The experimental cinema of the Romanian avant-garde of the 1970s and 1980s, made under the radar of the totalitarian regime, was ultimately aimed at the liberation of both the possibilities of the cinematic medium and the position of the cinematic spectator. This search into how far cinema could be pushed to capture movement and rhythm, and to encapsulate and fragment the human body, was presented in the retrospective “Conference Fascinations” at the celebratory 25th edition of the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, a section specially dedicated to the presentation of experimental and underground cinema created in the Eastern bloc during the communist era. Curated by Andrea Slováková, this year its focus was on Romania, presenting the work of groups such as Kinema Ikon and the Sigma group as well the work of individual artists such as Mircea Săucan and Ion Grigorescu. Overall, the program highlighted the curiosity of these artists and collectives about cinema’s possibilities, and can be viewed as a window into the wealth of Romanian experimental cinema made under the communist regime.
Alongside traditional competitive strands highlighting new documentary cinema, the festival celebrated several supporting programs, which year included the work of Susan Sontag, Radek Pilař, one of the pioneers of video art in Czechoslovakia, and Karol Plicka, the polymath artist, ethnographic documentary filmmaker, and co-founder of FAMU. Ultimately celebrating the enduring significance of an ever-evolving field of cinema that provides an immediate interest in the real and in the “other.”
In Romania, the Communist Party’s Nicolae Ceauşescu rose to power in 1965 as the new president and as a symbol for an autonomous Romania, challenging Moscow’s domination after it had withdrawn its military troops in 19581 and desperate for a more independent foreign and economic policy. What followed during the first years under Ceauşescu was a period of seeming tolerance and relaxation, in which there was relatively more freedom for the press, artists, and intelligentsia and artistic interaction with the western art world. However, Ceauşescu’s July 1971 Theses, a speech delivered to the Communist Party after his visit to China and North Korea that included a set of proposals to reinforce party control over ideological education and the re-employment of radio, television and art for propagandistic uses, curtailed these developments and confirmed Ceauşescu’s duplicity as he tightened authoritarian state control over all facets of society, including artistic and ideological content and form.
Both Kinema Ikon and the Sigma group came into being at the end of this short-lived Romanian thaw, when artists had to once again conform to the strict rules of socialist realism as set out by the regime. As Ileana Selejan, a Romanian art historian and artists who is part of Kinema Ikon to this day, explained in her video introductions to the program, it is tempting to analyze and situate the experimental shorts that these groups made as critiques of the dictatorial regime of oppression in which they were created, but whether this is the case remains in question. However, while their content does not seem to be preoccupied with ideological themes, but rather with the exploration of the formal and theoretical aspects of cinema, creating defiance though form, the circumstances under which these groups operated were intrinsically linked to the ideological re-politicization of the cinema around this time.
First known as Group III, the Sigma (Σ) group came into being in 1969 in Timişoara, where the co-founders Ştefan Bertalan and Constantin Flondor were teachers at the Arts Lyceum. As Alina Şerban sets out in her essay on the group, Sigma employed an interdisciplinary and theoretical approach to art that was based on their conviction that art was fundamentally the basis of ontological inquiry into the real. The group was dedicated towards the creation of work that was non-individualist and interdisciplinary by nature,2 wanting to tear the barriers between art and life down. Cinema was the perfect medium to challenge the boundaries between visual and sensual experience and to combine different practices such as cybernetics, psychoanalysis, mathematics, technology, and computer skills and graphics. Cinema thus became a way to conduct formal experiments that were aimed at the discovery of the essence of the real, while simultaneously challenging the medium’s limits. The experimental shorts that the group produced were a direct visualization of the artist’s exploration of the interdependence of the spectator’s optical sight and abstract content.
A good example of the group’s approach to their principles of interdisciplinary art is the last collective project Multivisions I (Bertalan, Flondor and Doru Tulcan, 1972-8), a multimedia installation consisting out of ten projection surfaces positioned in the shape of a tetrahedron onto which two 8mm projectors were directed showing natural phenomena, accompanied by live music and an audio soundtrack read aloud by the three makers. The installation was an experiment in the way in which space could become an active site through art, where the audience’s perception and participation and the artist’s cinematic creation were linked. The symbolic representation of the natural phenomena, focusing on movement, texture and different surfaces, functioned as a way to visualize the link between cinema and photography.
Somewhat similarly to Sigma, Kinema Ikon created a space for experimentation between theory and practice. Kinema Ikon (a name taken from the ancient Greek, literally meaning movement image) was a cine-club founded by theorist George Sabau in 1970 in Arad. A center for interdisciplinary research in cinematic language initially known as Atelier 16 until 1975, the group of artists took in a unique position among other cine-clubs as they, like Sigma, were not only dedicated to the analysis of cinema, but also the process of cinematic creation itself. Between 1970 and 1989,3 the group produced 62 conventional documentaries that conformed to the regime’s demands, for which they received state support in the form of meagre supplies.4 It was with the remaining film material from these reels that they started to experiment with the relationship between film’s materiality, its form and its content, which resulted in an equal number of rarely shown experimental short films.
The fact that the group presented itself as a cine-club allowed it to exist under the repressive watchful eyes of the authorities. In fact, as Christian Nae explained in his essay on Kinema Ikon, there were many amateur cine-clubs in Romania under the communist regime.5 This could be explained from an ideological point of view, as the emergence of many amateur organizations at the time was a direct result of the socialist ideology to provide access to cultural matters for all social classes. The aim of this openness was nonetheless two fold, as it simultaneously allowed the regime to exert their influence over these organizations and their output.
None of the artists involved in Kinema Ikon were film professionals, they came from various artistic or theoretical backgrounds and used their knowledge to create different approaches to the medium of film. The results were as beautiful as they were eclectic, as their individual as well as collective responses to the medium of film harbored a certain uninhibited essence. Take, for example, Sabau’s stunning Ipostaze simultane (Simultaneous Hypostases, 1970), the film that won him a prize at the Brno Film Festival and subsequently allowed him to set up Atelier 16. It investigated the proportions of the frame by making excessive use of split screen frames to create repetitions and slight variations. Or Ioan Pleș’ Iluminari (Lighting, 1981), which is a formalist investigation into the effect and portrayal of light on film and the way in which speed could be used to create shapes. And in Roxana Cherecheş’ and Liliana Trondabur’s Mise-en-écran (1989) the two artists explore cinema’s ability to embody the transfiguration of material reality, exploring the relation between the world of appearances and the intrinsic essence of entities; beings, everyday objects, people, and places. The non-narrative focuses on the sensuality of these entities, the tangible epidermis of things within the frame. The spectator sees a hand touching and feeling the wall, sliding into the light and disappearing into the shadows, quickly alternated with dust particles floating into the light, a pair of legs cloaked in a transparent textile. Capturing the transference between humans, objects and nature within the frame.
Much like the way in which both the Sigma group and Kinema Ikon worked in duplicity due to the regime’s compromising factors on artistic freedom, so did the conceptual artist Ion Grigorescu by showing his visual work to a restricted group of friends in his studio. Grigorescu is mostly known as part of the Romanian neo-avant-garde and he did not publicly exhibit his films until after the fall of the regime in 1989. It was often his own body that formed the main focus of most of his work, as for example in Male-Female (1976), where he explores the amount of visual space his body takes in via the camera and the use of a mirror. Through the use of a mirror his body fuses and disconnects, creating optical conflicts that result in a dynamic and narcissistic exploration of the human body, and the concept of gender, on film.
Another good example that highlights Grigorescu’s use of his body and the repressive effects of state censorship is perhaps best shown in Dialogue with Ceauşescu (1978). The film was made in secret on 8mm and shows two men sitting next to each other, seemingly in conversation, while their words appear simultaneously onto the image. Both men are in fact Grigorescu himself and Grigorescu wearing a mask of Ceauşescu, an effect he achieved by running the film through the camera twice. The main objective of the fabricated dialogue seems to be predominantly based on the notion of disconnection as Grigorescu often speaks over the other version of himself and vice-versa, often making no sense in relation to each other and muddling the overall message. This, however, seems to be the exact point: the dialogue is an illusion that is not supposed to be credible or real. The questions that Grigorescu asks as a citizen living under a repressive dictatorial regime will never be answered by the dictator enforcing those rules. There is no end to the discussion because Ceauşescu is not really there. In this way, the cinema becomes a vehicle to create a possible variation or reflection of historical reality, when the reality on screen has no existence outside of the frame.
Another major re-discovery was Mircea Săucan’s Altera! (1967), which had never been shown outside of Romania. A student of Sergei Eisenstein, the influence of the canonical Russian director is discernible in Săucan’s films when it comes to his approach to the dialectical essence of cinema through montage. He is perhaps mostly known for his films Meandre (Meanders, 1966), which was banned by the regime after its release, and 100 de lei (1973), which exists both as a severely censored version and as a director’s cut. Alerta! seems to be an experimental film meant as a critical examination and parody of the propagandistic and instructional Soviet films used for ideological management and to prevent industrial accidents in factories where the working conditions were often appalling. Săucan’s version of an educational film about work safety in a chemical factory is divided into four equal parts, or rather four alternate versions consisting of repetitions and rhythmic variations. At the heart of the film is a young couple wrongly demonstrating the safety measures, a process accompanied by intertitles offering a cynical and humorous commentary on their often absurd actions. It is ultimately a film that comments on the anonymity and alienation of the modernized and industrialized daily working process. Which is emphasized through the focus on separate facets of the fabric machinery and the movement and the speed of the images. The film itself becomes a living rhythm that can be seen to unfold in time.
The beauty and value of Alerta! and the other experimental films mentioned screened lie within their reliance on the fine line—the differentiation but also the transgression—between cinema as a medium able to capture an exact copy of the real and its ability to alter and manipulate the image, to transpose reality into art. The impact of the defiance of these artists and collectives and their experiments on the development of art within the Romanian underground art scene can hardly be overestimated. Most of the shorts do not have a distinct political framework or commentary on the specific social context of the Romanian society, but having been created under impossible political and ideological circumstances, these artists managed to make use of film as a way to connect life with art and to bestow a new value on it—seeking a way to combine different practices to generate new possibilities and to create a space where the spectator was more than a passive entity. And in this space where the spectator and the films meet, the Jihlava International Film Festival’s celebration of their work generated a meaningful reminder of Romania’s cinematographic wealth created under the repression of the communist regime, one that remained out of sight for too long.