A Controversial Conversion: 'Keep Quiet' explores the unique journey of a Hungarian anti-Semite

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Ambitious, scheming, virulently anti-Semitic, Csanád Szegedi rocketed to power as the vice president of the ultra-nationalistic, far-right Hungarian Jobbik Party. He resurrected the Arrow Cross, a World War II pro-Nazi Hungarian group, and was elected to the EU Parliament, the youngest delegate ever. That made some of his colleagues jealous—jealous enough to level the most despicable smear they could conjure: that Szegedi himself was a Jew and had no place in the Hungarian far right.

In the course of trying to disprove the claim, Szegedi discovered the impossible: Not only was his mother Jewish but his grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor who had hidden her true identity from her grandchildren. His life and self-image in tatters, Szegedi sought to create a new identity as an Orthodox Jew, turning to Rabbi Baruch Oberlander for guidance. Szegedi’s “conversion,” as well as Oberlander’s place in it, angered many.

Keep Quiet, directed by Sam Blair and Joseph Martin, examines the social forces that led to Szegedi’s anti-Semitism in the first place; his grandmother’s motivations for keeping quiet; and Oberlander’s quandary over leading a neo-Nazi to the Torah. Director Talk recently spoke with co-director Blair.

Director Talk: I’m not asking this question facetiously: Why does this story matter?

Sam Blair: Straight in there, Judy. Let me try and warm up a little.

DT: The next question is related: Does it matter if Csanád’s conversion sticks and he remains a “good Jew”?

SB: I think the question is: Matter to whom? His story matters to a lot of people; that’s what we’ve found when showing the film. While we were editing, we talked a lot about how it would leave questions hanging. It can provoke all sorts of responses, and I love that. The film touches on things that are very personal and more political or obviously to do with faith, but I think it’s also open enough, and he is a confusing enough character, to allow for multiple readings. One of the questions that always comes up is: What’s he doing now? Because there is this mixture of suspicion and interest and fascination with him. So I’m interested to see what he does next. Alex, the producer, always jokes that if Csanád decides to go back to fascism, it will make a great sequel. At some point this is a very sensitive story. As a character Csanád can be beguiling, confusing, insensitive. As a filmmaker, you just have to let the character be who he is, with all his flaws, all his contradictions, and then say, let’s look at him and let’s talk about him.

DT: For me, the moral center of the film is the rabbi. I found him absolutely fascinating.

SB: He is. His quandary is the moral center of the film. We always felt that the heart of the film is with the grandmother, maybe in the female characters in the film, and then the head—this kind of wrestling with the moral and ethical quandary—was with the rabbi. In filmmaking terms, he was a wonderful character. I enjoy him being onscreen. He has a wonderful presence, he has a sense of humor, he’s human in this. He doesn’t just resort to saying he’s the religious authority; he wrestles with it himself, and I think it’s refreshing to have a religious authority figure also saying, “I was trying my best.” I think that’s a wonderful thing that comes across. He doesn’t totally know, he’s not completely sure, but he feels in his heart and everything that he’s learned from his religious education and his experience, that this is the right thing to do. But the fact that he’s wrestling with it makes it all the more interesting for us as viewers and makes him all the more human.

DT: How did you feel about Csanád, and how did your feelings about him influence your filmmaking?

SB: I picked up directing the film when the first director couldn’t continue, so I came to it with a chunk of the story having already been told. I didn’t have a particularly personal relationship with Csanád. I spent time with him, I shot with him, but a lot of my experience with him actually came from watching the interviews that had already been done.

The word I always overuse is ambivalence. I retained a complete ambivalence about him. I think that’s actually important. He’s not one thing. He can be a very charming guy, big smiles. I met him when a big chunk of this story had happened, so he’d already been some way along this path of changing himself. I was fascinated in trying to understand him and his motivations, but I didn’t come to an absolute conclusion about this man. I found it more interesting to look at all the things that made him who he is; what really interested me is how does this guy come to be? The idea of a far-right politician finding out that he’s Jewish, it’s almost like a setup for a gag. He can seem absurd, but what you find out when you look into it is there are a lot of people in Hungary who don’t understand who they are. The turbulence, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century in Hungary, means that there is a sort of identity crisis in Hungary, and he’s one example of something that is quite prevalent. My interest in him was trying to get past this personality or getting past the cult of the individual and trying to understand who he was in a wider sense.

DT: Documentaries are made in the editing. Could this film have gone another way? If so, what way?

SB: Documentaries absolutely are made in the edit, and every time you make a film you wrestle with the various elements that you’re trying to put in it. This one was particularly challenging because it’s such a complex story. You’re dealing with a complex individual with a complex history, and you’re talking about huge things like religion and politics and you’ve got to find a line through this in ninety minutes.

Absolutely it could have gone any number of ways. We found our way through it by trying to balance the mixture of the personal and the political. It was very, very tricky; showing someone’s internal transformation is very difficult. How do you show someone becoming Jewish? And then how do you balance that by explaining that he’s a product of a very complex history in Hungary? What happens in a documentary is that every line, every second ends up counting, trying to mean something, and we did our best trying to navigate through that.

DT: Can you talk a little bit more about audience reaction?

SM: It’s been absolutely fascinating. The first-ever public screening was in New York, at the Tribeca Film Festival. At the end of the Q&A, I thought: What have we made here? Csanád was there, and there were almost hysterical responses to him. Very emotional, very angry, but in the same audience you had people who were much more understanding. A woman came up to me on the verge of tears—she said that she was married to a Hungarian man and struggled all her life with her in-laws, whom she couldn’t understand. She couldn’t quite connect with them culturally, and emotionally she felt a distance, and she told me that the film had understood her in-laws. I’ve had people of Hungarian origin come up to us afterward and say, “This is my story. I don’t know who I am. I think my grandmother was Jewish.”

Those were screenings in the States. The most extraordinary Q&A was in Tel Aviv, where it was bordering pandemonium at times. A man had to be ejected from the theatre after five minutes because he was so angry about something. Normally at a Q&A you’re fishing for questions, hoping for something interesting; in Tel Aviv we didn’t ask one question because the audience was arguing with each other. There were these impassioned comments in our direction, questions…I’ve not experienced a Q&A like that, where it’s like you’ve lit a torch paper and this comes out. When you’ve made a film, it’s a wonderful thing to experience this sort of response, from whatever direction it comes from.

DT: Maybe that’s the answer to the first question, why does the film matter?

SB: If Csanád were just the punch line to a joke, then I don’t think he would matter. But I think he matters because of something quite extraordinary this year. The film premiered last April—what’s happened in the world since then? I recently watched the film in London for the first time in six months. It recounts the rise of Jobbik, which is the far-right party, and how it latches onto people’s feelings of disillusionment with the political system there, how it uses ideas of nationalism and how it provokes by crossing over into areas of taboo that tap into populist sentiments in the country. I watched it and thought: This film has actually become more relevant in the last six months. I think it tells a story about how that kind of movement can come about in a country. You can then use Csanád to dig in, and you see that his absolute certainty about who he is and these ideas that he attaches himself to in order to give himself this feeling of strength and further enhance this certainty about who he is in the world are a problem.

DT: What do you want the film to achieve?

SB: We made the film thinking about it as a piece of cinema, so for it to find an audience and play in theatres is great. I just really want this engagement to continue to I can continue to be fascinated by the response.

Keep Quiet opened today at New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and opens on March 3 at Los Angeles’ Laemmle Town Center/Music Hall, with national rollout to follow. The author thanks Linda Altman of Susan Senk PR for arranging this interview. This interview is published here courtesy of Director Talk. Copyright © Director Talk 2017