Simultaneous screening in Regensburg (FilmGalerie - Kino im Leeren Beutel) and Cluj- Napoca (Urania Palace) followed by trans-local video-link conversations
By Ger Duijzings, Frederik Lange, Eva-Maria Walther (University of Regensburg), Benedikt Hielscher, and Silvia Spurigan (PATRIR – Peace Action, Training and Research Institute of Romania)
In most countries the Holocaust remains a topic that is hard to openly talk about. In Romania, filmmaker Radu Jude has rocked the boat recently with a series of films on antisemitism and the role of the Romanian state in the extermination of the European Jews and Roma. This is his latest work, which engages with Romania’s part in the Holocaust in a rather provocative manner. ‘I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians’ (2018) is a filmic reflection on the Odessa massacre in 1941, in which thousands of Jews in the Ukrainian city of Odessa were killed by Romanian troops. The film shows the rehearsals and subsequent performance of a historical re-enactment of the massacre during a large spectacle on a public square in the very centre of Bucharest, with anti-Semitic speeches of war-time leader Antonescu acted out by a professional actor, who is applauded by Romanian citizens and by- passers watching the re-enactment on the square. The film has won important European awards such as Prize for the Best Film in the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. It was almost predestined to be included in the #AgainNeverAgain project, if only because the words ‘Never Again’ are repeatedly uttered in the film, in various European languages.
After solving the practical challenge of finding a suitable date for both Cluj and Regensburg, it transpired that with 24 January we had chosen an important historical date for Romania: the so-called (Small) Unification Day (Ziua Unirii). Being a public holiday, it commemorates the unification of Moldavia and Wallachia on 24 January 1862, an essential step in the formation of modern Romania. After World War One Romania was enlarged with Transylvania, which is celebrated on 1 December as the Ziua Marii Uniri (Day of the Large Unification). Small Unification Day is important in Romanian history, making the screening of a movie that reflects on Romania’s participation in the murder of the European Jews a potential source of conflict. From the video messages that Radu Jude sent us ahead of the screening, it is clear that nationalists are highly critical both of the film and the filmmaker himself, depicting him on extreme right websites with the yellow star and the label ‘Jude’ (using the German version of his surname, “Jew”, as an anti-Semitic insult). The criticism came partly from a former mayor of Cluj-Napoca, Gheorghe Funar, who raised his anger against the film in online articles that were shared widely across ultra-nationalist websites in Romania. In Cluj, the organisers were concerned that these online posts in combination with the significance of the chosen date could result in disruptions by during the event itself. To be prepared for any eventuality, historian and expert on Eastern European antisemitism, Dr. Raul Cârstocea, had been consulted and provided us with historical and political context. This additional information was presented by us prior to the screening in Cluj.
The screening was announced widely over the usual online channels (mailing lists and websites) and social media in Regensburg and Cluj, as well as through one shared poster distributed in both cities. We were nevertheless anxious whether we would have sufficient viewers, as there is often only limited interest for ‘difficult’ films from Eastern Europe, in a small town like Regensburg. In Cluj we were concerned for the reasons already mentioned. The Facebook event did not produce too much traction: only very few people registered before via email. We also feared that the length of the film (150 minutes) would deter some viewers. Both sides in this trans-local experiment agreed that we would be happy if attracting twenty-five viewers on each city. We were therefore delighted to see that the numbers were far larger and quite symmetric: in both Regensburg and Cluj fifty to sixty people attended the screening. Whereas in Regensburg the cinema had enough capacity, in Cluj, we had to add additional chairs to the room, which was really encouraging as we had not expected such a large turn-out.
Before the event, we did our very best to ensure that we would not be confronted with any technical glitches, so we double-checked whether everything would work, for example with the video conferencing software Zoom, which was chosen instead of Skype as it allowed us to communicate anonymously. Quite unexpectedly, in Cluj we had finished watching the film around twenty minutes earlier than Regensburg (even though we started eight minutes later), which brought home to us that there are two versions of the film in circulation. Viewers in Cluj had to wait for Regensburg to finish, which gave the audience there some time to reflect and discuss the film, whereas the Regensburg audience had to be immediately mobilised to start the conversations. In Regensburg, viewers were obviously still under the impression of the film and hesitant to immediately join the exchange. It was clear that some first wanted to gather their thoughts, which made it a bit awkward to remind them on their way out of the cinema of the opportunity to talk to viewers in Cluj. On both sides, around one quarter of the audience stayed for the actual one-to-one conversations. The discussions were long and in- depth and from both sides there was a lot of interest to keep on speaking even after we had to leave.
In the beginning, when viewers (young and old) were waiting to connect to their own partner- in-conversation, some of us were slightly disheartened by the time it took to restart the laptops, tablets and communication software, but then, when images started popping up on every screen, the long-awaited and highly satisfying moment of a connection took place. In spite of our careful technical preparation, some unanticipated problems occurred with the sudden noise of starting conversations and sound interference between computers, however, all participants solved these issues within minutes by spreading over all the available space, looking for quiet corners to have an undisturbed conversation. Some of us had to assist less computer savvy individuals to handle the equipment, but this was not an impediment to start the conversations, which went on for at least an hour. We had planned to have two rounds of conversations, but people kept hanging on to their laptops and tablets. It was the participants themselves deciding about the duration of each of the conversations, without respecting the instructions they had received beforehand. Some of these conversations went on for much longer than the 15 minutes initially planned.
Conversations revolved around the reluctance to face uncomfortable aspects of one’s past. Even though Germany is often mentioned as a shining example, this was questioned by some because of historical revisionism being on the rise, especially amongst extreme right movements and parties of the country. Also Germany is not doing much better than Romania if one enters villages and small towns, were resistance against recollecting the Fascist past is tangible. Other participants exchanged their experiences in terms of talking about the past in their respective families, the difficulty being to find out what happened at that time. This is nevertheless changing since eye-witnesses are advanced in years now and young people, grandchildren in particular, are eager to learn about their family’s past and preserve these memories for generations to come.
Another important topic various conversations touched upon was the appalling sexism in the film and in the film industry. This is a society in which women are not taken seriously in artistic and intellectual endeavours, are objectified or harassed when they have the better arguments and barely manage to establish any authority. In their seemingly futile quest for recognition and attainment, it is of little surprise that they snap, as the main female character in the film sometimes does. Here too, discussants maintained that this is a universal problem, although the extent of it may vary.
Many participants were touched and spontaneously expressed gratitude for the opportunity to have had this trans-local conversation with citizens of another state. They were quite full of and inspired by talking to a random person on the other side of the line, although some were disappointed that their conversation was cut short by technical difficulties. Apart from that it was ironic to see that boundaries between the two countries have blurred, as amongst the Cluj audience there were German and other international students; actually half of the Cluj audience consisted of internationals. In Regensburg, there were quite a few Romanians in the audience, which meant that the conversations went on in various languages, including English, German, and Romanian. On both sides, most participants belonged to the under-30 age group, although there were also quite a few middle-aged people.
The film continued to trigger heated debates in small circles days after it was screened, for example in the premises of the Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg. There was an immense need and willingness to debate the contents of the film in the aftermath. Some were critical about the film, raging from questioning the form (too long, too much painfully repetitive dialogue, unnecessary side plots) to the very core and concept: Radu Jude’s approach to showcase and, in a way, ridicule unknowing by-passers and spectators was considered as ethically or morally questionable by some. The questionable reactions of the audience present at the re-enactment responding with applause to the very brutal and violent concluding scenes of the re-enactment were equivocal; it was impossible to judge whether they were applauding the lynching, or the great performance of the actors, or simply because that is what one does at a spectacle, whether it is good or not.
In spite of these reservations, it is clear that the audience’s response to the re-enactment was a rather insensitive and inconsiderate response, which again prompted critique to the method of historical re-enactments. The filmmaker’s ambition of raising people’s awareness through theatrical and emotional stimuli, and thereby trigger forms of self-reflection, may have been ultimately unsuccessful. Rather, the performance didn’t stimulate any cognitive engagement at all, in the worst case it confirmed existing stereotypes. The lack of transparency of how the film was made was another point of criticism. It is impossible for the viewer to discern what parts of the film are scripted, and what re-enactments of problems the film crew had to deal with, and which capture actual responses of uninvolved protagonists. One might also ask if the confrontational style is really the most apt way to “reach people”, whether in a context like the Romanian, one would not be better advised to apply a more sensitive approach, making sure that target groups can maintain their cherished national identity and still acknowledge historical facts. Either way Jude’s intention to spark controversy about the past, and the way people fail to address problematic historical issues, but also about appropriate ways to represent and commemorate it, was definitely accomplished.
Having done this experiment, we now realise that we should have given more historical contextualization of the film and the events in Odessa in 1941. In Cluj we had done some of that, whereas in Regensburg the introduction was very brief. Other lessons learned were of a technical nature: we realised first of all that we should have checked on the different versions and formats of the film. In Cluj the film (provided on a Blu-Ray disc by the Romanian distributor) was thirty minutes shorter, whereas in Regensburg we had a professional DCP version which lasted the full 150 minutes. For the conversations we realized that we should have used headphones and microphones and that we should have prepared several more units than the five or so that we had, as the demand had been far larger than expected. We also should have thought better about the sound levels that conversations produce in a relatively small room, leading to noise pollution and interference. We should have thought of creating separate conversation boots in which people could have had an undisturbed conversation without hearing the people around them. We learned that fixed time slots do not work, and that people (luckily) decide for themselves how long the conversations should last. We also concluded that it would have been better to organise brief moderated collective reflections in each of the two locations after the conversations, gathering the impressions and afterthoughts on the one-on-one conversations.
Watch the trailer of the movie here.