Footnotes: Andrei Ujica, Nonfictional Citizen

8 April, 2021

So, you might be wondering how I ended up bringing Andrei Ujica, with his Out of the Present, on the daily agenda. Well, it’s not that hard to guess why – I, along with many others, was enticed by the buzz surrounding collective to open up a frank discussion about Romanian non-fictional cinema. I’ll shortly come back to this, but, first of all, another urgent matter, born out of the consequences of whims – okay, sure, let’s discuss Ujica, but why about his Out of the Present in particular, which, after all, is a German documentary film?

Well, it had to do with a chance encounter. In February I stumbled over a fascinating piece of news, regarding a teenager that had been hit by a car on the 1st of March last year, and is now waking up from a ten-month-long coma and period of recovery, about to find out that he is the last standing citizen of a lost world. I did laugh, not gonna lie – it’s an absolutely delicious story of someone arriving that terribly late at the party which defines the spirit of times. By way of this story, I was reminded of yet another late citizen, the last Soviet one; Sergei Krikalev, a cosmonaut, flew off to the Mir Space Station in May of ’91, only landing back in March of ’92. While Krikalev was spinning around the Earth, the world didn’t remain motionless; the USSR, which was already losing bits and pieces by the time Krikalev left (as Lithuania had already won its independence by March), would end up fully dissolving before his return. By and large, this is the main topic of Andrei Ujica’s mid-nineties documentary, the middle piece of his non-fictional trilogy about the fall of communism; and, as in the case of any middle child, it is deprived of the same level of attention which is given to the eldest and youngest – Videograms of a Revolution (1992, co-directed with Harun Farocki) and The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010).

It might be good to start by appreciating how much of this film is truly Romanian. Pragmatically speaking, Out of the Present doesn’t have absolutely anything to do with the Romanian film industry of the nineties. The film is a foreign production, and its Romanian reception seems to have taken place much later, especially with the aid of festivals – One World Romania, TIFF, Ceau, cinema!, and others. Ujica himself hadn’t been an actor within the industry at the time; on the contrary, he kept on living in Germany, where he had settled ever since 1981 (which, at the time, was Federal Germany), continuing his career as an academic at the National University of Karlsruhe. It might be that his departure (or, in his words, his stay[1]) made his aura shine even brighter; before carving a name out for himself as a director, Ujica had enjoyed popularity in other creative branches, especially so in dissident circles, having collaborated with poet Serban Foarta on the lyrics Mugur de fluier and Cantofabule albums of the rock band Phoenix, and with the writers associated with the Timisoara-based Aktionsgruppe Banat. The validation brought on by Videograms of a Revolution, which screened at Locarno and Rotterdam, was taking place at the same time as the local documentary film production was collapsing. The Sahia Studio, which had by now been privatized, was barely moving an inch, and the documentaries produced by the then-recent Video Publishing House (now known as the VideoArt Studio, a production company which is currently subordinated to the Ministry of Culture), as well as those produced by the Visual Arts Foundation and the Group for Social Dialogue didn’t manage to overcome the limits of a distribution system that was detrimental to non-fiction – television stations weren’t buying their output, larger studios wouldn’t produce films of this genre (with very few exceptions), and festivals were still few, and of them only Astra, founded in ’93, was dedicated to documentary film. The local industry slowly adopted the European distribution model, while, at the same time, its infrastructure, originally constructed after the image of the one in Hollywood[2], was collapsing.

Out of the Present
Out of the Present

In that sense, Ujica was already well-versed in what would eventually become the industry standard. For starters, due to his closeness with Harun Farocki, who was also a co-producer of Out of The Present. The latter, by then one of lodestars of European cinema, was to enter history for his agile readings of the media market, climbing up along the decades from guerilla distribution to film festivals, television and video art[3]. Then, of course, came his moment of independence from Farocki, what with the festival run of Out of the Present – screened again at Locarno and Rotterdam, and, this time around, in Cannes as well. All of this leads us to the moment of The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, meaning a 15-year-long leap forwards; a period of time in which, as we well know, the New Romanian Cinema was born, and became a strong currency in film festivals. But the New Cinema, in spite of its apparently generous title, refers to a particular aesthetics and even a heyday (in terms of posterity) of fiction cinema. What we are experiencing at the moment, namely an euphoric time for non-fiction, was consolidated all throughout the last decade, with The Autobiography as its vanguard, followed by others, such as After The Revolution/După revoluție (dir. Laurentiu Calciu, 2010), Crulic (dir. Anca Damian, 2011), Toto and His Sisters (dir. Alexander Nanau, 2014), and, well, the entries in the end-of-the-decade poll organized by Acoperisul de Sticla and Film Menu at the end of 2019, where a number of about 50 film critics voiced their opinions.

  1. Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu / The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010), by Andrei Ujica
  2. Toto și surorile lui / Toto and His Sisters (2014), by Alexander Nanau
  3. Fotbal infinit / Infinite Football (2018), by Corneliu Porumboiu
  4. După revoluție / After the Revolution (2010), by Laurentiu Calciu
  5. Crulic (2011), by Anca Damian
  6. Al doilea joc / The Second Game (2013), by Corneliu Porumboiu
  7. Ouăle lui Tarzan / Tarzan’s Testicles (2017), by Alexandru Solomon
  8. Țara moartă / The Dead Nation (2017), by Radu Jude
  9. Timebox (2018), by Nora Agapi
  10. Distanța dintre mine și mine / The Distance Between Me and Me (2018), by Mona Nicoara and Dana Bunescu

What we have here is not a movement, and it doesn’t have any kind of agenda. It’s simply a heyday for the creativity of documentarians, and quite possibly one that will be enshrined in posterity. Radu Ciorniciuc and Alexander Nanau didn’t study in any given Romanian documentary film school, but theirs are the crowning achievements of a period marked by the cries and whispers of the local documentarians, which was corroborated with the efforts of other individuals which took upon themselves the mission of disseminating the knowledge of documentary past and present – the team of One World Romania, especially Andrei Rus, Vanina Vignal, Adina Bradeanu and Ana Szel, academics such as Andra Petrescu and Gabriela Filippi, producers like Andra Popescu and Monica Lazurean-Gorgan, and so on.

One could say that Ujica is an intellectual patron, maybe even a spiritual one. And if Videograms, a found footage essay about how (much) cameras could capture of the Romanian Revolution, was well-received across the years, and The Autobiography, his three-hour-long montage which presents itself as a moment of remembrance in the mind of the accused, was a punch to the gut, Out of the Present remains a somewhat alien presence.

Of course, the easiest justification in that sense is the fact that Romania is only tangentially touched upon, in terms of the documentary’s main topic. However, it’s a strange one, since Ujica is barely interested in what happens down below, on earth. In interviews, the filmmaker talks about having the same regard as an Olympian onto the world, just as he talks about a certain aura that astronauts have, once they enter space. Because it seems that nothing of their experiences can truly be approximated empirically by the uninitiated, since, as Ujica once asks Krikalev in a short interview, they stimulate an entire philosophical arsenal – “You’ve personally experienced space; for you, it’s a real world. What does it mean, ultimately, to live up there?”, is one of the questions; while a further one builds upon it: “There are only a few people who have had the privilege, once reserved for divinity, of seeing earth from space. No more than several hundred. That must occur to you, too, now and again. Has the fact that you belong to these select few changed you in any significant way?” These concerns can also be easily read in the film as well, which, to a certain degree, truly is a chronicle of this absolutely fabulous historical episode, but, in my opinion, it’s first of all a film about independence. It’s a pure paradox, on the other hand – the ten months spent by Krikalev in outer space should have actually been just four months, his return delayed by the geopolitical squabbles of the planet below. The most concrete sample of reality arrives under the shape of a new member that enters the team of the Space Station, a former Soviet citizen, now one of Kazakhstan, the newly-minted motherland of the cosmodrome from where he had taken off.

Out of the Present
Din filmările coordonate de Vadim Yusov / From the footage coordinated by Vadim Yusov

On the other hand, there are some anchors in the film – and apart from the moments which focus on the habitudes of the astronauts, reminiscent of their early counterparts (they cut their hair, or they fool around), or those that are strictly related to the routine of space life, we mostly get to witness dialogues; they’re either official, such as the ones that they have with their colleagues down on Earth, or hyper-official, such as the one they have with Mikhail Gorbachev, and, finally, informal, with the families that are waiting for them. Of course, the images are jerky, the sound is disturbed, and that only amplifies the sensation of a thirst for images. These sensations give way to a grassroots intermezzo – the video footage of the August Putsch. Set in contrast to the grandiose images that Ujica commissioned especially for the film, used as book-ends, and which were shot under the coordination of Vadim Yusof, the director of photography in charge of the famous Solaris (dir. Andrey Tarkovski, 1972), these earthly images seem all the more unsettling. And there’s another catch – Ujica chooses to highlight the footage which he uses with a fictional voice-over read by Anatoli Arzebarski, who is a colleague of Krikalev in the first half of the space mission. The departure of Arzebarski, just as his timely return at the end of the film, upon Krikalev’s landing, comes as a mechanism to remind himself, playfully, of the lack of omniscience. The commander knows what happened, objectively, but he doesn’t know the insides; he, just as us, has to satisfy himself with taking for granted the very grandiose, evasively grandiose statement of the last Soviet citizen – the moment in which, still on board of his ship, he is asked which one of the particular political changes strikes him the most, Krikalev says that he’s most surprised by the fact that just a moment ago it used to be nighttime, and now it’s daytime, and that the seasons are changing under his very eyes. Or, in the words of Ujica’s paraphrase, “here, from above, I can see the seasons change, and that is more important than the changes in political regimes down on Earth.”[4]

[1] Part of the biographical information about A.U. in this piece comes from an as-of-yet unpublished interview conducted by Gabriela Filippi and Iulia Voicu in 2016.

[2] As Andra Petrescu points out in her entry in The Films of the Transition / Filmul tranziției (coord. Andrei Gorzo and Gabriela Filippi, Tact, Cluj, 2017), “Where did documentary films disappear in the 90s?” / „Unde a dispărut filmul documentar în anii ’90?”, pp. 277-278.

[3] I had the opportunity to discuss Farocki’s trajectory with his partner in work and in life, Antje Ehmann.

[4] In the same unpublished interview.



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Călin Boto Călin Boto
Film critic and journalist. He is an editor at AARC and writes the ”Screens” features for Art Magazine. He collaborates with many publications and film festivals as a freelancer and he is strangely attached to John Ford's movies. At Films in Frame, he writes "Footnotes" - a monthly editorial published on a Thursday.