Saturday, December 05, 2009

Romanian Film Festival ’09: Videograms of a Revolution

It was a huge gamble that did not payoff. Shaken by the protests in Timişoara, Nicolae Ceauşescu, the Warsaw Pact’s last unreconstructed Stalinist, held his own massive public rally to prove to the public he was still very much in command. However, it did not go precisely as planned. Though the Revolution was initially censored on state television, it was still videotaped. Filmmakers Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujică would eventually assemble much of that film, as well as amateur and found footage, into Videograms of a Revolution, a remarkable eye-witness perspective on Romania’s 1989 uprising.

Last night, the Fourth Annual Romanian Film Festival marked the twentieth anniversary of the Revolution with their opening night screening of Videograms, kicking off the fest’s Waving at Revolution retrospective series, programmed in conjunction with the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ Performing Revolution festival.

Videograms opens with footage of a woman badly beaten at the Timişoara demonstrations now considered the genesis of Romania’s Revolution. Indeed, protest is in the air, as Farocki and Ujică soon illustrate with off-kilter video images recorded purely by chance. Ceauşescu was not about to go quietly though. Still, his minions were concerned enough to issue strict orders that if anything unexpected should happen the cameramen were to pan up to sky. They did in fact have occasion to do so.

It is still not completely clear what exactly happen at Ceauşescu’s rally, but Videograms is able to piece together a partial forensic reconstruction from various video sources. Still, the overall implications were obvious. In fact, the events captured in Videograms are often chaotic and confusing on the micro level, but on a macro level, it is unmistakably evident which way the winds were blowing.

The Czech-German Farocki and Romanian Ujică brought a distinctly ironic sensibility to their editing process, often selecting scenes that approach absurdist comedy. For instance, we overhear representatives from the military and the Securitate evidently aligned with the Revolution arguing over whose ostensive forces controlled the helicopters they were battling. Of course, there are also moments of genuine human pathos in Videograms as well, including an emotional post-Revolutionary plea for tolerance of Romania’s ethnic minorities buried late in the film’s closing credits.

Videograms is a fascinating look at history unfolding in all its messy, anarchic glory. It was indeed a fitting opening to the 2009 Romanian Film Festival. Their Waving at Revolution retrospective continues tomorrow with screenings of State of Things and The Oak. The festival also has a full slate of new releases, including several premieres, scheduled through Sunday (12/6) at the Tribeca Cinemas.