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Mihály Schwechtje and Genověva Petrovits • Directors of Democracy Work in Progress

“Everyday corruption is poisoning our democracy”


- We talked to Mihály Schwechtje and Genověva Petrovits, the recipients of the Eurimages Co-production Development Award, after their win at the Transilvania International Film Festival

Mihály Schwechtje and Genověva Petrovits  • Directors of Democracy Work in Progress

At the closing ceremony of the 18th Transilvania International Film Festival, the Eurimages Co-production Development Award, worth €20,000, was given to Democracy Work in Progress, a black comedy presented during Transilvania Pitch Stop by Hungarian director Mihály Schwechtje and producer Genověva Petrovits, of Budapest-based The Soup (see the news). The film focuses on a driving examiner who is finally forced to face up to some unpleasant truths after Julia, a young political activist, refuses to bribe him in order to get her licence.

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Cineuropa: Your main character, Robert, is a driving examiner who practically lives off bribes. Why did you decide to focus on that particular profession?
Genověva Petrovits:
I actually experienced something very similar myself. My sister was preparing for her driving exam, and she told me she had no intention of paying her examiner, which is what you usually do in Hungary, just to be safe. But she wanted fair treatment. After the exam, she called me saying that she had got her licence. But on the same day, in the evening, her instructor showed up at her home, asking for money, as he had already paid the examiner without telling her. It was an awful situation. When I told Mihály about it, he was upset. But then, he said that it’s something you can just laugh about, and started to think that maybe he should also make a film about it – one that would also be a bit comical.

Mihály, did you immediately notice the potential to inject some black humour into your second feature? A story like this could equally just be relentlessly grim.
Mihály Schwechtje:
Such mistakes, while not always catastrophic, can be very funny. But I also realised that, at the end of the day, our entire country is being shaken because of them. Every case that has something to do with everyday corruption, however insignificant it may seem, is poisoning our democracy. In our film, we want to start with ordinary people and a very ordinary mistake, as Julia’s refusal leads to a kidnapping, which then turns into something much bigger than they could have possibly anticipated.

Which brings me to the title of your project: Democracy Work in Progress. Do you see it as a hopeful statement, suggesting there is still room for improvement, or is it something a bit more cynical?
It is cynical, but with a lot of grotesque humour in it. We can understand these characters, as this whole system of small favours comes straight from communism. Our societies are young democracies, especially when compared to Western Europe. Suddenly, one day, we were told it was a different world and that all the citizens were free. But were these people really able to understand that? Now, 30 years later, do we even understand it?

Genověva, was it interesting to develop a project of such personal importance?
There are actually more elements here that come directly from our lives – it’s not just the story of my sister. This is what I really like about it: there are characters echoing real political figures and many similarities to actual real-life events. I like contemporary stories, and I like to bring what is happening around us into films. This way, they become a mirror reflecting our society.

MS: I didn’t want to mimic actual public personas that we could all recognise. I wanted to make people aware of certain mechanisms they tend to perpetuate as well as the attitudes that some politicians have – politicians, but also normal people, and that’s why we’re focusing on a simple driving examiner here. I hope that when people see him, it will make them think about their own decisions and their way of thinking because that’s what influences the behaviour of our politicians. This whole idea that we are constantly surrounded by enemies and need to fight them, whatever the cost – that’s what communism taught us. Now, politicians are preaching the exact same thing. We prefer to concentrate on these imagined threats, rather than learn to protect the core values of democracy. That’s how populism spreads. We only have ourselves to blame for the leaders we have today.

How are you planning to proceed now, after winning the award?
I am very thankful because it will allow us to develop this film just like we originally envisioned it: what’s really important to us is to turn this story into a co-production with other countries from our region, also because we would like to extend the reach of our movie to places forced to deal with similar situations on a regular basis. I have already started discussions with potential co-producers, but it will certainly add value to our film. From the very beginning, I believed that the story we want to tell is universal – after all, similar things are happening all over Europe. This win shows that our instincts were right.

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