Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Melbourne Film Festival - The Autobiography of Nicolai Ceausescu

The Autobiography of Nicolai Ceausescu is a very long film (180 minutes), made entirely from propaganda and news footage of Ceausescu's time in power. There is no commentary and no attempt to shape the material into any kind of structured narrative. It is less an evening's entertainment than an endurance test - at the screening I attended the exodus started as a trickle but, as the images flowed on and on, the numbers of viewers leaving the theatre grew and grew.

Sadly leaving was not a choice available to most Romanian people. Possibly, this was the goal of the makers of the film - to give an impression of what it was like to live in a country where broadcast information was controlled, where the truth you were shown in the media bore no relation to the truth you saw around you in your daily life. If so the method was quite effective. I visited Romania several times at the height of Ceausescu's worst excesses and saw with my own eyes that the shelves in the shops really were bare and people were cold and miserable and things were about as bad as you could imagine. Even so, after watching Ceausescu tour shops stuffed with bread and meat and fish and fruit and vegetables - sometimes with visiting international politicians (de Gaulle, Nixon, plus the usual Soviet suspects), sometimes by himself, (one of his interminable birthday celebrations appears to have included an all-day round of food shop visiting - inadvertently one section of this footage includes an off-camera frenzied conversation about whether or not the fish has arrived yet so that the usually empty cabinet can be hastily made to appear full), I was beginning to wonder if I'd allowed my memory to exaggerate just how bad things had really been.

The film includes footage of Ceausescu's overseas visits. The North Koreans and Mao-era Chinese produce dazzling displays of frenzied joy at his arrival. The British wheel out guardsmen and state coaches, but the Queen looks as if she is trying to stifle the desire to be quietly sick. Jimmy Carter looks unimpressive, as usual. Brezhnev strokes Ceausescu's face and Gorbachev complains about the heat.

What the film does not do is give any insight into Ceausescu's personality. Did he really believe the dreary Marxist Leninist drivel he spouted repeatedly? Could he possibly have been fooled by his own propaganda? Did he understand what suffering was being endured by his people? And what did the delegates to the annual party congresses think they were doing, rising as a man to yell support for him in unison - at the XIIth party congress even turning on one individual who was brave enough to challenge Ceausescu's unscrupulous manipulation of the system? Where are those people now? How do they live with themselves?

I don't think I could recommend The Autobiography of Nicolai Ceausescu, not only because it is so very long. The most remarkable and ultimately pointless thing about it is its utter neutrality - without previous knowledge, the viewer could leave the cinema no wiser about who Ceausescu was or what had brought him to the film's final scene, cornered in a country police station, refusing to answer questions and looking afraid. I suppose in that context, the film's achievement is that the audience has grown so heartily sick of this unimpressive little man that they are glad to be rid of him. What is missing though is a proper explanation of just what harm he did - boring people was the least of it. Because of this missing wider context, the film, despite some interesting and even comic moments, seems to me an exercise in futility - like Ceausescu's own endeavours, I suppose.

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