There would be nothing wrong with taking sides in such a heated ideological debate if any of the five films screened this year in the prestigious Romanian Days section of the Transylvanian International Film Festival (July 21-August 9, 2020) showed a modicum of objectivity in their treatment of the past. Instead, despite these films’ obsessive focus on the evils of Communist ideology, they are as propagandistic as the very historical works they are critiquing.
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In these politically uncertain times, one thing that gives European filmmakers solace is the increasingly popular penchant to turn to the past to explain the present. One of the preferred methods young directors have in this respect is to blame today’s ills on the mistakes of the past, chief among which – on the Eastern end of the continent – is the failed Communist experiment. If the Russians remain divided over Stalin’s legacy half a century after the dictator’s death, as Dutch filmmaker Jessica Gorter showed in her 2017 investigative documentary Red Soul, neither Gorter nor the upcoming generation of Romanian filmmakers – which is bent on investigating the crimes of the Communist past – have any qualms about which camp to join.
And there would be nothing wrong with taking sides in such a heated ideological debate if any of the five films screened this year in the prestigious Romanian Days section of the Transylvanian International Film Festival (July 21-August 9, 2020) showed a modicum of objectivity in their treatment of the past. Instead, despite these films’ obsessive focus on the evils of Communist ideology, they are as propagandistic as the very historical works they are critiquing.
Although it plumbs the depths of personal memory and how this relates to the atrocities of the Communist past, Everything Will Not Be Fine (Adrian Pîrvu, 2020) is not a film. It isn’t that iPhone technology should not be used to develop professional productions, or that self-portraits made using this technology cannot make great art. We are not bothered by the increasingly commonplace use of jerky cameras nor by the selfie-styled interrogative filmmaking employed to discover the psychological depths of the two main characters. We are concerned, however, by the film’s lack of narrative technique in telling a rather nonexistent story, and by the director’s shameless self-centeredness in attempting to build a measure of empathy for his semi-disabled protagonists: himself and his girlfriend.
The premise is engaging: a thirty-seven-year-old Romanian man who believes his birth was affected by radioactive fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident (his mother traveled to the site of the accident at the time) goes searching for other victims. In the process, he discovers the love of his life in the person of a Ukrainian woman whose bone structure has been similarly damaged by radiation, a woman Pîrvu is shown courting on-screen for the duration of the film.
The chemistry between the two protagonists is far from obvious, however, and due to the maladroitness with which he handles his material (in this case, himself), Pîrvu’s self-analytical discourse has neither the power of a subtle character study nor the oomph of a historical documentary exploring the consequences of a nuclear disaster. What comes across, rather accidentally, is the self-portrait of the subject of a patriarchal society, as Pîrvu’s melodramatic mother seems to hold an eerie spell over her no-more-adolescent son. Thus, the only line in the film indicating a shade of character development comes when Pîrvu, upon meeting people living with blindness in the vicinity of Chernobyl, starts to perceive his condition in only half as dramatic a light as that in which his mother had cast it heretofore. This doesn’t help the film, however, escape the clutches of mediocrity.
Romania and Ukraine are countries that do not know each other well. Their ties were not strong during the socialist period and, because of the zealous unfriendliness with which the Latin-loving Romanians regard their allegedly unrelated Slavic neighbors, they are not well acquainted with each other today. Instead of pleading for a mutual re-encounter across the once impermeable common border, what we see in Pîrvu’s film is the confused exploration of a relationship punctured by ineffective cutaways to various hospitals that treat the glaucoma-affected protagonist from one operation to the next. In fact, the way in which the characters float through post-socialist Europe from Kiev to Bucharest to Munich in search of medical help reveals only the disorientation and the lack of belonging that seems to have marked the late socialist generation, Chernobyl affliction or not. Should Pîrvu have focused on this fascinating topic rather than himself, he would certainly have had the potential to make a better film. Without the slightest attempt at minimizing the suffering of people who bravely survived the Chernobyl disaster, we feel compelled to note that the film may well play as educational material meant for a targeted audience, but not as an autobiographical work of art intended for the general public.
If Pîrvu’s topic gets mired in a stagnating predicament, Siberia in the Bones, a documentary about Moldovan deportees to the Russian Far East directed by Leontina Vatamanu – the protagonist’s granddaughter – is a new low in sentimentalism.
Focusing on four deportation stories, this mixture of docudrama and talking-heads documentary is structured following the classic tenets of a trauma film. However, instead of focusing on the Siberian experience, as the title would indicate, the plot centers exclusively on the traumatic night the deportation occurred, and which is repeatedly shown in all four episodes. The reenactments showing the roundup of the village families are crude, and the presentation is Manichean, with the soon-to-be-deported Moldovans portrayed (almost literally, because of their ostentatious religious belief) as saints, and the Soviet as villains. None of the characters gain any depth as the four stories progress, and the film comes across as a half-fictionalized History Channel chronicle redundantly doubled by the victims’ voice-over narration.
Romanian-speaking Moldovans have always considered themselves peripheric, in relation to both Europe and the former Soviet Union. Situated on the fault lines between an emergent EU and resurging Russian authoritarianism, instead of joining the Romanian state after the collapse of the USSR in 1992 – a unification that Romanian nationalism has been pursuing for at least a century – Moldova remained independent and roughly split halfway along Russian and Romanian ethnic lines. Despite a brief war fought in the 1990s, the country was able to promote mutual toleration and continued to exist as a state in this multicultural environment. Instead of promoting a kind of inter-ethnicism that is rather rare for this part of Europe, Vatamanu’s film takes great pains to vilify the Russian side by portraying Soviet Communists as clichéd vestiges from a totalitarian past whose ostensibly imminent return appears to have half-motivated the making of the film.
The tone is elegiac to over-sentimental, and the wailing commentary of the protagonists touches on self-pity. The focus on the spectacular kidnappings of the families by the Soviets bespeaks a melodramatic approach that has precedence over historical detail. We are never told, for instance – except in the first episode in which the owners of a village mill were considered to be rich kulaks by the authorities – what crimes the victims have committed, the narration focusing instead one-sidedly on the wronged protagonists. For that reason, we never get a sense of why Soviet authorities started the dekulakization campaign in Moldova or whether the victims were indeed collaborators with the Nazi regime that preceded the deportations, which, from historical sources, seems to have been the main reason for the cruel Soviet treatment of ethnic populations that also led to the deportation of the Crimean Tatars.
Although the interviewed adults mention the trauma caused by deportation as unquestionably central to their upbringing, all episodes reveal a surprising fact: As neighbors usually warned Moldovan families of their upcoming deportation, all the mothers portrayed in the film chose to abandon their offspring and hide in nearby houses or even in the homestead barn to avoid capture by the Soviet authorities. It becomes debatable, in the face of this family (rather than Soviet) betrayal, whether the children’s trauma is associated with Siberia at all, or whether this was caused by parental abandonment. This abandonment is reinforced by the confessions of most interviewed victims, who, some seventy years after the events, seem haunted by the need to forgive their parents rather than Stalin. It is symptomatic in this regard that gray-haired Ion Radu, one of the children whose mother left during the Soviet roundup, affectionately breaks down into tears onscreen asking his mother for forgiveness. For what, we wonder? For having cruelly abandoned three children and left them to be deported to Siberia alone?
As stated above, in her attempt to paint Moldovan peasants as innocent victims of the terror of Soviet occupiers, Vatamanu makes recourse to heavy-handed Christian motifs. When faced with immediate deportation, one of the mothers asks to be allowed to carry an icon with her, while one of the grandmothers returning from exile seems preoccupied exclusively with her communion. Furthermore, Christianity is (un)subtly interwoven with nationalism. In a metaphorical scene toward the end of the film, when a villager rejoins a deported family in a rather quaint Siberian barracks, he brings with him a red apple from the village, which he ceremoniously places upon the table. After leaving the fruit sit there for three days, the family proceeds to slice the apple in a bloated ritual bordering on mysticism, during which the characters are shown slowly masticating its contents to sentimental music, as in an allegorical replay of an over-ceremonious last supper.
The scene resounded vibrantly with audiences, nevertheless, as a voice in the public was heard shouting “Bessarabia is Romania” during the concluding credits, referring to the alternative name for the province of Soviet Moldova that passed back and forth between the two countries, and was briefly re-annexed from the USSR during Romania’s expansionist 1940s, when the country was temporarily ruled by a fascist regime.
More troubling than nationalism, however, are the new standards that pass for professionalism at a film festival that had the privilege to launch the celebrated Romanian New Wave only a decade ago. It is sad that names such as Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu are slowly being replaced with those of newcomers who seem to promote not the values of art cinema, but those of covert neoliberal politics.
What is equally thought-provoking, portending notions such as the “century of the self,” is that films like Siberia in the Bones and Everything Will Not Be Fine seem to herald a new age in filmmaking, in which cinema becomes a forum for the display of what is essentially a psychoanalytical discourse. It seems indeed that everything will not be fine in Romanian cinema, and that the self-victimization promoted by young filmmakers will unfortunately bedraggle post-New Wave films through a rather lackluster period. We can only hope this is a passing moment in the short-lived history of the New Wave, for which accomplished Romanian directors are still winning deserving accolades at the most respected film festivals around the globe.
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Images are screenshots from the films discussed.