Content Note: sexualized violence, abuse, pedophilia, old footage of kids in blackface and brownface
In the 80s there was a famous summer camp for kids in Epipo, Hungary. Led by charismatic teacher Pal Sipos, it was a camp filled with fantastic games that was almost magical for the kids who got to go there. But another part of the camp was abuse and humiliation – abuse that Sipos continued after the camp was shut down and he became a TV star. Now, decades later, the former camp kids are coming together again to try to work through their experiences and to reconcile their memories with the facts.
Return to Epipo is a highly personal and chilling look at the camp and the abuse that took place there, trying to answer the question how the camp could have been so great and so awful at the same time. It also looks at how what happened still affects the people who were there as kids. It’s insightful and also disturbing.
Director Oláh herself was one of the children at the camp, so the film is very personal for her. And she was able to provide historical footage from the camp – her father visited her at the time and filmed his visit – which gives the film extra insight. But mostly it gave the film its most interesting perspective: Oláh herself witnessed humiliation at camp and didn’t escape it herself (she got a rather negative nickname like almost everybody else at camp), but for her, Epipo was still a good place for the most part when she was a child. As an adult, she sees things differently – especially after she heard of the abuse the others had suffered as well. This grappling with “how come nobody saw it at the time” and “how come I liked going there” in the light of the scandal is rather fascinating.
The film also makes quite clear how things worked in the camp: Sipos was the unquestioned leader and whenever he bestowed his attention, it was a great honor. Generally there was a strong hierarchy. Wrong-doing and disobedience were harshly punished but everyone accepted this in the hope that it would hit somebody else, that they themselves would be good enough to rise in the camp ranks. It’s a chilling picture of how fascism (that is so deeply tied to a personality cult) succeeds on a miniature scale, with war games instead of actual war, but with real harm nonetheless.
The news story about the abuse at the camp broke in 2014, when it was revealed that Sipos continued his abuse later in his career as a TV moderator. Apparently it caused quite an uproar in Hungary. In Austria I had heard nothing about this at all. The film leaves you in the dark about what exactly happened at first, trying to show Epipo as it appeared to the children at first. Since everything is suffused with a sense of foreboding, this doesn’t really work, but I didn’t mind it, either. When it later reveals more about the abuse, the film smartly steers away from sensationalism and focuses on the (lasting) effects on the victims.
Altogether it’s a strong documentary about a sensitive subject, handled with the appropriate respect and a deft hand for storytelling. I can absolutely recommend it.
Summarizing: Very good.