Left unaddressed, trauma can be inherited, passed from generation to generation. Leave something to linger for long enough, and it will surface, bringing with it a chain of indirect, adverse effects. This idea forms the core of Judit Olah’s Return to Epipo: a complicated and often conflicted documentary investigating the troubled legacy of a summer camp in socialist Hungary and its recently-uncovered history of abuse.
The film has two starting points. Olah, who attended the Epipo camp as a child, faces a personal crisis when her daughter asks if she can attend a similar camp of her own. Olah is reluctant to let her go, afraid of what might happen while her child is away from the safety of home. Slowly, it’s revealed that Olah’s natural anxieties have been heightened by her own scarring camp experiences. In a moment of realisation, she tries to engage with the roots of that trauma by reconnecting with those who camped alongside her, wondering if they, too, are finding it hard to move past this strange place and its sour history.
The documentary’s second starting point is more extreme. In 2014, an article appeared in the Hungarian media detailing extensive sexual abuse of children at the Epipo camp, perpetrated by the camp’s leader, Pál Sipos. Olah had herself been subject to a lower level of psychological torment while at Epipo, but now realised that others had experienced much worse. The revelations prompted Olah to start thinking about making a documentary, except, she says, “for quite a while was not sure how.” While little known about outside of Hungary, the Epipo scandal “blew the whole [national] media apart at the time. Everyone was talking about it,” Olah explains. “Laws about sexual crimes against children were even changed as a result of this case.”
The story “brought the camp back into a common consciousness”, just as Olah was beginning to seriously start thinking about it again herself. “It was a huge story about abuse, but also about the abuse of power.” Ultimately, the film would take four years to make. Olah reached out to other campgoers over a closed Facebook group which was founded on the same day that the scandal surfaced. “This was when I started to connect with people I hadn’t heard from for 25 years or so,” she says. “We started to communicate in a very intense way, and I realised that I was not alone in these feelings I had about the camp.” As awful as the revelations were, “it was good to know that many others felt the same”, Olah says. “It turned out there were so many others that had so much pain and no one to talk about it with.”
Turning this talk into something material proved challenging, however. Few of the people she spoke with were forthcoming, and even fewer were interested in appearing on film. “We tried to organise a meeting right after the article came out,” Olah says. Even though filming was still far from her mind, it was still “very difficult to convince anyone to participate. Some agreed to meet, but later refused to be part of the film.”
Olah believes that many people simply did not want to deal with the pain of working through old memories. “They had their own feelings about the camp or about Sipos, and didn’t want to change that. They wanted their memories to stay as they were in their minds, and not to have to deal with the process of rearranging them,” she says. Understandably, most of those that agreed to take part, had, like Olah, not experienced the worst of the camp and its founder, but still had a level of trauma that they wished to re-examine.
That process of re-evaluation weaves its way throughout the film; a continually involving project that demanded from its director and her participants a willingness to acknowledge that memory, like opinion, is subject to reinterpretation. With this in mind, the documentary doesn’t reveal the crimes of Epipo’s former leader, Pál Sipos, for the initial portion of the film. For those unfamiliar with the scandal, the documentary’s opening is shrouded in a strange sort of foreboding, a sense that something is awry without any solid sense of exactly what. “I was quite sure from the beginning that I would like to use a dramaturgical arch that mirrors what we went through at the camp, or at least what I went through” Olah says. “First you are amazed, because everything seems magical and mystical, and then you start to realise all of the bad things that are going on, understanding all the misuses of power at play.”
“First you are amazed, because everything seems magical and mystical, and then you start to realise all of the bad things that are going on, understanding all the misuses of power at play.”
The film’s first act is devoted to drawing a picture of the camp and its peculiar setup. Run as its own fictional country, Epipo camp had its own costumes, flag, and language, as well as a regimented set of rules, games, rites, and rituals. Many of these followed traditions established by an earlier camp, which preceded Epipo. Sipos was one of those who attended this earlier incarnation, and became a favourite of its founder. He was permitted to start his own camp, following a similar theme, except this time, those same traditions became tools of exploitation. Sipos encouraged secrecy between campers, and manipulated his victims by grooming them with rapid advances through the camp’s internal hierarchies. As many of the film’s subjects remark, trying to describe the camp’s complex internal systems was difficult enough, let alone the darker power plays behind the scenes. When Sipos abused his power, the children’s parents never knew.
The fairytale allure of the camp — a stark juxtaposition against its sinister reality — is established by the film’s beguiling images. Alongside footage shot by Olah’s father, “there are Super 8 images from a kid who was in the camp that I got from his grandfather, and then black-and-white images that are from a personal archive.” This is set alongside unsettling footage that Sipos made himself, a series of shots taken with a handheld camera, full of prolonged gazes and leering zooms. “I got those quite late, maybe only a year ago,” Olay says. Blending the images into surreal sequences, things start to feel queasy fairly quickly. As Olah says, “step by step, you realise it is all going in one direction.”
After the abuse at Epipo is revealed, Olah’s film takes a turn as the director attempts to track Sipos down, while at the same time conducting interviews with victims. She also staged a series of filmed psychodramatic exercises with those who were willing to be filmed. Former camp attendees used the exercises to talk through their experiences, as well as take part in reenactments and elements of role-play, where they tried to reconcile their own memories of the camp with what they now know to be true. While all of the participants had varied experiences of the camp, the psychotherapists working with Olah advised against having the survivors of sexual abuse taking part. The memories they had of the time had already been resurfaced as a result of the article and the subsequent court cases, and therapists felt that having them perform their trauma as participants in the workshop would have been more hurtful than healing.
“The largest struggle I had was the question about whether my pain could be put next to the pain of those who were sexually abused.”
Of course, Olah admits, some of those who were involved may have been abused in this way, but “might not have admitted it yet, or [they may] not ever want to.” This unknowability charges proceedings, the film deriving tension from uncertainty. “I wasn’t sure about the personal element,” Olah admits.
This complexity, however — the constant questions about whose story this is to tell, or what kind of proximity to abuse is needed to adequately engage with it — proves productive, adding layers of complexity to a film that deals with a difficult subject with various subjectivities at play. “The largest struggle I had was the question about whether my pain could be put next to the pain of those who were sexually abused.” She says that one of the film’s participants, Mischka, who went through sexual abuse at the camp, helped her thinking about this. “We talked regularly during the years I was making the film, and he always understood my story, however small it was compared to his. He always agreed that people can have different sorts of trauma at the same time without the need to compare them, and that all of this relates to the same thing, which is abuse of power.”
“Talking with him made me feel that we shouldn’t measure our traumas, but share them,” Olah concludes. She says she learnt a lot about dealing with trauma making the film. “At the beginning it makes everything more complicated than when you weren’t dealing with it, but I believe that, later, it helps to actually address it.” For her, dealing with this has helped her “become a more conscious parent, aware of my own past, and with that being able to talk more transparently to my children.” She also hopes the film might help victims somehow. “It is worth thinking about and facing our past and our demons.” Eventually the film loops back to its personal premise, looking into how her experience has affected her children’s future. “For me, the most important thing is for parents to build trust and security so that their children can talk to them if anything was wrong. I feel okay with my children now, and that I’m able to let them go, but it’s not easy.”