Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Romania’s gallows humour

Twenty years on from the fall of Ceausescu, Romanian filmmakers are finally learning how to make people laugh about their country’s dark past

Brian Semple

On Christmas day 1989, people across the world turned on their televisions to see Nicolae Ceausescu, president of Romania’s brutal communist government, shot dead with his wife by a firing squad from his own army. Ceausescu had been in power for 24 years, but his regime unraveled in just four days: protests and rioting on 21st December forced him to flee Bucharest in a helicopter, before he was arrested by the Romanian army, sentenced to death by a military court for crimes ranging from genocide to corruption, and promptly shot.

Their execution was one of the most shocking and memorable moments of the end of the cold war, yet despite the many column inches dedicated this year to the fall of the Berlin wall, there has been little attention given to the 20th anniversary of Ceausescu’s demise. But if the west has been slow to remember the tumultuous end to Romania’s “golden age” (as Ceausescu described his reign), a new generation of film directors who grew up in that era are determined to ensure it is not forgotten.

Foremost among them is Cristian Mungiu, whose first major film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2007. A harrowing but mesmerising account of a backstreet abortion (under Ceausescu abortion was outlawed to combat low birth rates), the film was conceived as the part of a cycle of stories based on Romania in the latter years of Ceausescu’s regime. The second installment, Tales from the Golden Age(also the name of the trilogy), was released in October, and, in contrast to 4 Months, is a darkly comic take on the lives of ordinary Romanians struggling to survive under a chaotic and absurd regime. It shows the residents of a tiny village desperately painting trees, scrubbing cows and paving roads in preparation for an official party visit that never transpires. A panicked state photographer scrambles to prevent the daily newspaper going to press after he realises it features a picture of a hatless Ceausescu alongside the be-hatted French president (thus suggesting capitalism’s superiority over communism). And a policeman who has been given a live pig by a relative for Christmas devises a crazy plan to gas the animal in his tiny apartment without attracting the attention of his hungry neighbours.

Mungiu was 21 when Ceausescu was overthrown, and says that it took nearly two decades before he and other filmmakers could take a light-hearted look back at the regime. “The first Romanian films which were made about communism just after the fall of the Berlin Wall were very bad—just author’s comments about communism through the mouths of their characters. Now we are making films about the period with way less anger. Humour is what helped Romanians survive the period, so we thought a comedy is a possible way of looking back.” But even today, he says, there are lots of Romanians who refuse to accept that you can make a comedy about communism.

The film is principally a celebration of the lives of ordinary Romanians from that time; of their ability to bargain and hustle their way around the oppressive state, and the creativity with which they adapted in order to survive. Mungiu previously worked as a journalist and a teacher, and there is something of both the reporter and the educator in the way he strives to record the trials and tribulations of everyday life. “I wanted to make sure that I told stories I remembered from that period before I forgot the small details, and this also serves the purpose of preserving these memories as a subjective document for the generations to come.” He admits that the film doesn’t appeal to young people who didn’t live through that time the same way it appeals to those over 40. “But my feeling is that [young people] still understand more about communism from such films than from a history book.”

If there is a certain amount of nostalgia in Tales from a Golden Age, Mungiu emphasises that it is not for Ceausescu or his regime, and he deliberately chose to make the darker4 Months before Tales, despite writing the latter’s screenplay first. “The nostalgia refers to the days of our youth and by no means to the ‘communist era.’ It just so happens that they overlap, and therefore people sometimes we imagine that we regret [the passing of] the epoque. Not at all, I have to say.”

There is, however, one thing from Ceausescu’s era that Mungiu is nostalgic for: the cinemas. Currently there are some 30 cinema screens in the whole of Romania serving over 21m people, whereas in communist times there were over 800. And while no one would describe Ceausescu’s regime as a good one for filmmakers, when only heavily censored state-sponsored propaganda films were allowed onto screens, at least the films made then were actually watched by ordinary Romanians. Now, Mungiu says, “you can’t reach too many people.”

There are also scarce funds available to support Romanian directors, and Mungiu suggests that this could be the result of jealousy at the success of his generation. “There has been a kind of reaction against this generation from older directors. The Romanian film authorities didn’t do anything to speculate the movement and improve the financing or the releasing system.”

Nor have things improved since Romania gained EU membership—ironically, film directors now find themselves hamstrung by a combination of new European regulations and old attitudes lingering from pre-capitalist Romania. “It is has made it more difficult now to get state money because of the EU regulations and because of the incompetence of the Romanian authorities…the general feeling in Romania, including the feeling of the organisations promoting Romania abroad, is that films are a public good and nobody should have to pay to use them or screen them publicly.” So while the country’s cinema may truly be in its “golden age,” the current generation’s films are being seen by less Romanians than ever before. It is the kind of farcical situation that the protagonists of Mungiu’s vignettes could well appreciate.

Tales from the Golden Age will be released on DVD on 5th February 2010.

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