‘Eighty per cent of US documentaries today are in the me-and-my-grandmother category,’ a friend told me the other day while referring to the noticeable ‘dictatorship of the personal’ in recent documentaries. Although I almost agreed with him (though sceptical about the accuracy of the percentage), I am willing to say that Lusztig’s film definitely transcends this fashionable category.

Adina Bradeanu
Adina Bradeanu is affiliated to the University of Westminster, London. In the recent years she has researched the professional culture of the documentary studio of national-communist Romania ('Alexandru Sahia').

Reconstruction

Irene Lusztig

USA, 2001, 90 min

Reconstruction is an unsensational approach to a sensational story about the so-called Ioanid Gang bank heist of 1959. It was a rather unusual hold-up in which all the perpetrators were Jewish intellectuals who occupied positions of authority within the Romanian state apparatus when they committed the robbery. The only woman involved, also a Jew, was married to one of the ‘robbers’ and later became Irene Lusztig’s grandmother. All the men were sentenced to death. The woman’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment as she was a mother. Before the sentences were carried out, the convicts were forced to play themselves in a strongly fictionalized account of the events commissioned by the Romanian Ministry for Internal Affairs.

With initial focus on profiling the grandmother, Lusztig’s version of the ‘facts’ unfolds as a sophisticated, somewhat poetic reflection on portraiture and historical detective work and on the way in which specific cultural and historical conventions of visual representation (and visual clichés) filter the information about the world contained in images that is broadly labelled as documentary.

A bank robbery in a Communist country represents a clash of imaginary systems that also intervenes in a visual documentation of such an attempt: its very representation implies the juxtaposition of images usually located at opposite poles of the Euro-American cultural imagination: in this case, the American myth of the bank robbery with the communist cliché of the responsible citizen working for a cause: the Party and the People. At this level, Lusztig’s talent is expressed in the intelligent and sensitive use of the archive footage to make it fit the personal and collective moods (love, collective enthusiasm, disappointment) associated by her to certain historical circumstances.

While it may appear to be a fashionable ‘personal’ approach, this film was shot in a country where documentary was controlled for decades to conform to ideology. Nothing personal was allowed – and still isn’t unfortunately. In this particular context at least, Lusztig’s ‘grandmother film’ is a long-awaited gift. In a broader perspective, Reconstruction is a necessary ‘re-writing’ of history through her story, that has become necessary in recent years.


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