CLUJ-NAPOCA, Romania | It’s Christmastime in Cluj-Napoca, but here, and throughout Romania, the holidays bring more than the hustle and bustle of frantic shopping and snow-hampered commutes. This year Romanians are also celebrating 20 years since winning their freedom – if “celebrating” is the right word.
“It feels like much of what we fought for during that glorious December has been overshadowed by frustration that democracy did not instantly bring gratification for everyone,” says Nicolae Badescu, a 59-year-old engineer who was out in the streets of this western Romanian city during the revolution of 1989. Continue reading …
An acclaimed poet in the 1970s and ’80s, Mircea Dinescu felt the sting of Romania’s communist regime just as it was dying, played a significant role in the 1989 revolution, and became widely known as a media mogul in the years that followed, maintaining his place as a fierce yet lyrical foe of conformity.
A journalism graduate of the Communist Party’s Stefan Gheorghiu Academy, Dinescu was catapulted into the cultural spotlight in 1971 with the publication of his first book of poetry. A prolific writer, he also served as of the prominent magazine Romania Literara (Literary Romania) and was a member of the Writers’ Union. According to literary critic Alex Stefanescu, Dinescu’s success was partly due to the support of “protectors” from the Communist Party. Secret police documents published in Cartea Alba a Securitatii (White Book of the Securitate) testify to the poet’s support and even enthusiasm for the Ceausescu regime.
Dinescu’s downfall came in March 1989when, in an interview with the French newspaper Liberation, he acidly criticized Ceausescu and praised Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. He was fired from editorial post and placed under house arrest.
Nine months later he got his comeuppance. On 22 December, Dinescu took part in the peaceful seizure of Romanian Television. It was he who announced to the country that afternoon that Ceausescu and his wife had fled Bucharest.
A member of the newly founded National Salvation Front, Dinescu also became chairman of the Writers’ Union in 1990. He was forced to resign this position in 1994 in the wake of a scandal over a donated printing press that was diverted for the use of a foundation he chaired.
Dinescu invested earnings from his writing into media ownership, co-founding the influential satirical newspaper Academia Catavencu and buying or investing in several other publications, including the highbrow cultural magazine Dilema Veche. He also hosts a political talk show on the television channel Realitatea TV.
Both Dinescu’s poems and his on-air persona bear the mark of his sarcastic, inventive, and often shocking style. His 1976 volume Proprietarul de poduri (The Owner of Bridges) marked a sharp change in his youthful writing towards a subversive, politically charged lyricism that criticized the poverty and oppression of life in Romania. Years later the status quo under the new regime brought out Dinescu’s disappointment with the changes, or lack of changes, since 1989: “No revolution can change the world anymore,” he wrote. In a postmodern letter to Vaclav Havel, Dinescu describes how revolutions devour their children, while “the dissidents are unemployed/ and the protesters now queue at McDonald’s.”
His liberal use of slang and colloquialism led the prominent philosopherGabriel Liiceanu to dub Dinescu “the symbol and flag bearer of the Romanian suburbs,” a compliment to his authenticity and his reputation as a cultural hero.
For some prominent film festivals in Central and Eastern Europe, the 20th anniversary of the mostly peaceful revolutions that emancipated the region from the crumbling clutches of communism were an occasion to dust off old documentary reels.
February’s Berlin International Film Festival offered a retrospective look at the years before and after the change, poetically titled “After Winter Comes Spring,” featuring, among other works, Helke Misselwitz’ Adieu Winter, a documentary about women of various walks of life in East Germany in 1988, and Polish documentarian Jozef Robakowski’sFrom My Window, which consists of footage shot from his Lodz flat between 1978 and 2000. “The Velvet Generation Comes of Age” at the Prague edition of the One World festival of human-rights documentaries offered the late Jan Spata’sThe Greatest Wish, which juxtaposes young people’s dreams in 1964 and 1989, and acclaimed surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer’s allegorical short The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia.
Moving eastward, though, the commemorative relay slowed down. Festivals in Sarajevo, Warsaw, Bucharest, Budapest, and Sofia paid scant attention, while the Moscow International Film Festival delved further back for a program marking 70 years since the start of World War II.
This lack of attention to the events of 20 years ago is reflected in the output of filmmakers in the region; films dealing with the anti-communist revolutions of two decades past are a relative rarity.
The reasons, experts say, range from aesthetic to sociopolitical. “The notion that a film’s characters can and should be reduced to mere ciphers for the historical and social changes that happen around them is a Marxist one,” says Andrew Horton, former editor in chief of Kinoeye, a now-defunct website that focused on Central and Eastern European film. “Hardly shocking, then, that directors [in the region] have rejected it so overwhelmingly.”
HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD
In throwing off old ideological strictures, many of the region’s filmmakers eagerly embraced mainstream techniques, even in films dealing with 1989, adopting the Western model of history as entertainment where “the political changes are more or less background,” according to John Cunningham, a specialist in Central European cinema at Britain’s Sheffield Hallam University.
With its Velvet Revolution subplot, the Oscar-winning Kolya was the first feature film – and to date the most internationally popular – to deal directly with the events of 1989.
Such was the case with the biggest international hit set in the revolutionary period, Czech director Jan Sverak’s Kolya (1996). With its endearing story of a Russian boy invading the life of an aging roue amid the heavy anti-Soviet mood of late-’89 Prague, the film charmed Western audiences and won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, but Czech critics still harbor misgivings about its sugary Hollywood approach.
In a similar vein, Polish director Juliusz Machulski’s How Much Does a Trojan Horse Weigh? (2008) is a whimsical family comedy involving a time warp to and from the last years of communism and conveys the simple message that things are a lot better now than they were then. The film was Poland’s third-biggest hit last year, according to boxoffice.pl, although its 155,000 viewers was half the total for the leader, Tomasz Konecki’s Ladies, a sort of Polish Sex and the City firmly anchored in the country’s capitalist present.
Reflecting on Hungarian cinema, Horton views the Hollywood influence as a positive development.
“Personally, I think most of the films ‘about communism’ have been some of the worst to have been released in the post-1989 period,” he writes in an e-mail. “Many young filmmakers seem to be inspired by the power of American film to reach its audience through easy-to-relate-to characters, an accessible storyline, and a strong setting immersed in popular culture, and this kind of film-making is what they aspire to.
“I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing, even if this approach to filmmaking seems to be a work in progress for Hungarian directors. At least it’s trying to build a relationship with young Hungarian audiences after decades of declining cinema attendance.”
The internationally recognized Romanian New Wave is the outlier, producing films that have poked and prodded at unwieldy and controversial recent history to wide acclaim. Three of the four Romanian films released in 2006 – Corneliu Porumboiu’s12:08 East of Bucharest, Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue, and Catalin Mitulescu’s How I Celebrated the End of the World – offer intimate and wryly funny explorations of the events of December 1989, while Tales from the Golden Age, the new film from Cannes Film Festival prize-winner Christian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), is an omnibus of seriocomic stories set in the late Ceausescu years.
Porumboiu’s film, which won the Camera d’Or for best first feature at the 2006 Cannes festival, is emblematic of the Romanian approach, tackling the topic with depth, subtlety, and deceptive simplicity. The title refers to the town of Vaslui (where the director is from) and the precise moment Nicolae Ceausescu fled Bucharest in his helicopter – if there were no protests in Vaslui before 12:08 p.m. on 22 December 1989, did the revolution actually happen there? (The movie’s Romanian title translates as, “Was There or Wasn’t There?”) The final scene of a snowy Christmas Eve leaves audiences guessing as to the significance of this question for the ordinary townspeople.
“The idea was to focus on history, personal stories, memories, on the fact that each and every one of us changes history in order to justify his or her own existence,” Porumboiu said.
“I don’t believe in History with a capital ‘H.’ After the revolution there are only two or three heroes and two or three anti-heroes in the history books, but you will never get this other perspective, of normal people and their personal experiences and stories related to that event. So this is what I was after in my movie. It’s built like a kaleidoscope, with lots of personal views and different fragments.”
INTO THE LIGHT
What Porumboiu has elsewhere called “the uncertainty of the grand revolutionary narrative” is another factor inhibiting a regional cinema-of-’89
“Possibly the variations in approach to the theme of 1989 are connected to how the oppositional struggle developed,” Sheffield Hallam’s Cunningham says. “In Hungary there have been a number of films about 1956, probably because of its heroic resonances and its centrality in national mythology, in comparison with 1989, which was a fairly muted affair. Similarly, in Poland there appear to be more films devoted to the period of martial law and the resistance to it than to 1989.”
The whimsical comedy How Much Does a Trojan Horse Weigh? casts a contemporary Polish woman back in time to the eve of regime change.
In tackling history, most filmmakers, particularly those of older generations, stick to themes more firmly rooted in national stories. Witness the most recent works by Andrzej Wajda and Istvan Svabo, respectively Poland’s and Hungary’s most revered living directors: Wajda’s Katyn (2007) re-creates the World War II-era Soviet massacre that still haunts Poland; Relatives (2006) is Svabo’s take on an infamous 1930s corruption scandal.
While their forebears look back, younger filmmakers cast a wary eye on the present. History as such matters little in Czech director Tomas Vorel’s entertainment cinema (2005’s Skritek, 2007’s Gympl) or Hungarian Benedek Fliegauf’s psychedelic social dramas Forest (2003) and Dealer (2004). Social reality as it is, and individual destinies, absurd as they are, make up the world of such films – what Cunningham describes as “the revolt against history and grand narratives and a craving almost for the here and now.”
The echoes of 1989 do reverberate through such films, if only faintly, in their take on the disillusioned social life of the transition. “This is how we Czechs deal with difficult times – we laugh,” says cinematographer Marek Jicha, who regularly works with Vorel. Their latest project, Catch the Billionaire, is a social grotesque about contemporary Czech capitalism in which profiteers and victims alike are left shorn of their dignity.
Far removed in tone, Polish director Krzysztof Krauze’s The Debt (1999) and Savior Square (2006), also function as allegories for the transition years, emotionally claustrophobic narratives about men and women pushed to the edge by unbridled cruelty in their everyday life. Young Bulgarian filmmakers have been engaging in a different kind of allegory: Sofia and Sarajevo festival honorees Mila from Mars (directed by Zornitsa Sophia, 2004) and Lady Zi (Georgy Diulgerov, 2005) center on abandoned girls who stumble out of orphanages and must survive on their own in an inhospitable and absurd environment.
To Jicha, that subtext is the essential story of 1989. Asked how he would interpret the Velvet Revolution on screen, he describes an old Celtic myth about a knight lured deep into the woods and over a precipice by an elusive, shining nymph. “The faster he goes, the faster the light goes, and he falls off the cliff,” Jicha says. “The revolution was that hope, that light, and the poor man is the Czech people.”
Perhaps it takes an outsider to see the light of idealism where Jicha and many of his peers see the flicker of misplaced hopes. American filmmaker Gary Keith Griffin, a Sundance Film Festival award-winner who was studying at Prague’s FAMU film school in the fall of 1989, is currently at work on Listopad (November).
Bucking the trend of approaching the anti-communist revolutions at oblique angles, Listopad takes on the history head on, dramatizing the real-life story of three teenage boys who took part in the tumultuous events on the streets of Prague. (It will even climax with an on-site reenactment of the pivotal student march of 17 November 1989, staged on the 20th anniversary of the actual event.) Griffin – who was there, too, 20 years ago, filming all the while – met the principals and heard their stories years later, while shooting a feature in the Czech Republic.
“There are always differing opinions about great political and historical events, but one thing is certain: the truth belongs to those in the front lines,” Griffin says in a director’s statement at the film’s website. “For me, a hero is a person who takes action not because they believe they will succeed, but because they know it is the right thing to do. For me, the people in the front lines of November 17th, 1989, armed with nothing more than their beliefs, are heroes. I believe we should tell their story.”
From 1967 to 1992 Monica Lovinescu was the inimitable voice that kept millions of Romanians updated on the latest cultural and political trends in the West and the dissident movements in other Soviet bloc countries, at the same time offering critical analysis of the myths surrounding the totalitarian regime at home.
After completing her literary studies at the University of Bucharest, Lovinescu received a scholarship to study in Paris in September 1947. Three months later the communists took power in Romania and blacklisted the works of her late father, literary critic Eugen Lovinescu. This led her to request political asylum, which France granted in 1948.
Numerous articles in European and Romanian-language cultural journals established Lovinescu as a prominent voice among Romanian emigres. (It also made her mother, still in Bucharest, a prime blackmail target. In 1958 the 71-year-old Mrs. Lovinescu was jailed for “undermining state order”; she died in prison after refusing to press her daughter to inform on dissidents in France.) Lovinescu’s standing rose further in 1967, when she became the mind and the voice behind the Radio Free Europe programs Theses and Anti-Theses in Paris and Romanian Cultural Events. Following in the footsteps of her father, well-known as a promoter of modernist literature, she would read from new work and review both underground and mainstream Romanian authors.
Disturbed by her influence and the authority she wielded in Romanian cultural life, Nicolae Ceausescu in 1977 sent two assassins to Paris to have her silenced (according to onetime Securitate chief Ion Pacepa, who defected to the United States in 1978). Lovinescu recalled that two masked men savagely beat her in the courtyard of her house, leaving her unconscious. She returned to her listeners after five days in the hospital.
After the overthrow of Ceausescu, Lovinescu visited her home country several times and in 1999 was awarded Romania’s highest civil honor, the Order of the Star, but she continued to live in Paris, where she died on 20 April 2008at the age of 84. Her post-1990 published works include radio scripts, a novel, two volumes of autobiography, and six volumes of a diary, which raised a stir in Romania over her intransigent judgments of important cultural figures and her disenchantment with post-revolutionary times.
Lovinescu courted controversy again in a 2002 magazine interview in which she offered barbed criticism of former dissident intellectuals who she said should have gotten more involved in Romanian politics after 1989. She took aim what she considered a thriving “Homo Sovieticus” mentality in Romania and the pervasive nostalgia for a communist-era “golden age,” and decried the country’s failure to hold a Nuremberg-style trial of communist leaders. “The only solid base for change is one of mentalities,” she said. “Without that, even the few good things that have been done are built on quicksand.”
By Boyko Vassilev, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian, and Pavol Szalai
As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with unionists and managers is the fourth in the series that resulted.
MILKO MIHOV, 70, BULGARIA
Mihov is the CEO of J.W. Cappelen Bulgaria, a Vienna-based paper company. He was the representative of Lesoimpex, a Bulgarian state-owned export/import firm, in Vienna from 1972 until 1978.
In the late autumn of 1972 I met Cappelen Senior, a Swede [in Vienna]. He told me he intended to form a company to export paper to Eastern Europe. I was surprised. “Why Eastern Europe? The big consumption of paper is in the West.” He said, “Big changes are coming to the East; it has to catch up in development.” Cappelen signed a contract with Lesoimpex and started his business in Bulgaria in January 1973.
In 1989 nobody had described the path from totalitarian to market economy. We figured it out as we went. … Before 1989 you needed special authorization to export and import. The real change was to untangle the licensing and regulatory regimes. This process continues even now. The simplification of licensing requirements has evoked a new feeling of responsibility among businessmen. Here personal attributes matter. Continue reading …
Photo and video documentary of the mounting demonstrations in Timisoara, Romania, in December over the communist regime’s attempt to silence dissident minister Laszlo Tokes by transferring him to a remote village parish. The movement spread to Bucharest, spelling the end for dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Dissident minister and catalyst for the Romanian revolution, 1952-
Laszlo Tokes became a target for Romania’s communist regime for his dedication to his flock and played a crucial role in catalyzing the unrest that led to the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime. Years later, free to practice both his spiritual and political vocation, he remains a bete noire to Bucharest over his loud calls for greater autonomy for the country’s Hungarian minority.
A Protestant minister and a prominent voice of Transylvania’s Hungarian community, Tokes became a target of the Securitate, the Romanian secret police, in 1982, after he detailed human-rights abuses in a Hungarian-language samizdat magazine. He fell afoul of the authorities again with his sermons against the government policy of relocating villagers to cities, which threatened to disperse the Hungarian population.As a consequence, in March 1989 religious authorities ordered his transfer from the city of Timisoara to the isolated parish of Mineu.
Tokes refused to leave. On 15 December, the date he was to be evicted from his Timisoara flat, members of his congregation gathered to protest the eviction in front of his flat. They were soon joined by passersby; within days several thousand were gathered, protesting the Ceausescu regime. The demonstrations spread to Bucharest, leading to the bloodiest regime change in Central and Eastern Europe’s revolutionary year.
After the overthrow of the dictatorship, Tokes became one of Romania’s twoReformed bishops.He won a seat in the European Parliamentas an independent candidate in 2007 and was re-elected this past June, when he ran on the list of the newly formed Hungarian Solidarity party. Central to Tokes’ political agenda is increased cultural and territorial autonomy for Romanian Hungarians. President Trajan Basescu has rejected Tokes’ demands, saying that Romania is a unitary state which guarantees the rights of minorities.
Since the revolution Tokes has been dogged by claims that he was a spy for Hungary, as the communist-era apparatchiks believed, and a Securitate informant. He has acknowledged that he was approached by the secret police and forced to sign some documents but maintains he never actively collaborated. (He sued the Associated Press for reporting the allegation in 1998 but lost.) In 2001 the National Commission for the Study of the Security Archives granted Tokes a certificate attesting that he never collaborated with the secret police.
In June 2009, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation awarded Tokes the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom for his role in the Romanian revolution. In his acceptance speech [http://www.americanhungarianfederation.org/news_Victims_of_Communism_LaszloTokes.htm], he railed against privileged members of the old regime he said had maintained control by transferring their political power into the economic arena, and he blasted the Romanian government for a “Euro-conformist politics of window-dressing” that kept it from going beyond rhetoric in condemning communist crimes. “It is painful to observe,” he said, “that the final victory of the freedom fighters over communism has not yet arrived.”
By Boyko Vassilev, Lucie Kavanova, Anita Komuves, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian and Pavol Szalai
[As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Romania asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with doctors is the third in the series that resulted.
MARIETTA GECHEVA, 47, BULGARIA
Gecheva, a radiologist who specializes in endoscopy, worked in the Pirogov emergency hospital before and after 1989. For the past nine years, she and her husband have run a private clinic.
Some doctors profited from the change. Among the successful were those who could afford to join a good medical institution that functions absolutely professionally, without professional compromises. But that’s only a few people. That happened with [me and my husband], because we had the chance to have some land restituted, which allowed us to found our clinic. If the restitution hadn’t happened, we would have been working in state hospitals. Don’t get me wrong, they have good specialists as well, even extraordinarily high level medics. However, the financial problems in state hospitals matter and make things difficult for these specialists. The Hippocratic oath is fine, but it can’t do what machines can. And for that, you need money. Continue reading …
By Boyko Vassilev, Lucie Kavanova, Anita Komuves, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian, and Pavol Szalai
As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with artists is the first in the series that resulted.
Part 1: What does an artist, accustomed to using metaphor and subterfuge under communism, do when the lid comes off? Continue reading …