Monday, December 08, 2008

Romanian Film Festival: Cold Waves

It was a government program that worked. How novel. Of course, Radio Free Europe did not single-handedly win the Cold War, but it successfully built up a large audience behind the Iron Curtain. In Romania, it forged a particularly strong connection with its listeners that is documented in Alexandru Solomon’s Cold Waves (trailer here), which screened at this year’s Romanian Film Festival.

According to Solomon’s documentary, RFE was regularly heard by a staggering 65% of all Romanians—generating moon-landing level market shares on a daily basis. Early in the film Solomon states RFE was a constant presence in his home growing up, and on the rare occasions his family turned it off, they would still hear it through the walls from the flat next door.

As in the case of VOA’s beloved jazz program hosted by Willis Conover, music was a big part of RFE’s popularity, but the station’s news coverage during two times of crisis cemented the relationship between RFE and the Romanian people. The first incident was the disastrous earthquake of 1977. Since the Dear Leader was on a state visit to Nigeria at the time, a news blackout was imposed on government controlled media until his return, leaving a huge information vacuum for RFE to fill. The second incident was the start of the 1989 Revolution in Timişoara, which would be RFE’s shining hour, much as the 1991 Russian Coup was for Radio Liberty.

It was not just average Romanians listening—the Ceauşescu government was also paying close attention, dedicating a division of the Securitate, the so-called “Ether Unit,” to countering RFE. The premature deaths of three RFE Romanian section chiefs from cancer-related causes have long raised suspicions, but have yet to be substantiated with evidence. However, the film did uncover documents linking Carlos the Jackal (who was given safe harbor in Romania under Ceauşescu) and the Romanian Securitate to the 1991 bombing of RFE’s Munich facility.

Solomon employs many of the conventions of documentary filmmaking, like reuniting the surviving staff of Romanian section in the old RFE building outside of Munich, as well as interviewing plenty of talking heads. However, he periodically uses a visual motif of what looks like a three part soundstage or theater backdrop, consisting of a Romanian flat, RFE studio, and Securitate office, to evoke the feeling of Cold War Romania. In addition to the film’s distinctive look, Solomon also scored some impressive interviews. We hear from many of the surviving RFE staffers and listeners, but also from some critics, including a former Ether Unit veteran and current neo-Stalinist member of parliament, who Solomon forces to listen to RFE’s coverage of the attacks on the December 1989 Timişoara demonstrators. He even reached the incarcerated Carlos for a phoner (he denies everything, but says that Ceauşescu was quite the gracious host).

Scrupulously evenhanded, Waves is quite credible, both at recounting late twentieth century Romanian history and exposing new information about the past regime’s misdeeds. It is a fascinating film that deserves theatrical distribution beyond the festival circuit.