Transmissions

 

A man putting off a cigarette on his wrist, midwives being trained to handle childbirths with a plastic baby, an actor roleplaying as a traumatized war veteran with the help of a virtual-reality software, visitors at a Vietnam War memorial in Washington caressing the engraved names of the deceased, a group of architects discussing how to maximize the amount of time a buyer spends in a shopping complex, a mock Iraqi village set up in California with Iranians and Pakistanis intended to train American GIs. These are but some of the unmistakable images from the films of German documentary filmmaker Harun Farocki, who passed away last week at the age of 70. Farocki’s output, which spans the genres of filmic essays, Direct Cinema documentaries and multi-screen installations, is among the most intellectually piercing and artistically rich bodies of work made in the last 50 years anywhere in the world.

Born to an Indian father and a German mother in 1944, Farocki was taken at a very early age to the work of Bertolt Brecht, who, along with Theodor Adorno, had a deep impact on his filmmaking style. As a student, he was actively engaged in the student movement in West Germany and was, as a result, rusticated from the film academy. Inextinguishable Fire (1969), which Farocki made during that period, contrasts the horrifying effects of Napalm B on the human body with the amoral, scientific detachment with which it was developed in the laboratories of the Dow Chemical Company. This phenomenon of the alienation of labour from its products – the defining characteristic of industrial era – and the absence of individual moral accountability in hierarchical corporate capitalism haunts the entirety of his 45-year working life.

A lifelong Marxist, Farocki examined the ever-changing face of industrial production, continuously investigating what exactly constitutes such production and what labour means in an age in which the boundary between productive and not-productive work has become fuzzy. His last, unfinished installation project, Labour in a Single Shot (2011-2014), which consists of a collection of shots showing people at work in 15 different cities simultaneously projected on 15 screens, probes into this shape-shifting nature of labour and its increasingly invisible place in the scheme of things.

Such a desire to get to the heart of modern capitalist practice is also what informs the series of observational documentaries – fly-on-the-wall films in which the filmmaker abstains from intruding on what is being filmed and instead simply plays the non-participative spectator – which Farocki made from the 90s onwards. In these works, we typically see a group of white-collar workers coming together to conceive and realize a project, such as the construction of a mall, the forging of a deal between an investment company and a startup, training of interview candidates or the design of a new corporate office space. As they unfold we are made privy to something that is all too elusive in the technocratic society of ours – the presence of rational, human decisions underpinning the actions of systems larger than them. In these sound-proof rooms of glass and steel, we witness the crystallization of an entire socio-economic climate around individual choices – the materialization of ideology in the realm of the visible.

This constant osmosis between the domain of ideas and that of real things is a theme that binds all of Farocki’s work. These films recognize the progressive abstraction of tangible things into intangible notions – the translation of use value of commodities to its market value and the subsequent transformation of hard money to vague stock market numbers – and the continuous virtualization of the real. They throw in relief the fact that, in the sphere of production and marketing, material things are merely temporary containers in which one abstract idea (the idea of happiness and satisfaction for the consumer upon buying the product) is realized before it is converted to another (the advertising image). Taken together, these films form an elegy for materiality, a testimony to the loss of tactility of objects.

Nowhere else was this loss as sharp and complete as in Farocki’s own professional practice, in which he had to move from working with film stock, to shooting with analog video, and then to making films with digital cameras. The increased digitization of shooting, editing, storing and distributing of films, for Farocki, rhymes with the increased depersonalization of manual labour. Data from the real world is stored as electrical charge in computers, then abstract images are formed out of these charges and finally the real world is reshaped with these very images, thus closing the loop. The pre-existing filmic material used in Farocki’s films – surveillance videos, engineering models, reconnaissance footage, and scientific data feeds – attest to the centrality of machine-captured images in military, economic, social and legal processes today: supermarkets are architected according to the walking patterns of consumers, defense strategies are planned out based on video game designs, psychological traumas are treated with virtual-reality games and prison facilities are controlled and regulated through interactive CCTV setups.

The image, of course, is the primordial object of study in Farocki’s films. These works delve into the history of modern image making – from the diminishing perspective of Renaissance architecture which anointed sight as the preeminent sense to the flattened images of aerial photography that gave birth to both Cubist art and wartime telecasts – to explore how the cinematic image has time and again been the tool of choice for subjugation and how it has unwittingly played its part in the concentration and abuse of power. “The history of battle is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception”, wrote Paul Virilio. Farocki’s films echo this observation and demonstrate how, in modern warfare, wars terrains are mapped out in amazing detail, war strategies simulated through software and variables of battle are controlled to such an extent that the actual war simply becomes a logistical formality. In such an asymmetric war, the side that controls machine-filmed, amoral and objective images of a region is the one that conquers it. To see is to capture.

Farocki’s cool, composed essay films remind us of the treachery of images, sure, but also keep pointing us to their possibilities and their liberating power. These works move beyond analyzing our extremely visual, late capitalist culture through its advertising images alone and reveal the epochal shift that machine sight has brought in every sphere of existence. One of the greatest strengths of these films is their genuinely open-mindedness towards the rapid transformations that mark our post-ideological age. Though they certainly take a political position, they are not monolithic, leftist diatribes perceiving every change as a machination of the powerful that leaves no scope for resistance. Neither pessimistic nor triumphalist, Farocki’s films distinguish themselves with the untainted curiosity and the openness to change with which they attempt to make sense of the time we live in. The same could be said of Farocki.

(For The Hindu)

Arbeiter Verlassen Die Fabrik (1995) (aka Workers Leaving The Factory)
Harun Farocki
German
 

“Never can one better perceive the numbers of workers than when they are leaving the factory. The management dismisses the multitude at the same moment. The exits compress them, making out of male and female workers a workforce.”

 

Workers Leaving A FactoryMade during the centenary of the medium, Harun Farocki’s marvelous, dense filmic essay Workers Leaving the Factory (1995) traces the lineage of Auguste and Louis Lumiére’s Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895), cited here as the first film ever made, through the history of cinema. (What the film doesn’t mention is that were three similar versions of the film, each with its own bunch of curiosities.) “It was as if with film the world would become visible for the first time” says the narrator. Farocki starts out by analyzing the Lumiére siblings’ film on aesthetic and social levels. On a purely formal front, we notice the sheer kineticism of Lumieres’ minute-long, single-shot film, in which masses of people enter the screen and almost instantly exit it from the right and left like streams of water from a hosepipe, “as if impelled by an invisible force”. Presaging Eisenstein’s handling of masses of people, the streamlined movement in the shot gives us a sense of observing a workforce, as opposed to a group of individuals.

Farocki also treats the Lumiéres’ film as a kind of social document and imagines the social and political scenario within and outside it. His narrator points out that, in the film, there is no sign on the factory’s façade, no sign of its importance and no sign of its economic power. (The place is, in fact, the Lumiére factory in Lyon, France.) She also remarks on the condition of unions at the time when the Lumiére brothers’ film was made, noticing that there is no sign of the worker’s power either, even though the European union feared a worker’s uprising at that time. With the help of footage from the Ford facility in Detroit, 1926, Volkswagon in Emden, 1975, an unnamed industrial establishment in Lyon, 1957, and from tens of fictional factories including from the films of D. W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin, Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang, Farocki’s endlessly curious work studies how this singular image of workers exiting the factory premises has been captured on film during its hundred years of existence.

Workers Leaving The FactoryThe narrator comments, early on, that this is “an image like an expression, which can be suited to many occasions”. It analyzes the gesture of the workers, their gait, their possible state of mind and their physicality: workers evacuating colluding police, police evacuating protesting workers, man waiting for a woman outside the gate, woman waiting for a man, gangsters entering factory for a job, workers leaving the premises and joining a Nazi rally, workers jubilant about entering the factory, workers lumbering out after an exhausting day. (This study of space and movement reminds one of Farocki’s prison-based films, which strike a Foucauldian equivalence between spaces and movement in prisons, asylums, supermarkets and factories.) Gradually, the film comes to serves also as a critique of representation as the selection of clips runs the gamut of ideologies: a propaganda film from Eastern Europe glorifying work is balanced by an excerpt from Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in which we see the robot-like workers checking out of the factory. Zeroing in on the sameness of all experience – work or leisure – in post-industrial societies, the voiceover notes that “this vision of the future has not been fulfilled. Nowadays one cannot say with a glance whether a passerby is coming from sports, work or the welfare office”.

Harun Farocki is among the most materialist of directors and his films have always been concerned with the material presence of objects and people they present. More than any other director, it is Farocki who is to be called a “process filmmaker”. A photo shoot for Playboy magazine (The Image, 1983), construction of a series of advertising images (Still Life, 1997), planning of a shopping mall (The Creators of Shopping Worlds, 2001) and the manufacturing of bricks (In Comparison, 2009) – many of these films have been preoccupied with the processes by which ideology materializes itself in the realm of the visible, the audible and the tactile. Sometimes, they are about the process of seeing itself – as is the case with As You See (1986), Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989), War at a Distance (2003) and a number of his installation projects – and about how the European Enlightenment tradition has come to anoint sight as the preeminent channel of perception. Workers Leaving the Factory combines these two lines of examination, and explores both the physical act of workers exiting the factory and the change in way we have seen this process through the years.

Workers Leaving The FactoryFarocki finds this space just outside the factory triply dialectical. For one, it is the space of direct confrontation between Labour and Capital: between picketers and guards, between strikers and police. The factory gate becomes the membrane that separates work from workers, an economic system from its constituents. It is at this factory gate where Labour and Capital identify themselves by identifying the other. Secondly, Farocki imagines this space as the meeting point between the liberal and communist concepts of property and theft. While the territorial imperative of Capital defines the place in front of the gate as private property, for the workers it becomes an area of discussion, congregation and protest. “Where the first camera once first stood, there are now hundreds of thousands of surveillance cameras”, goes the narrator, pointing out how cinema unwittingly became the instrument to safeguard Capital.

Lastly, the space outside the factory has become something of a limbo between “First Cinema” – films from Hollywood and industrial cinema in general – and leftist cinema –early Soviet cinema, Socialist Realism and other partisan film movements. While the latter revolves around work and working conditions and contains depersonalized narratives driven by organized groups of people, the former is almost always about life outside work. In these films, narratives about individual lives begin once work is over and the impersonal, faceless workforce dissolves into separate somebodies. They replace our leisure time with that of the characters, our problems with theirs and provide vicarious pleasures and catharses. “Whenever possible, film has moved hastily away from factories” says the voiceover, as though incriminating it for attempting to make us forget our everyday working conditions and, from a vulgar Marxian perspective, for momentarily rejuvenating us for the next day’s work. Farcoki’s work reminds us, whatever the nature of the specific film, that this image of workers leaving a factory needs no explanation. It is an expression, an idiom, a turn of phrase in itself and, as the Lumieres’ film shows us, one that is as old as the language itself.

 

[Workers Leaving The Factory (1995)]

Serious Games (2009-10)
Harun Farocki
English

 

Serious GamesHarun Farocki’s four-part project Serious Games (2009-10) takes a look at the use of photorealistic computer-generated imagery in processes surrounding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We see soldiers being trained before missions by demonstrative games that map out enemy terrain and climate in amazing detail – right down till the physical properties of the vegetation found in these geographies. We also see similar interactive programs that help PTSD-afflicted ex-servicemen revisit devastating moments and, in doing so, overcome their condition. There is an amalgamation of reality, fiction and simulation throughout the film. What appear to be documentary segments are revealed to be performances by amateur actor-salesmen demonstrating to soldiers the uses of their video games. In one segment, a mock Iraqi village is set up in Twentynine Palms, California with the help of local Iranian and Pakistani folk that seems directly modeled on a videogame. While not all of these games with reality and fiction pay off, it is intriguing to note how armies’ relationship to war has changed over the years. War appears to have ceased being a hard, irrational, unpredictable material reality and become a science that could be modeled, predicted and controlled. Farocki refers to this modern type of war as an asymmetric war, in which one side has a heavy advantage over the other and focuses on the biased representation and perceptual manipulation such simulations propagate. His fuzzy polemic, however, is not only compromised but also questionable because the kind of representation he is criticizing is, unlike the mass media, made specifically for the consumption of the army and is, itself, based on the army’s existing view of things. So not only does the commentary come across as self-evident, but also toothless because the position that the film locates itself in does not allow for insightful criticism in the first place.

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu

Rest Is Silence 
(Image Courtesy: Mandragora Sales)

Nicolae Ceausescu lived in denial. In the first scene of Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010), which is almost the last scene of his life, Ceausescu, in the makeshift TV trial that the revolutionaries have organized, denies that he had anything to do with the atrocities of the previous day. Given sufficient time, he might have denied that he had anything to do with Romania’s dilapidating condition at all. The prosecutors did not give him that privilege. Ujica does. Apparently the result of research on hundreds of hours of historical footage, Autobiography assembles three hours of newsreels that Ceausescu had, indirectly, made for himself, carefully putting together a nationwide mise en scène and a troupe as large as Romania’s population. Ujica’s is a film that resides on the edges of the frame, one that works only on hindsight, with knowledge of what really transpired. We mostly see Ceausescu waving hands and applauding amidst the countless Fordist parades in which people are reduced to flag-waving anonymities. He’s not particularly unlikable. In fact, he seems quite amicable. One could mistake him for a token detective from an American noir or a French film director of the 60s. Contradictory alliances are formed (Both Nixon and Mao seem to have had good relationship with Romania). In fact, Ceausescu seems to have been friends with every major leader. But Ceausescu’s downfall, in which the last hour of the film is interested in, is also, for better or worse, saddening. His words and gestures become more rhetorical than passionate Like Carlos, here is a man who is stuck in a time capsule adhering to his beliefs and illusions when the world has moved beyond him. Nicolae Ceausescu lived in denial.

The first thing that strikes us when watching Autobiography is that it does not insert alternate footage to counterpoint those that we see. (The only external contrasting force comes from our current knowledge of Romania during that period). Neither does Ujica employ shot footage nor does he use other Romanian films of the period to fill in the gaps. (This may be because, as it was the case in Stalinist Russia, the alternates to propaganda cinema were probably only apolitical melodramas or socialist realism). Unlike filmmakers such as Anand Patwardhan and Alanis Obomsawin, Ujica seems to place trust on the propaganda clips themselves to illustrate the interstices between them. He uses clips that Ceausescu himself would have used had he written a film autobiography. For instance, the famed footage of Ceausescu’s final speech and his consequent bewilderment and that of him and Elena fleeing in a helicopter are cleverly omitted. The film cuts from Ceausescu’s trial to the past as if going into a flashback. This shift could either imply Ceausescu trying to vindicate himself using the autobiography that is to follow or Ujica/the prosecutors trying to incriminate him using the same evidence. The film is both an encomium and a critique. It’s Rashomon situation on a national scale. Taking a deconstructive approach wherein he lets the contradictions in the footage surface by themselves and using custom soundtrack to multiply the pomp or, less often, provide irony, Ujica elucidates how the Ceausescu regime was marked by suppression of histories and silencing of oppositions.

After I watched Ujica’s picture, I wondered how it would have turned out if Ceausescu had indeed made his autobiography using the footage he had amassed. Of course, Ceausescu didn’t make such a film but, I guess any such self-serving propaganda made under a dictatorial regime should share traits alluded to by Ujica’s film. I couldn’t get my hands on any such Romanian film, but I did see a North Korean propaganda film made for (by?) Ceausescu’s friend and contemporary, Kim Il Sung, modestly titled President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975 (1976) which recites by rote the various meetings that the premier held during the aforementioned period. In fact, the title becomes amazingly self-parodying once you see the movie, whose script consists of the following line, with minor variations, repeated a hundred times: “On [Insert Date], President Kim Il Sung met [Insert Name], the [Insert designation] of [Insert name of communist country], in a brotherly environment to express his support for [the people’s struggle against imperialism/strengthening bilateral relationship]. [Name] praised General Kim Il Sung for [his noble virtue and leadership/his immense contributions to anti-imperialist struggle worldwide/his exploits in progressing mankind]”.

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

The film is never blatant as Ujica’s pseudo-autobiography might suggest, with even remotely problematic areas being cleanly pruned out, (The closest the film (unintentionally) gets to the truth is when the narrator points out that Kim Il Sung “brought about a spectacular reality in Korea”). However, one can still trace, with considerable effort, the counterpoints are seething underneath the rosy audiovisuals. Thousands of dressed-up people gathered for pomp, hundreds “being rounded up” to welcome the premier and the omnipresent absence of the individual are all dehumanizing in a way. The president praises his Japanese counterparts to no end while he talks elsewhere about Korea and China’s joint efforts to ward of Japanese imperialism during the war. In the meeting footages, Kim Il Sung is generally the centre of attraction in the frame – a fact understandable given his imposing physique. His counterparts are regularly pushed to the edges and appear nimble in relation to the composed stature of Il Sung. The president is always cheerful, applauding, waving, at ease and possesses a singular command of his space. One could mistake him for a veteran stage actor. The message here is clear: The world looks up to Kim Il Sung and the way he rules your country. This is the best you’ll get. Looking at the two films, it is clear how Ceausescu was influenced by the North Korean cinema (probably more than its policies), which, in turn, has echoes of Riefenstahl. They seem to have been directors more than dictators.

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

Ujica’s film is called The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, but it also holds well as a biography of Romania because not only does it cover a huge ground in terms of historical time, it also seems to allude to attitudes that would define Romanian culture even after his deposition. The figure of Nicolae Ceausescu seems to loom large over contemporary Romanian cinema. Almost all the “New Wave” films from the country have had Ceausescu or his regime at their focal point. Films such as Tales from the Golden Age (2009), which no doubt treat history as a closed project, confront the past directly and provide a neat picture of what it is to live in a communist-dictatorial state (The “hat” and “pig” segments are simultaneously moving and hysterical) while even a work that is so hermetic and microcosmic on the surface like Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas (2010), set during the 20th anniversary of Ceausescu’s execution, is haunted by the events of the past. Underneath, Muntean’s film seems to triangulate between a disillusionment with the present (post-globalization Romania), a nostalgia for the past (possibly the socialist age) and the dread produced by the knowledge that nostalgia, more often than not, is the longing for a past that never was. Both features of Corneliu Porumboiu deal with residual theatricality that marks contemporary Romania. In the first film, the revolution against theatricality itself makes way for theatrical claims to glory and pride while, in the second, the capital attempts to project itself as a city that is more significant than it actually is. In fact, this seemingly quintessentially Romanian affinity for theatricality is part of the curriculum in Ujica’s debut feature, Videograms of a Revolution (1992), which he co-directed with Harun Farocki.

Videograms, possibly Ujica’s finest film and clearly a masterwork, presents us shards from the Romanian revolution in the form of small “video packets” that were shot at various locations in Bucharest during the days just preceding Ceausescu’s death. We get to see history as it is happening, in all its tragicomic elements, with multiple parallel governments being set up, phantom enemies generated, impromptu civil wars brewing and the relentless efforts undertaken by either side to restore peace. Unlike any other period in history, possibly with the exception of the clashes in Chile two decades ago that were “immortalized” by Patricio Guzman in his fly-on-the-wall documentaries, we witness how technological progress has enabled us to document history with utmost fluidity and urgency. There is no need for an Eisenstein anymore to recreate the revolution and overwrite the actual event. This relationship between technological progress, the subsequent changes in modes of production and the possibility of social progress is of central interest to Videograms. It tries to find an answer to whether revolution is primarily the seizure of the forces of production from authority or if there are certain fundamental, subtler issues to be tackled.

Interestingly enough, the first thing that the protestors do after storming the party headquarters is to attack the television station. As the revolutionary forces take over the broadcast, we see not only their efforts to disperse the message to the public but also the theatricality that eventually overwhelms their exploits. Appropriation of the television station is taken for the appropriation of political power. Prisoners (generally party members close to the dictator) are presented on TV, subjected to mockery-of-justice type vengeance trials and sentenced by impromptu courts and law makers, The abuse of (TV) power that was to be corrected persists, only under a different political scenario and for a different end. We see this abuse of power off screen as well, where the acrimony towards Ceausescu is misguided towards prisoners. Videograms, however, remains highly ambivalent about the role of television and cinema in the phenomenon. Its view is more rounded and holistic than the critical or exalting stances one might expect. The camera, in Videograms, is as much imprisoning as it’s liberating.

Videograms of a Revolution

Videograms of a Revolution

Videograms of a Revolution

Videograms of a Revolution

Videograms of a Revolution

Videograms of a Revolution

Routinely, at the end of each of the separately titled segment, the narrator of the film startlingly steps back from the immediacy of the upheaval, to perform a formal analysis of the images we see in order to illustrate that the film is more about the revolution as it was perceived than as it happened. Throughout, it probes how the televising of a real event can guarantee its occurrence and authenticate a fictional event. We see European reporters filming the broadcast of Ceausescu’s trial (in place of the trial itself) as if television itself is a transparent window into reality. (This recalls Paul Patton’s account of how CNN reporters in the Gulf during the war were watching CNN in order to find out what was happening). Like great works such as Godard’s History of Cinema (1998) and Marker’s The Last Bolshevik (1993), but far less elegiac and more optimistic, Farocki and Ujica examine film, history and everything in between in Videograms. They note:

“Camera and event. Since its invention, film has seemed destined to make history visible. It has been able to portray the past and stage the present. We have seen Napoleon on horseback and Lenin on the train. Film was possible because there was history. Almost imperceptibly, like moving on a Möbius strip, the side was flipped. We look on and have to think: if film is possible, then history, too, is possible.”

Perhaps this is the biggest irony that marks Ceausescu’s life. The tool that helped him hold power for decades became the very tool that accelerated his downfall. The pageants that highlighted his reign would give way to his own trial on the national television. And all the clapping at the end of those grand ceremonies would only end up in the cheerful applause throughout Bucharest when his death is broadcasted on television. After images of the corpses of the Ceausescus are flashed on television for the confirmation of the event, one reporter yells as the screen fades to black: “That’s it then, turn it off”.

Ujica’s previous film, Out of the Present (1995), also involves a man cut off from the world, literally. Evocative, slightly frightening and borderline-experimental, Out of the Present chronicles Soviet cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev’s 10-month stay at the Mir station during which time his country collapses. Ujica intercuts between the tumults in Moscow and scenes of Krikalev’s floating about in free space to sketch the portrait of a world in transition. He’s a man who, in the process of leaping into the future, loses grip on the present. For Krikalev, like the citizens of Bucharest in the previous film, reality is what the media tells him it is. In addition to his physical severance, he is, like so many of his counterparts on earth, a man alienated from history through the very images that present history. But Krikalev’s case is even more heartbreaking given that fact that he is the only person from his country to have not witnessed this historical juncture and that he’ll be returning to a country totally different from the one he lived in. This idea of media as the appraiser of history and the diaristic construction of Out of the Present presage the autobiographical structure of Ujica’s latest.

Coming back to The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, which attempts to sum up the entirety of Ceausescu’s regime as a large-scale theater with Romania as the stage, the Romanians as the performers and the Ceausescus as the stars. Ujica’s film suggests that in Ceausescu’s rule, cinema was treated like politics and politics, like cinema, that he was amassing wealth to no end while the whole country was in dire straits and that all was illusion. Although there might be some truth value to it, It seems to me that such a sketch is rather dangerous and complacent since it runs the risk of reducing a ruthless dictator to a charlatan who knew how to make the right moves. Ujica deals with Ceausescu more or less like how Assayas deals with Carlos. Both these political figures have been drained of their potency by their writer-directors and turned into interesting characters with simple psychology and behavioral pattern. There is little reason to believe that all the pomp and self-aggrandizement would have vanished had Ceausescu been a democratic ruler. The cult of the leader is largely independent of such scenarios. Given that Ujica intended to make a film critical of Ceausescu that would have resulted even if the latter had made it himself, it is understandable that he was obliged to leave out certain implicating footage. But this self-imposed restriction becomes a damaging limitation in Autobiography. Ujica’s message is clear even minutes into the film. In trying to develop a pseudo-laudatory autobiography and a stinging critique out of the same material, Ujica, I’m afraid, only dilutes the latter.

Compare this with the density that the remarkable BBC documentary The King of Communism: The Pomp & Pageantry of Nicolae Ceausescu (2002) achieves despite its flaws and its reduced running time. Like Ujica, writer-director Ben Lewis believes that Ceausescu’s regime was fuelled by such grand scale performances. But instead of relying on these very performances to elucidate the flipside, Lewis keeps interjecting anti-narratives of every sort that keep countering reductive narratives such as Ujica’s and Assayas’. One of those interviewed is a TV reporter who was filming Ceausescu during his infamous final speech. When asked why he did not telecast the agitation in front of the palace instead of the unrest at Ceausescu’s balcony, he tells us that it would have been against the ethics of his profession. It is not that he is deluded or against democracy. It is just that such an act would never have been unethical considering his situation. Lewis’ film is rife with such deadlocks that tend to disrupt totalizing narratives such as the one The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu presents. For instance, it probes why ever did the Romanian public cooperate in this mythmaking. After all, it was this nationalistic propaganda that enabled Ceausescu to resist the imperialism of the superpowers and to build a stable nation. Some of the interviewees still assert that Ceausescu represented their country with dignity at the world stage, although it was precisely this misplaced sense of self-respect that turned against both Ceausescu and Romania.

Through interviews with people who had really taken part and performed in these pageants, Lewis arrives at the conclusion that it was all propaganda by the public and for the public, and not a one man show as purported by Ujica’s film. We come to know that people actually looked forward to these shows that helped them regain their trust towards the nation. They’re even nostalgic about it. Lewis points out that the performer-audience relationship was reversed at the end of each show and illustrates how it was of double advantage for Ceausescu. For him, it was both an august propaganda and an effective distraction. For the public, it was both escape and replenishment. Through these accounts, we gradually get the idea that Romania was not being cheated some clever, omnipotent trickster, but that it was in a hyperreal situation where the truth of the matter was overridden by ‘appearances’ that didn’t appear so. One perceptive lady tells us that it might have been better if the Soviet had indeed occupied Romania instead of Ceausescu holding ground. At least then, she points out, the Romanians would have had a visible enemy to fight against. Ujica’s film rejects such nuances, instead replacing them with a blanket rejection of Ceausescu’s regime as totalitarian and deceiving. What it does (and admirably so), however, is to question the way we approach historical material (and, consequently, contemporary material). It urges us to look closer, to keep our eyes open for obscured faces and our ears open for silenced voices.

 

Rating:
 

[The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010) Trailer]