Film, History, and Memory in the Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu
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This essay examines the strategies by which The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu (2010) engages in memory work and dramatizes the complex relationships between cinema, history, and memory. To capture the individual remembering process animated by the film, I weave into the film analysis a fragmentary narration of my subjective experience as a viewer.
Introduction: New Romanian Cinema Between Memory and History
A consistent feature of the New Romanian Cinema is the preoccupation, of different degrees and intensities, with the recent past. The fiction movies lay on a series of continua: between direct and oblique attention to the communist past (at one end, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, at the other, Tudor Giurgiu’s Of Snails and Men), between recovering history (Constantin Popescu’s Portrait of the fighter as a Young Man) and energizing memory (Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue), and between sober (Titus Muntean’s Exam) and humorous tones (Tales of the Golden Age and 12:08 East of Bucharest).
In contrast to this variety of engagements, the documentaries of the New Cinema dealing with the communist past are defined, for the most part, by a preference for uncovering and narrating history. In the decades immediately following the fall of communism, for reasons that have to do with both the rigor of the profession and the accessibility of records, historians were not able to appease fast enough the deep, urgent craving for historical knowledge about communism. Thus “history” became fair game for laypeople and professionals alike. It is this in this context that the documentary directors joined other types of culture producers and cast themselves as historians. And, in several cases, they approached topics that were previously uncharted or only partially charted by history proper.
For instance, Florin Iepan’s Children of the Decree (2005) deals with the dire consequences of Decree 770, by which Ceaușescu banned birth control and abortions as a pro-natal measure. For his “mainstream documentary,” Iepan consulted archives; he interviewed women who have undergone illegal abortions; he talked to doctors, nurses, and quacks who have performed them; he traced unwanted and abandoned children; he located families who have been used by the propaganda machine as proof of the decree’s success, such as “the family of the 20 millionth Romanian.” He chronicles the terrible conditions of illegal abortions, describing (with clinical details) the methods used, reports on the thousands of deaths caused by inadequate abortions, reveals the police’s harassment of doctors and women, and depicts a larger picture of women’s life, family, and sexuality under communism. With this film, Iepan scripts, as it were, history.
Alexandru Solomon takes a similar approach to The Great Communist Bank Robbery (2004), the story of a 1959 bank heist carried out by high-ranking Communist Party people. Set off by a short propaganda movie, the director sought to reinstate a true version of the events; he examined thousands of pages from the secret police archives, compared statements, looked for discrepancies, and weighed the credibility of both documents and people. The goal was, as he asserted, to find “the right distance and the appropriate point of view.” With this film, Solomon restores, as it were, history. In his subsequent documentary, Cold Waves (2007), his main focus was no longer on retrieving history; instead, he opted for the recuperation of memory as a supplement to historical understanding by eliciting a series of witness accounts on Radio Free Europe.
Coming after both Iepan’s and Solomon’s films, which advanced explicit arguments about the past informed by meticulous research, Andrei Ujică’s Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (2010) disrupts this more conventional approach to documentary.
My essay will focus on Ujică's film; more precisely, I will explore how its design draws attention to and plays on the perplexing entanglements of film, memory, and history. These entanglements are stressed by three of the director’s gestures that I will closely analyze in what follows. First, the staging of an ample flashback in a way that foregrounds the intricate relationships between history and memory; second, the framing of the movie as an autobiography, thus drawing attention to the deceptiveness of such categories as “objective” and “subjective”; and, finally, the use of archival footage in a manner that challenges the public/private polarity. These three gestures, however, are challenged and/or endorsed by the spectators’ subjectivity, because, as Vivian Sobchak observes, film “is less a thing than an experience.”  Thus, to the close analysis of these gestures, I juxtapose a phenomenological perspective and to my academic voice I add vignettes that capture my experience of the film and the memories it evokes.
The Narrative Strategy: Flashback
Images of the trial. An abrupt start, shaky images, an amateurish feel. Ceauşescu: “It’s a masquerade.” It was Christmas time when the Romanian television broadcasted these images in 1989. As I watch the images in 2016, they evoke my own memories. I was in my apartment with my parents. No Christmas tree, no presents. No Christmas. My brother was in the streets and we were constantly worried about his life as the surrounding apartment buildings echoed the eerie sound of bullets. Light off inside the apartment, and fed with rumors by our neighbors, we could only assume the chaos outside. For a couple of days now, the TV had not mentioned anything about Ceauşescu. The last we had seen from him was when he fled from a balcony leaving unfinished his address to the nation. Was he apprehended? Did he manage to flee the country? Suddenly, a broadcaster urged us to stay tuned for an important announcement and we complied, the suspense choking us. And then these images packed the screen. These precise images of Ceauşescu and his wife on trial. Powerless, which was so very odd. Ceauşescu: “We will only answer to the Great National Assembly.” The scene of the execution does not come.
The structure of the film is deceptively simple: shots from Ceaușescu’s trial bookend archival footage that the director and his collaborators dug up from the Romanian Television Archive and Romania’s National Film Archive. Ujică explains that around 1000 hours of archival footage were surveyed, sorted, and evaluated. The collection of archival footage was then arranged to reconstitute a “year-by-year covering of Ceaușescu’s political biography.” But after laboring to organize the scattered images in chronological order, thus hinting toward objective, historical time, he then dissolves the linearity with a single gesture. Starting the telling of the story with Ceausescu’s end broaches the spheres of subjectivity and memory.
Black and white. People running to form mysterious lines along the walls of a building. Is this the Bucharest Royal Palace? It looks like it. Seas of people. Kerchiefs. Pioneer uniforms. Kids looking at the camera. Silence, except for the swishing of slowly and orderly moving bodies. I don’t recognize anybody, until I see, for a second, Ceauşescu’s figure in a group of dignitaries. A desk. An open window. Ceauşescu and others standing still. Footsteps. People approaching the open casket. I assume the body inside is Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, whom Ceauşescu succeeded. I remember my mom telling me what a big thing it was back then. Everybody cried, she said. She did too. She was there; maybe I’ll get a glimpse of her? The thought amused me. The images help me better understand her recollections. It got dark. People continue to parade. Two women wearing black and some children get closer. Dej’s family? Close-up of the deceased’s face. Ceauşescu is one of the men carrying the casket outside. Military. The two veiled women again. A podium.
The Autobiography’s establishing shots show Ceaușescu during the trial concluded by his execution; thus the “narrative present” of the movie is set in December 1989, moments before his demise. The movie then jumps to 1965, for the funeral of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, whose death made possible Ceaușescu’s rise to power. What follows, then, could be construed as a lengthy flashback.
The juncture between a recent past and a distant one enacted by this flashback integrates both memory and history with all their ambiguous edges. As an artifice of narration, the flashback upsets the customary order of historical accounts and, by doing so, invites us to reflection and judgment. The suture of the end (the trial) with the beginning (the funeral as the outset of Ceausescu’s course through history) jolts our conventional sense of time and alerts us to the fact that events (and images) do not speak for themselves; they are always framed and told to us. Even as less precise than a verbal commentary, the flashback still functions as a meaning-structuring device because of its ideological implications. As Turim contends, the flashback renders history into “an essentially individual and emotional experience” and suggests “a logic of inevitability.” The flashback stands for the inescapable subjective trajectory of remembering, emphasizing that memory work always starts in the/a present; the movie subsumes public, datable events/images under this idea. The flashback also presents us with the tangible result (the trial) before the cause (the long series of events, starting with Dej’s funeral and ending with Ceaușescu’s TV speech in response to the unrests in Timișoara), and it alerts us to the ways in which this route from present to past already contains and orders the meaning of experience.
In the movie, the juncture between the past and the present is marked by the contrast of color vs. black and white as well as by the juxtaposition of the static medium shot of Ceaușescu standing silent on a chair and the bird’s eye view of the people running in the streets. A cut at the precise moment when Ceaușescu has a somewhat pensive posture gives the flashback a subjective, interiorized tinge. Yet the length of the flashback (179 minutes of 185 minute film) almost makes us forget that we are inside a remembering act; by the time another cut brings us back to the present of the movie, we are somewhat comfortably installed in a seemingly fluent, linear sequence that we could very easily take for History. Our conventional sense of time is jolted again.
Speech. “Serious events in the last couple of days in Timișoara... A series of rallies and incidents... these groups meant to cause unrest and destroy...” The trial again. The film has come full circle. “I will only answer to the Great National Assembly.” “The coup...” “Serving foreign powers...” “There were firm orders not to shoot... All lies and mystifications.” The execution scene never comes. I have to remember this is an “autobiography.” He would not have completed the autobiography if he had been executed, right?
The agglutination of history-memory performed by the flashback is further enhanced by the lack of verbal commentary and the silence of the movie in regard to its own present. By refusing to offer a spoken narration of the images, the movie forces us to sort ourselves through the flow of history-memory coming at us from the screen. In addition, there is no indication as to the present time of the movie’s own production; the “now “of the trial and the “then” of Ceaușescu’s regime are the only two temporalities explicitly introduced in the film. The absence of a clear reference to the film’s present strengthens the link to the autobiographical invention, because the “now” of the trial anchors the film in Ceaușescu’s subjectivity. At the same time, it also compels the spectators to embed their viewing experience in their own historical and subjective present.
The “now” of the trial is chosen for its value as an “after” moment—that is, a point in time “after a sequence was completed”  and which usually invites the narration of life stories (auto/biographies) or histories. Because this “after” moment is a trial, the subsequent images have the connotation of a trial testimony or a confession. And because the trial ends with the protagonist’s execution (we know it, although the film does not show it), it is also a “moment-before-death flashback”—albeit a long and unconventional one.
During the first couple of minutes, the camera focuses mostly on Ceaușescu, while we hear a condemnatory voice asking accusatory questions from somewhere outside of the frame. To these questions, Ceaușescu replies: “No statement. I’m not saying another word!” As the voice asks, “Who authorized the genocide in Timișoara?” Ceaușescu’s mouth remains shut as his eyes look slightly up toward the left. For a few short moments, this image of Ceaușescu is accompanied by the sound of the next images as if anticipating them, as if conveying a mental process: overhead black and white shots of a street filled with people running to form a line for a funeral. We enter Ceaușescu’s past.
Coming right after the voice’s questions and Ceaușescu’s refusal to speak, the archival images stand in for a never-given trial testimony. The movie thus evokes and enters into a conversation with the discourses about Ceaușescu’s “hasty execution.” We are reminded of the forfeited chance to hear a genuine testimony in a properly organized judicial process. The film offers us a fictitious retrial in which the archival images function as a surrogate, imagined, and yet verisimilar testimony. From this perspective, the images’ documentary value is foregrounded and the spectators are cast as judges.
The disembodied voice is harsh and its proclamations designate Ceaușescu as a perpetrator. “You brought the country to the brink of disaster,” says the voice approximately 20 seconds into the movie. Seconds later, it asks: “Who authorized the genocide in Timisoara?” Then a cut takes us back to 1965, when—according to the movie—“everything” started. In this context, the subsequent images amount to a confession—that is, “a retrospective examination,” as Turim defines the confessional flashback, “of the ways in which he was introduced to his current criminality.” Ceaușescu, who is already guilty in the eyes of the court, reviews what has happened; not unlike the anti-hero of a film noir, Ceaușescu investigates his trajectory from “ordinary” apparatchik to genocide perpetrator and contemplates his accountability. From this perspective, the archival images are forwarded as subjective and the spectators are cast as confidants.
Ultimately, incentives to “read” the flashback as a trial testimony and/or as a confession may seem disputable. And while several “readings” of the flashback can very well coexist, the more powerful push is to consider the visual evocation as autobiographical; after all, the title asks us to do so.
The Genre: Autobiography. Not a Documentary
Ceausescu in a balcony. Pioneers wave flags. “We thank the party from the bottom of our hearts for our happy childhood.” I know this! I recited it! I sang it! I waved my flag while wearing the pioneer scarf. It must be May 1, Worker’s Day, as I see cherry twigs. Marx, Engles, and Lenin on a round carton. I eventually see it on a banner: “Worker’s day.” “Marxism-Leninism.” “Hurraaaah!” Applauses. Smiles. Balloons.
The title communicates what Noël Carroll calls a “categorical intention”; it communicates to us the genre to which the movie belongs. Asked about the reasons he titled the film “Autobiography,” Ujică states: “Any video archive of a chief of state is a protocol archive. Therefore, the only point of view from which a cinematic story, limited to these images, can be built is an autobiographical one.”
Autobiography is a genre of self-presentation that organizes memory. As such, the protocol shots—supposedly under Ceaușescu’s complete control, even as he never directly authored the images—could be taken as one of the conspicuous ways in which Ceaușescu articulated his persona, both in public and private. Even the public propaganda footage is not just an official representation, but also Ceaușescu’s self-presentation.
As an autobiography, the movie evokes the overabundance of memorial literature published in Romania after 1989, literature that many times stood in place of history proper. While mapping the personal recollections circulated in the post-communist Romanian public sphere, Cristina Petrescu and Dragoș Petrescu note that it was “the former political prisoners and the urban educated elite” who “produced the overwhelming majority of private accounts on the communist past.” Although former party activists have put forward their own versions of the past, these narratives were largely ignored, as they “resembled too much the pre-1989 official view on postwar national history.” Manufactured mostly from official newsreels, The Autobiography appears to literally replay the authorized version of the past.
However, the recollections of the former party apparatchiks had value for the historians: they “shed light on hidden details about the private life of nomenklatura members, backstage maneuvers, intraparty relations, and other spectacular events of the recent past.” Keeping with the autobiographical logic, Ujică’s movie attempts to deliver such “hidden details.” Notably, the flow of the propaganda is interrupted by the images of a dissident party member, Constantin Pârvulescu, speaking against Ceausescu at a Party Congress to show, as Ujica put it, “real life fragments outside protocol.” In addition, mixing home movies reels (Ceaușescu and his wife swimming, Ceaușescu with his children hunting) with official newsreels deliberately muddles the distinction between public history and personal memory.
The Autobiography not only evokes the plethora of post-communist memoirs, but it also adds to them, in an ironic and radically reflexive manner. A surrogate for Ceaușescu’s proper memories, the movie gestures toward the fact that if we are to follow a logic by which history can be recreated from memory—which is the logic that still dominates the historiography of the communist period—we miss one very important piece of the puzzle: Ceaușescu’s autobiography. The movie both provides a stand-in for and signals the absence of this autobiography.
In asking us to attend to these images as autobiography, the movie requires of us to consider Ceaușescus’s version of the facts. It also makes an effort to reconstruct a subjectivity that never explicitly revealed itself but mostly in the form of the protagonist’s public persona. For this reason, the version of history emanating from these images is to some degree naturalized as personal memory. Yet the absence of a narrating “I” curtails this naturalization and places the accent more on the events and less on the protagonist’s “me.” By staging it as subjective memory while at the same time rendering the images as impersonal, the film draws attention to the ambiguity of such categories as “objective” and “subjective” as they relate to history, memory, and, ultimately, film.
The autobiography frame creates a double pull: both away and toward our own subjectivity and emotions in relation to the images. The movie requires of the spectators—especially those who recognize (themselves in) the images—to take a reflective distance. The autobiographical frame wants to defamiliarize for us the film shots: they should not be understood as our collective conspicuous past, but as Ceaușescu’s personal memory. Nonetheless, if these images, for the most part heavily circulated in the Romanian public, are the expression of individual memory, they could be re-appropriated as such by each one of us. The movie invites its viewers not to recover time past but to seize “the opportunity to rework experience” —their own.
But Ujică counts on the tension between his proposed autobiographical frame and the spectators’ rejection of it. For the spectators’ historical knowledge and their understanding and expectations of the autobiographical genre cause them to refuse the autobiography as such. We know that Ceaușescu never produced an autobiography. But what if he did and this is it? So, the movie is inviting us to contemplate a hypothesis, to use our “suppositional imagination.” We are asked to take a fictive stance; that is, among other things, to have a hermeneutic engagement akin to the one we enact while watching a fiction. If wrapped in this fictive stance, the visual archive also becomes part of a fiction: the fiction of memory, the fiction of history, and the fiction of film,
It is in the space of this playful tension—let’s watch this as an autobiography although we know it cannot be an autobiography—that the movie promotes a radical reflection on memory, history, and film.
Amusement park. “Harvest day 1966.” My brother was born in 1966. Ceausescu plays some game. Circus acrobats. Romanian round dance again. The customary wedding dance again. A woman dressed in folk costume invites Ceaușescu in the middle of the circle. They dance, they kneel, and they kiss each other on the cheeks.
Despite the ways in which viewers are prompted to relate to The Autobiography via structural (the flashback), framing (an autobiography), and discursive (“it’s not a documentary”) elements, “the mode of cinematic identification” will ultimately depend on our “embodied existence and knowledge.” In her landmark essay on the “phenomenology of nonfictional experience,” Vivian Sobchack posits that it is our subjective relationship with the images on the screen that decides what kind of cinematic object we have in front of us. She proposes that film is experienced along a spectrum of spectatorial modes and that our position on this spectrum (regardless of the film’s formal generic categorization) depends on “what we have experienced and know of the life-world we inhabit.” At one end, there is the home-movie experience for viewers with personal knowledge of the characters, events, and places given on the screen; in this mode of identification, the images evoke persons and events that we have experienced directly.  Then, in the mode of documentary consciousness, even as we do not have a direct experience of what we see, our cultural and/or historical knowledge causes us to perceive the images as being part of a past or present reality that we only partially grasp; so, we watch in order to learn. In the case of The Autobiography, for instance, we learn Ceaușescu and the events presented as we watch the film. Finally, at the other end of the spectrum, there is the mode of fictional identification: when there is no “necessary existential connection” between what we see and what we know of our life-world, we experience what is on the film as “imaginary” or “irreal.”
If, at the minimum, autobiography is a discourse in the first person, Ceaușescu is generated as a first person by his performances of self as recorded by the camera. At the same time, people who have a “natural” connection with the cinematic images—because they lived the events presented—could claim ownership over the experiences unfolding on the screen and thus over, at least some of, the images themselves. In these images, some of the spectators recognize their own past. The shots thus have the potential to become part of some spectators’ autobiography.
Furthermore, the auteur’s own autobiography is entangled here. It is, after all, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu. A film by Andrei Ujică. The director intimates to Rob White that the film was a journey of both recovery and discovery: “I have the impression that I have gained back that section of my life nationalized in my youth.” The movie is an occasion for him to take some control of the story, thus recovering a sense of ownership over the past. It also gave him the opportunity to discover new elements of the past and to reach a new understanding of “what had happened.”
It is this movement between recovery and discovery that Ujică would like to stimulate in his spectatorship when he refuses to catalogue The Autobiography as a documentary. The director’s insistence that the movie “is not a documentary in the normal accepted sense” is a framing device as important as the title; this statement works in conjunction with the structuring of the movie as a far reaching, extensive, and lengthy flashback and with the choice to use the archives. By announcing, “This is not a documentary,” Ujică wants his viewers to abandon the notion that the images are used “as arguments in a demonstration”; instead, they are to be regarded as “preserved fragments of life, which are waiting to be reintegrated in the historical sequence.” This reintegration is meant to be a private/subjective affair: the movie places the onus of organizing the memory/history of the past residing in the images given on the screen on each and every one of its viewers.
The material of this story about the past further complicates the aspects described above. We have, in front of us, a history/memory made of archival filmstrips. In framing these images as autobiography, i.e. as individual memory, the movie forwards or adheres to a theory of remembering that “locates the recovery of memories as the resurging of images.” In addition, issues related to what Ujică calls “the filmification of history” are brought forth. Considering the use of the filmic archive is yet another occasion to reflect on the complex and undecided relationships between film and history and memory.
The Material: Archived Filmstrips
City streets. Patriotic (socialist?) music. Freezing workers waiting for something. A van with speakers is visible in the crowd. Is this his visit in Czechoslovakia? On a platform, Ceausescu and Alexander Dubcek. They take turns to speak. “We promise you the support of the Romanian communists and of the entire Romanian people,” Ceaușescu affirms. A woman holds a placard proclaiming, in English: “A friend in need is a friend in deed.” Press conference. I have never seen Ceausescu participating in a press conference. I don’t even think I knew, before 1989, what a press conference is.
The Autobiography probed two big visual archives: the archive of the National Romanian Television and the archive of Sahia Studio, the former State documentary film production company. Throughout the years, images from both these archives have been used, repurposed, and circulated in a variety of ways: in commercials for products and services such as Pepsi or mobile phone plans, in news programs, and in documentaries. The news programs have worked with archival images primarily by exhibiting them with new commentaries, which was one of the main modalities of erasing their propagandistic slant and appropriating them for the needs of the present.
In the New Romanian Cinema documentaries, the archival images have been treated as documents to be deconstructed and investigated. For Children of the Decree, Iepan used much of the visual records as starting points for his own investigation; he ended up tracing many of the people and stories found in the archive. In his film, he uses a variety of supplementary sources to create context for the archival records, provides follow-up accounts, and juxtaposes testimonies of people in the present as a counterargument and/or as a nuanced supplement to the archive.
The case of the Great Communist Bank Robbery is even more telling, as Solomon’s topic is a bank heist and the propagandistic documentary that accompanied the trial of the six people who committed the robbery. Not unlike Iepan, he uses the archival record—the short Reconstruction (1960), directed by Virgil Calotescu—as a starting point. The goal of Solomon’s documentary was “to de-construct Reconstruction, unveil the multiple layers of propaganda, and get closer to the truth.”
Ujica’s use of the archive is fundamentally different. With the flashback, he organizes the archive into a narrative and by storying the archive he underscores the selective and constructed nature of history. On the surface, he uses the historian’s method—that is, the narration of the archive. Like the historian, Ujică used the visual archive as a repository of documents where he “finds” the elements subsequently narrated. Like the historian, the director investigated these documents and determined “the most plausible story that can be told about the events of which they are evidence.” However, by choosing the autobiography as the most plausible story, the director refuses to pose as historian; he believes that “artistic means are more adequate in order to create ‘simulation models’ of the historical complexity.” By deciding to tell an autobiography, he subverted the archive’s traditional or expected use: instead of assessing the truth-value of the documents, he made them speak from Ceaușescu’s point of view.
Asian figures. Flags. Balloons. Drums. Vigorous percussion. Is this China or North Korea? Chants. Ceaușescu shakes hands with some officials. The motorcade passes through huge lines of people. My mom used to tell me that his whole craziness started after he visited China and North Korea. A big portrait of his is displayed. More chanting. More flags.
This supposedly simple, yet insightful, playful and ironic gesture puts the entire archive under the sign of a radical re/invention. By narrating the archive as autobiography, Ujică stresses the constructed/fictive constitution of memory, the inevitable and quite cluttered entanglement of individual and collective remembering, and the difficulty if not impossibility of separating history from memory. Staged as Ceaușescu’s subjective memory flow, the archival images perform history as memory. More importantly, by subsuming the filmic records to a subjective point of view, the movie questions both film as a natural (that is, indexical) trace of the past and the archive as a storage system for the retrieval of history/memory.
The public communication that surrounded the movie revealed the rigorous and industrious archival work involved in the making of The Autobiography, which suggests the creator’s intention to produce in the viewers what Baron called the “archive effect”: he wanted all the spectators—not only those who would potentially recognize the provenance of the images—to know that the footage came from the archive and that it was appropriated for the film. Broadcasting the details of the images’ specific origins drew attention to the fact that the material has been retrieved directly from the past; the filmstrips’ historical authenticity was thus being publicly certified.
But the particulars of the effort to excavate the past were closely accompanied by an account of the work that went into organizing the footage, deconstructing the previous editing, and building scenes and a new narration. In addition, the filmstrips are no longer accompanied by their original commentary, but by music only. Thus, the spectators are called to sustain a “double awareness.” They are asked to simultaneously pay attention to both the initial context of production (i.e., protocol/propaganda images) and the current time of production (including the operations mobilized to deconstruct and re-produce the images). That is, the viewers are asked to engage the past and the present with the understanding that both are, albeit in different ways and for different reasons, staged.
Music. “Papa's gonna buy you a mocking bird. And if that mockingbird don't sing...” Ceaușescu is visiting Universal Studios. Even as I know these images are from the archive, they still feel eerie. Color images. The first, so far. He is in the USA. White House lawn? Jimmy Carter welcomes him. “It’s beneficial to be able to consult such a man...” After coming so vigorously against the Russian invasion in Czechoslovakia, they thought of him as a maverick in relation to the Soviet Union. Or so the story excuses itself.
The initial context in which the images have been produced prompted their understanding of propaganda. The documentary value of these images resides in the fact that they are a testimony of the ways in which Ceaușescu’s propaganda apparatus staged reality; nonetheless, they also contain some traces of the reality itself. Being stripped of their original commentary and refused the accompaniment of a new guiding commentary affords them a sort of rawness intended to open them up anew to fresh interpretations. As Lawder argues, they become “veiled with layers of speculation, subjective speculation, and poetic ambiguity.”
The Autobiography does not repurpose the propaganda images in order to (only) call-out their lies; as spectators we are already habituated to think of propaganda images as staged and manipulative. This film proposes a drastically new reading of these images: they are a version of some truth, they are (in many ways) authentically expressing both Ceausescu’s character and his era, and they are, finally, an integral part of our memory. Ujică’s effort is less about challenging the archive as authority and more about challenging the authoritative/mainstream view on the images in the archive.
From Intended Effect to Real Effect. In lieu of Closure
Construction site. Applauses. The House of People. “It’s big, it’s really big.” “Yes, that was only a scale model, comrade.” The House of People almost complete. “Happy birthday.” Variations on the same theme.
Spectators’ responses to the movie ranged from those embracing the complexity, the ambiguity, and the playfulness of the movie to those feeling frustrated by its lack of a clear argument (I have considered, among others, the comments made by viewers on imdb.com and on dvd.netflix.com).
One category of spectators received the movie with enthusiasm, stating, for instance, that it was an “audacious way to tell a story,” “a real cinema pleasure” containing “arresting images” that were presented “as if a well-designed fiction.” Others were a little more reserved, noting that the movie is only “fascinating for informed students of the era.” A third category of viewers, however, has been utterly disappointed with the movie if not infuriated by it; they talked back with such harsh characterizations as “excruciatingly dull,” “pointless film,” or “unwatchable.” Many have complained that they have “learned nothing new” or that the movie has been a “terrible waste of an opportunity to educate.”
The story of Ceaușescu and his era is clearly shown but never completed or explained. It is the deliberate absence of both narrative and explanatory closure that gives pleasure to some spectators and frustrates others. The film does not tell us how the story ends. Following the logic of autobiography, the conclusion of the trial narrative is external to the movie’s world, thus requiring the spectators to appeal to their own knowledge in order to seal it. But the film is not interested in providing a formal narrative closure; the film is purposefully privileging the questioning of the past and of our own relationships to it.
The use of archival images exercises a sort of “epistemological seduction” and holds the promise of “a revelatory truth”  that is never explicitly delivered. In part, this promise is denied by the fact that the archive is framed as an autobiography and structured by a flashback. Thus, this film invites the kind of layered and undecided reading that I perform here; that is, a kind of reading that is aware of the tensions at play in the framing and structuring strategies of the movie and of the ways in which subjective experiences resist, embrace, or enter into a dialogue with these strategies. By a design that fosters ambiguity rather than clarity, the film wants its spectators to challenge and reflect upon the vagaries of history, memory, and film.
The trial again. The film has come full circle. “I will only answer to the Great National Assembly.” “The coup...” “Serving foreign powers...” “There were firm orders not to shoot... All lies and mystifications.” The execution scene never comes. I have to remember this is an “autobiography.”
Marie-Louise Paulesc is lecturer of Communication at Arizona State University, in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. In her research, Dr. Paulesc examines the social practices by which the communist past is remembered in everyday life, beyond formal memorial discourses.
Laura Popescu, "Interviu. Florin Iepan: Aș vrea un documentar la limita deontologiei, dar care lovește în problemele țării," http://atelier.liternet.ro/articol/2501/Laura-Popescu-Florin-Iepan/Florin-Iepan-As-vrea-un-documentar-la-limita-deontologiei-dar-care-loveste-in-problemele-tarii.html.
Alexandru Solomon, "The Experiences of a Filmmaker. Reconstructing Reality from Documents in Communist Archives," in Past for the Eyes. East European Representations of Communism in Cinema and Museum, ed. Oksana Sarkisova and Peter Apor (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2008), 106-10.
Rob White, "Interview with Andrei Ujică," interview, Film quarterly 64, no. 3 (2011), http://www.filmquarterly.org/2011/03/interview-with-andrei-ujica/.
See Maureen Turim, Flashback in Film: Memory and History, Kindle ed. (London: Routledge Library Editions, 2014 ), loc 316. In her turn, she borrows from Gennette. See Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980).
Cristina Petrescu and Dragoș Petrescu, "The Canon of Remembering Romanian Communism: From Autobiographical Recollections to Collective Representations," in Remembering Communism. Private and Public Recollections of Lived Experience in Southeast Europe, ed. Maria Todorovam and Stefan Troebst Augusta Dimou (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2014), 55.
See Winfried Fluck, "Mass Culture Modernism: Guilt and Subjectivity in Film Noir," in Romance with America? Essays on Culture, Literature, and American Studies, ed. Laura Bieger and Johannes Voelz (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2009).
Brandon Harris, "Andrei Ujică, <<The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu>>," Interview, Filmmaker Magazine (2011), http://filmmakermagazine.com/29388-andrei-ujica-the-autobiography-of-nicolae-ceausescu/.
As Carroll contends, “the author’s public communication” should provide strong hints for the spectators in regard to the positions they are supposed to adopt. See Carroll, Engaging the Moving Image, 216.
See Baron, who contends that archival documents are always “found” —“as opposed to images produced by the filmmaker.” Jaimie Baron, The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History (London: Routledge, 2013), 17.
In his interview with Brandon Harris, for instance, Ujică states: “the Ceaușescu images are centralized in two big archives, at the National Television and the National Film Archive, which is the archive of the former State documentary film studio...” See Harris, "Andrei Ujică, <<The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu>>."