Áron Gauder:The District (Nyóckér!), 2004

reviewed by Anikó Imre © 2008

The makers of The District—literally, “Eightdistrict”—call the movie an “animated ghetto film”. It takes place in Budapest's notorious District Eight, the local “Harlem,” home to a relatively large Roma and immigrant population and a center of East European prostitution. A number of Roma artists collaborated on the film, including well-known writer Jakab László Orsós, who co-wrote the script, and rapper L.L. Junior, who lends his voice to the protagonist, Ricsi. While the film was a popular success in Hungary and has garnered critical appreciation abroad, it has also ignited controversy, predominantly within the Roma community. The main reason is that despite its evident intention to issue a social critique, it also exoticizes the ghetto, the living space of the economically left-behind and systematically excluded.

The District is populated by the urban post-socialist ghetto's stereotypical characters: a white-trash pimp and the group of prostitutes he manages; an accented Chinese restaurant-owner and his teenage son, who is obsessed with martial arts; an alcoholic but charming Jewish plastic surgeon and his geeky son; members of the Ukrainian mafia; corrupt and dumb policemen; and, most prominently, members of an extended Roma family. The film's carnivalesque storyline proceeds from a Shakespearean romance to a national and global social satire. The Romeo-protagonist—the Roma teenager Ricsi—is infatuated with his white Hungarian classmate Julika. The ongoing feud between the two families, however, which breaks down along the color line, prevents their happiness. The group of inner-city teenagers led by Ricsi conspires to make the two fathers happier so that they will approve of the union. The way to achieve this, as Ricsi is advised by an old drunkard uncle, is to make money. At this point, the already rather ironic and flimsy story takes a fantastic turn. Here is how the official website of the film sums up what follows:

Poverty, prostitutes, pimps, gravitation, space and time don't matter. The kids become friends and, with the help of a brilliant idea, fly back in time to draw oil out of the corpses of dead mammoths. The earth under the district turns into a giant oil field; and the kids become rich overnight. It is a thriving business.

Special-edition Rambo DVD, five-star school cafeteria, golden Rolex on their wrists, Szinyei-Merse's Picnic [a famous Hungarian painting] for an art assignment. The parents get suspicious. What's worse, the entire world gets suspicious. The huge amount of oil out of nowhere upsets the machine; and the world powers launch an investigation.

The circle is drawing tighter around the district.
What will happen to the dream?
And what will happen to love?
One thing is sure: the “Nyócker” will remain “Nyócker” forever.

Indeed, the conventional love-conquers-parents narrative throws off the shackles of time (the first decade of the new millennium) and space (an urban ghetto in an increasingly transnational post-communist city), and combines the cliché of prehistoric time travel from science fiction with a satire of concurrent global political events that involve Osama Bin Laden, the Pope, and a mercilessly ridiculed George Bush Jr. Following Ricsi's lead, the kids turn their oil discovery into a thriving international business. The money starts pouring in. After the two fathers are let in on the events, they even put aside their rivalry and become business partners. The discovery of “black gold”—an ethnically suggestive phrase that resonates with other senses of discovering globally marketable Romany resources—becomes a media sensation and an earth-shattering economic event, forcing Wall Street financiers into suicide and turning even the ailing Pope John Paul II into an investor. In the final and most effective plot twist, a cartographically challenged Bush accidentally bombs Bucharest instead of Budapest to take care of the District and its oil once and for all.

Perhaps the most often remarked upon feature of The District is its innovative animated form. Without the substantial state support and large studios of the past, a handful of ambitious and talented young men combined hand-drawn, two-dimensional stop-motion animation with digital animation of a limited technological scale. In effect, two-dimensional characters move around in the realistic, three-dimensional space of District Eight. In addition, many of the characters carry photographed heads of the dubbing actors or other well-known media personalities on their awkward two-dimensional bodies. The film's satirical-allegorical affect derives largely from the jarring distance between photographic realism and jerky two-dimensional animation. Stereotypical, hand-drawn characters with photographed, mask-like heads are inserted into a recognizable cityscape within a fantastic plot that requires quick editing, split screens, and other familiar techniques of global television and film. The mockery is directed against the state's political and cultural elites, constructing spectatorial solidarity in a knowing, cynical repudiation of both communism and capitalism offered on the terms of the nation-state.

At the same time, the film's publicity campaign emphasized continuities with previous currents of Hungarian animation. It turned seeing the film into a moral duty by emphasizing the fact that the Hungarian Motion Picture Foundation, the agency responsible for distributing state funds devoted to the national film industry, and which funded half of the film's meager production budget, is contracted to be reimbursed unless the film sells 80,000 tickets in theatres. “80,000” became a magic number, wedding the heroic times of communist production with a marketing trick. The film's online forum engaged viewers in a patriotic race to save “national animation” and support “our film” by going to see it—multiple times if possible.

At the height of the oil venture's success in the film, the Hungarian Prime Minister visits the neighborhood with his delegation to meet the two business partners in person. The event is presented as if through a documentary camera, with the politicians' faces blocked out, emphasizing both the verisimilitude of the scene and the representation's sarcasm. The meeting takes place in a public area, with pro-EU demonstrators in the background noisily waving their blue signs. This provides an ironic perspective to a scene in which the chief politician of a new member state pays his respects to the economically powerful, notwithstanding the fact that the latter are embodied by Lóránt Lakatos, “life artist,” and Károly Csorba, “entrepreneur,” as the Roma pub owner and the white pimp introduce themselves. During these introductions, the Prime Minister's assistant whispers Lakatos' and Csorba's criminal records into his boss' ear, including the fact that Lakatos “wants street signs in Romany.” One can also hear the Prime Minister's assistant say aloud, “Gypsy and white trash together. Which one do you think stinks worse?” Csorba and Lakatos overhear this remark and react in a satisfyingly violent outburst of ethnic-class solidarity that involves the kids, the prostitutes, and the Romany, Chinese, Arab, and Jewish locals. They force the official delegation of suited men and reporters to flee onto an oncoming tram, where the ultimate humiliation awaits them: the bloodthirsty controller, the king of public transportation—that is, the real world, which politicians are widely considered to be removed from.

The protagonists of this new, glocal narrative are people who are only rhetorically included in the national collective, those the national elites would rather leave behind in the east in the course of their relentless march to the west: the criminal and the drunk, the foreign-speaking and foreign-looking; in other words, the Gypsies of the nation. In the film's allegorical perspective, it is the contaminating element, the Roma in particular, who stand for the transitional nation.

But before jumping to celebrate the progressive transnational potential of the new national animated film, it is important to consider the fact that the film itself, by necessity, plays by the rules of the very global entertainment market that provides it with political and aesthetic inspiration. These rules do not allow more involvement in local politics than is sufficient to make the film a local and translocal sensation, to lend it trendiness and sexiness. Ultimately, the film's critical voice remains non-committal, self-underminingly playful and postmodern, at times even cynical, poking fun at stereotypes without a consistent political project. For instance, after the united forces of the neighborhood triumphantly fight back the sleazy state politicians, the two fathers turn to each other: “Now what? Let's drink.” With that, they retire to Lakatos' pub to swear friendship and quench their revolutionary zeal with many glasses of liquor. Later they revive from drunken stupor to find out that the oil wells have dried up. This puts an abrupt end to friendship, collaboration, and ethnic solidarity, and throws Nyóckér-Hungary immediately back into its original state of urban warfare.

No doubt part of the novelty of The District derives from the fact that it rejects the idealized national homogeneity that earlier forms of anti-state resistance assumed; it speaks in a mix of languages, including Russian, Hungarian, English, and, most important, Romany, mocking and subverting the ethical and political registers to which each had been assigned earlier. English, the language of American media imperialism, MTV, and the African-American ghetto constantly contaminates Hungarian. One of the film's greatest attractions are the hip-hop numbers that interrupt the plot, performed for the most part by Roma musicians.

The film features a variety of musical styles, dominated by hip-hop. The most remarkable musical achievement of the latest “national” animated feature is that it buries the “official,” allegorically inclined tradition of anti-socialist rock music, and legitimizes on its grave a global hybrid adapted from ethnic world music, represented by Roma images and voices. The District 's entire plot capitalizes on the empowerment of Romany as “authentic” ghetto entertainers. The film's rap duels between gadje (non-Roma) and Roma teens are a testimony to this new, cool “black” power. The song “Watch Out!” (“Vigyázz!”), for instance, leaves no doubt that Ricsi/L.L. Junior, is the guy with whom to identify. The District 's musical inserts represent a variety of pop styles and evoke as many representative geographic regions of pop music, from the South Bronx to the Caribbean to China. They also speak to the diversity and adaptability of Roma music, identities, and the emergence of new kinds of hybrid communities within a nation formerly conceived of as homogeneous.

While The District undoubtedly represents a new voice in the politics of ethnic representations, particularly Romany, in one aspect such representation remains revealingly conservative. While the film issues a democratic address, this address remains steeped in masculine, nationalistic principles. It is hard not to notice that when women in the film do not fade into the background or are absent altogether, they are arranged into rather crudely reproduced stereotypes, which are offered without any hint of the self-conscious mockery that accompanies ethnic stereotypes of men. The theme song, “The Money Rolls (“Forog a pénz”) establishes the district's trademark prostitutes as practically part of the neighborhood's architecture, willingly and naturally ensuring the inhabitants' proper masculine health. The cynical mantra of the film comes from Ricsi's Uncle Guszti, who advises his love-struck nephew to make lots of money in order to get girls, or, as he puts it “pussy.” “Pénz és pina” or “money and pussy” is what everyone—and there is no doubt about the film's selective gendered address in this choice, also posed to the viewers as a poll on the film's website—ultimately needs in order to be happy.

While prostitutes are at least believable in a story about District Eight, the total absence of mothers is less easily explained. Single fathers are not a common feature of Hungarian society in general, and particularly not of lower-class and immigrant families. The filmmakers do not appear to consider it necessary to explain where the mothers are. One suspects that mother characters would be unnecessary baggage in a social satire focused on ethnic strife and politics—a playing field reserved for brothers and fathers.

The only female performers who contribute their musical talents to the film are the sister rap-duo Ludditák (Luddites), two college students who carved out a loyal underground following that appreciates their untranslatable, sarcastic language games, often employed in the service of gendered, if not feminist, social critique. However, even though the producer of The District, Erik Novák, proudly takes credit in the online discussion forum for recruiting the Luddites for the project; the girls “play” the prostitutes. Their musical and linguistic talents are only put to use in a single short rap number, in which they exhaustedly bemoan the hardships of a prostitute's work, striking various seductive poses.

It appears that while the film has successfully complicated the relations of media representation through which Romany identities are inevitably filtered, the new space it opens up for ethnic negotiations not only remains a masculine space but might actually be conditioned on shutting out women. It would be far-fetched to claim that the Roma's ethnic prominence in the film's taboo-breaking, demystifying thrust, or the new, youthful cool associated with Roma rap contribute to establishing a more dignified collective Roma identity. But at the very least, the film complicates notions of ethnic representation by foregrounding, deploring, exoticizing, and then mocking stereotypes all at the same time. It explicitly undermines the fragile unity that the post-socialist state is trying to solidify between state and nation by extending the nation beyond its state borders and exposing the way in which transnational capital manipulates nationalism more efficiently than top-down appeals to purity of language and love of country.

Anikó Imre, University of Southern California

The District, Hungary, 2004
Color animation, 87 minutes
Director: Áron Gauder
Scriptwriters: Máriusz Bari, Viktor Nagy, Erik Novák, Jakab László Orsós
Music: Zsolt Hammer, Alex Hunyadi, Ádám Jávorka, Viktor Lázló, Spacecafe
Cast (voices): L.L. Junior, László Szaccsvay, Győző Szabó, Csaba Pindroch, Gábor Csőre, Dorka Gryllus, Zoltán Rajkai, Andrea Fullajtár, Andrea Roatis, Károly Gesztesi, István Betz, Judit Jónás, Sándor Badáar
Producer: Erik Novák
Production: Lichthof Productions Ltd.

All images courtesy of Magyar Filmunió

Áron Gauder:The District (Nyóckér!), 2004

reviewed by Anikó Imre © 2008

Updated: 26 Jan 08