[…] The film’s small-scale view of this humanitarian crises through the lives of Wilson, Shirin and Marie has allowed me to become attached to the characters (whom the actors embody so well) and their predicaments in a way that reading newspapers, watching documentaries, or even reading testimonials of detainees has not managed to do.
[…] In a world in which we are increasingly mistrustful of the media, fiction needs to play a more important role: one that permits us to be affected through an aesthetic medium, much like the morally instructive role that literature and theatre had once assumed.
The theme of settling refugees is well-rehearsed within European cinema, given the mass mobilisation of people occurring in recent times. The Citizen provides a Hungarian perspective on the crises on a very small scale. The film, directed by Roland Vranik focuses on the lives of three refugees: one political, one illegal, and the other, a refugee motivated by love.
56-year-old political refugee Wilson Ugabe (Dr. Marcelo Cake-Baly) sought asylum in Budapest after having fled his war-torn country of Nigeria. He is provided a job as a security guard at a small supermarket, he lives in a spacious two-bedroom apartment, learns the language and pours all of his time and hopes into becoming a Hungarian citizen. One night, a heavily pregnant, 26-year-old Iranian woman, Shirin (Arghavan Shekari), arrives on Wilson’s doorstep looking for his former flatmate who had said she could stay. During the night, Shirin goes into labour but refuses to go to the hospital. Wilson learns that she has escaped from the camp to avoid deportation back to Iran where she will certainly face exile or death because of her condition as an unmarried mother. Wilson helps deliver the baby, Mira, which establishes a strong bond between the three.
Having failed the constitutional examination several times, Wilson is not deterred by his examiners to wait twelve months and try again. His manager sends him to her sister, Mari (Ágnes Máhr), a history and art teacher, who can tutor him for the exam. Mari introduces him to classical Hungarian music and art, and he learns about the kings of Hungary through many field trips around the city’s museums. These encounters start to spark feelings between the two. Mari, who is a married mother of two adult sons, attempts to resist, but she is overcome with the charm, gentleness and warmth of Wilson. They make love.
Mari leaves her husband immediately and moves in with Wilson and Shirin. All is well until Mari comes to understand the degree to which Wilson is emotionally entangled with Shirin and the baby. He promises to make a paper marriage with Shirin so that she can begin a new, but separate life in Hungary. This causes a deep rift between the women as Mari begins to feel that she is not exclusive to Wilson’s heart. Amidst these troubles, Mari returns to the family home to pick up some things, only to find the lock changed and her belongings outside under a plastic sheet. There is a strong sense that Mari has become a refugee of another kind. Unable to return home and no longer wanted by the new man she loves, she is a woman with a state, but without a home. Dislocated and desperate, Mari does the unthinkable and calls the authorities to see what she can do for Shirin. This results in the immigration police storming the apartment and arresting her. Within 48 hours they are deported back to Iran.
The sadness of this separation from Shirin and the baby, and the betrayal of Mari, sees Wilson pack up and move to Austria. At the beginning of the film he recites the Hungarian National Anthem; when questioned why he finds it «very beautiful» and «true,» he says that it tells one «not [to] run, or give up», even if «fortune’s hand bless[es], or beat[s] you». The examiner replies that Wilson nevertheless ran from his country when things got tough. He ran for reasons that we learn are unspeakable for Wilson; a pain and memory that only running could allow him to forget. When the Hungarian government removes Shirin and Mira, but still provides Wilson his citizenship, he no longer sees the truth, nor does he still wish to be Hungary’s greatest patriot. Whether as a refugee or a citizen, the state had always caused Wilson unbearable loss.
In my country, Australia, the entry and resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers is an entirely different state of affairs compared to the drifting of millions of displaced people crossing Europe. Our borders, while heavily policed and protected, have the additional geographic border of four oceans. This makes it nearly impossible to come here, but even still some people risk their lives to try and seek refuge. Our bipartisan response is to send these “boat people” to off-shore detention centres in other countries for processing procedures that can take years, in which time many detainees (children included) suffer terrible conditions, psychological trauma, and some go so far as to commit suicide in horrific ways.
The Citizen deepened my emotional understanding of what it might be like to be a refugee, rather than viewing them as a news item. The film’s small-scale view of this humanitarian crises through the lives of Wilson, Shirin and Marie has allowed me to become attached to the characters (whom the actors embody so well) and their predicaments in a way that reading newspapers, watching documentaries, or even reading testimonials of detainees has not managed to do. By and large, The Citizen is the first fictional refugee film that has genuinely moved me on this topic. Aesthetically, Vranik has done a great job to enable a form of empathy for refugees that becoming politicised by a newspaper article does not. In a world in which we are increasingly mistrustful of the media, fiction needs to play a more important role: one that permits us to be affected through an aesthetic medium, much like the morally instructive role that literature and theatre had once assumed. Although this discussion may appear trite to some European readers, in Australia, there have been no fictional forays into the “age of the refugee”; no films allowing us to come to this universal crisis as human beings rather than voters, or as morally concerned agents who feel the need to welcome the stranger.
Text: Jodie McNeilly-Renaudie
First published: October 17, 2017
The Citizen | Film | Roland Vranik | HU 2016 | 108’ | Zurich Film Festival 2017