by Flavia Dima
As the former East-European block state of Romania slowly segued its way into a form or another of democracy following its 1989 anti-communist revolution, it has not rarely found itself in moments of social crisis, with thousands of its residents taking to the streets to protest – moments which have been extensively documented by journalists and filmmakers, both foreign and local. However, there are two post-revolutionary documentaries which manage to capture not only some of the most valuable and varied moments in times of civil unrest in Romania, but arguably even the very essence of such movements in the Romanian postcommunist era.
Shot 22 years apart, Lucian Calciu’s After the Revolution and Vlad Petri’s Where are you, Bucharest? are two (almost eerily) similar observational documentaries, beyond the dimension of having been shot on the streets of Romania’s capital city. Both stand witness to large civil movements during times of extreme social, economic and political instability and are centered upon the various unnamed figures of citizens protesting around Bucharest’s University Square- their discussions, their actions and, ultimately, the agressive polarity of their views and beliefs.
Calciu’s After the Revolution captures a somewhat rarely spoken-about timespace in the immediate aftermath of the 1989 revolution. As the first post-communist elections are closing in, the citizenry is faced with two major choices: the National Salvation Front, represented through the figure of the young(er) Ion Iliescu, and Ion Rațiu’s National Peasant Party- two paradigmatic entities, with radically different backgrounds, discourses and intents. With the events of the revolution and its empowering effects still fresh in the mind of the inhabitants of Bucharest, the people take to the streets in support of either one of these choices, sometimes clashing with opposing faction. However absurd some of the discourses in the film may seem (especially in the scene in which an engineer’s papers are seized by the participants of a pro-FSN rally, after expressing his doubts towards the party’s policies), it presents the portrait of a very vocal society that is politically and civically engaged almost to the extreme, a collective voice which (soon after the film’s conclusion) will be bloodily silenced during the first Mineriad. Aside from documenting the major tendencies in the political sphere, “After the Revolution” shines foremost as a haunting record of the fragile state of Romania’s early nineties.
By contrast, Petri’s Where are you, Bucharest? finds Romanian society smack in the middle of Traian Băsescu’s second tenure as president, a period marked by an ever-growing contempt towards the administration’s strict neoliberal policies in wake of the late-2000s global economic crisis. Spanning from January to midsummer 2012, the documentary closely follows the protests in University Square, from the initial violent outburst calling for Băsescu’s resignation, to the (ultimately failed) referendum aimed at his impeachment. One of the more important aspects of the film, setting it apart from Lucian Calciu’s earlier effort, is its attention towards the gendarmerie’s actions, whose attempts to suppress the protests often end up in violent altercations. Another difference lies in the fact that a wide array of local politicians and media celebrities are seen joining the protests at times, ranging from the newly-designated PM Victor Ponta, one of the president’s most vocal critics, to Mircea Badea, one of the leading figures of the controversial Antena 3 news channel, which was often criticized of helping push forward Ponta’s agenda. All other aspects aside, “Where are you, Bucharest?” manages to capture the image of a profoundly disillusioned society, whose decision to take to the streets comes through not as the action of a socially active and aware population, but as a measure taken out of sheer desperation- which, ironically, ultimately turns most of its figures into caricatures.
What strikes the viewers upon comparison of these two films are the remarkable parallels between them: the stark opposition between democrats and socialists, inquiries towards the legitimacy of elections, the concept of illegitimate “paid protesters”, class struggle and conflict, and ultimately, the attitude of the civilians themselves – often impatient, confused, arguing bitterly and shaken to the core by their anger towards the system. For a better understanding of Romania’s post-communist sociopolitical landscape, viewing these two documentaries is highly recommended.