Videograms of a Nation: How to (re)evaluate a national cinema

3 February, 2020

Starting with the 8th of December 2019, the Europalia festival in Brussels has been hosting the biggest-ever retrospective of Romanian cinema to be hosted outside of its home country: Videograms of a Nation, an ambitious program curated by Andrei Tănănescu, who has co-opted some big local names from the field of local film critics, curators and professors, such as Adina Brădeanu, Irina Trocan, Oana Ghera, Gabriela Filippi, and Radu Toderici.

Far from being just a showcase of films, Videograms of a Nation also contains a large selection of conferences and masterclasses (with directors such as Andrei Ujică, Radu Jude, Adina Pintilie și Marius Olteanu), a video installation and a book launch – Romanian Cinema Inside Out: Insights on Film Culture, Industry and Politics (ed. Irina Trocan), a comprehensive collective volume about the history of Romanian cinema, which contains contributions from authors such as Andrei State, Dominique Nasta, Alex Cistelecan, Dana Duma and Iulia Popovici.

Some readers might have already noticed that the name of the program cites Andrei Ujică’s debut film, Videograms of a Revolution (1992), a masterpiece that he co-directed with the legendary Harun Farocki, one of the fathers of modern experimental and political cinema. A quote of his serves as the motto of the retrospective, echoing his most famous thoughts on the ontology of moving images: “After the invention of the camera, the archives of moving images have become the main places where we store our history.” Videograms of a Nation is structured according to seven different thematical, rather than historical sub-programs: Propaganda & Subversion, Rebels without a cause, Family portraits, (Mal)Adjustment: The transition years of the 1990s, Genre: Reality through archetypes, Soul of a nation: Literary adaptations, Negotiating History: Cinematic Representations of Past & Present și Traditional Loves.

Manasse (1925), by Jean Mihail.

In his curatorial statement, Tănăsescu opens with two strong rhetorical questions: “What lies behind the New Romanian Cinema? What is the cinematic heritage that preceded one of the most recognized national ‘waves’ in recent history?” This is a notable thought since it was also echoed in Filippi and Toderici’s conference on the history of Romanian cinema, as they avoided to offer many details about the history of the New Wave and its specifics – seeing it as a territory that is already saturated and easily accessible. They preferred to map out in fine details the first century of local cinema, especially its lesser-known areas: starting with The Romanian Independence, the oldest still-preserved Romanian fiction film, running through the historical epics and comedies of the communist era and culminating with the chaotic production of the first post-revolutionary decade. (The conference also featured four video-essays curated by Oana Ghera, made by Irina Trocan, Andra Petrescu, Andrei Șendrea and I).

The answer that the curator-in-chief offered to his own questions by means of his selection deviated from the well-beaten paths of other such retrospectives – meaning, he largely avoids subversive communist-era films by Lucian Pintilie, Mircea Daneliuc, Liviu Ciulei și Alexandru Tatos, who are a discreet presence in this specific selection. In the case of Ciulei, even, there is an essential change of perspective: instead of showcasing his magnum opus, the Cannes Best Director-Award winning 1964 feature The Forrest of the Hanged, one of the first Romanian films to attract a considerable amount of attention outside the country, Tănăsescu opts his much lesser-known debut film, The Eruption (1957).

As such, in Videograms of a Nation, Romanian cinema is seen as much more than simple decoupage of cultural and artistic products belonging to a specific national background, but rather, as a means through which the history of that specific space is represented through, and by the films themselves. This unique approach also gives this retrospective its original value: the fact that it doesn’t aim to be canonical (so, a safe choice) selection of important films from the history of Romanian cinema, but rather, it is a position that invites a reevaluation of lesser-known films. It’s an approach that is visible even in its opening event: the cine-concert screening of the early masterpiece Manasse (1925, dir. Jean Mihail), featuring a new original soundtrack composed by Volekh especially for the presentation that was hosted in the concert hall of BOZAR, one of Brussels’ most important museums.

The Eruption (1959), by Liviu Ciulei.

A first very clear intention that can be read in the curatorial concept of the retrospective is the fact that it largely ignores the first phase (2005-2014) of the New Romanian Cinema – excepting the now-legendary 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days (2007, dir. Cristian Mungiu), the retrospective features only one single other title associated with the movement, Melissa de Raaf and Răzvan Rădulescu’s lesser-known Felicia, Above All (2009). Here, contemporary Romanian cinema is seen largely through the work of young directors, both male and female (!) which have released their debut films across the last decade: Ana Lungu (The Self-portrait of a Dutiful Daughter, 2015) Ivana Mladenovic (Soldiers. Story from Ferentari, 2017), Adina Pintilie (Touch Me Not, 2018), Bogdan Theodor Olteanu (Several Conversations About a Very Tall Girl, 2018) and Marius Olteanu (Monsters., 2019).

The selection of pre-revolutionary cinema features subversive films which are already classics, such as Carnival Scenes (1982, dir. Lucian Pintilie), Microphone Test (1981, dir. Mircea Daneliuc) or Sequences (1982, dir. Alexandru Tatos) as well as arthouse titles such as Stone Wedding (1973, dir. Dan Pița și Mircea Veroiu) și Meanders (dir. Mircea Săucan, 1966), along with titles that have been recently recuperated by local cinephiles circles, such as A Film With a Charming Girl (dir. Lucian Bratu, 1966) and Snapshot at the Table (1982, dir. Ada Pistiner). However, this is where the usual suspects run put – along with the before mentioned The Eruption, lesser-known films of famous cineastes include Filip the Good (1975, dir. Dan Pița) and Angela Moves On (1981, dir. Lucian Bratu). Titles that are obscure even for Romanian cinephiles are recuperated, such as Sign of the Virgo (dir. Manole Marcus) and Malvina Urșianu’s splendid debut feature, Mona Lisa Without a Smile (1968), a naive Antonionian pastiche of a love story, along with the eclectic Porto Franco (1961, dir. Paul Călinescu). Although the last decade hasn’t been too good with his legacy (and rightly so in many cases), the legendary Sergiu Nicolaescu has two of his historic epics featured here: Mihai the Brave (1970) and The Immortals (1974). Also notable is the fact that two nineties films also make the cut: Asfalt Tango (1996, dir. Nae Caranfil), and The Conjugal Bed (1993, dir. Mircea Daneliuc).

Out of the Present (1995), by Andrei Ujică.

Last but not least, another important paradigmatic change in curatorship relies on the fact that nonfictional and documentary cinema is also heavily featured in the retrospective. Starting with Andrei Ujică’s triptych about the fall of the eastern soviet bloc to Porumboiu’s fascinating The Second Game (2014), this eclectic assemblage concentrates on the two most important tendencies in contemporary Romanian nonfictional filmmaking: on the one hand, observational documentary, on the other hand, found footage films.

A variety of titles is included here, starting from Thomas Ciulei’s This Is It (2001), to Toto and His Sisters (2014, dir. Alexander Nanau), Where are you, Bucharest (2014, dir. Vlad Petri) și Timebox (2018, dir. Nora Agapi). The pre-1989 nonfictional output of Romania was largely presented by researcher Adina Brădeanu, curator-in-chief of the successful Sahia Vintage collection, which is presented under the patronage of the One World Romania festival. In a conference hosted by the RITCS college, she presented the new online streaming platform of the collection, presenting the history of the Alexandru Sahia documentary studio while taking note of its most important directors, along with underlining the thematic and even aesthetic diversity of the studio’s productions, in spite of its propagandistic (or, at least, heavily ideological) premises: from directors such as Copel Moscu and Ovidiu Bose-Paștină, to Slavomir Popovici and Marian Ilieșiu. Last but not least, renowned animation director Matei Branea was also in attendance, presenting a workshop on the history of Romanian animation films, which also features some of his own creations.

To conclude, I hope that this retrospective will also have the chance to be screened in Romania, sometime this year: the only way to see it right now is to spend inordinate amounts of time on YouTube searching for horrible-quality TVrips of the older films or dispersed across entire months of programming at the Romanian Cinematheque. Not to mention the precious conferences and the installation that was curated by Raluca Velisar and Andrei Rus, History in Fragments, which should be very important for local audiences. As a decade has just finished and a new one has just begun, a new important theme arises in local curatorship and criticism – the questioning of our local cinematic canons and histories and our relationship to them.

The fieldwork for this article was possible due to a grant offered by the Romanian Cultural Institute.

The cover of Romanian Cinema Inside Out.
Flavia Dima Flavia Dima
Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short fim festival, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. For Films in Frame, she's in charge of interviews, along with Laura Musat. Favorite international film festival: Viennale.