Hungary Film Fund Told Director Not to Show Drawing of Prime Minister in Controversial Scene

Budapest, Hungary - P 2013
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Budapest, Hungary - P 2013

The face of prime minister Viktor Orban was painted onto a melon, but blacked out in eco-drama 'Zero.'

The Hungarian director of Zero, a black comedy about globalization and ecological risks, was told to change a scene, in which a character fires at a portrait of Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban, the leader of the country's ruling conservative party, painted onto a melon or risk losing state funding.

Gyula Nemes, whose feature had its world premiere Tuesday at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, said he bowed to the Hungarian National Film Fund's demands by scrubbing out the portrait with black ink.

The $1.1 million film, co-produced with the Czech Republic and Germany, stars Hungarian actor Krisztian Kovacs as a man with a mission to save bees from extinction, Czech actress Martina Kratka and U.S-based German actor Udo Kier.

Nemes, whose first film My One and Onlies screened in the Critics Week of the Venice film festival in 2006, told The Hollywood Reporter that the scene that caused the film fund to demand a change showed portraits of famous politicians painted onto melons. Beyond Orban, they also included German chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian president Vladimir Putin, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

"This is a very subversive film about globalization, capitalism, political dictatorship and pollution," Nemes said. "We had very long discussions with the film fund about which fruit we can [use]...watermelons, apples…and which politicians we can shoot into the face and which not."

It was made clear, he added, that if he included the controversial shot he would be expected to "pay back the money to the fund."

Nemes, who was reluctant to say outright that the offending portrait was that of Orban, fearing that officials may withhold the last portion of $625,000 of state funding, said: "I cannot say [the name]," adding: "It is not censorship, because there is no 'censorship' since the fall of communism, so I don't know how to call it."

When Zero screened Tuesday for an industry audience in Karlovy Vary's East of the West competition sidebar, Nemes told viewers about the scene change before taking out a pen to demonstrate how he had roughly obscured the politician's face before shooting the scene, Hungarian news site reported.

The Hungarian film fund, which has previously backed Cannes' hits White God and Son of Saul  is headed by Budapest-born Hollywood producer Andy Vajna and which is no stranger to controversy, declined to comment on the issue. 

Nemes says the incident and other factors had forced him to rethink his future. Hungary's government on Monday backed plans to build a fence on its southern border with Serbia to keep out illegal immigrants, a move Nemes suggested would force artists to make choices they had not faced since communist times.

"I don’t want to live in a country where there is an Iron Curtain," he said. "I have to think where to live…in Africa or Czech Republic. I want to live in a free country."