Tag Archives: historical accuracy

Bolivar Is Me (2002)

“He’s woven a dangerous thread between fiction and reality.”

Jorge Alí Triana’s Columbian film Bolívar Is Me (Bolívar Soy Yo!) is ostensibly a comedy that looks at exactly what happens when an actor loses his grip on reality. But under the surface of the film’s humour, there’s a serious political satire with a message about the inevitable demise of idealism within the political structure.

When the film begins, popular telenovela actor Santiago Miranda (Robinson Díaz) who is playing the role of Simón Bolívar, El Libertador in the television series The Loves of the Liberator, prepares for the concluding scene by reading Don Quixote. In real life, Bolívar died in bed from TB (although theories have recently floated that he was poisoned). The producer doesn’t think this sort of ending helps the ratings, and so the series has been rewritten to show Bolívar executed by firing squad. Everyone on the set is aware the Miranda has become a little too involved with his role, and even his real-life lover, Alejandra (Amparo Grisales) who plays Bolívar’s lover, Manuelita in the series can’t tell if Santiago loves her or the role she plays. Consequently Alejandro has dumped Santiago during the filming of the series and he’s suffered a breakdown. Today, Santiago, who in his role of Bolívar, is about to face the firing squad and the end of the show, goes berserk and storms off the set. He argues that since the show has re-written history to suit the ratings, there’s no reason why he can’t rewrite history too, and so in full dress uniform, he escapes to the airport and heads for Bogata. The director (Santiago Bejarano) and a psychiatrist (Gustavo Angarita), in hot pursuit of Santiago, intend to put the troubled actor into a strait jacket, lock him up and control his behaviour with medication: “something like a lobotomy but with drugs.” Alejandra believes that Santiago is so out of touch with reality that only she–as Manuelita–Bolívar’s trusted lover who once saved him from an assassination attempt–can bring him back safely. She’s told to avoid using the words “no,” and “death,” and so in a strangely twisted reality-mirrors-fiction way, she heads out to save Santiago.

Santiago’s misadventures are really very funny. Since he’s an actor, people accept that he’s stepping into a role, and it seems perfectly normal for him to show up at the President’s office in costume or riding on his horse, Paloma. He’s the star at a National Independence day parade, but the problems begin when Santiago opens his mouth at an important political summit meeting and begins talking about Bolívar’s  Gran Columbia–the countries Columbia, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, and Bolivia, united.

Since the historical figure of Bolívar is symbolic, various factions want to co-opt his popular image. First the government wants to harness Santiago’s mass appeal–both as a telenovella actor and also as the symbol of Bolívar, but once Santiago breaks out into the countryside, guerillas, the Simon Bolívar Bolcehevique Front/Simon Bolívar Popular Revolutionary Army also see the value of this modern-day Bolívar.

Bolivar is Me is really a clever film. On one level, it’s about an actor who loses touch with reality and becomes his role. That’s the funny part, but it’s also the story of a man who has an ethical problem with playing a character whose historic mission has been co-opted, re-written and diluted into meaningless. We never quite know whether or not Santiago is completely off his rocker or whether he’s fully or partially aware that he isn’t Bolívar. In several speeches, Santiago lays out his discontent with the political system and his annoyance at the way Bolívar’s name has been used to decorate various shabby buildings. Santiago says that Quixote is “man as he should be,” and yet at the same time he states that “the three greatest dummies in history have been Jesus Christ, Don Quixote, and me.” Of course, at this point, Santiago appears to be speaking of himself as Bolívar.

One of the cleverest aspects of the film is the way it shows how casually history is rewritten until the truth is obscured by time, myth, and political expediency. Santiago is appalled to see what Bolívar has become:

Now I understand what a symbol is–to be a statue of bronze so that pigeons can shit on you.

The film also shows real footage of the M-19 Palace of Justice siege on 6th of November, 1985–an incident in which M-19 Guerillas (19th of April Movement) took over the building and held hundreds hostage. There are various versions about what happened, so who knows what the truth is anymore.  The 19th of April Movement removed Bolívar’s sword from a museum, and in Bolívar Is Me, we see the guerillas returning the sword to Santiago. By the film’s conclusion, we see the Society of the Spectacle–authentic life replaced with its representation. According to Guy Debord:  

“The Spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”

And by the film’s conclusion, it’s easy to see that history is about to be rewritten again….

Bolivar is Me is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s foreign film festival.

Some of the scenes take place at the Quinta de Bolívar Museum.

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12:08 East of Bucharest (2006)

 “Was there a revolution or not in our town?”

12:08 East of Bucharest is a very low key Romanian film that examines the difficulties of establishing history. It’s December 22 in a small Moldavian town, and a talk show host decides to film a programme called “Issue of the Day.” The host, Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban) selects his programme to commemorate the sixteen-year anniversary of the revolution that “changed our lives” and overthrew Ceausescu in 1989, ending communist rule in Romania. When the film begins, Virgil is still trying to line up guests for the show. Most people won’t return his calls, and he’s only managed to find one guest, a local high school teacher Tiberiu Manescu (Ion Sapdaru) who has a reputation of being the town drunk.

12Scraping the bottom of the barrel for guests, and now desperate, Virgil remembers Emanoil Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), a man who plays Santa for the local children. Virgil knows that Emanoil was around in December 1989, and so Virgil’s two guests are set to answer questions from callers.

Some of the film is devoted to the build-up to the programme. Tiberiu spends the night before the show in a local pub getting drunk as usual. His next paycheck slated to pay his large bar tab, Tiberiu tries to get another bottle on credit to help his ‘nerves’ before going on the air. Tiberiu spends the morning at school giving an examination to a large number of students who failed the test the first time. Disinterested and disconnected, Tiberiu tells the students that he doesn’t see how he can help them if they “can’t even cheat properly.”

Money–or the lack of it–is a problem that plagues all the main characters in the film, and there are inferences that the revolution didn’t exactly bring economic prosperity. Virgil’s wife hits him up for money to give their daughter for a skiing trip, and Emanoil’s moth-eaten Santa costume has seen better days. The revolution hasn’t exactly liberated women from their traditional roles either, and wives are portrayed as mothers to their husbands. There’s Virgil’s wife who scurries around cleaning up and organizing for him, and then there’s the autocratic mother role assumed by Tiberiu’s wife as she demands his paycheck ‘or else.’ There’s a sense that permeates the film, and hinted at by the characters, that no revolution has taken place–in other words little has changed for the common folk. People still suffer from money worries, and everyday life is still a struggle for the average Romanian.

The main thrust of the talk show is whether or not a revolution took place in the town or if the town’s residents joined in to protest after Ceausescu left (“Is it a revolution if people took to the streets after the fact?”). Virgil questions Tiberiu concerning the events of December 22, 1989. Tiberiu claims that he and a couple of other teachers entered the town square and began protesting against Ceausescu in the morning of the 22nd before noon. One caller phones in to say that Tiberiu is unreliable because he’s drunk all the time, and another caller, an employee of the Securitate and now transformed into a respectable factory owner, disputes Tiberiu’s version of events.

The precise accuracy of the events doesn’t trouble the programme’s other guest, Emanoil. He compares the revolution to the streetlights that are lit after dark–one after another, and says: “one makes whatever revolution one can, each in their own way.” One caller, a woman whose son was killed during the bloody street fighting, doesn’t seem troubled by the various scenarios of exactly how the revolution took place. Instead she advises that everyone should enjoy the new snow while they can, as tomorrow it will turn into mud.

While the topic of the talk show seems to split hairs, the film 12:08 East of Bucharest serves as a microcosm of the Romanian Revolution. On December 22, 1989, martial law was in force in Romania, and groups of more than 5 people were forbidden to gather together. Tiberiu’s version of events indicates that the revolution spread across Romania spontaneously, but his version is disputed and discounted. Callers argue that the town square was empty until after Ceausescu and his wife fled.

The conflicting versions of events expressed by Virgil’s callers mirror the general confusion and controversy about that period. Even today, it’s unclear exactly why and when the army turned against Ceausescu. Furthermore various tales of terrorists and terrorist activities whipped troops into a frenzy, and it’s unclear whether these tales of terrorists were rumours or stories planted deliberately to manipulate the army. 12:08 East of Bucharest not only symbolizes the problems of the events of that day, but it also symbolizes the problems with history. Accounts of events differ, and exactly which account becomes the official or prevailing version is problematic.

12:08 East of Bucharest grew on me, and I enjoyed a second viewing even more. Deceptively simple, the film’s low-key style slips in perfectly with the film’s statements regarding Romanian history. This gem is from director/writer Corneliu Porumboiu.

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Filed under Political/social films, Romania