This is based on notes for a talk given at Stanford University, at the invitation of Assistant Professor Srdan Keca from the Department of Art & Art History, in his Archival cinema class, in October 2017.
Background: Romania in the state socialist era (1947-1989)
At the end of World War II, Romania – just like Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia – became a satellite of the Soviet Union. Each one of these Eastern and Central European countries was ruled, with very similar results, by a local Communist Party which took its line from Moscow. This was the first, Stalinist phase of the era of communist rule, lasting between the late 1940s and the late 50s or early 60s.
In the second phase, a post-Stalinist Soviet Union relaxed its control over its satellites and allowed them to pursue their own ways in building Socialism – although only within certain limits: in 1968, Moscow found that Czechoslovakia had strayed too far from any acceptable path, so troops were sent to regain control of this satellite. The troops were Soviet, as well as Hungarian, Polish and Bulgarian: they represented the whole “Soviet bloc”, as it was called. Except Romania.
Nicolae Ceaușescu, General Secretary of the post-Stalinist Romanian Communist Party since 1965, refused to send in troops; in an impassioned address to the Romanian people, he defended the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s right to autonomy and declared himself willing to fight the Soviet Union, were it to try a similar military intervention in Romania. Ceaușescu’s defiance of the Soviet Union, added to his regime’s relative openness towards the capitalist West, made him popular, for a while, with many Romanian citizens. However, the regime’s openness to the West quickly dwindled, while its nationalism grew. From the 1970s, as economic development in the whole socialist world slowed down and eventually stalled, Ceaușescu became increasingly fixated on making Romania autonomous of both Soviet and Western interests. In the early 80s he decided that the country’s foreign debt should be paid in its entirety: the population had to put up with dramatic shortages of food, heating, electricity, and consumer goods. The frustration was made worse by the personality cult orchestrated by the regime around the leader and his wife, a personality cult growing to ever more grotesque proportions as privations became worse and worse. By the end of the decade, broadcasts of the state television – which was, of course, the only television – had been limited to two hours each day, almost entirely dedicated to singing the dictator’s praises. As Hungarian scholar László Strausz has aptly put it, “radio and television broadcasts shaped the impression in audiences that they were locked in the dead time of dictatorship; history, the flow of time, circumvented the country” (Strausz, 2017: 93). There was only one official source, one legal source of images and sounds in the country, and that source was Ceaușescu. The alternatives to it were: pirate broadcasts of Western anti-communist radio stations; a lively black market of American films circulating on videotapes; and even the broadcasts of Hungarian or Bulgarian state television.
One of the country’s few dissidents was László Tökés, a Hungarian priest from the city of Timișoara. In December 1989 – December weather was mild that year –, the authorities tried to move him from the city. On December 13, people started to gather at his house, expressing their solidarity with him. During the next few days, anti-Ceaușescu slogans started to be heard. The army opened fire. News of what was happening in Timișoara spread across the country, defying the efforts being made by the authorities to suppress it. On December 20, Ceaușescu gave a televised speech; the next day he appeared at a big rally organized by the Romanian Communist Party in Bucharest, the capital of the country, and broadcast live on state television. There, he tried to regain control of the situation by promising to raise salaries. It was at that rally that the crowd started to boo Ceaușescu. On live television. This is how, in the words of scholar László Strausz, “[t]he television image [in Romania finally aligned] the time of the broadcast with the social real” (Strausz, 2017: 94).
That night there was fighting in the streets of Bucharest. And the next day, on December 22, the dictator and his wife escaped in a helicopter from the rooftop of the Romanian Communist Party Central Committee building, as insurgents were laying siege to it. Insurgents also invaded the headquarters of the national television station. For the next few days, these two locations – the Central Committee building and the national television studios – became the two main poles of revolutionary activity. The particularity of this revolution – widely noted at the time – was that it was an almost entirely televised revolution. This doesn’t simply mean that television covered the events, or documented them, or reflected them. Television also participated in the construction of the events.
Constructing events while documenting them
The fact that it was happening on TV meant, at the simplest level, that revolutionary actions and events couldn’t just be accomplished – they also had to be performed. In Videograms of a Revolution we see footage of the revolutionaries just before they start broadcasting live. What do they do? They rehearse their entrance.
The fact that these historical events were being televised also altered them in more radical ways. One example of that, in Videograms of a Revolution, is when we see Ceaușescu’s prime-minister resigning from office. A prisoner of the insurgents, he is brought on the balcony of the Central Committee building and asked to shout his resignation at the revolutionary crowd. More exactly, he is forced to go through this historical moment twice, because the camera crew of the state television had not been ready the first time. It is a clear example of a historical moment altered in the course of being documented by the medium of television. Performed for a second time for the sake of the camera, the event is imbued with an aura of farce. Its reality is somewhat diluted.
There was yet another, still more serious level of alteration: on December 22 and during the next few days, revolutionary decrees were read on TV, enemies of the revolution (like the dictator’s son, for example) were paraded in the television studio in front of the nation, and a lot of unverified information was passed on to the millions of Romanian viewers. On the basis of such unverified information, viewers were asked to take action, to come out of their houses, take arms and defend the revolution against the “terrorists” who were threatening it. Those “terrorists” were being described as troops which had stayed loyal to Ceaușescu or, alternately, as commandos flown in from Arab countries led by friends of the Romanian dictator. In any case, shooting in the streets of Bucharest had begun on the evening of December 22 – a few hours after the flight of the presidential couple, when for a moment it had looked like the revolution would triumph without further bloodshed. Shooting continued during the next few days. And it is unquestionable that the televised injunctions to fight “terrorists” contributed to the bloody chaos.
A sense of unreality (1): “You lied to the people using the TV”
On December 25, 1989, Ceaușescu and his wife were summarily judged and executed. The execution itself was not broadcast, but images of its immediate aftermath – of the bullet-riddled bodies – were aired in millions of Romanian homes, where they were often contemplated in a state of exhilaration. It was after the excitement receded that doubts began to spread among the populace. What exactly had people been shown on TV? Who had been those – still unidentified – “terrorists”? Who was responsible for all the deaths that had occurred after Ceaușescu had lost power? Suspicions grew around the individuals and the institutions that seemed to have profited from the bloody chaos, to have gained legitimacy from it: the so-called “National Salvation Front” (which had emerged on TV as if from the crucible of revolutionary agitation) and the Romanian army (which had also been able to portray itself in a good light, defending the revolution and thus atoning for its very recent sin of opening fire on the population at Ceaușescu’s orders). Popular myths and metaphors emerged – like the metaphor of the “stolen” of “hijacked” revolution, the revolution that had been made to vanish into thin air –, and popular slogans, too – for example, a slogan indicting a plural “you” of having used the TV to lie to the people.
A sense of unreality (2): the technology itself seen as the culprit
Beyond the borders of Romania, and at a more philosophical level, the Romanian revolution was sometimes seen as exemplifying then-fashionable notions of postmodernity and “the end of history”. According to some of these scenarios, media like film and television, originally intended to document history, have eventually had the effect of making historical events less real; they have eventually attacked and diluted the reality of historical events. A TV revolution like the one in Romania acquires so many elements of performance, of theatricality – the revolutionaries rehearsing their first live broadcast, the prime-minister being forced to repeat a momentous gesture because the camera hadn’t caught it the first time etc. – that the reality of the revolutionary events gets diminished. Those events begin to look like simulacra – a key term in the vocabulary of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who was very influential at the time and who also wrote a critique of the Romanian revolution understood as a media event (Baudrillard, 1994: 54-61). It is not only that it becomes impossible to tell apart what’s true from what isn’t; it’s the distinction itself that becomes meaningless – at least according to some extreme statements of the so-called “postmodern condition”.
According to Vilém Flusser, another philosopher who wrote about the Romanian revolution, the broadcasts showed how a medium that promised to make history visible and knowable has ended by doing the opposite. Such a view seems to contradict the popular notion of a “stolen” or “hijacked” revolution; or, rather, it seems to revise it by implying that it is the medium of television itself that does the hijacking. To the extent that it implies that, such a view is apolitical – and apocalyptic in its technological determinism: film and television have taken us to the end of history, of the possibility of knowledge.
Videograms of a Revolution and the view of film and television as abolishers of history
Flusser’s influence on Videograms of a Revolution has been acknowledged by Harun Farocki and is easy to trace. Flusser’s essay on Romania’s televised revolution, “Die Macht des Bildes” (“The Power of Images”), appeared in a collective volume, Television-Revolution. Das Ultimatum des Bildes (Television-Revolution: The Ultimatum of Images), edited by Andrei Ujică with Hubertus Von Amelunxen in 1990. It was after reading this book that Harun Farocki approached Ujică with an invitation to collaborate on a project dealing with the Romanian revolution as a media event. (A German artist of partly Indian origin, Farocki had been a filmmaker for nearly 25 years, and some of his strongest films were essayistic interrogations of audiovisual technologies and film or media images. As for Ujică – a Romanian expat living in Germany since the early 80s – at the time he was teaching film and literary theory at the Mannheim University and he hadn’t made any film yet.) According to Ujică, Farocki had originally suggested they join forces in putting together not a film, but a television debate bringing together German and Romanian revolutionaries and media theorists (Gorzo, 2016: 17); and it was Ujică himself who first said that their joint effort should be a film. The aim of the film, once they decided to make it, was, according to Farocki, to test Vilém Flusser’s hypothesis on “the power of the images” (Ruchel-Stockmans, 2015: 61). Late in the film, there is a passage of voice-over commentary which sounds very close to a statement of this hypothesis: “Since its invention, film has seemed destined to make history visible. It has been able to portray the past and stage the present. We have seen Napoleon on horseback and Lenin on the train. Film was possible because there was history. Almost imperceptibly, like moving forward on a Moebius strip, the side was flipped. We look on and have to think: if film is possible, then history too is possible.”
This is somewhat ambiguous, but it can certainly be interpreted as expressing a new uncertainty about history, brought about precisely by those technologies which were supposed to record it, to offer solid proof of it. On the other hand, the film doesn’t seem to commit fully and unambiguously to such a technologically deterministic, end-of-history view. Regarding the confusion that television helped create and feed, the film doesn’t give up on asking to whom it was profitable. And although Farocki and Ujică don’t make accusations against specific individuals and institutions of being responsible for all the spilled blood that was blamed at the time on those phantomatic “terrorists”, they do point out, in another voice-over intervention, that, thanks to television and its narrative about “terrorists” roaming the Bucharest streets, the Romanian army and the Romanian secret service – two institutions that had been compromised by their subservience to the dictator – could clean up their image and show to the whole nation that they were working now on the good side, on the revolutionary side. To the extent that it doesn’t give up on the possibility of political agency, Videograms of a Revolution sides not with postmodernist end-of-history theories, but with the popular view of a revolution stolen by someone – by individuals and institutions, not by the technological media themselves. It can be said that the film oscillates between these two views.
Videograms of a Revolution and the possibility of political agency
Strongly supporting the second view – the political, not the apolitical one – are the juxtapositions between two men who, during the night of December 22, emerge as the rival centers of potential power nuclei.
The voice-over doesn’t remind us that, in a few months, one of the two men, Ion Iliescu, was to become the country’s first post-Ceaușescu president; nor does it remind us that the other man, Dumitru Mazilu, was soon to leave for good the Romanian political arena. But what the film shows us and its way of showing it – especially its use of cross-cutting – hints at a struggle for power going on in those moments between the two men and their groups. First we are shown Ion Iliescu on the balcony of the Central Committee building, giving a speech that – we are informed – should have been broadcast live on national television. But, due to a technical malfunction, Iliescu couldn’t appear on TV at that moment. When the malfunction was remedied and the TV people switched back to the Palace Square and the Central Committee building, Iliescu wasn’t speaking anymore – Mazilu was. When Iliescu returned to the microphone, there was another malfunction. What exactly was happening in those moments? What was it with those technical malfunctions coinciding with Iliescu’s attempts to speak to the nation? We don’t know. What emerges with certainty is the fact that, in the words of Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi, access to power in those moments depended on access to the television audience, it depended on control of the television image (Perjovschi, 2010: 19-21). In the words of another Romanian essayist, Andrei State, the film is also about “a state of historical suspension”, when the old powers had fallen and the new ones were not yet in place (State, 2011: 109-113). Power was up for grabs. And what the film seems to show us is that Ion Iliescu, either by accident or for other reasons, misses the start of this race.
Immediately afterwards, cross-cutting explicitly pits the two men against each other. We see them alternately, both in the Central Committee building, but in different rooms, each in the middle of his own group, drawing his own plan, his own list of priorities for the future of Romania. The cross-cutting brings out the differences between the two visions: Mazilu sounds like a radical anti-communist asking for a clean break with the past, while Iliescu seems somewhat more hesitant, maybe more inclined to see the building of the future in terms of continuity. The cross-cutting also conveys an impression of competition and urgency: moving fast – faster than the other guy – seems crucial. By looking at this footage, we are not able to tell to what extent Iliescu’s eventual victory was decided during the night of December 22 and the next few days; nor do we discover how exactly it happened. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the technology itself that has the property of blurring the truth and making it less knowable. It may just mean that the cameras simply didn’t have access to places and moments in which crucial things happened or were decided, so they couldn’t record those things – in any case, not from up close, not from clear angles. In other words, what was caught on video were the shadows and reflexes of important things that were mostly happening elsewhere, beyond the reach of the cameras. To the extent that it’s plausible, such a description suggests that television technology didn’t take over by itself the Romanian revolution, running the show in a manner that emptied it of reality while also stoking a massacre. Political actors also mattered.
A story of gazes
If video and television technology is seen as the protagonist of Farocki’s and Ujică’s film, then the story told by the film could be summarized in this way: before the fall of Ceaușescu, national television represents the gaze of the regime: the official gaze – “the hegemonic gaze”, as theorist Constantin Pârvulescu has called it (Pârvulescu, 2013) – which doesn’t allow for any other points of view. Then – with the camera peering from a great distance at the Timișoara protesters, in the second sequence of the film – an independent gaze appears.
At first, that independent gaze is fearful. That first camera keeps its distance. The second independent camera that we are shown is a camera in Bucharest, on December 21. This one is also fearful, but during the day it gets closer to the events and during the next night, as it’s recording clashes between the protesters and the army, it becomes more participatory, with someone (a woman) standing invisibly next to the cameraman and cheering the protesters while cursing the forces of repression.
As for the official gaze, the gaze of the regime, something happened to it on December 21: when Ceaușescu was speaking to the crowd and the crowd booed him, the official TV camera shuddered. At the same time, as more and more people were turning their backs on Ceaușescu and leaving the rally, another independent camera filmed them through the window of a Bucharest apartment. More exactly, what that camera did was pan from the TV set in the room to the window: from the image of the dictator to something that the dictator would not have wanted to be seen. The moment is explicitly offered by Farocki and Ujică as an allegory: the independent camera becomes truly independent; it quits reproducing the gaze of the official camera, breaks away from it and films something that the official camera would have never shown.
Then comes December 22 and the independent cameras multiply. It is like an allegory of monolithic power dislocated by enthusiastic pluralism, by the promise of “radical democracy” (as Pârvulescu puts it). But the story, of course, doesn’t end here: state television joins the side of the revolution and it becomes one of the revolution’s two centers (the other being the Central Committee building). As Pârvulescu has observed, the decentralization of media technology is followed by a new centralization. On December 25, when the presidential couple are tried and executed, only one camera is allowed access. Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujică show us a room full of other cameras, all of them pointing at a TV screen, reproducing its images of Ceaușescu tried, then dead, images which once again have a single source. We seem to be back where we started, with the emergence of a new official camera and all the independent cameras drawn to it, submitting to it.
“A curious completeness, as flexible as fiction”
The first book discussing filmmaking as recycling of found or archival footage was published by American film historian Jay Leyda in 1964, under the title Films Beget Films. At a certain point in the book, Leyda praises an American World War II propaganda film, The World at War (director Lowell Mellett), for a sequence showing German planes attacking British ships: the sequence is constructed from both British and German footage – British at the ocean’s surface, German from the Nazi planes – and the result, writes Leyda, “is a curious completeness, as flexible as fiction” (Leyda, 1964: 60). Parts of Videograms of a Revolution, woven seamlessly from both professional television images and amateur footage, display precisely the quality described by Leyda: the flow of classical narrative cinema, where the story seems, as the saying goes, “to be telling itself”.
Videograms of a Revolution features a voice-over, but it is not used to summarize the events of the Romanian revolution in any detailed fashion or to provide the participants with clear identities and biographies. The names of a few participants – the two political rivals Iliescu and Mazilu, a couple of generals – appear written on the screen, above their heads, at some points during the film, while the voice-over also gives us some minimal biographical information about Iliescu and Mazilu. But the film largely dispenses with the informative-explanatory tools of the conventional documentary.
The film of the night of December 22 is reconstructed through cross-cutting between the television station and the Central Committee building. It flows with almost no documentary crutches. And some of the transitions are very smooth, very subtle.
For example, when we are introduced to the two generals, filmed by a video camera in the Central Committee building, one of them is in the act of giving some orders on the phone, concerning someone who has just been arrested and who would have to be watched very strictly. Who may that be? As if answering that question, a second, smaller screen appears in the lower left corner of the image; and, as the general keeps talking on the phone in the main image, on that second screen we see the dictator’s son, Nicu Ceaușescu, being led on the corridors of the television station by the revolutionaries who have captured him, to be exposed to the nation on live TV. Once Nicu Ceaușescu is live, he can also be seen on the screen of the black-and-white TV set found in the Central Committee office occupied by the two generals. Now the video camera that has been filming the generals focuses on the TV until the contents of its screen fill the entire image. In the lower left corner we still see what is being filmed and broadcast in the television studio. For a moment, the image in the lower left corner becomes a miniature and color version of the main image. Then this second, smaller screen disappears and we’re left with the big image, filmed off the black-and-white TV screen. Then, from the office where the generals are, with the insistently filmed TV set, Farocki and Ujică cut to the studio where the TV images are originated. Now we look at Nicu Ceaușescu from up close. (There’s a bruise on his cheek – he seems to have been beaten up by his captors.) Then, as the dictator’s son is led out of the studio, there’s a new, very smooth switch to the other location – the office within the Central Committee building. What happens is that the color image of Nicu Ceaușescu being taken away, filmed by someone who’s with him in the television studio, turns into the black-and-white image showing the same scene, on the screen of the TV located in the generals’ office.
Another example of cinematic storytelling based on fluid transitions: we are in the television studio, at night, and someone launches a delirious-sounding call to the nation’s athletes – to put their physical prowess at the service of the revolution and come defend the television station from the terrorists. From this there’s a cut to the same two generals in their Central Committee office; the TV is on and the call to the nation’s athletes continues from where it was cut at the end of the previous scene. The match is perfect – not a single word seems to be lost. When a cut takes us back to the television studio, the match on the TV speaker’s words (he keeps saying: “Come, brothers! Come as many as you can!”) is, once again, perfect.
(Somewhat different versions of these shot-by-shot analyses, in the Romanian language, illustrated with the relevant screenshots, can be found in my critical guide to Videograms of a Revolution, published by Societatea Culturală NexT and LiterNet in 2016, and freely downloadable from http://editura.liternet.ro/carte/328/Andrei-Gorzo/Videograme-dintr-o-revolutie-Un-studiu-critic.html.)
Of the two filmmakers, it was Andrei Ujică who continued in this narrative direction, with scenes and entire films built from found or archive footage in idiosyncratic accordance with the rules of classical cinema. In his 2010 The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu, Ujică edits a lot of footage of the dictator on official occasions, and also some home movies of his, into a three-hour epic about the rise and fall of a world-historical figure. In that film, Ujică uses no voice-over at all and no written identification tags for the characters. What he does instead is fictionalize the archival imagery by framing it as a flashback Ceaușescu has, reliving his whole political life film noir-style as he’s being tried and sentenced to death on December 25, 1989. That film contains a lot of very subtle editing, with transitions that suggest, in some scenes, the workings of the protagonist’s memory, the way it associates things from the past.
Jean Baudrillard, “The Timișoara Massacre”, translated from the French by Chris Turner, The Illusion of the End, Stanford University Press, 1994.
Andrei Gorzo, “Videograme dintr-o revoluție”: Un studiu critic, Societatea Culturală NexT/LiterNet, 2016.
Jay Leyda, Films Beget Films, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1964.
Constantin Pârvulescu, “Embodied Histories: Harun Farocki’s and Andrei Ujică’s Videograms of a Revolution and Ovidiu Bose Paștina’s Timișoara – December 1989 and the Uses of the Independent Camera”, Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice, April 2013.
Dan Perjovschi, “Fotograme dintr-o revoluție”, 20/22. Douăzeci de ani de texte, Cartea Românească, 210.
Andrei State, “Tăieturi prin istorie. Filmul lui Andrei Ujică”, IDEA artă + societate, nr. 38, 2011.
Katarzyna Ruchel-Stockmans, Images Performing History: Photography and Representations of the Past in European Art after 1989, Leuven University Press, 2015.
László Strausz, Hesitant Histories on the Romanian Screen, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.