Friday, December 05, 2014

New Romanian Cinema ’14: Where Are You Bucharest?

Twice voter apathy has saved Romanian President Traian Băsescu’s bacon. Each time he was impeached by parliament, it required the ratification of a majority of all eligible voters through a national referendum. While overwhelming majorities voted to give him the boot, they fell short of the legal threshold. Consequently, many Romanians are a tad disenchanted with the current political scene. Vlad Petri captures a vérité kaleidoscope of frustration at a series of 2012 protests in Where Are You Bucharest? (trailer here), which screens during Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema 2014.

Viewers immediately get the sense the anti- Băsescu protests are way more personal than ideological, even though they take place in University Square, the storied site of many 1989 demonstrations against Ceauşescu’s Communist regime. After all, if you do not like Băsescu’s ideology, just wait a minute and it will change. After initially styling himself in the manner of a Scandinavian social democrat, Băsescu has evolved into Romania’s Silvio Berlusconi, without the gleeful disregard for decorum. Indeed, Băsescu’s shadow hangs over Where in more ways than one.

Arguably, Petri’s film could be used to make the case Romania has become a mature democracy that tolerates dissent. Even though there is quite a bit of finger pointing directed at the police, the film never documents any seriously problematic actions, especially compared to the crackdown on the Umbrella demonstrators in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district. Frankly, most of the cops here look like they would much prefer to be anywhere else but University Square.

In a case of good news-bad news, the absence of any major human rights abuses means Where is mostly just a lot of people yelling at each other, which gets old after a while. We totally get everyone thinks Băsescu is a corrupt jerkweed, but there isn’t any “then what?” It’s just more chanting and arguing over trivial differences.

Băsescu may very well be a ragingly problematic president, but on paper he is considerably more interesting than the demonstrators demanding his head. In the 2004 presidential debate, he totally threw his opponent off stride with the rhetorical bombshell: “You know what Romania's greatest curse is right now? It’s that Romanians have to choose between two former Communist Party members.” That’s a real conversation ender.

You can tell just from a little peak that Romanian politics is a fascinating, rough-and-tumble world. However, we’re already dealing with a glut of Arab Spring protest docs, where the stakes are even higher. Petri talks with many pleasantly eccentric protestors, who actually make Romania look like an infinitely more inviting country to visit, but as cinema it overstays its welcome. Where is certainly earnest and well-intentioned, but Andrei Gruzsniczki’s Quod Erat Demandstrandum and Maya Vitkova’s Viktoria are the can’t-miss films at this year’s festival. For those looking for a protest fix nonetheless, Where Are You Bucharest? screens this Saturday (12/6) and Monday (12/8) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of Making Wave: New Romanian Cinema.