). Precious [Film].
4. HUFA film:
Szabó, R. (Director). (2019). A létezés eufóriája [The Euphoria of Being] [Film].
Zurbó, D. (Director). (2018). Könnyű leckék [Easy Lessons] [Film].
Loznitsa, S. (Director). (2016). Austerlitz [Film].
5. HUFA film:
Hartung, A. (Director). (2019). FOMO – Megosztod és uralkodsz [FOMO: Fear of Missing Out] [Film].
Schwechtje, M. (Director). (2018). Remélem, legközelebb sikerül meghalnod [I Hope You’ll Die Next Time] [Film].
Gaál, I. (Director). (1964). Sodrásban [Current] [Film].
6. HUFA film:
Kis, A. (Director). (2019). Csak családról ne [Not About Family] [Film].
1. HUFA film:
Horvát, L. (Director). (2020). Felkészülés meghatározatlan ideig tartó együttlétre [Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time] [Film].
Linklater, R. (Director). (2004). Before Sunset [Film].
Linklater, R. (Director). (1995). Before Sunrise [Film].
2. HUFA film:
Kocsis, Á. (Director). (2020). Éden [Eden] [Film].
Kocsis, Á. (Director). (2006). Friss levegő [Fresh Air] [Film].
Kocsis, Á. (Director). (2005). A vírus [The Virus] [Film].
Macdonald, K. (Director). (2011) We need to talk about Kevin [Film].
3. HUFA film:
Oláh, J. (Director). (2020). Visszatérés Epipóba [Return to Epipo] [Film].
Almodóvár, P. (Director). (2004). La mala educación [Bad Education] [Film].
Hajdú, Sz. (Director). (2005). Fehér tenyér [White Palms] [Film].
4. HUFA film:
Hajdú, Sz. (Director). (2020). Békeidő [Treasure City] [Film].
Haneke, P. (Director). (1994). 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls [71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance] [Film].
Korine, H. (Director). (1997). Gummo [Film].
5. HUFA film:
Visky, Á. (Director). (2020). Mesék a zárkából [Tales from the Prison Cell] [Film].
Monory Mész, A. (Director). (1985). Bebukottak [The Fallen] [Film].
Baudelaire, É. (Director). (2014). Letters to Max [Film].
Gerő, M. (Director). (2014). Káin gyermekei [Cain’s Children] [Film].
Clermont-Tonnerre, L. de (Director). (2019). The Mustang
6. HUFA film:
Schwechtje, M. (Director). (2020). Védelem alatt [Give Me Shelter] [Film].
Hirori, H. (Director). (2021). Sabaya [Film].
Tuza-Ritter, B. (Director). (2017). Egy nő fogságban [A Woman Captured] [Film].
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash