Before finding out his grandmother was Jewish, Csanád Szegedi was a poster boy of the Hungarian far-right. Aged just 24, in 2006 he became vice president of the country's virulently anti-semitic, nationalist Jobbik Party, the third largest political party in Hungary's parliament. A year later, he helped create the Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard), a now outlawed paramilitary group that spent its time marching through Roma villages in black boots and protesting against the World Jewish Congress.
It wasn't until a former convict with a personal grudge against Szegedi mysteriously stumbled upon his grandmother's birth certificate that his life in one of Europe's most successful far-right parties suddenly came crashing down. His grandmother, it transpired, had survived Auschwitz, and his grandfather was subject to various Nazi labour camps. Though initially unrepentant, after the news was finally leaked to the public in June of 2012, Szegedi was forced to resign and rethink his life.
In a new documentary, Keep Quiet, directors Sam Blair and Joseph Martin explore what happened next, as Szegedi begins to carve out a new identity as an Orthodox Jew. A fascinating portrait of a man in crisis, Keep Quiet is also a story about identity, trust and forgiveness. Can a life-long fascist really call himself a Jew, and should Jewish communities feel compelled to accept him? Ahead of a screening at this year's JewishFilm Festival in London, I had a chat with Sam.
VICE: How did the team first hear about Csanád's story? And how did you come to make the documentary?
Sam Blair: Our producer Alex was in Hungary, looking to make a film about the rise of anti-semitism there. While he was researching, the story about Csanád emerged in the news. It was such a powerful story and it allowed us to look at this issue of anti-semitism and the rise of the right in Hungary through a fascinating, troubling, complex central character with such amazing twists and turns.
You began working on the film shortly after the story became public. Why do you think Csanád wanted to be in a documentary at such a vulnerable point in his life?
Csanád was so publicly ridiculed when this scandal hit that, in some ways, he didn't have anything left to hide. He's also someone who certainly likes the stage. He's very happy on camera and wants to be heard, even if it is criticism. I also think he wanted the chance to maybe tell his story. He saw the appeal of a film that would treat the subject in a more considered, thoughtful way than is allowed when you're making a two-minute news segment.
What was the reaction to Csanád in the Orthodox community he became a part of?
It was mixed. As you see in the film, he does become accepted by certain elements of the Jewish community. But many people, if not more, were offended by him and wanted nothing to do with him. One of the most compelling scenes is when Csanád is traveling to Auschwitz with a holocaust survivor.
He's still very clearly grappling with far-right views and borderline holocaust denial. Is it fair to say this is a documentary about a character very much in transition?
The film shows Csanád in this kind of grey area where he definitely has remnants of the belief system he's had throughout his life. It's not an easy transition and it's uncomfortable to see these moments where he is saying stuff that feels like it's from his former self. It really makes you wonder about him and his intentions and the veracity of his claims to be repenting. But I think it also shows that the transition can't happen overnight.
One of the things which makes Csanád's turnaround so hard to believe is that he seems more concerned with appropriating a quick, easy, new costume for himself as an Orthodox Jew, rather than actually facing up to his past.
I think Csanád's personality and ego means that he needs to reinforce a strong identity. Obviously the story that he believed about his identity proved false, but I think he is someone that needs to go to extremes. He could have gone for a more moderate take on his Jewish identity, but chooses otherwise. And he does have that tendency to wear it as a badge. That is what makes him interesting and troubling as a character. But from the position of a filmmaker it's fascinating and it creates conflict.
Right at the end he's asked if he will continue to be a Jew, and he kind of shrugs his shoulders and says, "I don't know." It's a strange, ambivalent ending that seems not in keeping with the rest of the film. What's your take on that?
I think if you turned it around and the film came to a conclusive answer about Csanád it would feel wrong. He is on a journey of change. It's important to accept that someone can be both one thing and another. Csanád as a character is someone you certainly puzzle over. It's an inconclusive film and I think it had to be.
So do you feel like he changed at all over the course of the time you knew him?
When we finished the film and were showing it publicly there was a humility to Csanád, which I think is a sign of change. This was a man who was incredibly bombastic, full of self-belief, and happy to stand on stage and be utterly confident about who he was and what he believed. That was completely challenged.