Actress speaks out against culture of silence

October 25, 2017

Photo: Balázs Pivarnyik

Accusations of sexual harassment and abuse made against American film producer Harvey Weinstein brought turmoil to the Hungarian theatre scene as well after actress Lilla Sárosdi (pictured) shared the story of her alleged sexual assault from twenty years ago on Facebook.

Initially, Sárosdi intentionally withheld the name of her alleged abuser, describing him as a “famous director who still works with young people.” But after pressure from the theatre community and Hungarian media, Sárosdi named director László Marton, the former head of the Vígszínház theatre and professor emeritus at the University of Theatre and Film Arts Budapest (SZFE). Six women have since come forward anonymously to news site with similar stories about Marton. Marton has denied all accusations.

The seven stories indicate that Marton may have had a “type”: his alleged victims were young and inexperienced, and the accusations seem to follow a pattern. This “routine” could be seen as meaning that there were many more occasions on which he abused young women. Another indication for this is that there is a difference of 50 years between the earliest and most recent alleged assaults.

As a famous and acclaimed director, Marton was respected and held a position of power, while the alleged victims were at the beginnings of their careers. Based on the seven women’s reports, Marton’s prestige may have made it easier for him to assault them, when they were hoping for and expecting nothing more than a professional relationship with him. His position of power may also have helped him to keep it a secret.

“I didn’t tell anyone, neither my colleagues nor my children,” said one of the women, who was a ballet dancer when she met Marton.

Film director Attila Gigor, an old friend of Sárosdi who earlier heard her story, blames himself: “It’s horrible to remember now that it didn’t occur to us that we could ask for help,” he said.

After Sárosdi’s first post, other actresses such as Eszter Földes came out with stories not connected to Marton, which seem to indicate that the possibility of abuse is inherent in the system. The systemic problems are often associated with the “casting couch” when the victim’s job depends on the person in power.

A number of men have spoken out for all victims, including film directors Attila Gigor and Attila Janisch. They have started a petition together with director Ildikó Enyedi and scriptwriter and university teacher Barnabás Szöllősi to call attention to the silence surrounding such assaults.

Before Sárosdi named her alleged assailant, asked the more prominent theatres in Budapest their opinions about the “casting couch” allegations, and whether sexual assault had ever occurred at their institution. Vígszínház, where Marton still worked after resigning as head director, replied only that they agree with the public statement given by Katona Színház condemning all forms of abuse and claiming that no assault had ever happened there. After Marton’s name was revealed, Vígszínház issued its own short, controversial statement in which the theatre wrote that “Vígszínház strongly disapproves of any attack on freedom, dignity and reputation.” Several media outlets subsequently pointed out that it is unclear if Vígszínház is disapproving of Marton’s actions or Sárosdi’s.

Marton wrote an open letter to SZFE rector Tóth M. Géza in which he claimed that “the statements directed at my person are untrue.” SZFE also released a statement that claimed, “The university doesn’t have the power, the right or the possibility to decide which of the two contradictory statements is true.” Until there is a legal decision, the university won’t act. Marton has taken a leave of absence at both places.

While most of the attention is directed at Marton, there are initiatives for system-wide reform: the Association of Independent Performance Artists (FESZ) announced an open forum so that the institutions and unions of the theatre community could “work out together the education that serves prevention and the protocol of help to the victims.” Vígszínház joined the initiative on Tuesday and plans to launch an online platform for voluntary reporting of abuse.

Sárosdi said her goal is not revenge but rather to initiate discourse. Together with other alleged victims and supporters she wants to deliver a message to past and future victims that abuse is not okay. She talked about the victims, not only in the theatre community, who are still afraid to come forward because they would lose their jobs or no one would believe them. “Do not abandon us,” she ended the video in which she named Marton as her abuser.