“Television fabricates forgetting, cinema creates memory”, said Godard in Histoire(s) du cinema. At the core of this year’s programme are a number of daring, irreverent, often hilarious takes on Romania’s past imperfect. Many of the film-makers included in the programme invite a meditation on the uses of image in the construction of an idea of history and historical consciousness. Some of them touch on the production of historical memory, and on the collisions and collusions among individual and collective memories.
The programme features the Second World War, the Romanian Revolution, and a ‘communist bank robbery’ that happened in between. These are usually the stuff, or some would say the ‘stuffing’, of history. Still, neither of these films is a historical film per se. Rather, they are individual incursions into the domain of History, alternative stories rewritten from the present by overlapping public history with private memory and with individual imagination.
They are essentially private stories set in public times. They feature the mixture of poetry, harsh realism, and absurdist humour which have always been part and parcel of Romanian cinema. They are all rooted in the genuine need to re-situate the past in order to project a future.
The filmmakers present in the festival are an eclectic age mix, from veteran auteur Lucian Pintilie to greener names considered by some a Romanian New Wave of sorts. Beyond age or individual style, they share a gusto for life on the margins, be those margins the provincial community trying to forge some sense of history for itself, or the ‘sick’ love of the non-traditional couple striving against social taboos, or the minimal habitat conditions of the communist block of flats, or anything else that comes embedded with life on the periphery. Whether there can be History, Love, or for that matter Honour, at the margins, is among the questions posed by these films, which share a concern for the ‘micro’ and favour the individual over the collective, and the mundane over the heroic.
It remains to be proven by time whether there is indeed a Romanian New Wave. For the time being, there’s just a group of individuals who managed to prove that there is a future in the past: Past Imperfect, Future Continuous is an invitation to see some of the best Romanian films of the recent years in the company of those who started by talking about a revolution and continued by making one.
These days Romanians just love www.igu.ro/latrecut/ (la trecut - on the past). Although only one year old, the site has enjoyed a truly enviable traffic and popularity. “Igu”, the man behind the site, confessed that he started onthepast because he was forgetting his childhood and felt that he needed a collective effort of remembrance. As he grew up in communist Romania, his site is all about that Romania. One can find virtually everything out there, from the ‘Pitic’ chocolate to school uniforms, from the nauseating ‘adidasi’ pig feet to memories of Bollywood screenings in the 1980s, from the syrupy paper glue ‘Pelicanol’, to absurdist communist jokes.
Several years ago, Good-Bye, Lenin (Wolfgang Becker, 2003) unleashed östalgie (the nostalgia for the East) in film. It made everybody laugh at East German communism while still allowing room for the humanity of the people who lived with it and subsequently carried it in their memories. At that time, Romanians were only shyly starting their own work of memory on their communist past. Rehabilitating that past within new semantic registers, other than the previously indistinct ‘look back in anger’, has become a growing phenomenon over the recent years. Today, onthepast is probably Romania’s most vivid “Good-Bye, Ceausescu”, with the added value provided by the democratic switch of medium from cinema to blogging.
The keyword is historical revisionism. For most of the 1990s, many Romanians preferred to forget about the colossal paradigm shift that was the fall of the Eastern Bloc, or were simply too busy to live through the changes brought by it. Until the early 2000s there was a relative absence of alternative engagements with a communist past that was indistinctly perceived as traumatic, and ‘fixed’ through prescriptively black and white accounts. Nae Caranfil’s much praised E Pericoloso Sporgersi (1993), one of the very few nuanced cinematic perspectives on daily life in late communist Romania, was in many ways ahead of its time.
In the early 2000s, when three Romanian filmmakers took on Romania’s past imperfect, their decision did not happen out of the blue. In the wake of December 1989, ethnologist Irina Nicolau came out with the first account of the events – an edited book which captured the temporary scripts and rhythms of the moment, from graffiti to oral history (Vom muri si vom fi liberi / We Will Die But We Will Break Free, 1990). In the early 1990s, Berlin-based Romanian filmmaker Andrei Ujica and video artist Harun Farocki took on the visual memory of the uprising in Videogrames of a Revolution (1992), a film essay built on the extensive footage gathered in December 1989 by both ‘official’ and private, nomadic cameras out in the streets. The film had an international arthouse career which added to the global memory of the ‘first televised Revolution’ in history – a much contested historical event within Romania. “If I were in charge of the Emmys, I would give one to those who staged the Romanian Revolution”, wrote US-based Romanian Andrei Codrescu on what he perceived as a staged play, a “revolution between quotation marks” (The Hole in the Flag / Gaura din steag, 1992).
Television was crucial for the Romanian revolution – the first event of its kind to be broadcast live across the world. The mise-en-scene of the trial of the Ceausescus was itself a sort of shock reality show. No wonder that past years have seen a growing concern for how the media produce, shape and document events. Ten years from December 1989, video artist Dan Mihaltianu’s Revolution dans le boudoir (1999) opened up a new space for mixing the ‘private’ with the ‘public’ in the engagement with the received wisdom of history. Mihaltianu’s aim was to ask questions about the way in which the ‘average’ man in the street experienced and memorialized History. To do that, he overlapped live audio recordings of December 1989 from the Romanian radio and television, with the morning ritual of a man grooming himself for a new day. In 2006, Chicago-based artist Irina Botea (Auditions for a Revolution, Chicago, 2006) explored notions of access to past historical events amongst layers of successive mediation and representation of those events. Botea employed performance as a way of engagement with an unknown and an essentially ‘foreign’ history. She selected a number of iconic moments captured by cameras in December 1989 and subsequently edited by Farocki and Ujica in their Videogrames of a Revolution, and invited a number of foreign students to restage some of those moments and voice some of the messages of the time, from “Vom muri si vom fi liberi” (“We will die but we will break free”), to “Armata e cu noi” (“The army is with us”), and to “Am învins” (We are victorious”).
These works added to the constantly growing repertory of engagements with the recent past on various levels of society, and illuminated the discrete processes through which private, and previously unacceptable memories of the recent past are currently infiltrating the public domain. Since the beginning of 2007 alone, Romanians saw two exhibitions on the memory of the ‘Ceausescu era’: one was the ‘public’ memorial engagement organized by Romania’s National Museum of History (and opened on January 26, the day when people used to ‘celebrate’ Ceausescu’s birthday), while the other was an individual shock-therapy approach to the bloody shooting of the Ceausescus, hosted by a private gallery in Bucharest (Mircea Suciu, H’Art Gallery, Bucharest).
The tendency to separate from a painful or inconvenient past is gone now, but the negotiation of the conflicting memories attached to that past will probably last for a while: choosing between different versions of the past is also a choice between various options for the future.
At the end of the day, quoting a character from 12: 08 East of Bucharest, “One makes whatever revolution one can, each in their own way”.
School of Media, Arts and Design
University of Westminster