By Isabelle Wesselingh (AFP)
BUCHAREST — The rise and fall of late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu unravels in a documentary screening at Cannes on Tuesday that is entirely based on archive footage.
In his three-hour work, director Andrei Ujica delivers "The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu", the story of the feared Communist strongman who forced him into exile.
"It is too easy to think that the ideological dictators that marked the 20th century were monsters fallen from the sky, that they were not human beings," Ujica told AFP in Bucharest.
"Some victims of dictators also participate in this game of opportunism which maintains them in power."
The 58-year-old film-maker said his documentary offers new insights into the man who ruled Romania from 1965 until his ignominious end in 1989 before a firing squad on Christmas Day.
"When I was young, Ceaucescu was only a screen on which I projected my hatred against any form of totalitarianism," Ujica said.
Whenever Ceaucescu appeared on television, "we would switch it off immediately," he recalled.
Years later, Ujica spent hundreds of hours over the course of several months with celluloid memories of his former bogeyman in the intimacy of an old apartment in a quiet street of Bucharest.
"There were about 1,000 hours of archive footage. Two researchers selected 250 hours for me. I then looked at them very carefully in order to select the scenes I wanted to keep. It was a gargantuan task," he explains.
Even though most of the images were recorded for propaganda purposes, Ujica managed to find genuine moments such as a volleyball game in which Ceaucescu keeps cheating.
"No one can control everything especially when you are filmed as extensively as Ceaucescu was during his time in power," he said, adding that after spending so much screen time in the despot's company, "Ceaucescu became more human to me."
Through thoughtful editing, Ujica shows how a man from a modest background climbed to absolute power, before his swift downfall and subsequent execution at a time when Communist regimes in Europe were tumbling like dominoes.
The film evokes the "glorious years" when Western leaders such as Richard Nixon, Charles de Gaulle and Queen Elizabeth II opened their arms to their Romanian counterpart.
But clouds gathered: a deadly earthquake hit Bucharest, Romania suffered serious floods and the dictator was subjected to rare public criticism during a meeting of the Communist central committee.
The film shows a visit to a market in the 1980s, when food shortages were severe. The autocratic leader is seen looking mechanically at artificially filled shelves.
When a saleswoman offers him flowers, he passes them on without a second look to an aide, as if even he no longer believed in the propaganda lies.
After two movies on the collapse of communism, "Videograms of a Revolution" in 1992 and "Out of the Present" in 1995, Ujica waited 15 years to complete his trilogy.
"I had to find a way to deal with the story of Ceaucescu," he explained.
His friend, German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, helped by giving him "The Autobiography of Fidel Castro," a book written by Norberto Fuentes, a former ally of the Cuban leader who later became a dissident.
Ujica chose deliberately not to add commentary or provide dates for the events depicted in his film.
"I did not want to make a documentary on Ceaucescu but a movie about dictatorship. Because I believe that we can get closer to the complex essence of historical events through artistic means," he said.