Dictating History: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu

FILM, Film Festivals

At the New Zealand International Film Festival: Fragments from the rule of a Romanian Communist leader.

Nicolae Ceausescu’s reputation isn’t particularly glowing in hindsight. In the West, at least, it arguably revolves around his sudden and potent execution at the fall of Communism in Romania, rather than the terrors he inflicted on the Romanian population. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu is Ujica’s black, black, black attempt to construct how Ceausescu himself may have remembered his life, and bookended by footage of his televised trial, offers Ceausescu’s defence to the charges brought against him. It’s deeply funny in intent—a savage poke in the eye of Ceausescu’s cult of personality—but its implications on mass media manipulation and the tolerance of Ceausescu’s methods (from both the West and internally) are brutal.

As my colleague Tim Wong has noted, it’s possible to trace lineage to other Romanian New Wave filmmakers, and to the Lithuanian filmmaker Deimantas Narkevicius. Another touchstone to Ujica’s approach is Dušan Makavejev and the Yugoslavian Black Wave of the late 1960s. The film is constructed by the use of found footage and collage, and like Makavajev’s similarly constructed satires, it’s the space in the montage (i.e. between the two juxtaposed shots/scenes) where the real story lies. Ujica essentially uses the Communist preferred model (montage) to satirize their propaganda films. In a further sublime piece of mockery, Ujica utilises Ceausescu’s infamous July Theses approach, whereby all art should ‘promote’ socialist and communist ideals.

The footage itself is a mixture of the banal and the revelatory. Innumerable shots of turgid speeches by Ceausescu (boy, does he like his ‘ideological terminology’) say nothing to the populous, while candid holiday snaps reveal an uncomfortable and weak individual. But the footage also reveals how removed Ceausescu was from reality, how the propaganda doesn’t even come close to reflecting the quotidian life of Romanians. Little things seep in—Ceauaescu’s dismissal of flowers presented, a throwaway comment from someone working in a supermarket before a visit by Ceausescu, or a glance by one of Ceausescu’s ‘allies’—but the overall impression is one of delusion and arrogance.

Ujica also draws his net much wider. While it’s easy to put the entire blame of Romania’s woes on Ceausescu, the film reveals a deeper collusion—even if one cannot entirely accept the veracity of the footage. World leaders—from Nixon, Ford, and Carter, to the Queen and other Western leaders—wander in to pay tribute to Ceau?escu. The ruling Communist Party shouted down dissent (a quite extraordinary scene in which one rare moment of protest is depicted), while the general public lined up to send him birthday cards or wave at him adoringly. In this way, Ujica highlights the way Ceausescu was able to maintain power for so long.

Ujica also examines the nature of documentary footage, at once arguing for the status quo, but with the benefit of hindsight, also subverting what was once accepted as the status quo. For all of the supposed objectivity of a documentary image, an audience member’s interpretation will always be affected by the audience member’s current social context. And similar to last year’s marvelous Police, Adjective, the nature of who gets to do the defining, and when, is arguably as important to consider, as simply what is being said.

‘The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu’, Dir. Andrei Ujica
Romania, 2010; 180 minutes
In Romanian with English subtitles.
Screening: Auckland, Wellington. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.