The System Is Broken: What a Wonderful World

in 30th Warsaw Film Festival

by Pamela Cohn

In many of the films I viewed at the 30th edition of the Warsaw Film Festival, the complex and unsettling relationship between oppressor and oppressed kept emerging in many of the selections. Manifested in myriad cinematic presentations of form, structure and narrative style, power plays of one sort or another were explored in ways from deceivingly subtle and opaque to explicit orgies of sadomasochistic violence, and everything in between. What happens when the tables turn and the oppressed decide to revolt against deeply ingrained and habitual feelings of inferiority — physical, material, psychological, emotional, and otherwise — cannot help but pull into sharp relief the interdependent psychoses of victim and victimizer.

In the last several years, we have seen a re-emergence of people’s movements all over the world, “everyday rebellions” of fed up citizens taking to the streets in protests that echo the repressed agonies of suffocating under the oppressive fist of a small group of people that does its utmost to create as dystopian a society as they can get away with, staying on top through various means of manipulation, propaganda, and iron-fisted controls. Sometimes, when there is a particularly bad seed wielding power, this manifests in kidnappings, false arrests, hidden torture and public executions.

There are the high profile events we’ve all read about ad infinitum that the media, in its relentless and voracious search for prolonged hysteria, make the headlines regularly. And then there are places like Moldova, a small country that emerged as an independent republic following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The small state, among many other invisible places, has been scratching for survival since then. And its corrupt leaders, including a sadistic police force that wields power with impunity, use this invisibility from the rest of the world to help ensure that yet another generation suffers the same deeply internalized inferiority they themselves possess.

One of the most powerful portrayals of this scenario was in emerging Moldovan film director Anatol Durbala’s début feature called What a Wonderful World (Ce Lume Minunata), our FIPRESCI winner at Warsaw. Tasked with judging a very specific category of first features by Eastern European filmmakers, our jury encountered extremely immature cinematic works, rife with underdeveloped or derivative elements that ultimately made for distinctly non-transcendent work. A couple of the selections were no better than the rankest TV movie melodramas and why they were programmed in a competition is still puzzling to me.

[Which thought leads to a digression: Our jury was a bit dismayed to see that Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe was in this category, for even though it is a feature début, it has been more than established, including by FIPRESCI, that his film is a masterwork. We all understand that this young director is probably well on his way to becoming a potent voice in world cinema and it was for this reason that we had to persuade ourselves into discounting it from becoming a contender for the prize. It is a work that sat distinctly far above any others in its category and, therefore, ironically because of its excellence, we felt it had to be disqualified. Not to belabor the point, but it would be like putting an early etching by da Vinci into a competition with other beginners — a distinct curatorial flaw on the part of the programmers of this competition. We were not the only jury faced with this, for Slaboshpytskiy did not walk away from this festival with an award.]

Durbala’s film, as well, has its flaws, certainly. However, his voice and point-of-view should be encouraged because through this film he shows much promise and possesses strong dramaturgical chops, distinctive, specific and unique. As well, since its independence in 1991, Moldova is a country with virtually no film industry and this is pure guerilla-style filmmaking at its best despite the lack of resources. Told with urgency and intensity, it is a deceptively spare take on a wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time scenario, deftly weaving the events of a violent populist uprising by a generation whose time has come to display their rage and mistrust of a backward-looking government.

It is in the penultimate scene — that has a running time of close to 20 minutes — that presents the set piece that illustrates how a generational divide of just two decades can draw two men who could be father and son together into a fight to the death, the elder scrambling for his relevancy in a world he knows is slipping away. Here Durbala has written and directed a scene that distinctly shows that it is the oppressor, the party or individual in the power position, that has also developed its own particular psychosis, every interaction attempting to convey an image of superiority and its correspondent self-image — to be maintained at any cost. For once upon a time, as was his father and grandfather before him, he was a victim of similar oppressors and he has learned well. We know right away that there is no misunderstanding of events; there is no such thing as the truth or a lie. There is only damage. Actor Igor Caras-Romanov who plays the interrogating Major delivers a startling performance where we see this quite explicitly. It is this that is heartbreaking, for despite his purported love of country, god and family, his sanity is gone, beat out of him when he was Petru’s age. Petru is the main protagonist played with low-key, but privileged, confidence by Igor Babiac.

The film re-enacts a portion of events from April 2009, a period in the young republic’s history when there was one parliamentary construction and dissolution after another creating an exceedingly unstable, fragmented era, and an atmosphere of flourishing and flagrant corruption. Young Petru is unwittingly caught up in the rioting that took place in the capital city of Chisinau when young people stormed and looted the building where the Parliament is housed. Coming home after two years of study at a prestigious university in the United States to visit family, oblivious as to what extent troubles have been brewing in his home country and preoccupied with his American sweetheart, Petru is caught up in a relentless scenario, mistaken for a looter as he is walking down the street with his own computer monitor he has gone to collect from a friend so he can Skype with his girl back in Boston.

After the cacophony and chaos of a series of scenes of police brutality — the rioting young people are thrown on the cement, kicked, dragged into a van, truncheoned and bloodied and thrown in a dark cellar with no air to breathe — Petru is brought to the Major’s office for interrogation, the supposition that if he confesses, he will be sent home. Gently stirring his tea ceremonially and speaking to the 22-year-old in a soft “reasonable” voice, using the diminutive of Petru’s name like a scolding papa, the Major quickly begins to splutter and rage, intermittently commanding himself to stay calm. He cannot. He speaks with disdain at the privileged, ignorant boy before him. As he devolves into near parodic rage, things tip over into hysteria when he discovers that Petru’s girlfriend is a Puerto Rican mulatta. When he interprets that to mean that Moldavan women are not good enough for Petru, and he has a woman also being held captive brought in for Petru to rape, we quickly discern that the young man’s fate is irrevocably sealed.
“Why was I brought here?” he asks. “The one who asks questions is me. You answer”, says the Major. Here the camerawork is handheld and urgent, moving back and forth between young Petru and the Major as they negotiate the netherworld between their individual worldviews. What the Major sees before him is a 20 years younger boy with all the privileges he never had. They are face to face but the divide between them is so deep and wide, the truth has no place here. Only one truth exists, that of the dictatorial, that of the system, a system that is going down swinging with its last gasps, the Major representing the generation that cannot and will not adjust to the new order coming, dread-filled that he will soon be marginalized in a quickly-changing world. Like dogs in a cage set upon one another, there is no draw, no false holdout for reconciliation and understanding.

When the fictional world that Durbala has created has reached its shocking climax, the director shifts to documentary footage from April 2009 shot by participants of the riots and the local press. But instead of seeing the protesters on the bloody end of the stick, we see that it is the police who are attacked, brutalized, one officer walking by someone’s camera holding his bleeding forehead, a group of men in riot gear running for their safety, using their own shields to cower in a tight circle to protect themselves from the baying, angry, looting crowd who are throwing heavy bricks at them. Who are the criminals? Who are the criminalized? Who is the oppressor? Who is the victim? As the footage plays, we listen to an emotional rendition sung in Romanian — Ce Lume Minunata — of What a Wonderful World, a song made famous by a black American jazz trumpeter and singer born in 1901 named Louis Armstrong. Despite its flowery, gentle lyrics, Armstrong sang it filled with a deep and abiding sadness emanating from his hoarse, quavering voice as a lament for himself and his fellow Negroes, trying to survive in a country that to this very day still has not let go of the legacy of its own master-slave relationship.

Pamela Cohn