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Angry Students Continue To Occupy Budapest Film School To Protest Changes

Protesters at the University for Theater and Film Arts in Budapest
Protesters at the University for Theater and Film Arts in Budapest

BUDAPEST -- Dozens of students continue to occupy a key building at the University for Theater and Film Arts (SZFE) in central Budapest on September 8 amid growing international support for their protest against a sweeping overhaul by the government that they say threatens the school's autonomy.

The dispute over control of the landmark film and theater school in Hungary boiled over into the streets of the capital two days earlier as thousands of students, staff, and supporters formed a human chain to protest changes ushered in by nationalist, conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government. The moves forced a transfer of control of the public institution to a private foundation as of September 1 and a new structure to guide key decisions at the storied SZFE.

The management of the school and a number of top professors have resigned in protest, and a group of students has been barricaded inside the university since September 1.

Thousands Form Human Chain Protesting Hungarian Government Obstruction Of University's Independence
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WATCH: Thousands Form Human Chain Protesting Hungarian Government Obstruction Of University's Independence

According to Hungarian media, several internationally recognized artists, writers, directors, actors, and academics -- including actresses Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren, and author Salman Rushdie -- have signed an open letter saying the changes are "part of a general cultural war to plunder the autonomy of all cultural spaces and institutions."

"It is, in fact, the privatization of public property, the benefits of which are migrating into the pockets of the prime minister’s clients. We, the signatories, stand up for the authentic leadership of the university and its students," the letter says.

The 155-year-old university has produced several Oscar winners, including Casablanca director Michael Curtiz. The dispute prompted film director Kornel Mundruczo to don a #FreeSZFE T-shirt for the premiere of his new film, Pieces Of A Woman, at this month’s Venice Film Festival.

"We deplore the fact that the University Senate has been deprived of its decision-making power and that the University of Theater and Film Arts in Budapest has essentially lost its academic autonomy," European Film Academy President Wim Wenders, and the group's chairman, Mike Downey, said in a statement.

"We fully support the students and the Senate of the University in their decision to not recognize the legitimacy of the new board. The art of cinema can only breathe in an atmosphere of openness, transparency, and democracy. In support and solidarity for a successful outcome of the occupation," they added.

Private Groups In Control

In recent years, Orban’s government has controversially placed several major universities under the control of private groups that critics say are dominated by loyal allies.

Orban, prime minister for the past decade, has also been accused by detractors of choking off independent Hungarian media critical of the government.

Innovation and Technology Minister Laszlo Palkovics appointed theater and film director Attila Vidnyanszky -- who also heads Hungary’s National Theater and has described himself as a “cultural nationalist” -- to be chairman of the board of trustees that will effectively control the university.

A number of the other trustees and supervising board members are said to be close to the government.

While previously a Senate elected by the university itself decided on issues that might fundamentally affect the university, the new charter hands that control to a board of trustees.

The trustees’ approval is required to name a rector, as well as for picking department heads and even determining when classes begin.

The Ministry of Innovation and Technology maintains that the university “can only win” under new leadership.

It said in a statement that “institutions will be better able to meet new challenges by renewing their operating model, which has remained unchanged for decades.”

The ruling conservative Fidesz-KDNP alliance introduced a bill to implement the changes in May and dominated the vote to pass the legislation on July 3, leaving less than two months to effect the transfer.

Orban's government introduced legislation in 2017 that angered many Hungarian and international critics by mandating that higher-education institutions from outside the European economic area can only operate in the country if their home country has a bilateral treaty with Budapest.

The change sparked angry protests and was blamed for forcing the prestigious Budapest-based Central European University to move its operations to Austria.

The CEU case prompted an infringement proceeding from the European Commission in 2017 and a referral to the Court of Justice.

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