The government of Hungary has been working on restructuring the framework of public higher education for years now, a thing they call remodeling or model-shift. This means that the majority of the universities which have been public universities are now functioning under the aegis of foundations that are governed by boards of trustees. The government assigned these positions to either high-ranking cabinet members or tried and trusted businessmen with strong ties to the Fidesz party, especially to its leader Viktor Orbán.
This ‘system-change’ seems to happen swimmingly with the exception of the University of Film and Theater Arts (SZFE), where a large alliance of students, subsequently supported by teachers, organized the occupation of the university to block the new management from taking its position, at least physically. The FreeSZFE movement was born in May 2020, when prompted by the proposed remodeling of the university by the Ministry of Education the senate and the student council initiated a conversation with the members of the university to ensure that the community was an active participant in the remodeling, not the „victim” of it. The student forums that followed these meetings, and the summer university laid the foundation for the structural operation of the movement, and the organization of students, teachers, and university staff that emerged from them was based on the principles of direct democracy. Even though the members of the university persisted in representing their interests till the very end, the occupation of the university, which proved to be a very efficient tool in this struggle, did not reach a successful conclusion, due to the next wave of the pandemic – thus the chance to have an impact on the remodeling faded away. A significant part of the membership of the movement – students, teachers, and staff alike – decided that they would not cooperate with the appointed leadership of the university, now forced to operate as a foundation, and left the institution. This community founded the association Freeszfe Society, which made it possible for nearly 200 students to continue their education, and with the support of seven foreign partner institutions to earn a diploma through the Emergency Exit program. The association sustains itself through patronage and crowdfunding, and also functions as the public platform of the creative community. It launches new training programs as well for those looking for alternative paths. The long-term goal of the association is for these programs to provide university degrees again in the future.
Two students of the former SZFE, Petra Al-Farman, and Sára Holczer, who took an active role in organizing the resistance efforts from the beginning, accepted our invitation to share their thoughts and experiences. The interview took place in the spring of 2022 in writing.
Gábor Erlich: With acknowledging that you cannot represent each and every member’s opinion, do you feel that the dissent you have been carrying out challenging the government’s new rules falls in the definition of art activism? Is there a term that the group has been using to describe its position(s)?
Petra Al-Farman: I don’t think that we were collectively aware of what form of activism we were practicing. The events took shape from one idea to the next, we were feeding off of each other’s energy, we did whatever was feasible there and then. We had to constantly redefine ourselves, also taking into account how our supporters and the press viewed us. It was probably the collaboration with civil organizations that brought activism and thinking about responsibility into our shared thinking process. We used the forum to make decisions about who we would like to collaborate with, what was compatible with our goals and with our principle to stay free of party-politics, and what was important in order to show solidarity with others.
It was often difficult to represent the whole community: it felt like an enormous responsibility that every statement, every opinion was considered as that of the whole community. The people who took part in it came from very different backgrounds and took very different risks, but probably what was most significant was that even then the shared decisions were the most important to everyone, because our shared goals took priority. Maintaining the unity, the confidence, the shared narrative was of vital importance, therefore, in the forums everyone’s opinion was considered, but the decision making logically required compromises. The more uncertain students as well as the more radical thinkers had to find a common ground, and these difficult decisions included whether classes could start in the second week of September, and how they could run along with the occupation of the university and the work of the working groups. We constantly tried to make sure – and this was the moderators’ responsibility – that the more radical and bold opinions were not seen as more valuable, that no one was judged for their fears.
Sára Holczer: I just wanted to act, to voice my opinion as a citizen. When we started to think together about the ‘how,’ everyone felt that their own artistic toolkit was the most relevant. I can see why this is now being framed as art activism. Most Hungarian mobilization doesn’t make news outside of the small bubble of the people affected, so our primary goal was to overcome this – definitions didn’t play a significant role in achieving this. Nevertheless, when FreeSZFE launched, no one expected that the first protest would lead to a months-long deadlock, and that the resistance would lead to an internationally recognized national movement.
GE: Was this phenomenon in any way part of the curricula at the university before the model-shift era?
PA: Open-minded critical thinking, and a sense of responsibility for our social environment had been important to most of us. These things were not part of the curriculum at the university, though. There were no debate circles – these kinds of conversations happened only in small groups, or were available to students individually on different levels. In the case of my own class (I am a third-year theater dramaturgy student in the class of Péter Kárpáti and Ádám Fekete) we started every semester with a discussion with our head teachers, where they shared what courses they planned to teach based on the model curriculum and their own ideas, but they always asked us who we wanted to learn from, and what the emphasis should be on. So, in my class, it was a given from the beginning that we had a say in our own education and could give feedback on it, and that it was our responsibility as well how it took shape. This wasn’t the case in every class, though, and the dynamics of this has primarily depended on the head teachers’ personality. But we all felt the need to think about our own training, and probably that is why we started to think about the model-shift as well, and that is why we couldn’t and wouldn’t accept that the decisions about our future were made without us. I think we like to look for connections.
SH: In many ways, the training at the university’s film departments has been technocratic for a long time. I graduate this year with a BA degree in screenwriting from the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien as a student of Freeszfe, thanks to the Emergency Exit program, but I started my studies in the same program at the former University of Theater and Film Arts, and I am studying with the same teachers who admitted me originally. In the screenwriting program we are taught a profession. We primarily study the storytelling standards of the practice-oriented screenwriting literature, the “technique.” We mainly focus on the tricks of the trade that prove profitable in the present structure of the film industry – the global film industry rather than the local, because the Hungarian national film industry isn’t commercially funded. So, even if the university structurally followed the principles of the Humboldtian model of higher education before the remodeling, these classic values were already disappearing, and were revived by us when the shift to the foundation-model was first proposed. I have to add, though, that my experiences are specific, because due to the close student-teacher relationships a lot depends on the personality of the head teacher or cohort leader. There were only a few progressive doctoral students, theoretical teachers, or external lecturers we could use as models of critical thinking, contrary to what the public believes ever since the FreeSZFE movement has started. This also appears to align with what those who vowed to reform the old SZFE have claimed: that the training at the university was ideological. (It is true that most of the teachers of the old university were left-leaning, or more precisely in opposition to the government, and due to the close student-teacher relationships, it was very difficult, I dare say almost impossible for an outsider to become part of the core of the former faculty, since the positions were handed down from „father to son.” Therefore, it is possible that there was some counter-selection against applicants who had radically different political preferences, or rather canon preferences.) In my experience, politicalness was gradually disappearing in the university, and most of my peers considered themselves rather apolitical before the occupation of the university – there were few things more foreign to most of them than activism. Accordingly, they tried to keep the actions also apolitical, and before the most radical actions/demonstrations took place, they were still considering the rejection of the model-shift as a policy issue. It is almost forgotten by now, but the FreeSZFE movement wasn’t limited to the occupation of the university exclusively, even before the Freeszfe Society was founded. While the actions predating the occupation – the various statements, collection of signatures, the first forums, demonstrations, summer free university, video statements – gained much less visibility, the subsequent accomplishments and probably successes were partly the result of the multilayered work, through which we together learnt to distinguish between politics and party politics. The latter has been completely discredited among my generation, and for most, this differentiation had not been obvious at all. The community went through countless debates to accept and own those values that the students proclaimed during the first press conference following the occupation of the university. Direct political action as artistic expression sounded rather hollow in the theater and film arts circles, and in fact it still sounds hollow to the “elite” – at least my impression is that the Hungarian film and theater scene doesn’t consider anything with direct political content true art. Maybe because of the socialist art policy heritage? Perhaps our generation has a different view on this; according to my friends who work in the literary field, there political talk has taken its bastions back. Either way, before the FreeSZFE events, contemporary mainstream film and theater artists – with a few exceptions – even if not balking at political expression, seemed to scrupulously avoid any overlap between their art and political involvement.
GE: There was no organized resistance among higher education institutions besides that of your university. What do you think enabled you to organize such long-term resistance in the current atmosphere, where, it seems, there is simply no chance to counter the will of the state – as we have seen over the past ten years or so in regards to many issues? And in your opinion, what was the decisive moment that sparked your movement?
PA: The first news about the model-shift reached us in the spring of 2020 in internal university newsletters, and the first larger forums that were initiated by the Student Council started in July (later these grew bigger than the SC, and a separate moderator working group was organizing the forums). The first forum that I remember, however, was in April. It concerned what we, as a student body, should do, because it gradually became clear that the delaying of the appointment of Rector Laszló Upor, elected by the university senate, wasn’t an accident but a ploy. That’s when I first started to be concerned. Then everything started to move very fast. The date of the remodeling was changed from January 2021 to September 2020. During our July protest and circle dance at Kossuth Square, the parliament passed the law regarding the remodeling of SZFE while hearing us chanting outside. It seemed final that they were not interested in our opinion. SZFE is a university of only a few hundred students, and even if the film programs and the theater programs didn’t have much connection, most of us knew each other. The information and the anxiety were spreading fast.
SH: At that point I didn’t believe that the autonomy of the university would be completely eliminated – it was like an impending catastrophe that I denied even when I myself saw it knocking on the door. After the adoption of the remodeling bill, despite our reservations, we focused our efforts mostly on the options that other universities undergoing the same remodeling, such as MOME (Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design), were offered by the managing authorities: to come to a consensual agreement between the senate (the decision making body of the university), and the Ministry of Human Resources regarding the process of remodeling, the makeup of the future board and supervisory committee, and the deed of foundation. To many of us, it still seemed possible to achieve this at that point – that’s why we were so outraged when it did turn out to be impossible. For an institution of higher education to be excluded from the process of its own remodeling was such a provocation that we couldn’t just watch and do nothing. In the case of MOME, the remodeling was actually initiated by the then rector, and there was a continuing dialogue about the development of the legislative framework. So there was a significant institutional influence over how their future would look – in our case this was completely missing.
Participation radically increased in the sporadic, and mostly spontaneous student-organized summer forums – which discussed the remodeling along leftwing arguments (e.g. higher education should remain a public good) and previously attracted more and more but by no means the majority of students – when the suspicions and rumors proved to be true. At the end of July, they named the chair of the board of trustees of SZFE – by then forced to operate based on a foundation model – Attila Vidnyánszky. Once known as a brilliant director, now the ruling power’s man with countless positions, he became the institutionalized negative example par excellence of how Hungarian politics and art had become bound together, even before the announcement of the remodeling. The appearance of his controversial figure caused significant antipathy even among students who previously tried to stay out of the political wrangling around the remodeling and wouldn’t necessarily have taken action against the outsourcing of public assets, like universities, into Fidesz-affiliated private foundations. The appearance of Vidnyánszky without doubt catalyzed their becoming active, because it became clear that “Hungarian national identity” would become the central thematic element of education going forward – this often repeated, but painfully hollow virtue promoted by the illiberal Fidesz government and consequently Vidnyánszky. The future chair’s statements disparaging the students caused even more uproar. This prospect upset even the technocrat students who were preparing to enter the global market. (The ruined state of the victim of Vidnyánszky’s previous institutional occupation attack, the University of Kaposvár, also served as a reminder.) At that point, the overlapping part of the student groups previously at odds, promoting either political or apolitical values, became the resistance. While not everyone was active even at that point, those who weren’t still attended the forums from time to time. In my opinion this merging was what created the momentum for the occupation of the university. As people working in the arts, most of us had the desire to have an effect on society; it is very difficult, however, to make a direct and immediate impact through established art forms. For this reason, it was very appealing that our actions as activists – due to the social context and their political significance – had an immediate and striking effect on the public, who was following our every move very closely. In retrospect, I am accusing us of not having used this attention very well, and profiting way too much from it, given that we turned our victimhood into immense symbolic capital, and while we tried to make sure that the resistance was not associated with a few individuals, in the media it did have faces.
GE: You mentioned that the group used the direct-democratic assembly-form from early on in the movement. What are the main lineages you have been drawing from by using this way of organizing, and was this a common/shared knowledge or rather something that a small group advocated for?
SH: Several of us who were more or less closely involved in the active core from the beginning, had experience with left-wing youth organizations operating as base democracies, such as TEK, and the Student Union, and while learning about their ideals, we also learned about their organizational and operative principles, and we passed them on.
PA: It developed spontaneously; no one knew how to do it, but many of us remembered the classroom occupation at ELTE in 2013, initiated by the Student Network, where students started to organize forums as well. In August, as part of the student-led Free University, we watched the movie Blockade together, just to see how others had done it. At that point, it seemed unrealistic (especially because of COVID) to plan something like that. Then on September 1st, we gathered all our relevant knowledge, and with the support of an activist from aHang, who helped with the initial moderation, the moderator working group developed the system of forums and the hand signals for spontaneous reactions. A breakthrough happened when we voted to permit the teachers to join the forums because it pushed us to develop very clear rules for the forums to break down any hierarchies.
SH: I see the internal operations a little differently. In retrospect, I think it was an unfortunate and naive expectation to think that the occupation of the university could eliminate the authority-based hierarchies within the community. Sometimes when a female acting student took the liberty to contradict someone or presented a better argument than one of her director teachers or her own master teacher, it led to the other party taking offense. In my experience, some of these incidents resulted in the students censoring themselves as a precaution, given that they were supposed to debate with the same “opposition” cultural elite, who they would depend on throughout their studies and later in their careers. In the initial student-teacher forums, we prohibited the use of formal addressing, in order to eliminate the subordinate relationship of the students’ opinions to those of the teachers – this failed miserably due to the indignation of several teachers. Not to mention that some master teachers never complied with the one-minute limit set for speeches and remarks, even after repeated reminders from the moderating students – saying that the students surely have the decency to listen to the end of their speeches. In spite of all this, I do think that the student-teacher relationships were in many ways less rigidly hierarchical at the former SZFE than in many universities. It never occurred to most of our teachers to not consider us partners, especially during the occupation, but the emancipation could never be complete because it never moved outside of the forums. I hope that my generation, having experienced this, will shape their surroundings differently when in influential positions. Participating in forums often running until early morning was a life-changing experience. And while I do think that as a whole it was a huge achievement that in war we didn’t choose tyranny, but a slow, shared thinking process, the occupation of the university didn’t achieve what I hoped for – not because we didn’t manage to regain its autonomy at the end, but because the institution was unable to revise its structure of the last 30-40 years, to reconceptualize itself. Somehow being at war gave only the impression that the conditions are right for us to analyze how we got there. Today the Freeszfe Society works as representative, rather than direct democracy, exactly what the legal framework of a decent association requires for accountability, and as most of us did, I also resigned from being continuously and actively involved in decision-making, even though together with others I still participate in the work of the working group that serves to maintain the association. I am also grateful to the Society, because thanks to the students, the volunteering teachers, and supporters I can receive a diploma through the Emergency Exit program, but I find it problematic that there was no dialogue about whether the membership- and chairmanship-based associational format is enough of a straight continuation of the former movement to call it Feeszfe as well.
GE: In your opinion, what are the main differences between the emancipatory, radically egalitarian, and collaborative modes of being, organizing, creating together, and the artistic attitudes you all have been trained for?
PA: We organized art performances and actions with the direction of the action working group. Anyone could join them any time, and they reported back to the forum attendees at certain points of the organizing process (it usually took altogether a maximum of two weeks to organize an action). The composition and the number of the organizing team was constantly changing due to the changing nature of the various projects. Most of the time, the action working group initiated a new idea, but actually, anyone could bring an idea to the forum (about an action, and its format) and the forum helped to recruit participants. It happened of course that two similar concepts were competing, but in the end, both were realized. It was very liberating to watch people – who might not even know you – stand behind you, trust you, and instead of just waiting for your directions, they all start to work on it as a shared project, and build their own ideas into it. The point was to act, to do something, so we didn’t really limit each other if someone wanted to act. It was imperative, however, to consult and vote about everything. The communication working group then still reviewed and read it thoroughly.
GE: Has this struggle changed your attitude as an artist? In what ways did it influence your thoughts and ideals regarding the role an artist ought to play in society? The reason for me asking this is the theoretical debate over the autonomy of art (or the lack thereof), that has been a major issue ever since the creation of ‘modern art’ in the period of the Enlightenment, and has been continuously revisited by scholars and artists alike.
PA: I am studying theater dramaturgy, so the best I can answer this question is from the theater angle, since I define myself through that. Currently, I study at the Akademie für Darstellende Kunst Baden-Württemberg officially with the support of the aforementioned Emergency Exit diploma rescue program, and it’s a wonderful thing that it exists, but it is still a schizophrenic situation. Suddenly my class became theater director students of a university in Ludwigsburg, but we still have to exist in the Hungarian reality. We now have an even bigger responsibility to the Freeszfe Society to lift each other up, to build the university up for each other each and every day, because without us it no longer exists other than virtually. This part is the biggest, most insightful challenge while the right-wing media tries to reduce it to a self-study group. We suddenly grew up and realized that we have to provide everything we want to rely on, we want to utilize, and this will remain the same later in our careers, especially in the independent theater scene. Peter Kárpáti and his colleagues wanted to teach us to be ’theater makers’ and the occupation definitely accelerated this process regarding the social awareness and responsibility aspect of it. You cannot truly make theater without these anyway since it operates on spontaneous effects and presence – it is profoundly embedded in society. What happened to our university is a symptom of the state of affairs of our profession. We won’t be able to escape this even after we graduate (I think of my class specifically, because as dramaturgs we are even more dependent on the language). If we want to see change, we have to reform things. I have a lot of anger in me, but we probably were just confronted earlier with something that would have been inevitable later.
Ágnes Szanyi: The FreeSZFE movement became known for its deliberately organized, highly performative and participatory actions that anyone, even bystanders could take part in. As I know this was a conscious decision, and participation turned out to be a great strength of the movement. Can you tell me a bit more about this? Why was participation important for you? And why do you think participatory performances became so successful in mobilizing both outsiders, and fellow artists from other fields (here I also think of the Delacroix tableau “Liberty Leading the People” created by art historians for example)?
PA: Our aim was to communicate with clear symbols and gestures, and since we are an art university, we obviously wanted to find a format similar to art actions and happenings. What outsiders probably noticed, was that something was happening, that a new culture, a new form of protest was emerging – something they haven’t experienced before. And the feeling that something is finally ‘happening’ excited many people and encouraged them to participate. The direct action working group, and in some cases specifically Dániel Máté Sándor graduating theater directing student, who was one of the heads of the working group, designed monumental demonstrations with simple rules so that we could involve as many people as possible in order to create a collective experience. The symbolic passing of the Charta Universitate from hand to hand, for example, was conceptualized as a direct collective challenge: the precept was that ‘the action would only materialize if you pass the Charter on.’ Collectivity gave us energy all along too, and those who sensed this in our actions could connect with them the most.
SH: I believe we wanted to extrapolate and show others the type of direct impact actions we participated in, and we wanted to show them how easily one can participate in politics and shape public affairs through simple actions. This was our desire, and we believed that if we shared it collectively, it would become a reality. We wished to actually shape our own lives by popularizing participatory processes, and by taking politics back. The “artistic” aspect of these demonstrations was developed from our intention to reform everyday participatoriness, and the inveterate and tired protest culture. We believed that even intellectuals were tired of participatory politics, so we needed new forms. We wanted to associate new experiences, new sensations with this whole thing. It was this playfulness, this loosening up of old habits, and the opportunity to speak freely that encouraged concerned people creating in other areas of culture to get involved and contribute with their own direct actions.
GE: Here, it is of utmost importance to talk about the economic structures these art forms are deeply embedded in, that is to say, their dependence on money. Do you think that your participation in this long-term dissent which has resulted in establishing an alternative that enables Freeszfe to carry out its pedagogical program independent from the Orbán-regime will also lead you to seek alternative ways of financing the production of your art?
PA: For several years now, there has been a wave of low-budget or no-budget films around us. The award winning directors (e.g. Szabolcs Hajdu, Bence Fliegauf) born out of necessity are making such low-budget films, and these projects can turn out wonderfully as well. Not a sustainable situation, but it is something of a response. You definitely need more commitment and faith to make films under these circumstances. In my opinion, this is the only way socially relevant films can be made in Hungary today. You cannot really reform this with a single-window funding scheme maintained by an illiberal government. Given that it is pretty clear what gets funded, it became a way of practicing self-censorship. Freeszfe sustains itself through micro donations. We try to finance the diploma films from the donations collected at an auction last December (where we sold works offered by numerous Hungarian artists, among others the original working copy of Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó). We will soon know if we succeeded.
SH: We are a small country, and culture and art funding is based on state subsidies, not the market. On one hand this is based on the conviction that knowledge, culture and art have value of their own, on the other hand it makes them incredibly vulnerable to the respective governments. The Freeszfe Society is the only initiative relying on non-governmental funds in the Hungarian art and cultural life in recent years, which has gained significant visibility both in the local and the international scene, but in reality it is not the only example. Without aiming to give an exhaustive list, we have to add Partizán, Off-Biennale and the former Feri/Feminista Galleri led by Kata Oltai to the examples of individual authors Petra mentioned. The non-profit sphere has been operating this way for a long time too. (While it is true that among the similar initiatives with pedagogical profile Freeszfe is the only one providing free education to those quitting the seized university, the newly admitted Freeszfe students pay tuition – this probably demonstrates the limited financial possibilities such initiative has.) When it comes to the question of incorporation into the NER Freeszfe wasn’t a turning point for me, it just reinforced my belief that these are the examples to follow when it is impossible for free thinking and creation to coexist with the excessive governmental interference. Nevertheless, we have to continue looking for ways to take back and redistribute state resources and public goods, because even if some artistic attitudes can only be authentic in constant precarity, long-term predictability is crucial for managing institutions. It doesn’t mean, however, that if a more or less generous state agency offered me a grant, or scholarship, depending on the calculated damage it would cause to my symbolic capital, I would accept it – but this is due to my personal position.
Gábor Erlich is an artist/activist/researcher from Eastern Europe. He is currently a Marie Skłodowska-Curie ‘Early Stage Researcher’ at the ‘FEINART’ Programme where he looks at different aspects of ’socially engaged art’ such as the economic role of such artistic production as well as the artist as producer’s social identity – focusing his scrutiny on the semi-peripheral region of East-Central Europe both as a geographic entity and a pool of knowledge-production.
(FEINART has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.)
 Public higher education institutions that follow the Humboldtian model do not intend to only uncritically transfer skills to students who, as employees, will serve market players in accordance with their expectations, but beyond this, they consider it their task to teach a socio-cultural attitude that equips students to question the status quo and improve it.
 We demand full autonomy for our university!
We reject the Remodeling Law in its current form.
We reject the way the Board of Trustees and the Supervisory Committee are appointed, therefore we reject the current Board of Trustees and the Supervisory Committee.
We reject the Deed of Foundation in its current form.
We reject any and all leadership appointed arbitrarily.
We demand the restoration of the powers of the university senate.
We demand the ratification of the Deed of Foundation approved by our former senate, who have now resigned in protest.
We demand the resignation of the current Board of Trustees.
We demand that the rights to form a foundation that would own and run our university not be transferred from the state to any private foundation, including the present one.
We demand that the state not withdraw entirely from funding the university.
We demand that the term ’university’ be added to the name of the foundation.
We firmly restate that we continue to distance ourselves from party politics, and we ask that everyone respects our cause by doing the same.
Until further notice, only the current members of the university can enter the university building.
 TEK or Társadalomelméleti Kollégium (College for Advanced Studies in Social Theory) is an important member of the Hungarian independent college movement. Since its founding in 1981, it has been discussing social, political and public issues along leftist ideologies. Numerous academic and activist projects can be connected to TEK, such as A Város Mindenkié (The City is for All, AVM), Utcajogász (Street Lawyer Association), Helyzet Műhely (Working Group for Public Sociology), Kritikai Városkutatás Műhely (Critical Urban Studies Working Group), Hallgatói Hálózat (Student Network), K-Monitor and Gólya.
 The Student Union is a movement launched in 2018. Its goals are student advocacy, promoting students’ autonomy, and expressing solidarity with other social groups.
 The Blockade (Blokada, 92′) is a 2012 movie about the university occupation in Zagreb in 2009. Director: Igor Bezinovic.
 The aHang (TheVoice) is a non-profit organization that promotes the visibility of important public issues in Hungary through organized actions, campaigns, and petitions.
 NER is the acronym for Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere (System of National Cooperation), a political program announced by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in 2010, after the election victory of the Fidesz-KDNP coalition. The name refers to the sum of the economic and political reforms the ruling party has been introducing since 2010.