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‘Illusion’ Turns Authoritarian State into a Video Game

Inspired by the interface of video games, Czech documentarian Katerina Tureckova’s portrait of life under Hungarian strongman president Viktor Orban, “Illusion,” had audiences buzzing at the 22nd Ji.hlava docu fest this year.

One of 13 entries in the Czech Joy section, her film, structured as a video game, is no diversion in digital playtime but rather an unconventional exploration of the darkest aspects of life under an increasingly totalitarian state. The Czech director lived in Budapest during filming, witnessing friends at the George Soros-founded Central European University facing increasing harassment as the school was finally driven out of the country to a new site in Vienna.

What motivated you to take on showing life in an illiberal democracy?

It was more the subject of my life than a film. I lived there for 10 months and from the first month I knew I couldn’t stay there. My friend was studying at Central European University, absolutely harassed, and I was asking her, ‘Why don’t you do anything?’ There were protests of 150,000 people. But it was like she needed to do more because she is pretty radical. But she said, ‘What more can we do?’

And I realized, my God, we can’t do anything. But what I can do is find some way to deal with the situation for myself. And that’s the film.

And how did you arrive at this playful approach to such a serious issue?

At first I didn’t know how to do it – and I’m not sure how I found the way, truly. It was something very emphatic – it just happened. Because I’m really into new media, games. I’m more into the philosophical method – not so much to do them but to be inspired by them.

But I cracked it. I cracked it with the game. And when I knew it would be shown as a game, I was absolutely calm and started to work it.

And did it occur to you to develop this into an actual video game you can play?

It’s just a film. I’m just a filmmaker. Because an actual game, how they are interactive, being a game designer is a long-term thing. And you need a long time to do that.

And what did the idea of doing it as a video game allow you to do that would not work in a conventional documentary?

So many things – the main thing is, I didn’t need to film my characters. This was the main thing for me. I didn’t want to give the system the power to do something to them. So nobody knows who they are. They get to stay anonymous. And you don’t feel badly about not being able to see them.

I found a way to express their point of view with the game. It’s just an avatar, you know? I’m not using the social actor here – I’m using the avatar, the theory of the game. I don’t have scenes; I have levels.

And did the game idea also help you with the structure of the story and characters?

The second thing is the whole aesthetic. Because it’s fun. You are finding the way how to move across these two forms. But still without the interactivity. The game is just the aesthetic of the movie.

You’ve said your main challenge was your own paranoia while filming. Can you explain?

Non-democratic systems just create this paranoia. Normal people start to be paranoid. When they think about the world, they end up creating new stories. They don’t want to but they do. It was hard for me too. I started to be absolutely paranoid about the world. Even though I’m a Czech citizen, in the European Union, and who wants to kill me? But for my subjects it was really hard. I was really stressed that I might get somebody hurt.

And you were filming in places where you could have had real trouble – such as in a hospital to show its terrible conditions.

Yeah. The hospital is secured by the army, actually. They have guns. I had a GoPro. And I was just shitting myself after that. But you need to do it.

So you found yourself stressed out mainly after filming wrapped, perhaps like a form of PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]?

I had really huge problems with myself after filming. For two weeks I was just f—ed up. It was just too much. I can handle the stressful situation in the scene – like in the end of the film, where we are shooting at a figure of Orban’s head. With real guns. You need to do it because it’s a huge part of the film but it was the worst scene for me. It was the final scene and we knew when we will be in this moment it’s the end of the film and now we can work on it.

We also had a huge problem with an authority that demanded we cut one scene. But my mentor at film school said, “I know this is hard but we are living in a democratic system now. They are not. And we really can’t accept this.” And I was ready to delete it. It was really an amazing moment for me.

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