The Thessaloniki International Film Festival has long had a tradition of foregrounding Balkan cinema through its Balkan Survey. In a retrospective of Romanian films, precursors to the Romanian New Wave were shown at this year’s festival, in a retrospective in this section entitled “Before the Wave Breaks”, with a selection of eight films spanning three decades. Shot in a realist and minimalist approach similar to that of the Romanian New Wave, these films use time-honored tactics to achieve an economy in space, time and budget (location sound, busy frames, deep focus, snappy vignettes), using a patchwork of the inessential, the random, the conversational.
Imbued with a desire to capture life “honestly”, these economical tactics are more than budgetary acts, but political strategies conceived to counter official censorship. In order to outfox the censoring body and deliver the audience a (more) truthful perspective under authoritarian rule, the filmmakers master tactics of passive resistance – subtlety, irony, pretense, trickery.
Many of the films in “Before the Wave Breaks” trace their path alongside a generational rift pitting a progressive youth aspiring for novelty and change against the middle-aged generation – complacent, fat and morose – who exert effort policing the young, forgetting momentarily, that they themselves had once been that too.
Yet, how to communicate an ironic perspective to the audience without running afoul of authorities? Through reflexivity, the Romanian filmmakers could create socially critical works, by disguising them under the superficial icing of the official party line.
In Lucian Pintilie’s Reconstruction (Reconstituirea, 1969) a camera crew attached to a public prosecutor is tasked with reenacting a drunken fight between two young friends in order to create a state-sponsored educational documentary lambasting alcoholism and make an example of the two delinquents.
Under this guise of an official anti-criminal film are captured slices of life tangential to the educative film the crew is supposedly shooting. The film’s two “dottores”, ludicrous spokesmen of officialdom – the prosecutor (bloated, white-clad, and full of pomp and circumstance, like a middle-aged Romanian Orson Welles) and the cameraman, take as their mission to recreate the crimes of these youth to make a film which would be a lesson to others.
Reconstruction, however, does not revolve, as the title might suggest, around the filmed reconstitution itself, but rather around unexpected events – equipment failures and off-moments – instead devoting its screen time to anything which disturbs. The characters spend time drinking sodas on the terrace, wading in the nearby river, being laughed at by a giggling girl in a bikini, and helping an old peasant whose goose is killed by a passing truck find her lost geese in the forest, side stories which yank the narrative off its main pathway.
The camera team struggles to coerce the two youths to actually go through the reenactment, as, now sober, they are reluctant to fight one another. In the film’s denouement, the two teens are finally tricked into fighting once again although they genuinely didn’t want to, and Reconstruction arrives at its ultimate irony – that although the original fight had minor consequences (a bloodied lip and a headwound), the state-sanctioned reenactment ultimately leads to the (comi)tragic death of one of the boys.
Microphone Test (Proba de Microfon, Mircea Daneliuc, 1980) also follows a Romanian camera crew to shooting confessions of petty criminals for a monthly TV episode using the same device of the state-sponsored anti-crime film to create in ironic artefact from which to digress. Under the lead of the matronly apparatchik showrunner Luiza, the dashing young cameraman Nelu (also her part-time lover) nonchalantly records the testimonies of the accused and the shamed.
By following the tangents of the characters’ personal lives, Microphone Test pokes fun at those who moralise. It becomes hard to empathise with the show’s director Luiza – devoted to making a righteous exhibition of “ordinary crime”. Instead, it becomes clear that the educative show is but an excuse to empathise with the accused – and it is Ani, the suspected prostitute (played by Tora Vasilescu), who becomes the protagonist.
Microphone Test begins as a film about the filming of this show, digressing almost seamlessly to dramatic romantic comedy about the lives of the characters, whose love lives become hopelessly entangled. The initial objective to provide a good example to society is quickly overridden as Ani, working part-time as a (cheery) prostitute, becomes the lover of the cameraman Nelu. The distance provided by the reflexive narrative generates humour while capturing a realist glimpse of Bucharesti life as its backdrop – its streets, its language, people – in all their simplicity and irrelevance.
Sequences (Secvențe, Alexandru Tatos, 1982), the most earnest of the films, opens wearing its mission statement on its sleeve, with a citation from Romania’s most famous poet, Mihai Eminescu: “Truth is our master, we don’t master the truth.”
Sequences’s initial images immediately erode the possibility of faith in any official truth by displaying the process of this truth’s creation. The film begins exhibiting documentary images from the birth of the country’s Communist Youth movement projected in a screening room, where the director and crew discuss, for our benefit, how to manipulate the images of the real to create their desired effect, a scene that can only call into question the validity of such a narrative.
The director and crew then head off on the road to shoot a state-sponsored documentary, and while doing so take time off to create a fictional film subversively entitled “Happiness”, whose sequences are full of scenes that are anything but.
The three sequences of the title revolve around the lives of this official camera crew. In the first, which takes place on-set on location, an “innocent” bystander caught in a fictional scene is moved to tears by a melodramatic performance of one of the scene’s actors. In giving emotional credence to the sad story, the power of artifice is highlighted, and although official doctrine would propose a single intractable truth, Sequences hints that truth is indeed far more elusive.
Truth may yet emerge through filming, but if it does, it happens off-camera. In the final sequence, two elderly gentlemen dressed to the nines are seated at a sumptuous dinner in a background table on-set as extras in the film-within-the-film “Happiness”, only to realise midway through the shoot that they in fact know each other – one was a wartime interrogator and the other his communist victim during the Second World War – and it is their confrontation that is the focus of the sequence, and not the film itself, which is entirely ignored. It is not the official documentary here that is ever in focus, nor even the unofficial fictional film, but the tangential “off-camera” moments.
By revolving the action around filmmakers, these films erode the boundary separating the real from the fictional, making this boundary both fluid and translucent. Scenes and characters slide effortlessly from representations of the “real” to the “fake”, revealing their similarity. And by displaying the scaffolding of the films’ construction, the audience is granted a higher sense of awareness, a sharper critical eye. The camera, once the subject, becomes also its object, its pretense as much as its essence.
Since the real is a political claim to truth, the official narrative must always be linear, always clear-cut – yet the reflexivity in these New Wave precursors hints at a more material truth, a political alternative, and reminds that that life is not so much a clear-cut story as it is a bloody mess, against which even the official party line can do little.
Thessaloniki International Film Festival
1-11 November 2018
Festival website: https://www.filmfestival.gr/en/film-festival