Was there or wasn’t there (a revolution in our town)?

When I arrived home this summer I asked around for new Romanian music that might be worth a listen. I didn’t get many suggestions–the lead singer of a Romanian rock band actually replied to my query in an e-mail saying: “Are you serious?”

It was at that point that Luiza told me I should look at Romanian film to see things moving. Now, almost three months into my stay, I can say she was right. The cherry was served tonight tonight when I laughed so hard that found myself muttering outloud: “this is so good, this is soooo goood!”

Tonight I saw “A fost sau n-a fost?” (“Was there or wasn’t there?”), another film about the Romanian revolution. It was precedeed by “Cum mi-am petrecut sfarsitul lumii” and will be followed shortly by “Hartia va fi albastra” (“The paper will be blue”). This is no Romanian revolution trilogy, just a happy coincidence out of which I believe “A fost sau n-a fost” will stand out. This is the best Romanian movie I have seen in my life and certainly the most lighthearted one despite its sober premise. Thank you Corneliu Porumboiu.

We’re in a Romanian city, 16 years after the 1989 revolution. A pensioneer, a history teacher and a TV journalist come together in a local TV broadcast to discuss whether their town experienced a revolution or not. This is no big picture debate over whether Romania experienced a revolution. Actually, it smartly takes for granted the fact that something happened in Timisoara and Bucuresti. But what about the smaller cities? Did they join in?

For the over zealous local TV journalist who tends to quote mythology as he opens the show, whether a revolution happened or not is determined by the time people took to the streets. If they were protesting in the square before 12:08 PM (the time when Ceausescu fled the Bucharest Communist party headquarters on Dec. 22, 1989) than it was a revolution because people would have been there without knowing how the events would play out. They would have taken a risk. If they came after 12:08 PM then it wasn’t a revolution.

His guests don’t question the premise but don’t dwell on the significance of the time either. The history professor says he was in the square before 12:08 PM although several callers to the show accuse him of being a drunkard (true) and a liar. The pensioneer admits he only came after 12:08 because it was the safer alternative.

The movie’s best feature is that it doesn’t take this debate too seriously. The production of the broadcast is a complete failure, the guests are bored (the old man makes paper airplanes), the callers use foul language and the host loses his temper. In the end their debate doesn’t illuminate the question it wanted to, but it tells us viewers that it’s perfectly OK if the revolution wasn’t the seminal event in our life.

For the host it was his chance to jump from textiles into journalism (not much seems to have changed in his approach to working), for the professor it was another failed opportunity to make something good of himself, and for the old man it was just another day that started with a domestic quarrel. To those that the revolution touched personally (a woman caller whose son died that December), the answer to the question doesn’t matter anymore. What matters to her is that it’s finally snowing outside and Christmas is near.

There is another wonderful character in this film–a Chinese immigrant who owns a little store in this city. People bully him and pick on him for being foreign and for selling firecrackers to children, but he loves them anyway because they are the family he lives among. Despite all their faults, he is willing to wait until they all come to their senses.

I guess that’s how many of us are. Waiting for the country to come to its senses. With movies like this one, I’m more and more optimistic that it’s on the right track.

*** The film’s English language title at festivals was: “12:08 East of Bucharest.”

A fost sau n-a fost?

3 Responses to “Was there or wasn’t there (a revolution in our town)?”

  1. Thanks for the great review of this movie. I’d love to hear about the other two in this “trilogy.”


  2. John–thanks for the comments. I had actually read about your organisation a couple of years ago when I still lived in Missouri. I hope it’s still going well.

  3. John and I were debating about whether the movie was saying it doesn’t matter if there was a revolution or if it was saying there was one if you BELIEVE there was one. What do you think?

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