Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Romanian Film Festival: Timisoara, December 1989

In Alexandru Solomon’s Cold Waves, several veterans of Radio Free Europe’s Romanian section complained their country was the last captive nation to break its Communist shackles, aside from Albania. That sense of impatience was also shared by many in Romanian, eventually igniting an explosive protest in Timişoara, which ultimately led to a full-fledged revolution. The events of that signal protest are remembered in Ovidiu Bose Paştină’s 1993 documentary, Timişoara, December 1989, which also screened at this year’s Romanian Film Festival.

A bold aerial shot of Timişoara’s gateway arch sets the tone for the distinctive, almost experimental, style Paştină brings to bear on this turning point in Romanian history. Filming interviews of witnesses and participants in the demonstration from odd angles in a grainy black and white, Paştină’s visual compositions match the chaos of the events under discussion. As witnesses recall, the military did indeed initially fire upon the crowd. However, as the crisis escalated, the Romanian soldiers turned against the Communist regime. One rank-and-file speaks on camera of a telephone conversation with his parents, warning him not to shoot his countrymen.

While Paştină captures some powerful oral history, December is as much a meditation on the birth of 1989 Revolution, as it is a historical narrative. At times almost impressionistic, it displays little resemblance to other (more conventional) documentaries of the period.

Unlike then Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, the 1989 Revolution was indeed a revolution—the only revolt against Communist authority which climaxed with the execution of the Party leader. December captures the courage and spirit of hope, so long deferred in Romania that finally came to the fore in 1989. It also represents what could have been. Tragically, Paştină was lost to cancer before he could follow-up on the promise shown in December and his well regarded student film, The Art of Individual Defense.

December is a rewarding film on its own merits and a sad reminder of what could have been. Given its high historical and artistic value, it deserves the full Criterion treatment and a long broadcast life on PBS. An excellent choice for the festival, it nicely complemented Solomon’s Cold Waves, which discussed the events of Timişoara from a slightly different perspective.