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SARAJEVO 2018 Documentary Competition

Review: Easy Lessons


- Dorottya Zurbó's documentary follows a teenage Somalian refugee as she adapts to life in Hungary

Review: Easy Lessons

The second feature-length documentary by Hungarian filmmaker Dorottya ZurbóEasy Lessons [+see also:
film profile
 – which world-premiered in Locarno's Critics’ Week and screened last week in the Sarajevo Film Festival's Documentary Competition – dives straight into its ironic title. In the first scene, we see the protagonist, Kafia, a 17-year-old Somalian refugee, studying Hungarian. But however difficult this language may seem to anyone who is not Hungarian, it is actually one of the easier tasks the girl has to face. 

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Kafia escaped Somalia to avoid a forced marriage, thrust upon her by her father. Her mother helped her get away, and the film is constructed by alternating scenes of Kafia's life in a Budapest student residence and at school, with her confessions to her mother, usually spoken in a voice-over, where she tells her and the audience what a huge personal and cultural change this is for her. 

In an interview with a psychologist, Kafia explains that she is happy that she does not have to wear a hijab anymore, but she still hides this fact from her mum. This is only the most obvious cultural shift the girl is going through – at other moments in the film, we see that her school friends are puzzled by the fact that she comes from a country with a coast but she does not know how to swim. She also never had to do sports back home, but now she has to climb a rope. And when it comes to studying Hungarian and European history, it is obvious she has to start from scratch.

In the current geopolitical situation, Hungary is considered one of the countries with the toughest refugee policies, but Kafia has strong support from both the administration of the student residence where she is staying and the faculty at school. The movie reminds us that even official policies are, after all, enforced by human beings. 

However, on the other hand, we get to know her intimately enough to see that, however intelligent and highly motivated she may be, a teenage girl is just a teenage girl with a particular cultural background. She gets training in how to be a fashion model, and her resemblance to her compatriot Iman is hard to miss. Also, she finds a very white, very Christian boyfriend whom she accompanies to what looks like an evangelical church service, and writes to her mum, "Their God loves them so much." And who can blame her, after having to move to another continent to avoid a forced marriage with a much older man in a very traditional Muslim society? 

Easy Lessons is an insightful film that combines both poetic and strictly narrative moments, and takes a thoughtful approach to the protagonist, without passing any judgement on the state of human rights in Hungary. The news is full of this kind of story anyway, and it is refreshing to see a film that tackles the issue from a completely opposite side.

Easy Lessons was produced by Éclipse Film, with support from the Incubator programme of the Hungarian National Film Fund. Syndicado has the international rights.

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