Television’s Complicity in Romania’s Troubled Past: 12:08 East of Bucharest
Known for their dour aesthetic and minimalist storytelling, New Romanian films nevertheless carry multiple meanings through a complex layering of intermedial references. Perhaps the finest example of how this is achieved is Corneliu Porumboiu's wryly funny 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006). Set on the 16th anniversary of the Romanian revolution, the film's plot follows the making of a provincial television talk show that aims to ascertain whether a revolution occurred in their town. The first half of the film follows the three participants of the talk show as they prepare for the day of the broadcast. Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban) is the self-important talk show host who argues with his wife and his mistress prior to making his way to the television studio. Tiberiu Mănescu (Ion Sapdaru) is an alcoholic teacher who lives in a perpetual cycle of being either drunk or hungover, and who makes only token efforts in teaching his students. Finally, Emanoil Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu) is the last-minute addition to the panel, whose main claim to fame is his yearly appearance as Santa Claus for the local children. Of particular interest to my study is how the filmmaker incorporates television sets in the mise en scène reflexively, thus challenging the viewer to transform the text through their own subjectivity. In the scene chosen for this paper, Porumboiu includes the image of the television twice, thereby multiplying the significance of the motif.
The television, as an object of strong political importance, is used widely in New Romanian cinema and is its principal medium of reflexivity. In Romania during the communist era, broadcasting was used for "direct political and social control."1 Romania's industrial success during its communist decades was promoted through television broadcasts, and much footage is still available of Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, presiding over parades and other events as well as meeting prominent national leaders on the world stage.2 Additionally, during the 1989 Revolution, the news of the fall of Ceaușescu was disseminated throughout Romania after the state television station became occupied by protesters.3 Subsequently, the New Romanian cinema has often used televisions in their mise en scène as visual markers that critique how the televisual apparatus was used to manipulate Romanian citizens. The televisions that inhabit the protagonists' lives in New Romanian cinema point to the failed promise of Ceaușescu's vision of Romania's modernity as well as how the content gave Romanians access to what was going on in the world outside their "atomised society."4 The 1989 Revolution, which began as protests by ethnic Hungarians in the small town of Timișoara, ended with the summary trial and execution of both the Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu and the fall of communism in Romania. The aftermath of these events were viewed by people in their homes, thus the constant presence of televisions within the New Romanian cinema's frame is an ever-present reminder that society has been fashioned around the mediated vision of this seminal event.
In 12:08 East of Bucharest the television camera and the television frame is ubiquitous, highlighting the mediated nature of life lived through the television screen. It also brings to the fore the "moral dilemmas of [Porumboiu's] characters [against] a backdrop of a void urban space, where people have no connections among themselves, where the passers-by are complete strangers, only isolated beings living in a world void of content and ethics."5 Whether television is a symptom or a cause of the social isolation or a means of repressing the population, it is and always was a political artefact capable of "imposing its own assumption on the unwary."6
In the shot chosen for this paper, the audience's attention is drawn to the banal ordinariness of the televisual's infiltration into the fabric of the characters' lives. The audience is thereby forced to confront the political significance of the apparatus that takes its place at the centre of the family home. Here, two televisions appear in the frame, seen side by side. One set is playing the news while reflected in the mirror on Virgil's right-hand side. The other is switched off, sitting on a low table, bearing silent witness, simultaneously looking over Virgil's shoulder at what he is texting, while staring straight at the camera, defiantly challenging our engagement with the scene's content. The complicated framing of this scene foregrounds the mediated nature of the diegetic world and draws attention to the manner in which Ceaușescu manipulated Romanian citizens through the television broadcasts.
Apart from the televisual apparatus' role of imparting information, this scene suggests another sinister imposition on the "unwary": surveillance. The placement of both television sets suggests that they are looking over Virgil's shoulder. In previous scenes, the audience discovers that the television host has a mistress who he financially supports and, as he is distracted by the telephone in this scene, the audience can speculate about who he is messaging. Meanwhile, the newsreader appears in the mirror, in a position where, if she was in the room, she could see what he is texting. By positioning the figure on the television in a mirror, Porumboiu creates a peculiar, disembodied spectre who is not noticed by the protagonists. She exists as a spectator bound by the dimensions of the television, being a virtual presence in the room and a physical presence elsewhere. While on one level, this scene suggests the risk Virgil takes in his duplicitous relationship, the multiple framing also highlights an awareness of the wider thematics of the film as they relate to public and private realities in the face of the political upheavals in Romania's past.
While deeply political, the films of the New Romanian cinema are less ideological, more dialectic instruments for the questioning of prescribed historical memory. Ágnes Pethő likens the framing techniques of New Romanian filmmakers such as Porumboiu to the chamber art of the Dutch masters, who depict their protagonists in a liminal space between the public and private through the use of doors and windows.7 Equally, the liminality implied in the framing of characters in 12:08 East of Bucharest connotes the larger liminality of a country struggling to recover its proper place as a democratic society free from the stifling restrictions of its communist past. The recognition that the television apparatus played a role in the construction of society during the Ceaușescu years as well as the meaning of the events of 1989 is acknowledged in this film through the employment of the television screen in the mise en scéne. That the subject matter of this film also includes the making of a television talk show only reinforces this message.
Open-ended and oblique, 12:08 East of Bucharest is both humorous and seriously political. Just as the television show at its centre purports to investigate the events of the day Ceaușescu was overthrown, the film appears to mock those who staunchly commit to their version of events. Somewhere beneath the veneer of heroic myth-making lies the sordid, messy and contingent story of how Romania escaped from the grip of a megalomaniac dictator. Whether the wider population is prepared to reflect on alternative meanings to that event other than those prescribed by the establishment is a key question posed by the filmmaker, but one worth engaging with if Romania is to move towards a brighter future.