Film O’Clock IFF 2022: The same old future

4 March, 2022

There are rarely any curators capable of giving meaning to a small, unseen, and slightly random fact; that is, to a given. Truth be told, Film O’Clock did indeed do this last year as well, at least conceptually – a differently shaped festival taking place simultaneously, in the same time-zone, in Romania, Greece, Lithuania, Southern Africa and Egypt, joined this year by Bulgaria. As I missed the first edition, I only now greet the elongated shape. And, more importantly, its selection, featuring a feature film plucked from the archives of each participating country, and two short film programs comprising recent work; but everything in due time.

Not so long ago, the internet denizens in my feed enthusiastically applauded a text written by Polish theoretician Jan Sowa together with curator Joanna Warsza regarding post-colonialism in Eastern Europe. The two started off by saying that, ever since the ascent of Zoom, time zones are a topic of increasing focus, and when “setting your meeting to CET – Central European Time – you see many cities listed, including Amsterdam, Stockholm, and Rome, but almost never Tirana or Warsaw, which are part of the former Eastern bloc. If you schedule a call in Riga, Helsinki comes up as your time mark.” I wouldn’t have come back to this text if one of the films in the selection hadn’t duly asked this of me. As such, meridians, precise hours of ideology:

The Tied Up Balloon (d. Binka Zhelyazkova, 1967)

The Tied Up Balloon (1967), one of the few socialist-era Bulgarian films that managed to cross its own borders, albeit later, starts off in the days of 1942, when Sofia passes from Eastern European Time to Central European, to strengthen its ties to the Axis Powers. It may be that Film O’Clock will not be able to time things this well in terms of form and content in its future editions; even so, or precisely because of that, this small act of conceptual archaeology was a great success. The story that surrounds the film sounds familiar to those living in Bucharest; created, released, accused of ideological impropriety, pulled, and then finally rediscovered after the fall of communism, The Tied Up Balloon is in many ways The Reconstruction (1970) of each socialist nation. It’s just that – and it’s not little – their cinematic enfant terrible was Binka Zhelyazkova, a female filmmaker, one of the few who were active at the beginning of the new world order. We know so little about Bulgarian culture in Romania, despite the fact that we share such a long border. That’s what I felt these days as I was thinking about Ukraine, but it’s the same issue. The truth is that we, the film people residing here, are still hoping to wake up one fine morning to the fact that we have suddenly become French. Sau americani.

This narrative detail relating to the time change serves two goals: first, that of creating political tension throughout the entire story, and to another, more utilitarian purpose, that of limiting the plot to twelve hours, spanning between five a.m. and p.m. A span during which, above some random village populated by poor people, a gigantic balloon that has escaped from the hands of the military appears in the sky. In other words – hundreds of meters of fabric are floating above a handful of people that would love to have some new clothes. Armed with hay forks and rifles, the villagers start waging war against this symbol, mystical in its banality, of one’s escape into peace. But it’s far from being a somber film; it’s not Bresson directing this endeavor, it’s Zhelyazkova. Of course, The Tied Up Balloon is profoundly intellectual: it’s a comic film about the mundanity of war, the sudden impulse of violence, the collective capacity to hallucinate, the bankruptcy of masculinity, and so on. It might be academic, at least in terms of acting; still, it roams free. Down in the village, the hustle and bustle moves on, chased as such by the camera. Up in the sky, the balloon sways to the wind is contemplated, becomes zoomorphic; it looks like a whale, or rather, like one of those secular animals that we regard as repositories of wisdom. What easier trick can one pull in cinema? And once a voice-over gives voice to the balloon, one may ask themselves – can a trick be more primitive than this? I wouldn’t deny one’s pleasure of returning to reality all too eagerly, as Bazin used to say in regards to another famous cinematic balloon. A pleasure of returning that is falsified, of course, but that’s much more sympathetic and closer to my heart than any monster made from papier-mache or CGI, even if only due to one reason: if one were to remove all fiction from The Tied Up Balloon, the film would remain standing as a documentary about the wind.

Black Buffalo Water (1971)

Black Buffalo Water (1970) is always a surprise – and to me, a memento. Because at one point, two years ago, around this time, I wrote an essay in which I affirmed that the difference between fiction and documentary is so big in the history of Romanian cinema that one can’t even really speak of a non-fictional canon that would predate Andrei Ujică’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu, that is, the 2010s. No other documentary, I mentioned, had such a massive amount of circulation, critical reception and institutional support towards the minimal visibility that is needed for one to obtain a canonical status. There is much to say for this to be a true paraphrase, but still, to make it to the point – I was wrong. Not fully, though: one can’t build a grouping of canon-worthy documentaries, but a film just like Black Buffalo Water is right there. All the more now, two years after it was restored by the Romanian National Film Archives.

Young students or fresh alumni of the IATC film school in Bucharest, Iosif Demian, Dinu Tănase, Stere Gulea, Roxana Pană, Youssouf Aidabi, Petre Bokor, Ion Marinescu, Andrei Cătălin Băleanu, Dan Naum, Teodor Mitache, Bogdan Cavadia, Dan Pița, Mircea Veroiu, Felicia Pătrașcu and Nicolae Mărgineanu, that is, the lion’s share of the Romanian cinema masters of the seventies and eighties, go off from Buftea to Satu Mare, Brăila, Sighișoara and other towns which were flooded in May 1970. As manifest as their collectivist ideal had been initially, the principle lost its battle against time, as the discourse surrounding the film fragmented itself in small details about each of the contributions that every one of them had brought. Maybe understandably so, since Black Buffalo Water is one of the quintessential Romanian documentaries And that has nothing to do with the abstract idea of the harmony of many turning to one. Not by a long mile: the manifesto film of the 70’s generation remains a masterpiece to this day precisely because it strived to exist in artistic togetherness. Together, lacking a script and improvising on the spot, it seems like the filmmakers discovered everything all at once.

An aerial shot abruptly cuts into the film, its only black and white one, zapping over a small provincial Atlantis; “black buffalo water”, followed by its beautiful subtitle, “on people and waters”. No names of any kinds are given; not of towns, not of the people hit by tragedy. In a cinematography like Romania’s, where documentaries were marred by the explanatory habits of the Sahia studio, such abrupt nonchalance comes across as iconoclastic and terribly rebellious. The fact that the film was not produced by Sahia, but rather by the Bucharest Cinema Studio, is a pretty good explanation for this contrasting ambition (which, in the end, was penalized by the authorities, who refused to release the finished film for over a year). Furthermore, in an interview given to Gabriela Filippi and Andrei Rus, Stere Gulea confesses that he had a bone to pick with the era’s production norms regarding non-fiction.

Confronted with an unstable reality, the young filmmakers were volatile. From line to line, the refugees pose in front of the camera as if they were taking family photos, smiles across their faces, as if they were defying immediate reality. Sometimes, one can hear individual interviews in the voice-over, where some praise the state for quickly building “solidarity neighborhoods”, while others bitterly weep for their lost homes. The filmmakers follow men as they work shoulder to shoulder to reconstruct, spawning triumphant images, while still acting as confidantes to old women that are hopelessly weeping. At its most spectaculous, the camera zaps across the flooded streets, and at its most lyrical, it captures the emptiness of the decrepit homes. When the voices run silent, music flares; when the music runs silent, the wind whistles its curses; or the chirping of the birds calls for renewed life. It’s a film that is plural in every sense one can imagine – one of many artists, regarding the many experiences of the many.

Speaking of plurality, I can’t help but feel saddened that the festival has chosen to associate itself with film critic Cristi Mărculescu, an individual who carries the weight of many serious accusations. Amongst them, the antisemitism that he used to parade on his social media accounts, especially on occasions that were ideal for those wishing to mock Radu Jude and the Solomons (and Ada is on the jury of this edition!), as he deliriously accused them of furthering the social-justice agenda of the “Jewry”. With such collaborators on their team, any words the festival might say – as it did on its opening night – about brotherhood and peace ring hollow. They either chose the wrong man or the wrong message.

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.