Good News From Romania?
What follows, within this suddenly liberated gaze, is as much choreography as conversation. Glum, dark-bearded, baggy-eyed Manescu hunches forward until he's speaking to the desktop; white-haired Piscoci leans back at his ease, a blithe smile on his nutcracker features; while Jderescu, sitting upright in the middle, tries to keep order by snatching papers from his guests, slapping their hands, hissing reprimands out of the corner of his mouth and confiscating Manescu's bottle, all the while keeping a pair of eyeglasses balanced halfway down his nose so he'll look like an intellectual. If revolution, at a minimum, is the breakdown of decorum within a civic space, then a very minor revolution is in fact taking place right in front of the town-square photomural.
But with all respect to Jderescu, the question remains: Was the town's uprising in 1989 more consequential, or in any way riskier, than this little televisual revolution?
Piscoci says no. With comfortable good cheer, he recalls that he didn't venture into the town square until after he'd seen Ceausescu's fall on TV--and all he was expecting was Laurel and Hardy! Nobody else came into the town square either, until Ceausescu was safely gone; but that's all right, Piscoci says generously, because everybody makes the best revolution he can.
No, mutters Manescu. He insists that he came into the square and protested that morning, before 12:08. Nobody saw him--but he was there.
"Were you there?" Jderescu asks, over and over, as denials mount from the talk show's phone-in audience. Each time, Manescu pauses a little longer, swallowing a little more bile, before he answers, "Yes." The history teacher demands his bit role in history, even though it changed nothing for him. The talk-show host, who seems to have remade himself very nicely since 1989, refuses to believe that anything happened. And Santa Claus loves everybody.
You will laugh till the streetlights blink on again in the damp Romanian twilight.
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Unseen at press time, but recommended anyway: Lynn Hershman Leeson's Strange Culture, which opens the eighteenth annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. Just on the basis of the program description, I can say this film perfectly summarizes the aspirations of the festival, because it's partly about art and partly about politics, partly documentary and partly dramatic, partly archival and even partly animated--and it's all basically true. A case study in official paranoia, Strange Culture tells the story of artist, college professor and activist Steve Kurtz, who phoned the paramedics one day in 2004 when his wife collapsed and wound up in the hands of FBI agents, who arrested him and his art materials on suspicion of bioterrorism.
On view in New York June 14-28 at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, then touring nationally, the festival this year offers another twenty features beyond Strange Culture, plus three shorts and a program of works in progress. Of the films I have seen, I can particularly recommend Sebastián Moreno Mardones's The City of Photographers, a truly revelatory documentary about the self-appointed Chilean photojournalists who recorded, and encouraged, protests against Pinochet in the 1980s. But that's only the beginning. For a complete schedule, visit www.hrw.org/iff or www.filmlinc.com.