Adriek was commenting on them, actually “dismantling” them in a friendly, laser-surgical voice, while I, all tears inside, couldn’t help accepting how right she was. Still, I had that constant feeling that I had to say something to “explain”and ‘excuse’ my compatriots.

Strangely enough, in a country where the collocation imaginea Romaniei, (“the image of Romania”) has become commonplace in post-‘89 public discourse, referring to foreign news/comments/documentaries that tend to reduce Romania to either Gypsies and homeless children, or to mysterious Orthodoxy and untouched traditions, there is no constant and coherent circulation on the international market of representations ‘from the inside’, documentaries meant to complement “the outsider’s” potentially simplifying gaze. 

Dan Alexe is a Romanian journalist and filmmaker

The same absence is visible on the local market: almost no “real” documentaries have been produced of late, i.e. something different from the low-cost, high-speed, slot-fillers broadcast weekly by the Romanian TV stations.

To a specialized audience that is used to current international productions, most of the post-’89 Romanian documentaries may seem rather old-fashioned, stylistically predictable, sometimes strange, if not simply “bad”. Consequently, whenever they are available on the local market, they are non- or hardly-exportable products. More “visible” Romanian names, like Dan Alexe, Thomas Ciulei or Dana Ranga, have decided to live off-Romania, which says a lot about the “state of docs” – and in a broader perspective – the overall situation in their native country.

On one hand, the absence of documentary is a consequence of the lack of financial sources. But the absence of local funding is only one side of the matter, and, I dare say, not the most important. To me, the real problem is the lack of trust in what documentary is as a genre, the lack of personal inquiry. the lack of public debate on documentary.

Romanians seem to experience the current so-called “transition” not only in its political and social dimension, but also in terms of a troubled relationship with the visual media. Part of the audience is highly dependent on television and possesses a certain “visual illiteracy” with respect to complex visual narratives, documentary included. For some documentary filmmakers, ‘transition’ translates mainly as a concern with social and daily issues, and consequently they lack commitment to long-term projects (with a few exceptions like Alexandru Solomon, a young director who is faithful to his choices).

In terms of style, some traces of pre-’89 documentary habits are still visible. First, an informed eye can still notice today a certain tendency in Romanian documentaries (mostly in those directed by older filmmakers), to aestheticize reality, which I think is related to the bans influencing the ‘reality’ that was accepted by the state-controlled media. A ‘reality’ that had to be hidden behind style through a whole range of ‘camouflage tactics’, which included the over-use of camera-movement. (For example, filming empty churches and monasteries by avoiding angles that would have emphasized their function as cult places was proof of a cameraman’s craftsmanship).

Florin Iepan

Another eye-catching aspect is a certain insensitivity to the ethical issues raised by their film practice, more precisely in the way in which their subjects are approached. Most of the time, both filmmakers and subjects were aware that they were “documenting” a falsehood. One of the consequences of that is the ‘cold gaze’ in current documentaries, the visible lack of relationship between filmmakers and their subjects. The documentary product is rarely understood in Romania as the outcome of a (long-term) experience of living together, of sharing things. Films are almost invariably about them, and rarely with them.

And here I arrive at what Adriek noticed when seeing a few of ‘my’ Romanian films: the excessive use of the voiceoff of the characters, with very little space left for moments of free conversation between the two sides of the camera – the real proof of a documentary encounter. The minimal respect paid to the context of speech is another proof of the current understanding of documentary film as some sort of colonization of a submissive, docile, fully mouldable ‘reality’.

At the beginning of the past decade of Romanian democracy, there was a film made by a student at that time, Florin Iepan, who graduated with a dockumentary about the manipulation of ’reality’ through the politically approved newsreels of the Ceausescu regime. The film, 10 Minutes with the Working Class (1992), was shot in a factory waiting to be privatized and was made as a series of (made-up) monologues by workers, on subjects ranging from work achievements to private life. The film had an intro by an elderly worker, actually the strange, funny and sad raisonneur of the whole story: “Please, come and follow me, see what’s left of this world… Jurassic Park, that’s’ what you’re gonna see”.

Too bad that since then very few local documentaries have managed to renew that invitation to foreign viewers, eventually to “democratize the gaze” and change the impression of the “park” here.