Three From Europe: Attenberg, My Joy, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu

FILM, Film Festivals
Annually, from June through to the end of August, The Lumière Reader covers the New Zealand International Film Festival in earnest. Before screenings commence proper on July 14, our critics will be previewing as many films as we can in anticipation. The following features represent a small, if exciting snapshot of the gems we can expect from the 150-strong programme that was announced in full tonight online; Attenberg, My Joy, and The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu films firmly of the art cinema lingua franca, yet each also strikingly novel in their own way. These are three impressive, not necessarily visible festival films that we’ve been lucky enough to strike upon early, and it goes without saying that there will be plenty more for us to discover and write about in the coming months.

On the strength of 2009’s brilliant Dogtooth—although the prudish half of the audience that fled the festival’s cinema that year will beg to differ—Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Greek oddity Attenberg is a must-see. An appropriately ‘incestuous’ production, insofar as Tsangari produced Giorgos Lanthimos’s previous two features, and has recruited the Dogtooth director as an actor in her film, Attenberg is an instantly familiar work: the deftly composed tableaux; the blunt, hard edits between scenes; the sexual matter-of-factness; and the defiantly unorthodox, often hilarious behavioral quirks of characters with a skewed perspective of the world. Marina (Ariane Labed), an inquisitive, yet highly circumspect twenty-something who might as well be an escapee from the Dogtooth household, gleans beginner lessons in sexual relations from her promiscuous best friend, Bella (Evangelia Randou), in between entertaining her terminally ill father, Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis), who shares her private obsession with the mammal documentaries of Sir David Attenborough. Despite Marina’s aversion to “human fauna”, she eventually explores the intimacy of another man (Lanthimos) while playacting with Bella and Spyros; their outlandish animal impressions, combined with the pungent sexual tension in the air, threatening to turn proceedings into an episode of Green Porno. Tsangari, an installation artist, delivers an absorbing, if at times stagy collection of vignettes about these characters’ lives, and her creation moves erratically between video art and art film as a result. No matter that Attenberg isn’t completely reconciled as piece of cinema though: the curious mélange of elements—from its Antonioni-inspired images of industrial modernism, to its Ulrich Seidl-esque anthropology of eccentric humans, to its unlikely comedic moments, and last but not least, its genuinely heartfelt study of the child-parental bond—make it an endlessly fascinating watch.

Disorienting, yet strangely compelling, Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy is the kind of left field discovery that film festival goers live for. Exciting some critics and puzzling others when it screened in competition at Cannes last year, it’s a film that thrives on incident rather than a central narrative or proposition, making it both fascinating and offputting as a viewing experience. What it is, undisputedly, is a bold and transfixing road movie, one that conjures up the same feelings of curiosity and awe that admirers of Alexei German Jr’s superb Paper Solider will have enjoyed. Casually focused on a truck driver (Viktor Nemets) whose delivery route takes a series of unexpected turns, Loznitsa’s ironically titled film is a pessimistic work at heart, using its protagonist’s unhurried, constantly diverted journey across the Russian countryside to digress on matters of corruption, amorality, and skepticism of the state. Some of these detours are pointed, some are downright tragic, and all are frustratingly disconnected—the exception being the unifying spectre of authority figures who abuse their positions of power, and could be said represent the current political climate of Ukraine. However, it’s the manner in which these loaded anecdotes find their way into the film—and a seismic shift in the narrative at the halfway mark—that is most intriguing. Aided by Oleg Mutu’s incisive handheld camerawork—the dogged cinematographer behind Romanian triumphs The Death of Mr Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days—Loznitsa allows the point of view to deviate constantly and in unpredictable ways. Often becoming sidetracked by periphery characters or figures who merely stumble into frame, Loznitsa’s direction may seem distracted, but is actually weighted in the inquisitive documentary perspective of his previous non-fiction films. Recalling the unanchored structure of Steve McQueen’s Hunger, My Joy isn’t entirely successful, but deserves your attention as one of the festival’s more astounding works.

A word of warning: although The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu suggests an informative and historically thorough overview of the Romanian dictator’s life and times, a brush up on the legacy of the infamous Communist Party leader is recommended before viewing this startling and audacious documentary (yes, Wikipedia will do). Like the preeminent documentarian at this festival, Frederick Wiseman (whose Boxing Gym is reviewed here), Andrei Ujica’s approach denies the audience exposition and orientation: there are no voiceovers, inter-titles, or talking heads to be instructed by, only found footage which provides the ‘autobiographical’ component of the film. Bookended by degraded video of Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, as they were hastily put on trial shortly before being executed in 1989, the documentary presents a chronological ‘image’ of Ceausescu through the sixties, seventies, and eighties: we see him assume power following the death of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, rally crowds and political meetings, deliver speeches and public addresses to no end, and rub shoulders with Nixon, Mao, Carter, Queen Elizabeth, and most spectacularly, Kim Il-Sung. Ujica’s film, deceptively simple as it is, remains strangely mesmerizing as a compendium of archival material, whose collage of officially sanctioned news footage is energized with an unlikely immediacy. And yet Ujica’s strategy goes far deeper than mere history through a lens, and the shrewdness of his editing—or rather, the indistinctness of it—is in a way a provocation to interpret and scrutinize the public image of Ceausescu for ourselves. Much more can be written about this compulsively absorbing film, including its problems as a seemingly lopsided account of a tyrant’s reign, and that Ceausescu’s crimes are not drawn attention to will baffle some. But the very absence of these depressing facts gives the film its potency, and draws us into another conversation altogether: the role media play in shaping our understanding of events, the unreliable neutrality of documentary filmmaking, and the highly manipulative editing process, which Ujica gamely acknowledges his role in. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu reminds me a great deal of the artist Deimantas Narkevicius, whose works reflect actively on the Communist aspirations of Lithuania’s past (you can see one of his latest shorts, Ausgeträumt, as part of The Artists Cinema programme), however for a more common reference point, the Romanian New Wave, and its often direct engagement with the reality of Ceausescu’s rule, is a perfect context through which to digest this remarkably perceptive film.

‘Attenberg’, Dir. Athina Rachel Tsangari
Greece, 2010; 95 minutes
In Greek with English subtitles
Featuring: Ariane Labed, Vangelis Mourikis, Evangelia Randou, Yorgos Lanthimos, Kostas Berikopoulos, Michel Demopoulos.
Screening: Auckland, Wellington; Christchurch, Dunedin (TBC).
‘My Joy’, Dir. Sergei Loznitsa
Ukraine/Germany/The Netherlands, 2010; 127 minutes
In Russian with English subtitles
Featuring: Viktor Nemets, Vlad Ivanov, Vladimir Golovin, Maria Varsami, Olga Shuvalova, Alexey Vertkov, Yuriy Sviridenko.
Screening: Auckland, Wellington; Christchurch, Dunedin (TBC).
‘The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu’, Dir. Andrei Ujica
Romania, 2010; 180 minutes
In Romanian with English subtitles.
Screening: Auckland, Wellington; Christchurch, Dunedin (TBC). For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.

Filed under: FILM, Film Festivals

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.