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SARAJEVO 2020 Documentary Competition

Review: Return to Epipo

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- Judit Oláh's semi-autobiographical documentary investigates abuse in an unorthodox summer camp for children in the communist Hungary

Review: Return to Epipo

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, the second feature-length documentary from Hungarian director Judit Oláh, screens in the documentary competition of the Sarajevo Film Festival after its world premiere at CPH:DOX, and tells the fascinating and engrossing story of a summer camp in socialist Hungary that feels more like a cult than a place where kids spend their vacations.

While most Hungarian children in the 1980s attended regular camps with strict discipline and communist education, families of urban intellectuals were happy they had the chance to send their offspring to Epipo, an apparently liberal and free-spirited place. One of them was Oláh, and the opening of the film sees her discussing summer camp with her own daughter. Ironically, she is concerned with all the disclaimers she needs to sign, liberating the camp from basically any responsibility for the kids' health... as opposed to the 1980s, when one would simply just put their child on a bus.

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The film is composed as a sort of a dialogue between the two ages, both historical and personal, and includes psychodrama sessions where Oláh joins her former friends from Epipo, as well as interviews and a wealth of archive materials. The latter is VHS footage, most of it shot by the film's villain and leader of Epipo: the charismatic and, as it turns out, more than a little controversial teacher Pál Sipos.

Epipo was imagined as a country, with its own flag, anthem, and religious-like rituals — which must have been especially persuasive for impressionable children growing up in a society that eschewed religion. The kids apparently felt safe in this wonderland and perceived themselves as superior to their peers who went to compulsory, boring, school-like communist summer spots. They thought Sipos was the epitome of cool with his buddy approach and his encouragement of free thinking...

But the dark side of Epipo surfaced in 2014 after an article in the local media which turned into a huge scandal, inspiring Oláh to confront her repressed past. In truth, Epipo was a place of humiliation, mockery, psychological and sexual abuse. The mechanisms of control and dominance that Sipos employed are exactly the same as the ones depicted in a myriad of documentaries on religious and sex cults.

In addition to the fact that these were elementary school-age kids, Oláh's semi-autobiographical approach which sees her being both director and subject also sets the film apart from other similar documentaries. Besides interviews with her own father and former camp participants, which in both cases are often very uncomfortable, she also questions her own mixed memories. These formative experiences are anything but black-and-white and the unreliability of memory is explored indirectly, but no less significantly.

When former participants of the camp talk about their darkest and most difficult experiences, Oláh uses another kind of archive footage as a background: murky, shaky, black-and-white Super-8 or 16mm images of children having summer fun, probably manipulated in order to achieve a nightmarish feeling that is accentuated by a quiet but menacing score and sound design.

Return to Epipo is a co-production of Hungary's Campfilm and HBO Europe. Toronto-based Syndicado has the international rights.

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