Last Update 14:57
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)
Views: 2420
Views: 2420

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.

 For more arts and culture news and updates, follow Ahram Online Arts and Culture on Twitter at @AhramOnlineArts and on Facebook at Ahram Online: Arts & Culture

Short link:


Ahram Online welcomes readers' comments on all issues covered by the site, along with any criticisms and/or corrections. Readers are asked to limit their feedback to a maximum of 1000 characters (roughly 200 words). All comments/criticisms will, however, be subject to the following code
  • We will not publish comments which contain rude or abusive language, libelous statements, slander and personal attacks against any person/s.
  • We will not publish comments which contain racist remarks or any kind of racial or religious incitement against any group of people, in Egypt or outside it.
  • We welcome criticism of our reports and articles but we will not publish personal attacks, slander or fabrications directed against our reporters and contributing writers.
  • We reserve the right to correct, when at all possible, obvious errors in spelling and grammar. However, due to time and staffing constraints such corrections will not be made across the board or on a regular basis.

© 2010 Ahram Online.