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Thursday, 19 September 2019

Immigrant tram driver shoots to fame in Hungarian refugee film

AFP , Wednesday 25 Jan 2017
Cake-Baly Marcelo
Cake-Baly Marcelo, 58, came to Hungary in 1976 after the army in Guinea-Bissau offered him the chance to study in neighbouring Senegal, where he won a scholarship to study in then-communist Central European country (Photo: AFP)
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On posters around Budapest right now is the determined face of an African-born tram driver with a doctorate, the star of a poignant new Hungarian film about immigration, integration and xenophobia.

"A stranger ran up to me one day after I finished my shift and asked if I wanted to be in a movie about refugees," Marcelo Cake-Baly, a former teenage soldier from Guinea-Bissau, told AFP at a tram stop on the outskirts of Budapest.

"I said 'yes' on the spot."

That stranger was Hungarian film director Roland Vranik, whose well-received "The Citizen" tells the story of an African refugee's quest to obtain Hungarian citizenship and premieres on Wednesday.

Filmed just before Europe's migration crisis hit in 2015, the movie highlights the plight of non-European migrants trying to settle in the predominantly white country.

Cake-Baly, 58, came to Hungary in 1976 after the army in Guinea-Bissau offered him the chance to study in neighbouring Senegal, where he won a scholarship to study in then-communist Hungary.

He only gained Hungarian citizenship in 1994, however, and says the struggles experienced by the film's lead character, Wilson, mirror his own.

Wilson encounters casual racism, grapples with bureaucratic hurdles and helps a fellow refugee in trouble, all the while trying to hold down a security guard job and get by in the Magyar language, one of Europe's trickiest tongues.

In the opening scene, he is told by an official to "come back in a year" after failing yet another citizenship exam, which included a grilling on the Hungarian constitution and medieval history.

Cake-Baly, who holds a doctorate in economics, lost his job in a bank in 1989 because he did not have citizenship. For years he struggled to find work, in part due to his skin colour, he suspects.

"I had so much rejection in the job market I threw away my pride. I couldn't tell you where my economist diploma certificate is, at the back of a drawer probably," he said ruefully.

Since 2005 he has worked as a tram driver and sometimes gets abuse, with people shouting at him to "go home" -- despite having a Hungarian passport and proficiency in the language.

The temptation to pull his passport from his coat pocket is strong, he says, but he always resists.

"Most people here are friendly, but there's always one who's not. Still there is no point in getting into conflicts," Cake-Baly said.

Hungary is home to around 5,000 Africans, a tiny percentage of the foreign-born population of 150,000, itself mostly Europeans and 1.5 percent of the 10-million-strong country.

According to surveys, hostility to non-whites in Hungary has grown during Europe's migration crisis, which swept through the country two years ago.

Hungarian polling firm, Tarki, said recently that xenophobic attitudes were at their highest in 25 years.

Over 400,000 people trekked through Hungary in 2015 to reach richer countries further west and north.

In response, the hardline anti-immigration Prime Minister Viktor Orban built border fences and put up billboards warning foreigners not to take jobs from Hungarians.

These days, "migrant" is used as a term of abuse that Cake-Baly hears more and more.

"Someone at a bus stop blew smoke in my face recently, and said it would have been better if I'd been drowned in the sea like the other migrants," said Cake-Baly, who has three children with his Hungarian wife.

Vranik said he began working on the film's screenplay in 2012, well before the refugee crisis erupted and the government's anti-migrant "propaganda got going".

"It wasn't so hard to predict what might happen... I wouldn't change the movie if I started writing it today," the 48-year-old told AFP.

"I was just curious about the life of a vulnerable African refugee trying to integrate in Hungary," he added.

Vranik approached Cake-Baly on the street after spotting him in a driver's uniform as "it is not easy to find a middle-aged African who speaks Hungarian".

Critics have called the movie "one of the best and important Hungarian films" made to date, comparing it to the work of acclaimed British director Mike Leigh.

"It doesn't conform to stereotypes," Adam Kovats, a 22-year-old student, told AFP after an advance screening in Budapest last week.

"The refugees and Hungarian characters in the movie come across as real, complex people, not just one-dimensional angelic refugees and racist Europeans".

Looking forward to the premiere, Cake-Baly, who still hasn't seen the completed film, told AFP he hopes to do more acting.

"I've got a taste for it now," he smiled.

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