Saturday, April 12, 2014

Panorama Europe ’14: The Bucuresti Experiment

Just what was the bad old Romanian intelligence service willing to do for the sake of power? The answer is deceptively obvious, but it will be obscured by layers of meta-reality or un-reality in Tom Wilson’s The Bucuresti Experiment (trailer here), a documentary, mockumentary, or something in between that screens during Panorama Europe at the Museum of the Moving Image.

To this day, the “truth” of the Romanian Revolution is clouded with uncertainty and dogged by conspiracy theories. According to commentators assembled by British ex-pat Wilson, the secret police read the tea leaves and realized Ceausescu’s days were numbered. To maintain their positions of privilege, they would have to adapt to capitalism, but the average Romanian’s brains were too thoroughly conditioned by socialism. A little mental re-alignment would therefore be necessary.

Supposedly, Romania’s leading captain of industry, Andrei Juvina, was the first to undergo the “Bucuresti Experiment.” However, it seems the clinical trials changed his personality, slowly rupturing his relationship with college girlfriend, Carmen Anton, a former Romanian teen idol. As the film progresses, Wilson focuses more on their personal issues, building up to their climatic reunion. However, Wilson springs a surprise third act-coda that completely alters our perception of the film, restoring it to the ranks of straight talking documentary exposes.

At the risk of being spoilery, the Romanian intelligence service was capable of far worse crimes than simply making future oligarchs adept at business.  Frankly, the real reality will make viewers somewhat ashamed they bought into all the meta-meta narrative game-playing. Yet, Wilson is remarkably sure-footed building the ostensive drama throughout his set-up. In fact, there is something particularly moving about the charismatically mature Anton’s performance as herself.

Given the film’s ultimate gravity, Wilson’s liberties with the documentary form feel rather disconcerting in retrospect. Yet, there is definitely something to his larger point. In former Communist countries like Romania (and Lord knows Russia too) there have not been the sort of truth commissions and legal tribunals necessary to expose and bring to justice all those complicit in the crimes of the Communist regimes.

Frankly, The Bucuresti Experiment is likely to stir contradictory responses within most viewers, but it is a challenging film, produced with a serious purpose in mind. At a succinct sixty-eight minutes, it is also a decidedly less taxing exercise in post-modern historical analysis than most of the doc-hybrids playing at another mini-fest now underway. Recommended for the intellectually adventurous, it screens tomorrow afternoon (4/13) at MoMI, on the concluding day of Panorama Europe.