A New Wave of Romanian Documentary?
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Romanian documentaries have lacked the visibility or aesthetic unity of their fictional counterparts in the Romanian New Wave. However, the country has been robust in its nonfiction output, adopting broader genres of the international festival documentary while developing a dialogue between nationally specific material and transnational audience address.
The coherence of a Romanian New Wave may be up for debate, but, as other essays in this issue have demonstrated, the critical popularity of a national film movement has cemented Romania’s reputation on the international cinematic stage. A virtuous circle has formed between the politics of post-Communist Romania and its cinema and between a domestic film culture and an international audience. An identifiable “house” style has enabled Romanian films to gain festival attention, and the New Wave label, whatever its drawbacks, has helped galvanized a national cinema movement. In turn, the festival success has allowed Romanian auteurs to emerge and develop styles that push against the strictures of the New Wave. New Wave fiction films have wrestled thematically with the heritage of Romania’s Communist regime; films like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007), Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009), or Child’s Pose (Calin Peter Netzer, 2013) use political allegory to reexamine Ceaușescu-era history as a lingering political trauma. Has post-Communist Romania, these films ask, truly become post-Communist? The critical and festival success of the New Wave has emerged in large part from the close fit between a realist art film style and the thematic exploration of Romania’s identity after Ceaușescu.
Film festival studies as a subfield has generally been critical, or at least cynical, of film movements and the role that the festival circuit has played in them. Cindy Hing-Yuk Wong, for instance, uses the Romanian New Wave as a case study in the formation of a festival-film style. “When a cinema is ‘discovered,’” she argues, “it is not uncommon for festivals to search for old and new movies from this region, reinforcing the history and complexity of this national cinema. By 2007, Romanian film had become a canonical discovery for festivals outside of the Euro-American context...” As the scare quotes around the idea of discovery suggest, Wong considers the festival approbation and critical labeling a fictive process real in its effects. Her analysis dovetails with recent scholarship viewing film festivals as a type of cultural capital and the festival film as an aesthetically limiting, gate-keeping form. Moreover, in the case of Romania, Wong critiques the manner in which Western European critics, programmers, and audiences construct Communism and post-Communist Romania as a political and cultural other.
This pessimistic, or at least critical, view of festivals and film movements is not the full picture, I would argue, and documentary cinema in particular complicates a view of Romanian cinema as a pawn in an overdetermining festival circuit. This is not to say that Romanian documentary has not been geared toward an international festival circuit, since it has. As film scholar Adina Bradeanu has noted, the initial successes of post-Communist Romanian documentaries like The Great Communist Bank Robbery (Alexandru Solomon, 2004) marked a turning point in Romanian documentary: “Romanian documentaries had been virtually absent from IDFA since its establishment at the end of the 1980's. Suddenly, in 2004, there were four of them in the competition.” Not only did these successes help Romanian documentary on the festival circuit, but by challenging the domestic equation of “documentary” with the state propaganda of the Sahia studio, they also helped foster a vital documentary culture within Romania. As with other European small or “minor” cinemas, Romanian documentaries have had regular appearances in regional film festivals, like Sarajevo, as well as the documentary festival circuit that has flourished in Europe in the last two decades. Some, like Andrei Ujică’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (2010), have become festival favorites by finding a formal language to address the difficulty of coming to terms with Romania’s communist past.
For all the success of recent documentaries, though, Romanian documentaries have occupied much less of a central role in the film festival circuit than their fictional counterparts. In short, while there is a decent number of Romanian documentaries, including some very good ones, they have not cohered into an identifiable documentary New Wave. Rather, they partake of broader genres of the international festival documentary while developing a dialogue between nationally specific material and transnational audience address. This essay outlines three important strands of festival-film documentary and sees each as having particular inflections in the Romanian context. Popular-art-cinema documentaries aim for a broader crossover market by adapting elements of the “new documentary” popularized by filmmakers like Errol Morris or Michael Moore. Observational and character-driven films use direct cinema technique and minimize aestheticization in depicting their subjects. Experimental documentaries, often associated with established auteurs, challenge traditional documentary styles outright. To sketch these trends, the essay will analyze a handful of exemplary documentaries that have appeared since 2010: Chuck Norris vs. Communism (Ilinca Calugareanu, 2015), My Beautiful Dacia (Stefan Constantinescu, Julio Soto Gurpide, 2015), Here... I Mean There (Laura Capatana-Juller, 2012), and The Second Game (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2014). These do not represent the entirety of Romanian documentary, of course, and, in the context of coproduction, even to speak of them as only Romanian can be misleading; but these films provide a snapshot of how documentary cinema is wrestling with post-Communist identity and politics in a manner parallel to, yet sometimes different from, Romania’s fiction cinema. The vitality of the New Wave’s neglected nonfiction siblings puts into relief the limitation of a festival-branded national film movement without discounting the national and transnational value of the films themselves.
Log Line Cinema: The Popular Art Cinema Strand
One major challenge for films from small cinemas is the need to gain not only funding for film production but also potential audiences in a distribution environment dominated by larger markets or more prestigious national cinemas. The Romanian New Wave fictional films have done so in part through an identifiable aesthetic approach and a miserablist depiction of post-Communist spaces and culture. They arguably tap into what Wong sees as an “interregional oriental gaze” of Eastern and Southeastern Europe. However, in their aim for funding and audiences, many documentaries have latched onto another, if related, trope: Communist chic. Communist chic, a concept as much popular as academic, entails a nostalgic appropriation of Communist iconography and cultural forms, often with an appreciation of them as kitsch or camp. A group of recent documentaries invokes the Ceaușescu years in a nostalgic and often campy manner. Metrobranding (Ana Vlad and Adrian Voicu, 2010), for instance, traces the fate of state industry brands like the Pegas bicycle or the Ileana sewing machine. My Beautiful Dacia gives a history of the Romanian-manufactured automobile through different periods of the country’s history. Chuck Norris vs. Communism presents an account of pirate video distribution during the Communist years. Romanian documentaries are not the only ones to draw upon Communist chic, but such content has formed a distinctly noticeable portion of the documentaries that circulate internationally.
The question is why Communist chic makes such an appearance. Part of the reason is the specificity of Ceaușescu’s cult of personality, an idea that Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu explores in its own way. Partly, the trope represents misgivings about the loss of a national identity with globalization and accession into the EU. Such a nostalgic stance is open to strong critique, not only as a cynical pandering to Western audiences ignorant of Romanian culture, politics, or history, but also as a backward looking ideology. Similar debates over Ostalgie (“nostalgia for the East”) in German cinema, however, have shown that the politics of nostalgia might not be so simple. As Anthony Enns argues, “despite the fact that nostalgia does not provide any critical distance from the past, it still retains the potential to foster a critical distance from the present.” Like Ostalgie, Communist chic can provide an occasion to wrestle with the heritage of Communism and the politics of post-Communism, in a manner different from the downbeat allegorical narratives of the New Wave filmmakers.
Each of the exemplary documentaries relies on the log line to suggest Communist chic material. A short descriptive text that serves as synopsis and teaser for festival distribution and larger exhibition, the log line provides the marketing hook for a documentary. Some documentaries, especially poetic or experimental documentaries, have a more tenuous relation to their log line. For others, the log line functions as a high concept marker of content. The very title of Chuck Norris vs. Communism establishes the concept quickly and with it several of its marketing aspirations: the potential viewer knows that the film will deal with the legacy of communism, will be about the power of cinema, and will enliven any documentary discourse of sobriety with elements of popular cinema. The film’s log line confirms many of these expectations with a more specific premise:
In 1980s Romania, thousands of Western films smashed through the Iron Curtain opening a window into the free world for those who dared to look. A black-market VHS racketeer and a courageous female translator brought the magic of film to the people and sparked a revolution.
Similarly, My Beautiful Dacia has a simple log line:
My Beautiful Dacia is an extravagant and humoristic odyssey from Communism to Capitalism as seen from the perspective of one of Romania's most charismatic symbols, the Dacia automobile. The film follows several Romanians—from rich to poor, from old to young—whose lives are interconnected by this humble car, thus showing the present transformation of Romanian society from past to present. Can this car be the answer to Romania’s social changes?
The log lines clearly help market documentary in a distribution environment not always favorable to small cinemas or festival films. In this case, they do more than that, by presenting Communist chic as a high concept framing of what is ultimately a bigger issue film.
Chuck Norris vs. Communism is a good case in point. The title and log line set up a conflict between East and West, or between Communism and capitalist-liberal democracy, and moreover ascribes to popular cinema a central role in overthrowing the Ceaușescu government. Indeed, many of the film’s interviewed subjects talk about the importance that forbidden “imperialist” movies had in their desire to resist the strictures of the existing regime. The first third of the documentary introduces the phenomenon of VHS pirating and underground distribution of Hollywood films in the 1980s, while in the process giving exposition about the repressive nature of the police state. Present-day interviews intercut with footage from the films, encouraging the spectator to read the films’ narratives subjectively. For instance, one person recalls watching Rocky (John Avildsen, 1976) and being inspired to copy Rocky Balboa’s workout routine; as he describes waking up each morning at 5AM, the editing cuts back to shots from the film, suturing our present-day memory with the past of the original VHS encounter.
The film, however, is more complex than its log line suggests. Chuck Norris vs. Communism has neither a straightforward expository structure nor a three-act narrative structure. Rather, it uses something similar to television narrative’s A-B structure, consisting of multiple, alternating strands. The A plot of the film is an account of how Western, especially Hollywood, films served as an incipient political resistance to communism and offered an alternative political utopian aspiration. This A plot corresponds to the film’s log line and is reinforced by some of the interviews. The B plot is a suspense-styled narrative (what critic Scott Foundas calls the “the flair of a good espionage yarn”), interweaving the parties involved in the VHS trade: the exhibitors, the dubber and translator Irina Margareta Nistor, tape smugglers, and the black market bosses. As the film progresses, the B plot takes a larger role, and the film suggests the possibility that the smuggling and pirate video exhibition was permitted, even sanctioned, by powerful members of the secret police. The A-B structure thereby offers two thematic threads for the film: the first aligned with the Communism vs. Capitalism concept, the latter raising different questions about the nature of life under a police state and the complicity of the police in the downfall of communism.
Particularly in its smuggling narrative, Chuck Norris vs. Communism borrows considerably from the stylistic strategies of popular documentary. Film scholars and critics have used various terms to describe a range of “new documentary” styles popularized by filmmakers like Errol Morris or Michael Moore. Genre narrative structure, reenactment, the treatment of the filmmaker as a key “character,” minimalist obbligato scoring, and shock cuts all work against traditional documentary aesthetics and, just as importantly, against audience perceptions of documentary as a hidebound aesthetic. Chuck Norris vs. Communism interweaves a significant amount of reenactment, both of the clandestine VHS screenings and the dubbing work of translator Irina Margareta Nistor. As present-day subjects recount the importance of Hollywood cinema to them during the Ceaușescu years, the recreations create a thriller out of the clandestine dubbing operation that operated under the nose of the secret police, and possibly with their knowledge. The scenes of Nistor are particularly notable for their pastiche, shot on film to show significant grain and color corrected to look like lower-budget art-film color cinematography from the early 1980s. With their low-key tone, blue-heavy hue, and saturated color they are reminiscent of, for instance, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s or Aki Kaurismäki’s work. The sound design is similar to a fiction film’s, but more basic, with an excessive amount of echo and room tone. Finally there are expressive tracking motions of the camera and very basic shot/reverse shot patterns, as if the film were a European fiction film aimed for television broadcast; yet a subtle handheld motion signals these as “documentary” as well. By appropriating fictional styles in order to engage audiences and increase the documentary’s marketing reach, the film has a close proximity to the popular documentary common in the United States and other Anglophone contexts.
My Beautiful Dacia goes further in aligning Communist chic with an ironic tone and visual approach. The documentary is structured in five acts, each marked by silent black leader and introduced by an intertitle: “Milk and Honey” (covering the 1970s and 80s), “The End of a Dream” (the austerity years of the 1980s),“The Fall,” (the revolution), “Skeletons,” (the post-Communist aftermath), and “Let’s Go Home” (contemporary Romania). Though chronological, the sections map differing viewpoints on Romanian history. “Milk and Honey” explores the freedom and insipient consumer culture that the Dacia brought about. “The End of a Dream” covers the increasingly repressive nature of the 1980s and interviews a soccer star for whom the Dacia meant the possibility of emigrating from Romania. “The Fall” recounts Ceaușescu’s flight from Bucharest, escorted in part by a Dacia. “Skeletons” critiques the social and economic backsliding during Romania’s rapid transformation to a capitalist (and integrated) economy. “Let’s Go Home” examines Romania’s current integration with the EU by following Romanians who drive to Spain for work.
The film’s humor plays out through formal choices. Scenes open or close with overly composed framing or with subjects in direct address. At other points, the filmmaking encodes a kitsch relation to Communism; for instance, a clip of a Ceaușescu-era state television broadcast is re-shot on a vintage television set, symmetrically framed, with kitsch home décor and desaturated warm colors in the mise-en-scène. Chuck Norris vs. Communism, similarly, uses this reframing of state-run news through a filmed television set. At other points, strings-heavy melodramatic or romantic popular music plays against the tone of the scene, whether of a Dacia test drive or of middle-aged bathers partaking in a mud bath.
However, if Chuck Norris vs. Communism, My Beautiful Dacia, or other Communist-chic documentaries are crossover documentaries, they differ somewhat from the standard popular documentary formulas. It is helpful instead to think of them as a documentary version of the popular art film. Rosalind Galt has applied the label of popular art film to a group of works that “textually and institutionally.... hover between the arthouse and the popular.” Diagnosing fiction films like Cinema Paradiso (1988), Amélie (2001), or City of God (2002), Galt notes how “the popular art film aligns a certain international art-cinematic style with generic narrative forms.” The component parts of art cinema and popular genre are different for documentary, but a comparable mix of art-plus-popular defines a number of European documentaries that appropriate popular documentary aesthetics. For lack of a better term, the popular-art-cinema documentary designates a crossover approach mixed in its narration and style.
The use of Errol Morris-like elements in these films might place these examples fully in the popular cinema camp, except that they still retain an issue-documentary form and, like other European documentaries on the festival circuit, prefer minimal narration and exposition. The segments of My Beautiful Dacia, for instance, often end with long takes of subjects that the film has not introduced nor identified, and even the main subjects of both it and Chuck Norris are credited only at the films’ end. Even a film not immediately identified as a Communist chic documentary, Trading Germans (Razvan Georgescu, 2014), combines reenactments, campy music, and drone cinematography with a straightforward issue film about the dislocation of Saxons from Transylvania and the duplicity of the Ceaușescu government in pursuing profit from the West German government. Popular art-film documentaries reverse the formulation of Galt’s model of the popular art film; in addition to wedding art cinema style to popular genre, the documentaries also have an underlying genre element of “straight” or traditional documentary. Institutionally, the international distribution of non-English language documentary remains an uphill battle, and to the extent that popular-art documentaries can straddle television and festival distribution, the more they hedge their production bets. Producers like HBO Europe have helped this situation by facilitating funding for minor-cinema European filmmakers, and the private television context has also been influential in developing a style that splits the difference between “new documentaries” and less accessible festival films.
Against Aestheticization: The Observational and Character-Driven Strand
The popular art film documentary comes with a stylistic surplus. In it, issue-film content gets wedded to stylized attributes that help market documentary material that would otherwise fail to find as broad an audience. Whether intentionally or not, on the other hand, some documentaries seem diametrically opposed to the importation of popular film aesthetics. One of the examples most committed to a direct cinema aesthetic is Where Are You Bucharest? (Vlad Petri, 2014), which chronicles street protests in the Romanian capital in 2012. Compare the film’s log line to Chuck Norris vs. Communism’s:
What does a retired police officer, a dog trainer, the founder of a political party and anti-government protesters have in common? They've all met on the streets of Bucharest, 23 years after the Romanian Revolution, determined to reclaim the public space.
Vlad Petri is following their stories for one year, from the first days of the anti-government protests to the final days of the Referendum against the President.
This is not a didactic film about a political phenomenon, it is an intimate portrait and a personal insight on the stories of people, their claims, expectations and views on democracy.
Despite filtering an observational film through an enigma and rhetorical question, the concept here is much more diffuse. Unlike with the downfall of Ceaușescu or, in another national context, Ukraine’s Euromaidan, many outside viewers are unaware or only marginally aware of the recent political history of Romania’s 2012 constitutional crisis. Where Are You Bucharest? provides no exposition of this history, and while the on-the-street interviews with protestors give some specific information, much of the broader stakes and context of the street protests remain unspoken. Even the log line provides little specificity for those not versed in the issue.
Where Are You Bucharest? is an outlier, though, for its strict adherence to an observational style and for its resolute focus on national politics. As director Petri notes, the reception at non-Romanian festivals has been more restrained, since the Romanian specificity was eclipsed by the pan-European street protest rubric of festival programming. A more successful approach on the international circuit has tempered the observationalism or the national politics—or both. Films like A Mere Breath (Monica Lãzurean-Gorgan, 2016), Off the Beaten Track (Dieter Auner, 2010), Here... I Mean There, and 24 Buckets, 7 Mice, and 18 Years (Marius Stefan Iacob, 2012) show the tethering of observational style to individual portraiture. These films vary in their style—some detached or poetic, others more intimate in tone—but together they show the impact of the character-driven format of documentary filmmaking. Character-driven documentaries treat a subject as a “character” with their own emotional journey and structure the documentary with some version of a three-act narrative structure. Because character-driven documentaries lack voiceover narration or heavy exposition and rely on observational camerawork and sound, critics often label them as direct cinema. However, character-driven films differ from more purely (or canonically) verité documentaries in their narration and spectatorial experience; they lack some of the fictional tropes of the popular-art-film doc, but they too have become a common model for funding, distribution, and exhibition.
A film addressing national and transnational issues, Here... I Mean There exemplifies the character-driven documentary form. The film chronicles the life of one family from the Maramureș region, the Berindeas, as the parents go to Spain for work while the grandparents raise the two teenage girls. As the opening intertitle explains, “Ani and Sanda’s parents have been working in Spain since the girls were in kindergarten. For the last 11 years they have been building a new house, back home. Sanda is now 12, Ani is 16.” The film thereby sets up an intertwined structure connecting the family’s house to the passing of three years’ time in the family’s life. Temporal titles (“April 2009,” “4 months later,” etc.) demarcate six sequences of the film, most of them with fixed-frame establishing shots depicting the seasons of the farm. Other than these more contemplative transitions, though, the film avoids the rigorous compositions and static camera common to poetic documentary and prefers instead a more immediate handheld approach of an observational style. Director and photographer Capatana-Juller’s camera often interviews Sanda at floor level as she lies down or follows family reactions at busy gatherings. Like other observational footage, it is reactive and often lacks the aestheticized composition common in more poetic documentaries.
The structure gives form to the observational footage. In the case of Here... I Mean There, the daughters are the main characters, and the narrative arc revolves around Sanda in particular. The film comprises three acts, which correspond partly to the sequences of film, demarcated with fades to black and intertitles. The first act establishes the Berindeas’ family life as the parents go back and forth between Spain and Romania; in this the children seem to have accepted their parents’ absence as a regrettable but necessary state of affairs. The second act shows the emotional strain of the parents’ distance on the family. Tellingly, after a relatively faster editing pace of the first act, the second act opens with a very long take (44 seconds in length) of Ani and Sanda sitting on the couch in a state of ennui as they do mindless tasks or simply look ahead, bored. After a tearful airport send-off of the parents back to Spain, the third act charts two related transformations: Ani’s maturity into adulthood and toward independence (represented by her dating life), and Sanda’s increasing and explicit unhappiness at her family’s predicament. The film ends on an emotional climax of Sanda’s monologue to the cameras; she breaks down emotionally, unable to bear her parents’ absence.
Like other character-driven docs, Here... I Mean There uses character arc to engage spectators in a social or political issue. The tragedy of Here... I Mean There is that the very path of Romanian economic success and integration into the EU comes at a toll of traditional social bonds. “My biggest wish,” Sanda says toward the film’s end, “is for Mommy and Daddy to move back home. Everybody is running after money, as if it were something special.” Like My Beautiful Dacia, Here... I Mean There reflects on the price of the EU’s increasing role in Romanian life and the economy, but the latter film personalizes its theme by building it out of the closely observed portrait of individuals. Character-driven documentaries can frequently gain favor with documentary funders and television broadcasters, since they provide a personalization of abstract ideas. As Here... I Mean There shows, though, they can also face limitations, as the individual stories alone might not be enough to secure wide foreign audiences.
Sound against the Grain of History: The Experimental Documentary Strand
The documentaries above share some of the festival spaces with the New Wave films, playing at the Transilvania International Film Festival, or sharing production or distribution companies with New Wave films. (HiFilm Productions, for instance, produced both Here... I Mean There and the New Wave festival hit Aferim! [Radu Jude, 2015].) They have exhibited on the film festival circuit, sometimes doing well at documentary film festivals or regional fests. Two of the Romanian documentaries most successful on the festival circuit—Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu and The Second Game—have adopted a more experimental approach. Autobiography interrogates archival footage from the Communist era to deconstruct Ceaușescu’s cult of personality. In the vein of experimental documentaries from Péter Forgács or Sergei Loznitsa, the film adds Foley sound to otherwise silent actuality footage and shows yet other footage in complete silence. The sound disjunction builds up a historiographic conceit that removes the “authentic” voice of the national from the historical recollective documentary. Ujică himself sees a complementary relation between his film and the New Wave fiction films:
We are dealing here with “the two faces of reality” in cinema. While I start from fragments of reality, which I try to compress through syntactic devices into an aesthetic discourse, the Romanian New Wave directors start from an aesthetic presumption, which they try to dilate through morphological means until it becomes fragments of reality. We find ourselves, to go back to the image we started with, on the two different sides of a Möbius strip, with neither of us being able to identify the point where it twists.
Though different in style from the New Wave films, Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu does have a similar approach to temporality, with long takes pushing the viewer to reflect on the often absurd nature of totalitarianism.
Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2014) would also fit Ujică’s Möbius’s strip formulation. Just over ninety minutes in length, the film consists of an unedited duplication of a telecast 1988 soccer match between two Bucharest football clubs, Steaua and Dinamo, a match for which Porumboiu’s father, Adrian, served as referee. The film lacks a traditional exposition, presenting only an epigrammatic intertitle opening relating that the filmmaker was warned as a child that his father might face harm for being a referee. This anecdote frames the theme of the rest of the film. Over the degraded video image (shown without the original sound of the telecast), the Porumboius discuss the match, taking place between a team favored by the Army versus one favored by the secret police. On the pitch, there is little action of importance for a game ending in a 0-0 tie, but the subtextual drama of father Adrian’s attempt to manage pressure in officiating becomes a minimalist rumination on the ethics of life under communism, a theme common to other New Wave films. The rules of the game become a metaphor for the problem that the rule of law poses for a police state (ideas Cornelieu Porumboiu explores in Police, Adjective). Additionally, the referee stands in thematically for a kind of existential ethical resistance. Adrian recounts how each side tried to bribe him and that each kept investigation files on all of the referees. Though he resisted the corruption of the game, in his explanation he falls back to the humility of a professional identity: he was merely doing what a good referee does.
Second Game is not a documentary in the traditional sense, and from a certain vantage the film might be considered an essay film, using the sound track to reread the image. However, unlike many essay films, Second Game does not use editing to help make its argument. The film unfolds as a durational whole, more akin to structural experimental films, with a fixed, organizing principle. Like a structural film, too, Second Game positions the spectator to examine, in an experiential way, the formal dimension of cinema. The degraded video imagery becomes a structuring element, imposing itself between the spectator and the events shown. As critic Jordan Cronk notes, the film highlights aesthetic surface in its own right: “The VHS playback, while volatile, becomes almost hypnotic in combination with the snowfall, which is a blur of white in the sky but a gathering pitch of browns and greys at ground level.” At various points, Adrian and Cornelieu discuss the image, contrasting the archival video to contemporary technology. As in Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujică’s Videograms of a Revolution (1992), the reliance on archival televisual footage foregrounds the role of camera choices in the telecast editing. Finally, the real-time, long take nature of the film, the material degradation of the videotape, and the sound-image disjunction highlight a historiographic separation between then and now. Adrian continually points out what is different about the period, but as a conceit the cinematic refilming/restaging of the match–the “second game”–poses the question of what can be learned from revisiting the history of Romania on the eve of Ceaușescu’s fall.
Unsurprisingly, auteur reputation heavily brands both examples here. They are not the only experimental documentaries to come from Romanian or Romanian ex-patriot filmmakers—Irina Botea’s video art also would qualify, for instance—but it is notable that experimental work has taken place at the margins of Romanian documentary production. Both Ujică and Botea are emigrants from Romania and work largely in Germany and the United States. Porumboiu, though a cinephile, has not trained in nonfiction, nor has his work been strongly associated with Romanian documentary culture institutions, such as the Astra Film Festival or One World Romania. So while the experimental documentaries have been relatively successful on the film festival circuit, they have not spurred many imitators, at least not yet. Compared to the popular art film or the character-driven formats, the experimental works have also yet to provide an aesthetic template for other Romanian documentary filmmakers.
Pluralism of the Documentary Festival Style
Romanian documentary has not cohered around an aesthetic movement in the way that Austrian documentary (the work of Michael Glawogger, Nikolas Geyrhalter, and Ulrich Seidl) or Danish docfiction (spearheaded by the CPH:DOX festival) has. In this sense, there is no equivalent of the New Wave movement. The example with the clearest ties to the New Wave, Porumboiu’s Second Game, is stylistically and institutionally apart from many of the other documentaries coming out of Romania, often relying on international coproduction and European television broadcast. However, documentary has played a vital role in the national public sphere, in a context in which party politics have often been trapped in a clientelist holding pattern after the fall of communism. In the decade-plus since the 2004 watershed appearance of Solomon’s The Great Communist Bank Robbery, Romania has been a productive and valuable contributor to a growing documentary festival circuit. The pluralism of its output and the fact that it often follows documentary trends rather than originates them have meant that Romanian documentary lacks the branding of a movement or the critical visibility that comes with having a coherent movement. Nonetheless, the pluralism has played to the strengths of a national cinema straddling domestic public sphere aims and broader circulation.
The case of Romanian documentary, too, has important implications for the debates around the festival film. Film festival scholars provide a useful critique of the way that interconnected networks of festivals, funding bodies, and film critics reinforce and even create stylistic convergence in contemporary films. However, it is easy to overstate the pessimistic view of the festival film as an aesthetic mode. Documentary festivals do show documentaries that fall into well-honed patterns, and, at first glance, Romanian documentaries would seem to follow formulas of popular, character-driven, or even experimental documentary. But their pluralism militates against the notion that there is a single template for festival distribution, or a simple subjugation of national content for the foreign spectator. Just as some of the festival documentaries are less flashy in their aesthetic approach than others, some national cinemas need to be taken on their own terms when it comes to documentary, lack of a movement notwithstanding.
Chris Cagle is an associate professor of Film and Media Arts at Temple University. His research interests include classical Hollywood, cinematography, and documentary. He is the author of the book Sociology on Film: Postwar Hollywood's Prestige Commodity (Rutgers University Press), about the 1940s social problem film, and of essays in Cinema Journal, Screen, and Quarterly Review of Film and Video, as well in a number of edited volumes. His newest book project examines an international "festival film" style in contemporary documentary cinema.
I would like to thank Nora Alter and Kathleen Rowe Karlyn for valuable comments on an earlier draft of this essay, as well as HiFilm Productions for their assistance.
For more on the Romanian New Wave as a realist art cinema movement, see Maria Ioniță, “Framed by Definitions: Corneliu Porumboiu and the Dismantling of Realism,” in European Visions: Small Cinemas In Transition, ed. Janelle Blankenship and Tobias Nagl (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2015), 173-85; and Doru Pop, Romanian New Wave Cinema: An Introduction (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014).
Marijke de Valck, “Film Festivals, Bourdieu, and The Economization of Culture” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 23, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 74-89; Jean-Michel Frodon, “The Cinema Planet” in The Film Festivals Reader, ed. Dina Iordanova (St Andrews: St Andrews Film Studies, 2013), 217–21.
Alina Bradeanu, “‘Death’ and Documentary: Memory and Film Practice in Post-communist Romania,” KinoKultura, special issue no. 6 (May 2007), http://www.kinokultura.com/specials/6/bradeanu.html/
Mette Hjort and Duncan Petrie, eds., The Cinema of Small Nations (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006); Lenuta Giukin, Janina Falkowska, and David Desser, eds., Small Cinemas in Global Markets (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015).
See for instance, Aidan Foster-Carter and Kate Hext, “North Korea as Communist Chic [book review],” Print Quarterly 26, no. 4 (Dec. 2009): 429-31. For a more popular usage, see “Post-Communist Chic: You Must Remember This,” The Economist, Sept. 17, 2016, 50.
See Anthony Enns, “The Politics of Ostalgie: Post-socialist Nostalgia in Recent German Film,” Screen 48, no. 4 (Winter 2007): 475-91; Thomas Elsaesser, “Double Occupancy and Small Adjustments: Space, Place and Policy in the New European Cinema,” in European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005), 108-30; and Seán Allan, “Ostalgie, Fantasy, and The Normalization of East-West Relations in Post-Unification Comedy” in German Cinema: Since Unification, ed. David Clarke, ed. (London: Continuum Books, 2006), 105-26.
“My Beautiful Dacia,” International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam website, https://www.idfa.nl/ accessed December 6, 2016.
Stella Bruzzi, New Documentary, 2nd edition (London: Routledge, 2000); Lucia Ricciardelli, “Documentary Filmmaking in the Postmodern Age: Errol Morris & The Fog of Truth,” Studies in Documentary Film 4, no. 1 (2010): 35-50.
Where Are You Bucharest? website, http://www.bucurestithemovie.ro/ accessed December 6, 2016.
“Power to the people? Bucharest Street Protests Come Under Gaze of Documentary-maker,” Business Review, June 23, 2014, http://www.business-review.eu/sidebar-featured/power-to-the-people-bucharest-street-protests-come-under-gaze-of-documentary-maker-66099/ accessed December 6, 2016.
As an example of the direct cinema label, see “here... I mean there @ Documentary Mondays,” One World Romania website, http://oneworld.ro/blog/en/833/ accessed December 10, 2016.