In conversation with Penn Bálint on his queer short “Soviet Fantasia”

Shortly after the success of his first short film, Moments I Saw in Red, Hungarian multimedia artist Penn Bálint has already begun production on his next queer short, Soviet Fantasia. Set against the backdrop of his home country’s human rights violations in recent history, the film oscillates between a deeply-rooted idealisation of the West to which its protagonist yearns to escape, and a fervent call for reclaiming Hungarian culture for its queer community. Through its surrealist palate and blossoming folk elements, Bálint’s film begins to fill the gap that queer Eastern Europeans feel so intensely. GAY45’s Managing Editor, Miruna Tiberiu, chats with Bálint about his ambitious project.

Penn Bálint. Credits the artist.

Miruna Tiberiu: Soviet Fantasia seems rooted in a strong autobiographical element. How have your personal experiences shaped your film?

Penn Bálint: I would say the core story and emotional landscape of the film are entirely autobiographical, which is true of all my writing. However, the film relies quite heavily on symbolism and surreal elements, a stylised version of events, so in terms of what you see in the film having literally happened to me, it’s only accurate for the scene where the character is learning English from watching TV. I’d also say that the film somewhat warps the timeline as far as my own experience is concerned – the events of the film are shown to be continuous, whereas it took me a good decade to go through it all. I did realise I was queer and nonbinary while growing up in Hungary, and that along with the financial and cultural circumstances of the time did contribute to a strong desire to start fresh in the UK, which my family did when I was 15. And it took me a while to do anything other than run from that first part of my life, to reconnect with any sense of being Hungarian.

MT: Has this ‘Western dream’ fallen short of the ideal, for you, in the UK?

PB: I think the reality of any ideal is bound to fall short, as it’s not fully rooted in fact, not realistic by nature. When this dream began in earnest for my family in 2006, the UK had had a Labour government for a while, which changed almost simultaneously to our move. The country we ended up moving to was not necessarily the same one we ‘fell for’ initially. I won’t go into Brexit specifically, but that was another reminder that “oh, they don’t want us here”.

Having said that, I have experienced a lot of what I’d set out to do here – attend a British university, have British friends, make (at least some) money doing what I love…so it really isn’t all bad, it’s more that any kind of black and white thinking like I’d been doing as a teen of “Hungary bad, UK good” is something I’d be wary of now.

MT: What idea did you have of the British LGBT+ community before moving? Did that play a role in your obsession with British culture? What do you think of it now that you are part of it?

PB: I had a very limited idea of it then – all I knew was that queer people were able to live openly. I wasn’t aware of the nuances of the marginalisation that queer people did and do still face in the UK, and it was the same with other political problems in the UK – I thought, as long as it’s better than it is in Hungary, that’s okay. In terms of my contact with queer media, it mostly happened in a subconscious sense, like seeing a lesbian couple in Friends. Even if they were the butt of the joke, it was still cool to see them have a life and jobs. I never saw that in Hungarian media. I’d never met a queer person in Hungary, though that wasn’t something I was necessarily looking for because at the time I tried to repress that side of me before moving. There was this feeling that the West was freedom, safety. And, whilst my feelings are more nuanced now, that belief still mostly holds true.

MT: What was your relationship to the English language growing up in Hungary? What is your relationship to Hungarian now, living in the UK?

PB: Growing up, we were taught English to a very minimal standard. My first English teacher at school admitted to having only started learning the language herself two weeks prior, for the job. It was only when Hungary became part of the EU in 2004 and my parents made the decision to move in 2006 that I pushed myself to learn English and consume English films and music. I got to visit London, too, and fell in love with it and its culture. I became almost obsessive about learning it. I remember consciously deciding to only speak English in my inner voice, so I’d never stop practising.

Now, I’m trying to get back some of what I lost in terms of that conscious atrophying of my Hungarian. I’ve only spoken the language with my parents and one friend for the best part of 10 years and that’s only really changed now that I’m making this film. As a kid, I took pride in having a large vocabulary, and I find myself floundering a lot now. It makes me sad that few Hungarian artists are making enough use of it and choosing to write or perform in English, especially music. There’s an old song by a band called Fonográf that my dad and I quote quite a lot that goes (in Hungarian) “It’s a shame that the Hungarian language isn’t understood by anyone, and they’re not interested in learning it either”. I think Hungarian does create a unique and precious culture, which would be a shame to entirely amalgamate or replace it with Western culture. I feel very strongly about contributing something to Hungarian-speaking cinema going forward, so there is actually a part of Soviet Fantasia that is in Hungarian, and I hope to create more in Hungarian in the future (as I didn’t write the poem that’s in the film).

MT: This has made me realise that, in the same way that I romanticise the West, I tend to romanticise Romania when I’m not there, some kind of idealist homesickness. Then, as soon as I come back, I am hit with reality and I’m glad that I live in the West. I’m always missing something; I can never find that complete sense of belonging. Have you experienced this?

PB: I do recognise the privilege of getting to live in the UK and being able to pick and choose the aspects of Hungarian culture that are safe for me to interact with. I have to be really mindful of that because I don’t usually visit family in Hungary which means that I end up then staying in Budapest: objectively the nicest, most Westernised part of Hungary. I have to remind myself that this wasn’t the life that I ran from. I also try to read more Hungarian news because it’s easy for me to interact with the parts of that culture I like and make me feel safe from a distance.

My focus is on doing something that will, even in a small way, shape Hungary into the place that I would like it to be, but then it feels like perhaps I am creating a fantasy. Then again, perhaps that’s okay because putting that out there will hopefully contribute to change.

MT: Did you draw any inspiration from Hungarian art when conceiving the film?

PB: Time Stands Still (1982) by Péter Gothár and Love Film (1970) by István Szabó are my favourite Hungarian films and, while not a queer influence, they have shaped the look and feel of Soviet Fantasia. In both, there’s that pull of the West and ache from what we leave behind; they’re both centred around the 1956 uprising in Hungary and the people who left the country. There’s a French New Wave influence in both but bent to a Hungarian sensibility, and I love that. This is present in my film – the amalgamation of Western media (my film is partly produced by an English company) but also the unmistakably Hungarian feel.

Penn Bálint, film frames from “Moments I Saw In Red”, 2’24”, colour, Super 8. Credits the artist.

MT: Initial images of the project feature a refreshing take on traditional folk visual elements. What role does folk culture – music, myths, storytelling etc. – play in Soviet Fantasia?

PB: Without giving much away, a good 90% of the film features visual elements and characters taken from traditional folk culture. I saw this as a way to represent Eastern Europe at its most authentic.

I also find it heartbreaking that traditional folk culture has been co-opted by right-wing nationalism. Traditional culture is beautiful and belongs to queer people just as much. I really wanted to create something that weaves folk into queer culture. There are some amazing queer and trans tattoo artists from Hungary who are moving into that direction with their designs. I wanted to contribute to this subversion of traditional folk culture in a way that is open and in-your-face, to include us too.

MT: You describe your film as ‘surreal’. Why did you choose this form as the mode of storytelling used to explore queerness, marginalisation, and yearnings for immigration to a more ‘accepting’ society?

PB: It’s a couple of things. Firstly, it’s the time constraint – the film has to be 3-5 minutes for various administrative reasons. So, because I wanted to convey quite a lot in such a short timeframe, I wanted to rely on symbolism. I’ve always had an interest in surrealism as an art movement, and that’s something that I used to take inspiration from in my artwork previously, so it felt like a natural way to work on this as well. Also, many surrealist artists like André Breton took inspiration from traditional masks, even though it was much more culturally-appropriative because they were often taken from indigenous cultures. There is a traditional folk mask that is very key to the plot of my film. There’s also the surrealist scene in The Souvenir Part II (2021) that I absolutely love, and that I find so exciting creatively.

MT: And, of course, this brings in another question of reclaiming art which, as far as surrealism goes, was not initially open to queer expression.

PB: Yes, most of the surrealists were awful people. I think it is a question of reclaiming and simultaneously of not rejecting something wholly because of the parts that are hurtful. I see that as a parallel to my exploration of Hungarian culture through a queer lens.

MT: It seems to be a common pattern for queer Eastern Europeans who have moved to the West to surround themselves only with Western culture, speak English, and try to ‘forget’ their heritage. It is only recently that I became interested in culture from my home country, Romania. Have you noticed this pattern in yourself and the people around you?

PB: Absolutely, and that dynamic is very much at the core of the film. I see Hungarian musicians refusing to write in Hungarian and I think it’s sad, because they’re choosing to leave quite a unique creative resource – their experience not being raised within Western culture – untapped. In Hungary, the biggest compliment you can get [on your art] is that ‘it is on a Western/ an international level’ i.e., what you’re making can pass as not even being Hungarian. It’s essentially wasteful because [your heritage] is such a rich experience and maybe some of it is filled with pain but it also can be wielded to make something that’s so much more original and interesting. I think of myself now as a hollowed-out, English-passing…thing. You can’t write from that place.

I also think it’s important to look at where that rejection comes from, and you don’t have to look very hard to see that it’s the horrendous gutting our governments have performed on our countries, leaving people – queer or not – with this sense that their country is unliveable. It can be hard to feel any sense of pride or connection with something that keeps hurting you. I, for one, have tried to forget the first 15 years of my life to quite an extreme extent, and it’s only caused me harm. It’s taken me a good decade to find the strength in myself to look at the dark parts of where I’m from and instead of fleeing from it, try to stand up to it in however small a way. I don’t think we should be forced to live in a country where the LGBT+ community is even more persecuted than in the UK. However, once we’re in relative safety, we can try to reclaim and redefine our original culture to make way for us. I think it’s important to try to build that culture for queer Eastern Europeans so that it exists, and hopefully that can engender some kind of change.

The filmmaker has recently launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, aiming to raise additional funds for the low budget short. Backers are offered a range of exciting rewards in exchange for their support, including exclusive t-shirts and stickers, as well as early access to the film before its public release.

Soviet Fantasia will premiere at the 2 Short Nights film festival at Exeter Phoenix in February 2024. For more information or to support the film visit: theyokosituation.com.

 

Article by Miruna Tiberiu.

Miruna Tiberiu is the Managing Editor of GAY45. She is a student at Cambridge University. Tiberiu has written for numerous publications, including The Cambridge Review of Books, and the Cambridge Language Collective. She is the co-founder and co-editor of Cambridge’s first all-queer magazine, Screeve. Tiberiu is currently long-listed for the International News Media Association (INMA)’s “30 Under 30” Awards 2023.

 

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