This year marked the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s (IFFR) fortieth anniversary. Instead of celebrating with red-carpet events—something that would be out of character for this avant-garde-leaning festival—IFFR launched XL, an extension to their already broad-reaching program, whereby they added forty extra locations replete with video and art installations, performances, and lectures. One might imagine that this would draw more people from the art world to the festival. But IFFR did not necessarily need to court this demographic: already included in IFFR’s program of innovative and experimental cinema, video and media art were works by Roee Rosen (part of the Tiger Awards Competitions for Short Films), Hito Steyerl, Elizabeth Price, Manon de Boer, and many more. With all the available viewing experiences, from the festival’s program of shorts by the Californian experimental filmmaker, Nathanial Dorsky, to Red Westerns and wuxia (Chinese Martial arts) films, you could have easily curated your own program, each day different from the next.
But the festival is not just for staring into celluloid—CineMart, a central element of the festival, is a four-day event in which thirty-plus filmmakers and producers are selected to meet with co-producers, programmers, and potential financiers. Throughout these four days, the third floor of De Deleon, the festival’s epicenter, was ignited by lively conversation. But even when what felt like the majority of the independent film industry was present, the festival still maintained its informal air. Those who were actually using CineMart as a political platform to be seen and heard were protesters. They each held up a black slate that read: Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi, the two Iranian filmmakers who were sentenced to six years in prison last December, and are currently facing a twenty-year ban on filmmaking for allegedly creating anti-regime propaganda. As is often the case, the context in which you watch a film, especially at a festival, alters the way you experience it. As I passed the visitors holding up the name cards on my way to watch The Journals of Musan, a film about a North Korean refugee, I decided that out of all the films to view and review, I would curate my own program of sorts: filmmakers who have continuously grappled with their country’s recent past. Starting with the Tiger Award winning film, The Journals of Musan by Park Jung-Bum; followed by Pablo Larraín’s Post-Mortem, a film from the festival’s Spectrum Program on Pinochet’s 1973 coup d’état; and finally, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, by Andrei Ujică.
Park Jung-Bum, the director of The Journals of Musan, plays the film’s protagonist, Jeon Seung-Chul: a North Korean defector, who recently escaped through China to try to make a living in cosmopolitan Seoul. The character, Jeon Seung-Chul was first developed in 2008 for a short twenty-minute film entitled 125 Jeon Seung-Chul. The numerical title refers to the first three digits of a defector’s identification number. It’s also what gives South Korean employers grounds to openly deny refugees jobs, or to simply exploit them. Park Jung-Bum observed this experience intimately after having befriended a North Korean defector. In turn, his deeply moving portrayal of an introverted young man who encounters the hostilities of his new society with unnerving detachment, lays bare the unspoken tribulations experienced by many marginalized refugees living in Seoul.The film follows Jeon Seung-Chul in ragged clothes and a boyish bowl cut hanging up posters around the city by day and working as a waiter at a karaoke bar across town by night. He carries out his various odd jobs at a notable remove. Unless he had access to the alleged “communications black market” that sells South Korean TV soaps and movies near the northern Chinese border, the advertisements on the posters he plasters up, or the songs that emanate from the karaoke screens are a far cry from what he grew up with up north. But it’s hard to know for sure. Jeon Seung-Chul seldom speaks. Except one day, when he confesses in detail to a small gathering of members from his church, how, enraged by hunger, he killed a man. We, like his friends and colleagues, are left trying to make sense of his previous life, and his anti-social and introspective behavior. But friendships that begin in understanding easily slip into misunderstanding. Jeon Seung-Chul’s nearly impenetrable personality and, at times, blatant naivety gets him into serious altercations with his roommate, bosses, and, most devastatingly, two rival poster boys who pummel him for putting up ads on their turf. These scenes are filled with subtle and sorrowful, yet perplexing emotions. You never really know how Jeon Seung-Chul is going to react. The film almost never addresses North Korea directly; it chronicles the hardships experienced by defectors. Yet it is in these moments when gapping divides exist between Jeon Seung-Chul and his environment that one gets a strong sense, one that lingers well after the film is finished. It is no surprise that The Journals of Musan has gained traction around the world, picking up awards from film festivals in Rotterdam, Busan, and Morocco.
It’s 1973 in Pablo Larraín’s Post-Mortem (2010). General Pinochet’s troops have ousted the Chilean Marxist government of President Salvador Allende in a coup d’état. The overthrowing and subsequent protests and political unrest that so infamously erupted throughout the country are only obliquely encountered by the deadpan recluse, Mario, an autopsy clerk at the city morgue. At the onset, Mario’s daily routine remains more-or-less untroubled: he performs his duties transcribing the medical examiners findings and roams the sterile and fluorescent mortuary halls, switching off lights and locking doors in a deliberate, yet notably ghost-like manner. He then returns home to prepare supper, occasionally peering out the window in search of his neighbor, Nancy, a burlesque dancer, who just so happens to be involved with a vocal supporter of the former president.
Through an anamorphic lens from the late Soviet period, similar to the ones used by Tarkovsky, we watch Mario water his plants, or awkwardly, yet in many ways promisingly, court Nancy, while political turmoil is blatantly audible off screen. But bodies by the dozens begin to pile up at the mortuary, many of them political opponents to Pinochet. Mario is implicated from this point forward, no longer able to skirt the violence. This is especially true when Larraín takes up a still widely contested historical event: Did forces of the coup kill president Allende or did he commit suicide as the official documents state? Larraín depicts Allende’s autopsy hours after he was found dead in the Palacio de La Moneda. It is up to the mortuary’s head examiner, his assistant, and Mario, positioned at his typewriter, to assess the cause of the president’s death in front of several top military officers. All is carried out routinely until we hear the keys of Mario’s typewriter fall out of sync with the head examiner’s spoken diagnosis. Mario has lost the plot. His position is quickly taken over by a nearby military officer. The assistant, listening silently to the head examiner’s questionable findings, also withdraws from the procedure, trembling. Finally, the head examiner can no longer continue and he covers Allende’s corpse with a blue sheet.
By the film’s end, every aspect of Mario’s life is tightly, yet inadvertently intertwined in the political unrest. Even his role as Nancy’s suitor has shifted from one of seduction and security to simply feeding her meals through a secret shed, where she has gone in hiding after members of her family disappear. And yet, even still, politics are seldom directly confronted. Rather, they swell in the air, generating a particular atmosphere, a certain tone that Pablo Larraín so poignantly reintegrated during the Q&A session after the screening. Born in 1968 in Chile, his youth was marked by a certain mysterious darkness that he picked up from his elders, like a blurred memory that can’t be remembered as fact only as an emotion. Larraín has spent much of his life and career in pursuit of this mood. Post Mortem is a sequel to Tony Manero (2008), a black comedy set in 1978, one of the most destructive years in Pinochet’s regime. When asked why he keeps trying to recreate it, he candidly explained: “I get into it precisely because I don’t get it.”
The Romanian émigré film-essayist Andrei Ujică has spent much of his filmmaking career fascinated by the lost Communist world of his childhood. In 1992, Ujică and Harun Farocki created Videograms of a Revolution, which used video archives to closely examine the role television played in the five most intense days of the 1989 Romanian revolution, which subsequently led to the overthrow and execution of Nicolae Ceauşescu. Unlike Videograms of a Revolution, which rewinds, reexamines, and uses “soft montage” to investigate key events, the three-hour long film, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, has no annotation or voice-over commentary. Ujică bookends the film with short sequences of clips of Ceauşescu, all marked by his enraged delusion while standing trial with his wife, Elena, hours before they were to be executed by a firing squad on Christmas Day, 1989. But the bulk of the film is comprised of long sequences of state-sanctioned archival footage of Ceauşescu’s daily life during his two-decade rule. Ujică immersed himself in hundreds of hours of footage of the totalitarian leader’s official reality. So instead of the well-known televised boos and taunts, viewers are presented with obediently cheering crowds, populated parades and rallies, luncheons, and official meetings with U.S. president Nixon, Queen Elizabeth, and Mao, among many others.Ujică brings to light Ceauşescu’s constructed image, one that both he and his colleagues seemingly subscribe to, as they painstakingly create and recreate it over the decades. With no commentary, we, like Ujică, are more or less left to our own devices to deconstruct the propaganda, or become progressively more perceptive to the nation’s naïve constructions of both history and cliché. While it may seem exhaustively repetitious at first, mundane even, or inversely, too outlandish to watch such orchestrated events, little by little we become attuned to crucial details, mannerisms, demeanors, that allow us to read between the lines. The surface cracks as ceremonies become less smooth. At one point, already in 1979 at the 12th Party Congress, an unidentified speaker stands up and calls for Ceauşescu’s resignation. Instead of being immediately silenced, congress members startlingly give the man ample time to speak, before they obediently bellow out a statement in support of Ceauşescu.
Paring down hundreds of hours of celluloid shards that reconstruct a mind, a delusional mind at best, is fascinating precisely because of how much we now know about Ceauşescu’s regime, and its tactics. But what makes the film often very uncomfortable is when we watch Ceauşescu playing chess with his wife or swimming in the Black Sea, or even worse, sending those around him into earnest fits of laughter. These are things you don’t want to bare witness to. This is what makes Ujică’s subtle, yet masterfully chosen selections so riveting. You strain your eyes extra hard to find the cracks, leading to discoveries that are more spellbinding than you might have initially imagined.