Colors of Tobi: an intimate story of queerness and family in contemporary Hungary

Following its debut at the BFI Flare Film Festival, documentary Colors of Tobi provides an intimate glimpse into the family life of a young person exploring their gender identity in rural Hungary.

1 July 2021

During the summer of 2016, documentary filmmaker Alexa Bakony visited a family she didn’t yet know in a small village in north-eastern Hungary. A friend of hers had just come out as transgender, and Bakony had been inspired to try and capture the raw journey of queer self-discovery on-screen. More than just a coming out story, she hoped to shine a light on the inner process of finding a space within the LGBTQ+ community. To do so, she planned to embed herself in the family of a young LGBTQ+ person: in this case, the then 16-year-old Tobi. The director felt an instant connection to the Tuza family, who live near her grandmother’s village.

Despite initial hesitations, Tobi, their parents and siblings eventually welcomed Bakony and the crew into their home, where they became part of the family throughout the next four years. Working with a small crew of only three people on-location, the filmmaker even wasn’t sure where this fluid, perplexing journey would lead. “This is the beauty of documentary filmmaking,” she told The Calvert Journal. “I had a few thoughts and ideas about which direction we would go in but life consistently disregarded them. But in my opinion, the result is even more exciting than what I had imagined.”

A still from Colors of Tobi (2021) by Alexa Bakony

The resulting film, Colors of Tobi, follows the teenager studying, visiting friends, graduating high school and slowly learning about the complexities of belonging and identity. As the seasons change, so does the colour of their hair — and how they identify. In a complex, emotional journey, we see Tobi navigating between labels, coming out multiple times and changing their name. The message is straightforward: there is no “right way” to do this.

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The simple honesty of the film stems from the authentic Hungarian rural lifestyle it depicts. The long walks to the nearest bus stop, half-painted fences and flower-filled fields are images that many Hungarians relate to. “It is important that rural communities see and understand that being queer is not a big city trend, and members of the community exist all across the country, even in a small town like Tobi’s,” Bakony explains.

In this simple, uncluttered setting, Bakony observes with painstaking detail as Tobi’s mother Éva struggles between unconditional love and a desire to understand what her child’s journey. Tobi’s father, Zoltán, repeats his own mantra — “you don’t have to understand, you just have to accept” — but it provides little comfort for a mother desperate to make sense of her child’s experiences. These feelings boil over when Éva accidentally misgenders Tobi at their 18th birthday party. The unfiltered, impulsive reaction it creates shakes the family.

Bakony doesn’t shy away from tense, almost private moments. “This is an intimate, very deep cut piece of art, not at all about ideology but rather a small-circle family narrative about how this particular community overcomes this hurdle.”

A still from Colors of Tobi (2021) by Alexa Bakony

In this way, Colors of Tobi is an unapologetically real portrayal of the difficulty of existing as a queer person in contemporary Hungary, even though the documentary itself largely leaves the country’s increasingly homophobic politics unexplored. In June 2021, just weeks after the film premiered at the BFI’s Flare Film Festival in London, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz government banned children from consuming content that portrayed LGBTQ+ relationships in a positive light, either in school or in the media. The move followed a slew of other oppressive laws, including legislation to stop people from changing their gender identity on official documents, and increasingly intolerant state rhetoric. Bakony acknowledges this context only briefly, when Tobi participates in Budapest Pride while an anti-LGBTQ+ counter-protest is underway.

Ultimately, the filmmaker doesn’t offer any one-size-fits-all solutions to queer struggles — and she doesn’t have to. The film perfectly captures the unique, deeply personal inner struggles of one family with a queer child.

While Bakony hopes her big screen debut will reach a wide, international audience, she is more impatient to show the film to friends and family when it premieres in Hungary on 1 July. “I can’t imagine that anyone who watches Colors of Tobi wouldn’t start thinking about acceptance and equality,” Bakony says. “And I think the Hungarian society is ready to elevate this conversation.”

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