Les États généraux du film documentaire 2009 Doc History: Romania

Doc History: Romania

"Doc History: Romania" focuses its attention on the aesthetic history of Romanian documentary, which is rich in a surprising number of works of high quality in spite of the country's troubled history throughout the twentieth century. This programme was selected with the aid of Bujor Rîpeanu, specialist in Romanian documentary.
Culturally, nineteenth century Romania was influenced by Western Europe, particularly France. In May 1896, the Lumière arrived with their cinematograph in Bucharest and one year later the first Romanian films were shot by Paul Menu, operator for the Lumière company. During the first decades of the twentieth century, non fiction film was marked, as elsewhere, by newsreels with a large number produced by cameraman Tudor Posmantir, by scientific films made by Dr Gheorghe Marinescu and by productions presenting the folk traditions of the country. The first documentaries emerged from this context: images of scientific research, tradition and newsreel as demonstrated in the anthology compiled by Bujor Rîpeanu. Towards the end of the twenties, several ethnological and/or sociological films became milestones in the evolution of Romanian documentary. In 1929, Drăguş — viaţa unui sat romănesc (produced under the aegis of Professor Gusti of the University of Bucharest) is a study of the traditions, the economy and daily life of a village. This same village was visited twice more with an interval of forty years, as shown in the film Drăguş 2 x 40. Later, in the thirties, several films adopted this ethnological and scientific approach where observation is sometimes mixed with the strongly marked presence of the camera and the research team.
Paul Călinescu then brought a more cinematic and possibly Griersonian dimension to Romanian documentary. His Bucureşti, oraşul contrastelor (1936) reaches beyond the scientific survey and is marked by the cineaste's point of view denouncing the social contradictions of the city. The film was not appreciated by the authorities of the time. Less critical but more cinematic thanks to its careful photography, Călinescu directed The Motzi Land, a social and ethnographic film which won a prize at the 1938 Venice festival.
1938 was also the year that King Carol II put an end to the parliamentary regime in an attempt to muzzle both the fascists and the communists. Successively pro-Ally, pro-Nazi in 1940 (with General Ion Antonescu) and Communist after 1945, governments became increasingly repressive. Documentary production remained regular but was strongly marked by propaganda films. However some films stand out because of their aesthetic qualities, like Rapsodie Rustică by Jean Mihail, a poetic and impressionist film, or Agnita Botorca by Paul Călinescu, who uses Eisenstein's style to communicate the enthusiasm of the Communist youth for the construction of a gas pipeline. Many films vaunt the merits of agricultural collectivisation and industrialisation, and some are surprisingly original like Petrolul by Jean Georgescu, or Victor Iliu's Scrisoarea lui Ion Marin către ziarul Scînteia or Un minut, Ion Bostan's first film.
In 1949, the Sahia Studios were established which ensured the constant growth of documentary production. The censorship board played an increasingly active role determining in part the choice of subjects: portraits of artists (George Georgescu: Dirijorul, Un artiste acusă o lume), nature films (Ion Bostan, for example, with his documentaries on the Danube delta) or other subjects which skirted sensitive issues. Nevertheless this did not stop the development of a high quality propaganda documentary cinema in the sixties. Bicaz cota 563 or Uzina are two examples: fine photography and effective cutting mark these extraordinary films on the country's major industrial construction projects. Other filmmakers use a more impressionistic cinematic language: Gabriel Barta in the film Gara adopts the position of the observer similar to that of Bert Haanstra; Stuf by Titus Mesaroş takes on a pathetic dimension using the music of Carmina Burana; Romanțe aspre by Slavomir Popovici on the dismantling of steam locomotives reminds us of the realist and social poetry of the film Enginemen by Michael Grigsby.
The sixties were years when political control relaxed slightly, allowing certain films of the time a freer tone. Cazul D (1966) is a good illustration but also perhaps the most significant exception. This film defies classification and stands as an exercise in Romanian "cinéma-vérité", simultaneously ironic and human: the team does not hesitate to repeatedly confront one of their protagonists, a man looking for his adopted daughter, with his own lies. Another film made a few years later had a great influence on Romanian documentary. In May 1970 after severe floods, a large crew of directors and photographers including Dan Pița, Mircea Veroiu and Stere Gulea, produced Apa ca un bivol negru. Their humanist point of view did not please the censors who encouraged the directors to add some scenes (the first) which laud the reconstruction efforts due to the highly activist politics of Nicolae Ceauşescu.
These two films announce the social discourse of numerous documentaries of the seventies and eighties. But this world trend in documentary was much more daring in Romania where censorship was tightening. A new generation of filmmakers like Sabina Pop (Ioane, cum e la construcții ?, Panc) and Laurențiu Damian (Maria Tănase, Cota zero, both released after 1989), had more trouble with the censors, in spite of the fact that their subjects (portraits of artists or sports-people, work) were apparently in the tradition of Romanian documentary. But concern with the collective was replaced by a concern with the individual, her or his hopes or misfortune. The portrait of the Olympic champion Iar ca sentiment un cristal by Bose Ovidiu Pastina includes the inevitable long list of awards but the film chiefly communicates the athlete's solitude. The absence of dialogue and commentary reinforces this feeling and makes the film a remarkable work of art. This same approach, where the aesthetics have the power of an upper cut, can be seen in Va veni o zi by Copel Moscu, but here the criticism of society could scarcely be called implicit. The film was banned and not seen in public until 1992.
The 1989 revolution put an end to Ceauşescu's dictatorship. The events then appeared in many Romanian documentaries. Shot in the heat of action or from gathered rushes, several films testify to these moments of revolt, hope and liberty (Jurnal liber, Timişoara, December 1989). The feeling of living a revolution becomes palpable. Films by Cornel Mihalache show and analyse also the ambiguity of the situation. Already in At Christmas-time, we took our ration of freedom, he pointed out the different viewpoints on these events. With hindsight, we realise that things were not so simple: 1989, Blood and Velvet (1989) tries to analyse the complexity of the situation in December 1989, which only reinforces the doubts and interrogations one can have on the revolution itself.
In more recent production which is increasingly both rich and standardized, we find certain traditional themes of Romanian documentary: portraits of artists, sociological and/or ethnological films. Artists are often transmitters of the country's history, which makes these films highly informative (Brâncuşi, Duo for paoloncello & petronomme). The approach of attentive observation and analysis of contemporary society is reflected in films drawn more to the study of individuals and/or traditions on the edges of modern society (On the road, Focurile Morților).
If some recent films are still anchored in the tradition of Romanian documentary film, it is important to note that contemporary production is highly diverse and like elsewhere heavily influenced by the major trends in European television film commissioning.

Warm thanks to the Romanian Film Center, Roumanian National Film Archives and to the Romania Institut.

Kees Bakker

Coordination : Kees Bakker

Guests : Cornel Mihalache (director) and Bujor Rîpeanu (Romanian documentary specialist).