Oana Sanziana Marian talks with the pioneering director about how a plagiarism scandal and an arts-organization takeover sparked a clash in Romanian politics—and how it may lead to reform.
Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta - Image from Flickr via Kancelaria Premiera
Romanian film director Andrei Ujica gained international renown in the genre of New Non-Fiction Cinema with his film The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, an epic montage chronicling Ceausescu’s political career from his rise to power as General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party in 1965 to his ouster and execution in the revolution of 1989. Culled from over one thousand hours of archival footage including state propaganda, news reports, and home movies, Autobiography is an impressive technical and artistic achievement, but the film’s cultural value comes from the way it complicates the image of a little-understood leader and the little-understood revolution that toppled his regime. Ceausescu’s dictatorship exerted a brutally dehumanizing influence over the generation that it raised, and the extralegal execution of Ceausescu and his wife did little to restore the sense of civil society to those supposedly liberated by the revolution.
Since the 1989 revolution, that much longed-for liberation—which could be defined as the elevation of Romania to the status of a civil society—began to take root in the form of culture. Like a plant growing in a cement block fissure, Romanian culture benefited from neglect; in the absence of state interference, it began to flourish. What grew there was, among many others, a new style of poetry defined as “miserabilism,” contemporary dance and performance art, new forms of theater, and—most visibly internationally, the realist, austere film style defined as Romanian New Wave.
Since 2005, the Romanian Cultural Institute has financed the translation of more than 300 works by Romanian authors and promoted Romanian films such as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (dir. Cristi Puiu, 2005) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (dir. Cristian Mungiu, 2007), which were among the first New Wave films to garner critical acclaim and prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. The RCI staged cultural events in cities around the world, but more importantly, Romanians living in Romania began to care about this hardy little plant growing in the concrete. It was in this state of burgeoning esteem of one’s own culture that The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu made its Romanian premiere in the Palace Hall in the center of Bucharest; it was the space in which Ceausescu had held Romanian Communist Party congressional meetings for decades. This particular screening, attended by three thousand viewers, marked a rare, potent moment of self-reflection and—dare one use the word—healing, specifically in the place that “hurt the most.”
The takeover of the Romanian Cultural Institute awoke a heretofore politically apathetic population of young artists.
On June 13th of this year, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta (elected after a no-confidence government collapse in April) passed an “emergency ordinance” that has since restructured the command and mission of the Romanian Cultural Institute and its seventeen world branches. Until then, Ponta’s political adversary President Traian Basescu had maintained nominal control of the RCI and had appointed the writer and philosopher Roman-Horia Patapievici to direct the organization. Ponta’s “emergency ordinance” shifted control of the RCI to the Senate (in which Mr. Ponta’s party holds a majority). Many Romanian filmmakers, artists and cultural leaders around the world—among them, Andrei Ujica—are speaking out against this takeover, which has turned an independent cultural organization into a political chess piece.
This takeover of the RCI exists in a broader context; the Prime Minister’s three month-old administration (currently under scrutiny for integrity issues) began, immediately upon stepping into office, passing a series of non-democratic and abusive measures that reach all levels of state administration. The reason we know anything about it is that the Romanian artist community, in Romania and abroad, immediately organized in protest of the changes to the RCI.
As a Romanian-born writer and translator living in New York, I wanted to speak with Mr. Ujica, who had spent a considerable amount of his adult life in the old regime, and who might elucidate the events of the present in the context of the not-so-distant past out of which Romania emerged. I found that Mr. Ujica approaches these recent events with the same acuity that guides his filmmaking, as well as that hard-to-define, instantly recognizable brand of Eastern European humor. The following interview took place over Skype and email.
—Oana Sanziana Marian for Guernica
My recollection from childhood in Romania was that when Ceausescu visited Cluj, apples were either painted to look brighter—can that be true?—or that more apples were hung on the trees, to show just how plentiful the harvests were, how great we were all doing.
Guernica: In the last two weeks there have been widespread protests in Romania on the part of Romanian cultural figures and artists, among which, all of the best known names of the Romanian New Wave filmmakers, such as Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu. They–you–are speaking out against the abusive measure of the new center-left Social Liberal Union (USL) government, led by Prime Minister Victor Ponta, that has shifted control of the Romanian Cultural Institute (RCI) from the nominal charge of President Traian Basescu, leader of the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) to the command of the USL-majority Senate. What, in fact, is happening here?
AU: A cultural conflict quickly escalated to the political. The takeover of the RCI awoke a heretofore politically apathetic population of young artists. The cultural conflict surrounding the RCI was a catalyst simply by drawing attention to Ponta’s actions, bringing him under scrutiny. In other words, it gave his political opponents a perfect opportunity to draw an ace: just a few days after our demonstrations of solidarity with the RCI, Nature (The International Weekly Journal of Science) exposed Prime Minister Victor Ponta as a plagiarist. What matters is not how strategically political this exposé was, but the fact that the current Prime Minister of Romania, a leader entrusted with the interests of his country as well as European interests, failed to credit some 87 pages of his doctoral dissertation. A few days after this revelation, the Supreme Court concluded a trial concerning PM Ponta’s doctoral supervisor, the former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase; former PM Nastase was found guilty and sentenced to serve two years in prison for corruption charges, namely for using $2 million in state funds to finance his own presidential campaign in 2004. The evening the sentence was passed, Mr. Nastase purportedly attempted suicide and was taken to the emergency room with a minor flesh wound in his neck, thus postponing the enforcement of his sentence.
Guernica: My recollection from childhood in Romania was that when Ceausescu visited Cluj, apples were either painted to look brighter—can that be true?—or that more apples were hung on the trees, to show just how plentiful the harvests were, how great we were all doing. In The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu a narrative emerges out of archival footage, a lot of which, as propaganda, was originally intended to sell a very different narrative. How do you interpret the coverage of this chain of events?
AU: The “film” of contemporary Romanian history is undergoing a transition of genre. It came out of the realm of cinema and has passed into the realm of telenovela. Admittedly, one with its own, unique nuances. You’ve probably heard of the Dziga Vertov Group formed in 1968? Formed by politically motivated filmmakers that included Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin; its namesake was the Soviet filmmaker from the 1920’s and 30’s…
Guernica: Man with the Movie Camera?
AU: Yes. Well, between 1968-72, they tried to create a kind of militant, political school of filmmaking with the following characteristics: it had to be Brechtian in form, Marxist in ideology and poor in personal authorship.
So, in a curious parallel, a group of so-called journalists in Bucharest, particularly at a television station called Antena 3, is in the process of creating, in the basement of mass culture, a new type of militant, political telenovela, whose characteristics are: avant-garde-balkan-trash-performance as form, paid libel as ideology and authorship interpreted as collective (there are always at least three panelists). Among many salient news items that have been broached in the last few weeks, here are two: the “fact” that the use of quotation marks appeared as an instrument of scientific formality only after PM Ponta defended his dissertation; the “fact” that Nastase attempted suicide with a Smith & Wesson Special 38, the shot of which has a sound radius of 2 km, but was heard by no one. This type of coverage would have challenged the superiority of the regrettable Weekly World News, with its accounts of attacks on trees by vegan vampires. This new form of telenovela is one that no longer needs to be filmed, as it is simply transmitted live from the studio; the editing occurs through a telepathic force sent directly from the authors to the hypnotized spectators, activating their remote controls.
It may be that Romania has found itself today where Italian society was in 1993, when after the discovery of a web of corruption among the parties that made up the political scene, it was necessary to reform the electoral system.
Guernica: How can we understand what’s happening politically in the greater context of Romania’s communist legacy?
AU: We are witnessing a war between the two camps formed out of the fragmented nomenclatura of Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship. On one side we have the mediocre functionaries of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) and the officers of the Securitate [the former Secret Service], in other words, the informers and thugs of the previous regime. These gather in the PCR’s successor party, renamed the Social Democratic Party (PSD), led by Ion Illiescu [the first Romanian president following Ceausescu’s execution in 1989] and his disciples, former PM Adrian Nastase and current PM Victor Ponta. On the other side we have the elite professionals of the Ceausescu regime and the more qualified forces of the Securitate, those in the technical branches, external intelligence, etc., forming President Traian Basescu’s neo-liberal/neo-conservative Democratic Liberal Party (PDL).
It’s no coincidence that the political turmoil of the last two weeks began with a cultural conflict, since, on the political level, we are dealing with a conflict of competence. It may be that Romania has found itself today where Italian society was in 1993, when after the discovery of a web of corruption among the parties that made up the political scene, it was necessary reform the electoral system. Though, to rephrase a line by Edgar Lee Masters, contemporary democracy is a long street, at the end of which could already be seen even then the shadow of Berlusconi.
Guernica: And what can you surmise about the immediate future? How can a population with, now, at least some tendrils rooted in the idea of a civil society deal with such regression?
AU: The political class in Bucharest will be confronted with the strictures of the European community. Romania can no longer cherry-pick Europe’s cultural aspirations while continuing to behave according to tendencies inherited from Ottoman occupation. Nor can it continue a dictatorial autonomy based on the principle of “non-interference [from the outside] with internal affairs,” Ceausescu’s oft repeated phrase. Meaning, it can’t spend European funds autonomously, despite the resistance of the remaining and delusional old guard of politicians, who don’t want to accept reality. As a full member of the European Union, Romania must respect certain ruling guidelines. The moral code befitting a European identity cannot be stated more directly than in the two simple enunciations that we have to make here: former PM Nastase, sentenced to two years in prison for corruption, must serve his time (which, finally, he has been forced to do), and current PM Ponta, unmasked by the international academic community as a plagiarist, must resign from office.
Guernica: Do you think Ponta’s administration could succeed in covering up the issues internally?
AU: No doubt, we are facing the resistance of mafia structures inside the political body. The procession of party heads at the hospital bed of former PM Nastase bears an uncanny resemblance to the heads of the famiglia come to pay their respects to il Capo, not least of which out of gratitude for not snitching on them during the course of his trial. And there’s surely a strong opposition in the party against PM Ponta’s resignation. Considerable sums have been invested in his political career, including in the press campaign mentioned above, and there is tremendous pressure for him to remain in power. These people, of course, don’t want to lose everything they’ve bet on Ponta’s career.
[Note: Shortly after this interview took place, the battle between Mr. Ponta and President Basescu reached political fever pitch, with Mr. Ponta’s USL party’s asking the Romanian parliament to hold an “extraordinary meeting,” in order to suspend President Basescu. So while Mr. Ponta is under pressure to resign over allegations of plagiarism, President Basescu could now face impeachment.]
That said, I am certain that sooner or later there will be a protest from the free, academic and intellectual community in Western Europe that will put pressure on Brussels to adopt an official position on the matter. If I know my Western European colleagues, I know that they won’t allow the sheltering of a plagiarist among the council of the EU’s prime ministers, who must make decisions that influence citizens of other countries as well as their own. At the very least, the academic world should feel a threat at the foundational element of its cache: its reputation.
The actual conflict of competence will soon also become a matter of the generations, which will inevitably take the form of a cultural confrontation. You should know that there is a large contingent of young Romanians with outstanding doctoral achievement, some of whom have graduated from the most prestigious institutions in the world. It may be the case, as a friend from my youth in Timisoara recently commented, that the current Romanian government can only be replaced by Romanians with doctorates from Harvard and Oxford.
Oana Sanziana Marian is a Romanian-born, NY-based poet, translator, photographer and filmmaker, whose translation of Norman Manea’s novel The Lair (Yale University Press, 2012) was one of the 300 plus aforementioned translations supported by the Romanian Cultural Institute.