In the documentary of Anna Kis, we can get a glimpse into the tragic fate of children living on the periphery, in extreme poverty.
Poverty and the incapacity to break out of it, is a pervasive and serious problem in Hungary today. Perhaps this is not even the major issue, but the fact that the government not only condemns poverty, but even “punishes” the poor.
In an interview with ATV (2018), Zsuzsa Ferge, a Széchenyi Prize-winning Hungarian sociologist, university professor and full member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, spoke about how poverty could be eradicated with the investment of a few hundred billion Hungarian Forints. According to her, about 4 million people live in poverty (17.7% of Hungary’s population lives in poverty, according to a 2019 data), of which 300-400 thousand children have no chance of breaking out. Aid is precarious, and the public works system and its structure puts public workers in a vulnerable and feudal relationship. The government tends to avoid this subject in its communication; what is more, various policies and legislation implemented are tending to increase social inequalities.
According to Zsuzsa Ferge, it is not true that there would not be enough money to solve the issue of extreme poverty. If we look at the gross national product, it is evident that we could address the problem with the help of just 1% of it. To use a striking example, this is the total cost of building about 31 stadiums, that would rate about HUF 2-300 billion.
Going back to inequalities – as Zsuzsa Ferge puts it – the government redistributes wealth in a “perverse” (unreasonable, incompatible with the aim) way, which increases market inequalities. One example of this is the GYED (child care fee), which can be granted to a family only if the mother has been insured for 365 days within two years, indicating that she had been employed before. However, GYED is impossible to request for families where the mother has no chance of getting a permanent job. The word “pervert” thus refers to the fact that the government does not correct market failures, that is, it does not play its fundamental role.
Of course, it is important to emphasize that, in the long run, it is not money that solves problems, but the creation of jobs and job opportunities. Work, on the other hand, brings with it another major problem, namely education. In a knowledge-based society, a lot depends on what kind of knowledge package you have. Various government policies limit the availability of proper education, which means that in many cases it is not possible to provide an adequate level of basic education. If children and young people are not educated properly, they will be unable to position themselves appropriately, leading to a decline in social mobility as one of the outcomes.
“Not About Family” depicts the realities of hopelessness on a micro level, through a small school community. Experiencing extreme poverty in childhood can have lifelong consequences. A starving child is less capable of paying attention in class, gets tired faster, has more difficulty in making friends and cooperating with others. Other consequences may include a variety of behavioural problems. The younger the child is, the higher the chances are of more permanent damages. Segregation and racism of the majority are two additional exacerbating factors that children of gypsy origin must face.
One of the school children in the film – can we even say that they are children? – Norbi (17 years old) already has a child, lives in a foster home with his 13 siblings, her mother is in prison and her father is deceased. Norbi finds it difficult to talk about his family, gets angry and often wishes his mother dead; and this is just one story among many.
Neglect, mental and physical abuse, a complete lack of examples and motivation are problems that these children are bringing with them to life, a life that is not their future, but their present. Perhaps one of the saddest and most accurate sentences in the film is when Vivien confesses with painful unanimity during the therapy: “I didn’t have a childhood, I don’t even know what that is.”
The headmistress of Békés county’s vocational school decides to hold a self-awareness training with a couple of teachers for the students who volunteer for a few weeks. The teachers are enthusiastic but inexperienced and the training still needs a lot of refinement, but the small changes that appear on the children’s faces in the end prove its usefulness. But this was only the beginning, as there should still be a lot of work to be done.
The film starts with a great introduction in which we see the teachers demonstrating one of the therapeutic tasks. Their conversation with their former selves reveals that their lives are not free neither of tears nor of disappointments. This might be something that motivates them; the reason why they chose to teach hard and to control youth as their profession. It is shocking when the headmistress says that the profession does not appreciate their work. Why? Because we teach deviants.
With the start of the training, we learn more and more about the background of the children and their personal tragedies. Based on the stories, we are not surprised why they are so unmotivated and aimless. Neglect, prostitution, living alone, hopelessness, existential insecurity, drugs, violence, choosing the wrong paths, social exclusion, contempt. As the school principal puts it, they bring nothing with them from home.
There is no exemplary parent or a calm and peaceful environment for learning and self-development. Children see only a small part of the world that is obscured by their daily struggles anyway. The impact of a loving family, more precisely, the lack of proper care is truly shown.
During the therapy, the participants transform into fellow sufferers and learn more about themselves through self-knowledge tasks. Conversations, listening to each other, and various more exercises all contribute to learn about their emotions and emotive processes that they have gone through, even if they are not entirely conscious about them. Although they are not quite there at the end of the film, all of this may help them in gaining greater self-confidence or even to set goals for themselves.
The settings and camera movements are delicate and sensitive, bringing the characters’ faces closer and making it easier to sculpture each tragedy. It is intriguing to watch the movie for a while without sound anyway (for example, the group conversation) — the facial expressions speak for themselves. From a structural standpoint, the film does an excellent job regarding building up the story, resulting in a very poignant and touching ending.
It was a great idea to highlight Norbi and to follow his story and school life as it unfolds, scattered among the other stories little by little, despite the fact that he was not very involved in the therapy. We often see him alone as he overlooks his peers, wants to participate in the community, but stays outside. He remains excluded from a group of children who are already excluded.
In his book Deliver us From Evil, András Feldmár writes that the basic essence of psychotherapy is that as a patient, we can talk about things that we cannot share with our family, friends, or acquaintances. The children in the film needed their teachers to create a specific dimension of space and time where they could speak safely. Based on these, can it be said that a teacher may need to connect with his or her students in other ways, even as a “therapist”? Or, as they call it in Alternative Secondary School of Economics (AKG), a patron?
The therapy was an excellent start, which may have many positive results, but it is not over yet. According to Feldmár, a therapy is a process of diagnoses whose essence rests not in the end result, but in the process itself. If, as a therapist, we reach a point during a treatment where we understand something, another reality emerges that is potentially even deeper and more complex than the previous one. It is always possible to progress – for example the therapy ends only when the patient no longer requires the services of a therapist. (However, aside from the fact that therapy never ends, a person does not necessarily feel better afterwards; according to Freud, one’s capacity to suffer only increases.)
No matter how good therapist you are, you cannot solve others’ problems. This is also a paradoxical situation, as we are unable to help ourselves alone, points out Feldmár.