The Ordinary Double Life of a Teenage Somali Model in Budapest—‘Easy Lessons’, dir. Dorottya Zurbó, 2018

By |January 23rd, 2020|Country: , |

After her narrow escape from becoming a child bride in Somalia, 17-year-old Kafia is building her life anew in Hungary. But she fears that her emerging European identity is a betrayal of her roots

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FROM HUNGARY and SOMALIA

WHAT IT’S ABOUT: Even though her striking appearance that garners comparisons to Somali-American supermodel Iman sets her apart in her mostly homogenous Budapest setting, 17-year-old Kafia seems like just an ordinary schoolgirl. She’s struggling with exams, figuring out who she wants to become, works as a cinema usher, and isn’t sure how to tell her mother about her white, Christian boyfriend. But in her short life, Kafia has already lived through a set of devastating experiences. Escaping Somalia at 15 to avoid becoming a child bride, she traveled halfway across the world on her own to end up in a Budapest home for troubled girls—even though she is not deemed problematic herself,—preparing to finish an all-Hungarian high school. And while her assimilation into the culture seems rather smooth, on the inside, Kafia is riddled with doubt. She needs to make a life in her adopted homeland, but can she achieve that while staying true to herself and not straying too far away from her original home, where a mother’s love is tightly wound with strict observance of Islam? Comprising of scenes in Kafia’s everyday life, as well as her monologues dedicated to her mother, “Easy Lessons” follows Kafia for a year leading to her 18th birthday.

WHO MADE IT: A young Hungarian filmmaker, Dorottya Zur, graduated from the Docnomads master’s course, taking classes in Lisbon, Budapest, and Brussels. She is currently continuing her education at the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest, while also lecturing in media and documentary craft there. With two shorts behind her, Zurbó made her feature debut with “The Next Guardian”, a documentary about a Bhutanese teenager who is chosen as a Buddhist monastery keeper. She continued to explore the subject of adolescents burned with culture clashes and adult levels of responsibility in “Easy Lessons,” for which she again partnered with her “Guardian” teammates, producer Julianna Ugrin and production manager Ágnes Böjte. Kafia Mahdi, the protagonist of the film, is currently studying English literature at a university. Her model career, which she does under the name Rea Milla, has been steadily evolving, with Rea gracing the cover of Hungary’s Marie Claire. And while she remains away from her Somalian family, she seems quite happy with her Budapest life, her partner, and an adopted pit bull. 

WHY DO WE CARE: We often talk about migration as an experience of either grown-ups or small children, where the split between the experience of adults who forever remain foreigners and children, who assimilate quickly, becomes the defining narrative of new family dynamics within countries. And of course, the most affecting tragedies often involve ruined families with children. But the taxing, perilous journey that takes the majority of refugees from hotspots to comparative safety is one that’s often undertaken by youngsters, less burdened by responsibilities and more able to withstand the toils of overseas travel with minimal resources. The buffer countries, along with Europe, are full of teenagers who had been torn from away from family, if they ever had any, and their usual surroundings. Now they have to make new lives for themselves. It’s hard enough navigating adult life as is, but the absence of guidance, as well as the dizzying landscape of foreign values, are a disorienting strain on a person’s identity, especially during the vulnerable years of adolescence. Kafia is a textbook example of a refugee teenager. Not only had she been lucky within the system, provided with housing and opportunities, but she also diligently started building herself up by being a good student and hard worker of steel discipline and unfaltering intelligence. Anyone who’s ever met a teenager realizes that’s not how they always are, refugee status notwithstanding. But aspirational portraits in cinema are still much needed, and Kafia’s rendering via Zurbó’s film is a delicate, nuanced picture of an identity crisis hidden beneath the layers of perfect performance.

WHY YOU NEED TO WATCH: Being caught between two flames is always tricky, but for a younger person, who has not yet experienced all of life’s shades of grey, duality can be a direct descent into neurosis. For Kafia in “Easy Lessons”, the inability to reconcile her two realities becomes a source of endless worry. In Hungary, she enjoys the lack of rigid rules about appearance and conduct while growing enamored with a local boy and his Christian church. Somalia for her is a place of no return and nostalgia, yet one where her beloved family, and most of all, mother remain. Being as far away from each other as they are, these two realities are not in direct clash. And yet, as she puts on her headscarf for a skype call home, Kafia is flooded with thoughts of her mother committing suicide out of shame if she finds out that her daughter had decided to convert to Christianity. And yet, not to tell her, means to lie. Such irreconcilable dilemmas fill the lives of migrants, refugees and third culture kids the world over, and will definitely be the underlining trend as the world’s ethnicities, religions and outlooks are further stirred together. “Easy Lessons” is an intimate study of this phenomenon that’s both hope-instilling and heartbreaking. The fact that the film is set within Hungary, notorious for its ultra-right government and its refusal to participate in refugee intake, adds a fascinating layer to the narrative. It’s unclear whether Zurbó’s goal was to subvert the paradigm or to merely show that a government’s politics do not dictate the kindness of a country’s people. It doesn’t even matter, because the task of “Easy Lessons” is not to sermonize about xenophobia or the lack thereof or to make pronounced statements on the plight of refugees. A reasonable person’s heart is already in the right place. A more subtle, delicate look into the existence of a very collected but ultimately lost young girl, “Easy Lessons” shows just how defenseless we all are when trying to carve out a place for ourselves. And even the most intelligent systems of assimilation will not work if they’re not aided by love, empathy, and acceptance of cultural, religious and personal differences, both in the old home and the new.

Easy Lessons (Konnyu Leckek), 2018
Director: Dorottya Zurbó

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