A month into a blockade of Hungary’s top arts university, hundreds of students rebelling against control by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government show no sign of quitting.
“The blockade remains until our demands to restore the university’s autonomy are met,” said Aron Heppes, 23, a film set design student at the University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) in downtown Budapest.
Heppes and dozens of other students began the sit-in on Sept 1, a day after the university’s management resigned in protest at their loss of autonomy to a new, government-picked board whose trustees are appointed indefinitely.
“I’ve been sleeping here since then, hundreds of us are inside now,” Heppes, tall with cropped hair and a mask emblazoned with “Free SZFE!” told reporters outside the building.
With no end to the standoff in sight, staff at the 155-year-old institution, which has produced Oscar-winning directors and cinematographers, also plan to strike from today.
At its entrance — barricaded with red-and-white tape — students sit on guard, keeping out the new management and only letting in fellow so-called “university citizen” staff and students, after a temperature check.
Members of the public regularly arrive with cash or food donations.
“If we need something like mattresses or food, there’s an online list, people bring it the next day, it’s been an uplifting experience,” Heppes said.
Each afternoon student performers entertain those below from the first-floor balcony and the facade is adorned with many hundreds of messages of support and portraits of sympathizers.
International acting luminaries abroad such as Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren have also expressed support.
The outpouring of solidarity with the 400-strong student body has not surprised the university’s deputy rector, Laszlo Upor, 67, a drama teacher there for 32 years.
“We may be small, our problem is not everyone’s, but people clearly see how politics intervened in a direct way,” said Upor, who led the management’s mass resignation last month.
“Our autonomy is directly related to the freedom of art,” he said, calling the new board and its leader, theater director Attila Vidnyanszky, “ideological” appointments.
Vidnyanszky, 56, has said he wants a “different kind of thinking” at the university.
“They claim it’s time to teach people to become true patriots or true Christians or whatever, it is hard to deny it is part of a polarizing culture war,” Upor said.
Orban, 57, in 2018 said that “big changes” were afoot for Hungary’s cultural and academic scenes.
Since then, laws have reformed how theaters are controlled and removed autonomy from the leadership of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
An international university founded by US billionaire George Soros also said it was forced to move the bulk of its operations to Vienna from Budapest after a long legal battle for “academic freedom” with Orban.
However, while those earlier moves sparked street protests, the SZFE demonstration is the first major building occupation.
“This is where it leads, people don’t want to tolerate the narrowing of space for critical voices any longer,” said Szabolcs Hajdu, who runs the university’s film-directing department.
“The students have done what no one has yet dared to do, and it seems much of society supports them,” Hajdu told reporters before entering the building to give a class.
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