Tag Archives: totalitarian

When Father was Away on Business (1985)

“Better Russian shit than American cake.”

I’m not fond of films that take the child’s point of view, but the Yugoslavian film, When Father Was Away on Business from director Emir Kusturica is excellent for its view of exactly how a child tries to make sense of the adult world set in a totalitarian state. It’s 1950, two years after Tito broke from the Soviet Union, and the film set in the Informbiro period covers two years in the life of Malik (Moreno D’E. Bartolli), the youngest son of married couple Mesa (Miki Manojlovic) and Sena (Mirjana Karanovic). Mesa, who is perpetually unfaithful during the course of the film, falls foul of his brother-in-law, Zijo (Mustafa Nadarevic) a communist party official. While Mesa’s crime is ostensibly an off-hand remark he makes about a cartoon, his real ‘crime’ is having an affair with Ankica (Mira Furlan), a woman who then becomes involved with Zijo. The personal matter between Mesa and Zijo is camouflaged as a problem for the state with Zijo misusing his power.  As part of the rehabilitation process, Mesa is bundled off as forced labour to a mine but Malik is told his father is ‘away on business.’

Malik, who turns out to be a great, stoic little kid by the way, is used to reading between the lines when it comes to negotiating the adult world. After all three generations of the family live in rather cramped quarters, and Malik, who’s a quiet child overhears things he’s not supposed to. For example, the father of his best friend was taken away “by men in leather coats,” and the family even holds a funeral with a empty coffin at one point. Malik learns that some things happen but are never discussed, and while he rolls with seemingly bizarre events, he doesn’t fully accept some of the lies he’s told.

Eventually Malik and his family move from Sarajevo to the remote wetland area of Zvornik in order for Mesa to undergo “resocialising,” and throughout the film, we see a number of family events: a wedding, a circumcision, and a funeral which display the culture which is inevitably  impacted by the totalitarian state. The film makes it clear that normal, robust family life is not suppressed by the totalitarian state but only complicated by it.

There are a couple of scenes in which Mesa is called in for questioning–once in Sarajevo and once in the remote area of Zvornik. Both times Mesa is questioned there’s rather interestingly no torture, but then again there’s no need for it as Mesa has already been judged by the bureaucratic powers. In both scenes circulating fans act as symbols of the totalitarian machine with the power to blow people’s lives apart. When Father was Away on Business is both an excellent and seminal film for its low-key portrayal of a difficult time in Yugoslavian history, and for the way in which the film adroitly depicts the interference of the totalitarian state in the lives of ordinary people. Mesa’s behaviour, after all, is a matter for his wife–not a concern of the state, and so ultimately the film shows how the abusive state interferes in private lives for the flimsiest of excuses. 

When Father Was Away on Business is an entry in Caroline and Richard’s Foreign Film Festival


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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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