The Delta of Bucharest – Layers in Time
What do a bank robbery that took place in Romania in the ‘50s and a piece of land that was forcefully flooded at the orders of Ceausescu have in common? Both are events that have reverberated across time and have been the subjects of documentaries that were released almost simultaneously: Reconstruction (dir. Irene Lusztig, 2002) and The Great Communist Bank Robbery (dir. Alexandru Solomon, 2004) in the case of the first, and Acasă, My Home (dir. Radu Ciorniciuc, 2020) and The Delta of Bucharest (dir. Eva Pervolovici, 2020) for the latter. What I mean by that is: in the arts, it’s not imperatively necessary for two creators to come to similar conclusions at the same time, while working on different paths – but when it does happen, it’s worth taking a better look at such a process. And sometimes one of them – the more prestigious or well-rounded – may overshadow the other, without it being a fair state of affairs. Just look at how The Delta of Bucharest seems to encourage, on the surface, parallels with Radu Ciorniciuc’s feature (and sometimes the two stories even end up overlapping, such as the moments in which both films pursue the life of the Enache family, the last inhabitants of the Vacaresti Delta), only to end up denying them, by taking distance from the predominant approach in Acasă, My Home and cultivating a shape of its own.
Where the latter film would closely and immediately follow a suite of characters who are facing hardships, inspired by a socially activist ethos, The Delta of Bucharest unveils itself across time, performing a coming-and-going across the axis of memory, exploring – albeit at times insufficiently – the open possibilities of an essayistic form. Just as is the case of countless other essay-films, Eva Pervolovici’s impulse to investigate arises from both a personal desire that is anchored in her own biography, but also in a need of understanding, with a critical rebound, the bigger picture. Things are set into motion as the director, who is based in Paris, receives as a gift a tapestry woven by Lena Constante, a former detainee of the Vacaresti Prison. It’s a story which engulfs and overreaches Pervolovici’s biography – but just as a name one may hear in passing can return to haunt their mind, it’s also a story of direct interest to her: since Eva, who was a punk teenager at the turn of the millennium, used to scribble graffiti on the ruined walls strewn all across the Vacaresti Delta. As such, the mnemonic mechanism doesn’t need much in order to be set in motion.
After all, The Delta of Bucharest is a film about layers: first of all, layers of time that end up intermingling up until the point that they are no longer distinguishable, giving birth to a series of emotional fissures that must be treated carefully, in order to be able to split the waters once time passes. Onto them, a series of geographical layers are added, then biographical layers (of various persons that are, in one way or another, related to the Delta), and aesthetic layers (archival images, drone shots, and so on). A director, who is similarly engaged in a process of recovering time through collective memory, once told me about the duty to save these erstwhile experiences through cinema, or else risk their eternal disappearance: saying that nowadays the city erases its own traces with an unprecedented speed, which is a problematic issue. It’s enough to take a look at the film’s short shots of Bucharest, heterogeneous and strange, where glass towers are built over the fading facades of yesteryear. And how else could we describe Ceausescu’s order to demolish the Vacaresti Monastery, i.e. Prison, if not as a gesture of forcefully erasing a patch of history with the mechanical arm of a bulldozer? On that terrain, he dammed a water basin that passed onto the natural habitat administration – and there, in the midst of that green area, people who could live in autocracy settled down. It’s an urban tale that spans various decades, both political and existential regimes – and which had to be told.
At its best, The Delta of Bucharest shows us how all of the above-mentioned layers manage to interlock – everything is indiscriminately connected. Due to its formal patchwork, in which the voices of the Prison’s survivors are melded with contemporary images of the place and archive images of the now-demolished building, we can catch a glimpse of the eye of history at work. It’s an ultimately Straubian lesson: it gives the place time to exist, it gives viewers time to understand that grave transformations took place on this piece of land, and then the place itself will have a voice of its own, one that beckons – as in a historical superimposition – the entirety of its past, rendering it transparent to our gaze. Forgetting for a moment its overly-paternalistic voice-over, the film has us getting used to the image of the Enache children, but afterwards we find ourselves in the presence of this voice that gets overwhelmed by the events from a lifetime ago and evokes the names of the women who gave birth between the walls of the Vacaresti Prison. Thus, we come to understand that the style of editing that is at play means more than just a simple taxonomy of the various metamorphoses that this place has endured. And that’s because we are in fact witnesses to a junction across time of two generations of the children of Vacaresti, bringing us face to face with a continuity that defies any sort of oppression. The documentary’s power, as a medium that allows us to follow the stream of memory all the way to its spring, is then rendered intact.
The Delta of Bucharest will be available online on the 13th of November, as a part of the Elvire chez vous program. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Eva Pervolovici and protagonist Ileana Budimir.