March 10, 2020


The Fictitious Non-Fictional Canon

History in fragments, exhibition view; photo by Andrei Tănăsescu


The exhibition History in Fragments, curated by Raluca Velisar and Andrei Rus, was part of the Negotiating History: Cinematic Representations Past & Present program for The EUROPALIA International Art Festival’s Videograms of a Nation cinema section. The Romanian edition of the biennale, organized by the Romanian Cultural Institute, is the most fertile soil to plant questions on the past-present dynamics in Romanian art, especially the heaviest, inevitable issues referring to canons, the boogeyman of art theory. Can Nae Caranfil’s Restul e tăcere / The Rest is Silence alone take the screen, or should Grigore Brezeanu’s 1912 Independența României / The Independence of Romania also be there? (Of course it should!) When will Gopo be recovered as a science-fiction movie director? How much of the current cinematic canon of the communist period is based on the aesthetic merits of movies and how much is derived from the stories of the dissident film-makers? And the questions can go on, in a continuous fervent and, to a certain degree, vital negotiation.

But this exhibition comprised almost exclusively of nonfictional audio-visual material (around 90% cinema and 10% video art) is not the place for such negotiations – there is no one to assist Rus and Velisar in negotiating a new and revised canon of the Romanian nonfictional cinema, and this is because there is no such thing as a pre-existing canon of this sort. And there never was. This situation comes from a flawed history of documentary cinema that was born at the beginning of the ‘50s. Of course, part of these factors was propagated until not long ago. Andra Petrescu identifies some of them in her essay, “Where did the documentary film disappear in the ‘90s?”, published in the collective volume Filmul Tranziției / The Film of the Transition, coordinated by Andrei Gorzo and Gabriela Filippi. In short, according to Petrescu, the socialist production of documentary film that exclusively wore the hallmark of the “Alexandru Sahia” studio has been laying the shadows of fiction film production for almost 40 years. “Glory cannot be found even in documentary film, not by screening 10 minutes movies once every 2-3 years!”, as Radu Cosașu wrote in 1969. Immediately after the Revolution, but also during the ‘90s, the situation would become more and more precarious. Then came the 2004 edition of the International Documentary Filmfestival in Amsterdam, where four Romanian directors participated (Alexandru Solomon, Ileana Stănculescu, Florin Iepan and Dumitru Brudrală) and, on this occasion, released an open letter that highlighted the deplorable state of the documentary film’s financing system. In 2008 the Cele mai bune 10 filme românești ale tuturor timpurilor / Best 10 Romanian films of all times collective volume is launched under the coordination of Cristina Corciovescu and Magda Mihăilescu. This is, above all, an honest and almost ridiculously predictable ranking; no one would be surprised by the 10 fiction movie titles listed (all of them by male directors), from Puiu to Daneliuc. In the end, there was no trace of documentaries in this ranking. Moreover, its coordinators made it clear from the very beginning that their endeavor doesn’t take into account non-fictional cinema.

  1. The Reenactment (1970), by Lucian Pintilie
  2. Forest of the Hanged (1965), by Liviu Ciulei
  3. The Death of Mister Lazarescu (2005), by Cristi Puiu
  4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days 4 (2007), by Cristian Mungiu
  5. Sequences  (1982), by Alexandru Tatos
  6. Stone Wedding (1973), by Mircea Veroiu and Dan Pița
  7. The Mill of Good Luck (1956), by Victor Iliu
  8. 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) de Corneliu Porumboiu
  9. Microphone Test (1980), by Mircea Daneliuc
  10. The Cruise (1981), by Mircea Daneliuc

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (d. Andrei Ujică, 2010)


Two years later, in 2010, Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu / The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (d. Andrei Ujică) and După revoluție / After the Revolution (d. Laurențiu Calciu) marked a new era, one that was to be prolific both quantitively (as Petrescu notes in her 2017 essay) and qualitatively. Unlike its forerunners, this period, which symbolically ended after a decade (2019), is accompanied by a list that can serve as the draft for its canon. To be more precise, this ranking was created last year by the Acoperișul de Sticlă and Film Menu publications with the contribution of 22 critics, curators and professor, and it looks like this:

  1. Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu / The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (2010), by Andrei Ujică
  2. Toto și surorile lui (2014) / Toto and His Sisters, by Alexander Nanau
  3. Fotbal infinit / Infinite Football (2018), by Corneliu Porumboiu
  4. După revoluție / After the Revolution (2010), by Laurențiu Calciu
  5. Crulic (2011), by Anca Damian
  6. Al doilea joc / The Second Game (2013), by Corneliu Porumboiu
  7. Ouăle lui Tarzan / Tarzan’s Testicles (2017), by Alexandru Solomon
  8. Țara moartă / The Dead Nation (2017), by Radu Jude
  9. Timebox (2018), by Nora Agapi
  10. Distanța dintre mine și mine / The Distance Between Me and Me (2018), by Mona Nicoară and Dana Bunescu

It undoubtedly is the harvest of a cinematic feat-of-strength. More than half of the included movies are or use found footage (1st, 4th, 8th, 9th and 10th), while Al doilea joc, the 6th one, is at the crossroads of found footage and essay film. Three of them (1st, 4th and 6th) have been included in History in Fragments, along with other diaristic and essayistic forms of documentary[1].

In lack of anything else, we can call the above ranking as one concerning the art documentary. The counterpoint should be a ranking of mass documentary. I have borrowed the conceptual binomen Mihai Fulger applied to his text in Filmul tranziției, “From curating to canonizing” (p. 223), the most recent text to discuss the canon of local cinema[2]. But what would this ranking look like?

As absurd as it may seem, a mass cinematic canon of non-fiction could be, looking at the given data[3], just a bank of pictures in motion, a canon of collective memory, not of taste, of documents and not of documentaries, of subjects rather than of authors, most of them anonymous. This means images with exposure value that made a name for themselves, recordings of important moments, with lots of screening time, visited and revisited, like the ones recorded during the December Revolution, those of the Ceaușescu couple, or the more recent cases of amateur shootings turned viral through social media[4].

„An audio-visual journey through the last decades of Romanian history […].” Velisar and Rus propose something that, although declaring its inability to exhaust the subject[5], certainly maintains a tone which aspires to be didactical and omniscient, recurrent in each curatorial text (and it is worth mentioning that the exhibition is abundant in text).

As stated before, the displayed footage is exclusively audiovisual and the curators play it safe with its presentation. Either projected on walls, or on screens, the picture in motion never leaves the two native contexts with which it is widely associated – the large and small screen, the cinema and television. Returning to the approximate quota from the beginning, 90% cinema and 10% video art, it becomes evident that the footage cannot be fully viewed in one visit. There’s actually a room in which one of the three video exhibits, the 8-minutes long Dialog cu Ceaușescu / Dialogue with Ceaușescu (d. Ion Grigorescu, 1978), is displayed alongside Andrei Ujică’s 3-hours goliath The Autobiography; yet another dialogue, this time between mediums, times, intervals and representations.


Dialogue with Ceaușescu (d. Ion Grigorescu, 1978)


Of course, the format is atypical, but far from innovative – with the example of Documenta 11 in mind, German theorist Hito Steyerl stated that audiovisual exhibitions with screenings that are too long to be viewed in one sitting aspire to archive-status (“because they overuse cinematic time”[6]). It is worth perceiving this exhibition as an ephemeral, selective film micro-archive, synchronic to the XXI century cinephilia, in-tune with the evolution of local cinema, digital and accessible, almost as an insult to the National Film Archive[7].

One the one hand, we are dealing with an exhibition that satisfies all the expectation of a small chronological incursion into non-fictional Romanian cinema from the ‘40s until today, which is a great deal of mass canon. As such, from one room to the next, one gets to see Marshal Antonescu, Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu, the street protests of the ‘90s, Ion Rațiu, Ion Iliescu, alongside amateur footage, family photos, images of socialist buildings during savage capitalism, etc. Akin to a catacomb, the space enables an auditory merry-go-round passing morsels of sound back and forth – a hymn here, Ceaușescu’s voice there, voiceover comments in English, an intervention in French, protests, audio noise, a poetic text à la Sahia. This in itself is an entire performative facet of the exhibition. During my last visit I made a 5-minutes audio recording (it takes about 5 minutes to casually pass through the entire exhibition). The final product, illustrated with a bit of a page from Cinema magazine, was published on the Festivalists audiovisual critique platform (or playform, as the online publication calls itself). What I’m trying to convey in the recording is that various lists of titles that would form a future non-fictional cinematic canon can generate never-ending debates; however, if we were to ask ourselves what do the last eight decades of non-fictional Romanian cinema sound like, then the answer would be here, in the basement of Cinéma Galeries.

In the end, what stands out from the list of proposed titles? More impetuous than this history lesson is pedantic cinephilia (in the best of senses) that both the curators demonstrate. It so happens that the image bank I have called the mass non-fictional canon is the raw material for some of the most ambitious and lucid documentary film projects created within the local industry these last years, some of which have been included here. Besides Porumboiu, Ujică and Calciu, the exhibition also features Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor with two video essays, but also Radu Jude with Cele două execuții ale Mareșalului / The Marshal’s Two Executions (2018) and A pedepsi și a disciplina / Punish and Discipline, created especially for this exhibition. The first video creation of Jude has its roots in Țara moartă (2017), an essay-documentary that illustrates diaristic texts by Emil Dorian containing photos from the Costică Acsinte archive. Going back to the photo archive, Jude illustrates the second part of his video creation through photos of a station chief that were taken in the span of three decades (from the ’50s to the ‘80s), while the first part illustrates passages from Amintirile colonelului Lăcusteanu / Colonel Lăcusteanu’s Memories being read aloud and shown on camera, with minor war cruelties nonchalantly justified by the colonel himself. Of course, between the lines of Lăcusteanu, via Jude, one can read Foucault, as the title also suggests.


The Marshal’s Two executions (d. Radu Jude, 2019)


The other pieces, legionary, communist and anti-communist propaganda films, among which Războiul nostru sfânt / Our Holy War (d. Ion Cantacizuno, 1942) and Amintiri bucureștene / Bucharest Memories (d. Radu Gabrea, 1970), and especially the 1985 deliciously obsolete film by Cornel Diaconu, Tineretul României socialiste / The Youth of Socialist Romania (my nominee for a recovery of camp aesthetics within the Romanian non-fictional cinema), are all curiosities rather than solid revisiting proposals. But, who knows, perhaps a canon is born; in this sense here is the complete list of the artists and their works:

Ion Cantacuzino – Războiul nostru sfânt / Our Holy War (1942)
Radu Jude – Cele două execuții ale Mareșalului / The Marshal’s Two Executions (2018)
Radu Jude – Punish and Discipline (2019)
Gabriela Filippi – Nepoții lui Mitrea / Mitrea’s Grandsons (montage, 2019)
Ion Grigorescu – Dialog cu Președintele Ceaușescu / Dialogue with President Ceaușescu (1978)
Andrei Ujică – Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu / The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (2010)
Corneliu Porumboiu – Al doilea joc / The Second Game (2014)
Cornel Diaconu – The Youth of Socialist Romania (1985)
Raluca Durbacă – Disciplined Bodies (montage, 2019)
Radu Gabrea – Amintiri bucureștene / Bucharest Memories (1970)
Ana Szel – Ammateur Filmmakers on Holiday (montage, 2019)
Laurențiu Calciu – După revoluție / After the Revolution (2010)
The „Alexandru Sahia” Studio Collective – Jurnalul liber / The First Free Newsreel (1990)
Vanina Vignal – După tăcere – ceea ce nu e rostit nu există? / After Silence – What is not said does not exist? (2012)
Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor – Procesul / The Trial (2004-2005)
Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor – Focul e mereu același / Fire is Always the Same (2019)


The exhibition HISTORY IN FRAGMENTScurated by Raluca Velisar and Andrei Rus, took place at Cinema Galeries in Brussels between
13.12.2019 – 02.02.2020


[1] I will be using the terms “documentary” and “nonfictional film” interchangeably to avoid tiring repetitions.

[2] In its own right a simplification of the trinome proposed by Andrei Gorzo in Imagini încadrate în Istoria secolului lui Miklós Jancsó, again in the attempt of clarifying the situation of the Romanian non-fictional canon.

[3] Marele jaf comunist (The Great Communist Heist), probably the best known documentary of Alexandru Solomon, had 836 spectators in 2004, its launching year, according to its Wikipedia page. The link mentioned as source is now unavailable – The same year, Sergiu Nicolaescu’s Orient Express had 46.788 spectators, according to Film Reporter.

[4] Radu Jude includes such a material – a recording of a Romani woman beaten up by a Romanian driver in broad daylight – in his last year’s top list, published in Con los ojos abiertos 

[5] Fragment from the first curatorial text positioned right at the entrance on the exhibition: “Thus History splits itself into a multitude of histories which, along with thousands or millions of other official and / or private possible histories, partially recreate a past with far too many layers to foster any hope that it could ever be encapsulated and conveyed in all its complexity.”

[6] Hito Steyerl, „Is a Museum a Factory?”, Beyond Representation, Idea Design Print, Cluj, 2017, trad. Andrei Anastasescu,  p. 118.

[7] See the Arhiva de Filme nu e un depozit / The Film Archive is not a warehouse manifesto, signed, among others, by Andrei Rus.


Călin Boto

Călin Boto is the editor-in-chief of the cinema magazine Film Menu and the coordinator of its weekly film club. As a freelancer, he collaborates with several publications and film festivals, includin...

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