Tuesday, November 13, 2007

New Pain From an Old Wound

Transitions Online

BUCHAREST, Romania | Standing outside the movie theater, tears streaming down her face, Alina could barely pull herself together to say a few words. “This is exactly how it used to be,” she whispered. A friend stood by her side, nodding in agreement.

It is a scene that has been replicated in cinemas around Romania since mid-September, when the 2007 Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days finally started running at home. The subject of the film, illegal abortion during communist times, hits close to home for millions of Romanians, whether because of their own experience or because of the stories they have heard from close friends or family members.

“This is the moment of truth, when the movie meets the audience you had in mind when making it,” said director and screenwriter Cristian Mungiu at the film’s domestic debut, at a film festival in Cluj-Napoca in June. Mungiu based the film on a real story, one of many he had heard on this subject. “I was stunned to realize that everyone age 40 and above had something personal to say about illegal abortions in those times and how terribly these experiences affected the lives of so many Romanians,” the director said at a post-screening press conference.

This national drama began unfolding in 1966, when dictator Nicolae Ceausescu passed a decree prohibiting women from terminating their pregnancies unless they were over 45 and had already given birth to four children. As contraception was illegal and almost impossible to come by, hundreds of thousands of women turned to “pseudo doctors” for secret abortions, often by primitive and dangerous methods. According to the Center of Health Statistics and Medical Information, 9,452 women lost their lives from 1966 to 1989 as a direct consequence of failed abortions. Many others, along with those who had helped them, spent years in jail when caught.

It is therefore hardly surprising that Mungiu’s film opened old wounds for so many here and that almost everyone relates so directly to the haunting story. The film has typically generated two kinds of reactions: “This is exactly what happened to me” and “This is nothing compared to what happened to me.”

At the film’s official premiere, in Bucharest in September, President Traian Basescu’s wife, Maria, recalled of those times. “Whenever an aborted fetus was found, all women from that area were forced to go for a checkup. It was humiliating,” she said.

For Gabriela Lungu, whose best friend died at 33 because of an illegal abortion during communism, the film handled the story with delicacy and firmness at the same time, never becoming maudlin. She particularly appreciated the relationship between Gabita, the girl who needs the abortion, and Otilia, her college roommate, who makes an enormous sacrifice to help her friend.

“There was no way that anyone could go through such a traumatic experience alone,” Lungu, who had attended the screening, said in an interview afterward. “However big her fear not to be discovered, a woman in this situation would always turn to someone for support. The film shows how solidarity could give birth to astonishing sacrifices in those times.”

EXTREMES

Although he was familiar with the issue in his youth, Mungiu, 39, admits that he thought about the ethical and religious aspects of abortion very late. He says his film does not judge anyone and does not draw any conclusions but that it should spark a debate on this issue, as it has in other countries. However emotional the reactions in the Romanian audience, Mungiu says he is disappointed that civil society has not engaged in a more powerful and sustained debate on abortion, in a country which, for 17 years, has had the highest abortion rate in Europe outside of Russia.

In 1990, immediately after Ceausescu’s famous decree was annulled, 1 million abortions were performed, out of a population of 23 million. Over the following decade, more than 11 million pregnancies were terminated in state hospitals alone, while numbers from private clinics were not reported.

“We went from one extreme to the other,” Mungiu said. “Back then, we concentrated exclusively on how to get our girlfriends and wives off the hook without being caught and felt that this was a fight for personal freedom. After the revolution, we got so used to this abortion deluge and to other ‘deviations’ from normality, that hardly anything surprises us anymore.”

For Lungu, who lived for many years in Italy, where the film sparked intense controversy, the explanation for what she called “typical Romanian apathy” lies in the scars that people still bear from dealing with this painful issue.

“Ceausescu’s abortion ban was based on nothing but insanity, with no moral or religious grounds” she said. “He simply decided to control the lives of his subjects all the way into their bedrooms, into their intimacy, with no concern for morality or anything else. After 1989, people were simply relieved that they could make free choices, and everything went out of control. We ended up with this other anomaly, which seems to alarm everyone but us.”

Carmen M., 41, who almost died 19 years ago because of an illegal abortion, said inadequate education and counseling, along with economic constraints, prevent many couples from using appropriate contraception methods. Now a physician in a town of 30,000, she recalls that when she had her abortion, her despair and fear were so overwhelming, that her mind was “blank.”

“I was a medical student, and I was aware of all the health risks, and still I let this complete stranger induce my abortion in this dorm room in Bucharest, without asking any questions,” she said. I have never thought about it since then, until I heard that a Romanian movie on abortion won in Cannes. Now the memories have come back, and they are terribly painful.”

MORE TO COME

Although most people who have seen the film would say it is about abortion, Mungiu insisted that he simply followed a good story. He also rejects the idea that it was directly about communism, pointing out that he avoided words like “party” and “comrade” or other cliches from those times. He explained, however, how difficult it was to find good locations to re-create the typical atmosphere of the 1980s (the deserted, pitch-dark streets at night or the endless lines in front of the Alimentara grocery stores), given that now Romanian cities are invaded by foreign cars, slick advertisements, and satellite dishes.

“He still made a movie about communism, whether he wanted to or not,” said radio show host Chris Ivanes, who is critical of Mungiu’s film, because, he argues, it is full of small but grave mistakes that could have been easily avoided. Among them, a Mercedes with a post-revolution license plate, some toiletries in the hotel bathroom that didn’t exist at the time or an ambulance that did not look true to the time.

Ivanes says the film is simply not well-done and attributes its impact solely to its subject.

“This film is shocking, not impressive,” he said. “And this is not due to the merit of the movie, but, unfortunately, to the ‘non-merit’ of those horrific times, which made possible such terrible stories.” Ivanes likened the film more to a documentary on a sensitive issue rather than a creative piece of art.

Intended as the first part of a trilogy titled Memories From the Golden Era, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has a different tone from the installments to follow. “We started with something very grave and somber, but we will continue with lighter stories,” Mungiu said. “We will try to concentrate on those smaller, collateral effects of the communist propaganda, which were often hilarious in their absurdity.”

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