History and Cultural Trauma in the Romanian New Wave

November 23, 2017

Cultural trauma emerges in specific historical contexts and raises important questions about the nature of truth and reality, and our role in it. It is precisely these issues that lay at the heart of the films of the Romanian New Wave.They reflect the enduring psychological trauma caused by the execution of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and the Romanian Revolution of 1989.

“When we are talking about cultural trauma, we are talking about events, horrendous events, which are in a sense a wound to social identity and subsequently society struggles over the meaning of the events,” said Sean Homer, Professor of Film and Literature at AUBG, at a Nov. 14 presentation of his research. He is currently working on a book on History, Cultural Trauma and Narrative in Balkan Cinema.

Homer explores Romanian New Wave cinema as a testament of the enduring effects of history on the consciousness of Romanians and the Communist ideology, whose legacy still continues to frame discourse.

“It is an extraordinary outpour of creativity from a relatively small group of people,” Homer said. “Often these films deal with everyday life, they deal with small, non-dramatic stories. Not a great deal happens in them, but they are all masterpieces.”

In his presentation Homer explored a few specific movies, which are characterized as oppositional history films, by looking at their form and the way they represent and characterize the trauma of class and the trauma of history.

“I’m suggesting these films are about an event – the revolution of 1989 – but according to the directors these are not events which are portrayed in the films,” Prof. Homer said. “The revolution itself is not represented, it is absent. It can only be known through its traumatic return as symptoms.”

In the “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” by director Cristi Puiu, we get the view of history as indifference. The story traces the final hours of Dante Lazarescu, a retired Romanian engineer, who is sick and spends his last night being shuttled by ambulance from hospital to hospital, unable to get the life-saving surgery he needs.

“Mr. Lazarescu dies though indifference,” Prof. Homer said. “He has already died a symbolic death with the death of Communism. He is the remainder of that past, the symptom of the trauma that persists in the present but cannot be incorporated in it.”

Another way to talk about the symptoms of this trauma is by looking at the use of repetition in the films. In “The Paper Will Be Blue” by Radu Muntean, repetition is used in order to formally encode the trauma. The movie starts and ends with the same scene. However, what the audience experiences watching the same sequence twice is radically different. The story traces how a soldier abandons his unit to fight for the revolution, only to die at the hands of his own side.

“The scene becomes traumatic at the second watching because of the senselessness and the meaninglessness of this premise – the stupidity of shooting your own side,” Homer said.

Another example for the use of repetition can be found in the film “12.08 East of Bucharest” which Homer screened for the AUBG audience on Nov. 7. Its original title,which translates as “Was There or Was There not a Revolution?” describes a gap between the event and its repetition. This movie also starts and ends with the same sequence of events which are a metaphorical representation of two views of revolution – as a sequential process and as a sudden rupture.

However, “12.08 East of Bucharest” also leaves us with a third view of revolution – a post-modern relativistic perspective which argues that truth is subjective, it is constructed by us. “The trauma in a sense is the struggle over the meaning of an event which is beyond a singular meaning,” the professor said. “So what emerges are different narratives, different accounts people give to explain that.”

Following Alain Badiou’s notion of universally singular truth in connection to the event, Homer emphasized the argument that “a truth is something that punctures the status quo; it opens up the possibility of the new, of novelty, of something being different.”

So what is the truth of revolution? “If there was a truth to the revolution it was on the streets of Bucharest in February 2017,” Homer concluded. “Tens of thousands of people once again came back out onto the streets demanding that the corrupt government that they now have in place goes. It is those people who remain true to the possibility of that opening - that things could be different. That is the truth to me that these films talk about.”

Story by Nikol Meshkova

Photos by Nicola Smilenov for AUBG Daily

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