Krakow Film Festival 2024

A numbers game

DOCUFICTION / After an unofficial five-year filmmaking ban, Hungary's Ádám Császi continues to oppose the authoritarian Orbán regime.

«What you call realism is just you exploiting our misery. And what you call absurd is just plain racism», says a male member of an all-Roma theatrical troupe, confronting the white director of a play titled Gypsy Hungarian. To which a female thespian jumps in with, «And you call this «deconstruction.» Do you know what you’re deconstructing? Your own racism. And a deconstructive racist is still a racist.» (Ouch.) In other words, this collaborative work, based on the actors’ real-life experiences (which in today’s Orbán-land includes homelessness, juvenile delinquency, heroin addiction, rape and all manner of abuse), is a good-faith effort that has clearly gone off the rails. Strangely, something that tends to happen not under (non-collaborative, bad faith) authoritarian regimes but only in the wokest of white liberal spaces. Ay, there’s the rub!

Three Thousand Numbered Pieces Ádám Császi
Three Thousand Numbered Pieces, a film by Ádám Császi

Visionary direction

Fortunately (and unfortunately), Ádám Császi, the visionary director behind Three Thousand Numbered Pieces (and the next Ruben Östlund by my lights), knows a thing or two about working in both. Császi’s debut feature, 2014’s Berlinale-premiering Land of Storms – also the first Hungarian coming-out film ever made – earned him both accolades in the foreign press (Variety and The Hollywood Reporter) and an unofficial 5-year ban on filmmaking at home. Yet he’s managed to bravely retain his sense of (human rights) conviction; and, even more remarkably, humour. Indeed, only sharpened it. Complete with stellar camerawork and detailed production design, Császi’s docufiction followup – and «left-wing provocation» according to the Hungarian Film Institute, which suggested «self-censorship» according to the director – is a hilariously biting satire (co-written with Balázs Lengyel) that packs a wallop and then some.

To wit: A scene in which the white liberal director has an authentic «gipsy house» transported to his Berlin set – leaving its inhabitants on the street. (Naturally, it comes with a smell of «smoke and filth» that can’t be «replicated.») «Unparalleled in German theatre history!» the white liberal producer proclaims upon seeing it. «A touch of Marcel Duchamp», the bearded hipster director adds, showing how the house can be split in two – revealing a glum kid seated on a couch inside.

And soon the German producer is lamenting the fact that no one in the troupe has actually been to jail – as «it would have been better» for the pr. «Our troupe, the Ugandan Crossgender Army, comprised of marginalized youth of Africa, they have transcended the notion of gender banality. And their director was sentenced to death in absentia, just for the performance», he continues. To which the director, not to be outdone by a bunch of Third World performers, quickly counters that his own kids are «an ethnic minority group from severely underprivileged backgrounds.» Of course, the Ugandan Crossgender Army were child soldiers, the producer sniffs. (And if you haven’t figured it out already, Császi has cited Östlund’s The Square as an influence. Though also Fellini’s – as evidenced by a wickedly genius musical performance from that Ugandan Crossgender Army, complete with footage of child soldiers running on a background screen. And set to «Mein Herr.»)

2014’s Berlinale-premiering Land of Storms – also the first Hungarian coming-out film ever made – earned him both accolades in the foreign press (Variety and The Hollywood Reporter) and an unofficial 5-year ban on filmmaking at home.

Take no prisoners

Yet not even the white liberal critics – i.e., folks like myself who usually review these sorts of flicks – can escape Császi’s take-no-prisoners gaze. One critique of the Roma play notes that it doesn’t force the audience to have a particular opinion – but to just «think.» (One Roma player’s astute response? «Think this: fucking burn in hell, you white motherfucker», the writeup continues. «But the audience likes the play,” the writeup continues.» («That’s exactly why», the actor replies.) Indeed, when faced with the choice, liberals tend to prefer the safety of deep thinking to the messiness of taking concrete action.

Not to mention the horror of looking in the mirror. Another catchy musical number sarcastically addresses victim blaming with lyrics like, «I wanted all of this» and «I’m demoralized and exploited, oh how lucky.» Ultimately, the female actor (and real-life rape survivor) directly confronts the lens (and thus us in the white liberal audience) with, «Do you feel sorry for me? Of course, you do. That makes you a good person.» (Thankfully, she does eventually flip the script, retake power and walk out of the production. Prompting a crew member to suggest replacing her with a hologram – which might delay the premiere.)

And in short order, we’re invited to a (terrifically spot-on) pop-up party at the theatre. «Tonight they called the entire liberal German press Nazis!» the German producer enthusiastically declares from the stage as he introduces a pair of Roma rappers. (Applause from the white liberal audience before the duo start riffing on the word «Nazis.») Cut to: «YOU’VE BEEN DOING IT ALL YOUR LIVES. NOW YOU CAN DO IT FOR REAL. FUCK POOR PEOPLE» block-lettered along the white walls of a gallery where white male and female visitors disrobe beside a set of lockers. Meanwhile, a voice from a loudspeaker drones on about sexual exploitation and cites sex trafficking statistics. «I am sorry, sir. You mustn’t take the object», a guard cautions one of the Roma actors as he pulls his half-naked sister from the «Underprivileged» booth that acts as her display case.

Though by the time the hipster director phones his biracial wife – he wants her to join him in Berlin since he’s doing a play with «her people» – she ain’t having it either. «The Ugandan soldiers massacred my people on a daily basis 20 years ago», she snaps while tending to their biracial (or rather «ethnic minority group from severely underprivileged backgrounds») children. «Second, you know full well that I was born in Budapest», she continues. «I’m going to hang up now, so I don’t have to divorce you.»

Three Thousand Numbered Pieces Ádám Császi
Three Thousand Numbered Pieces, a film by Ádám Császi

The end is nigh

Alas, it’s likely just a matter of time before he realizes the end is nigh. «On the side, please lean out more, like refugees on the news», the clueless director shouts through a bullhorn as the Ugandan Crossgender Army performs Othello on a boat. «The audience is going to watch us on the shore through binoculars», he clarifies. And once the Orbán regime stops blocking one of its most talented cinematic exports, I’ll be watching for Three Thousand Numbered Pieces to hit my US shores as well.

Three Thousand Numbered Pieces screens as part of the 2023 Movies that Matter Festival

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Lauren Wissot
Lauren Wissot
A US-based film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer.

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