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LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu

By Jim Smith on 18 October 2010

Romanian documentary maker Andrei Ujica’s piece about Ceauşescu, who ruled Romanian between 1965 and 1989, promised to be one of the highlights of this year’s London Film Festival. The film is a distillation and re-purposing of material originally shot for Soviet era propaganda films. Director Ujica attended the LFF screening and gave a brief, witty introduction in which he apologised for the absence of his “lead actor” from the festival (!) and explained that he did not see the film as a true documentary. It is rather, he said, an attempt to tell the story of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s reign from the dictator’s own subjective and distorted position. The title, it seems, is very carefully chosen.

So, with both the director and the Romanian ambassador present the screening began. Unfortunately a print without subtitles had been supplied to the festival. This was not immediately apparent as film’s nature as a collage of ‘found’ footage meant that much of the first twenty minutes was effectively without dialogue anyway.

The audience seemed to collectively assume either that subtitles would arrive once anyone onscreen spoke more than a few words or that the film was purposefully made with so little dialogue as to make the idea of subtitling redundant.  It took about thirty minutes for the bulk of the audience to twig. Then they, which is to say we, left en masse.

I’ve a lot of patience when it comes to films but there’s no way I can manage 180 plus minutes of political history where I can’t understand a word. Your correspondent managed to stick with it for the first half hour. This contained hugely impressive contemporary footage of the funeral and lying in state of Ceauşescu’s predecessor as General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, Gheorghiu-Dej and suggested that the film would primarily attempt to subvert its “lead actor” and his views by canny juxtaposition.

BFI and Vue staff dealt with the problem well; everyone who wanted a refund received one more or less instantly and apologies were profusely offered. The film was also left running for the small number of Romanian speakers in the auditorium.  More than one audience member chanced their arm by suggesting or demanding compensation for travel costs or the time they had wasted coming in to see the picture. About this the least said the better, I think.

It is to be hoped that a later screening of a subtitled print of the film can be arranged, if not as part of the festival than as part of the BFI’s normal screening programme. Based on the first thirty minutes it would be a shame if this error prevents the picture from reaching even a small audience in the UK.


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One Response

  1. Simon Jerram says:

    We lent a copy of Babette’s Feast to one of my wife’s colleagues.

    He couldn’t find the English language soundtrack. Either his DVD player didn’t facilitate the switching of soundtracks or he wasn’t familiar with having to do it outside the DVD’s menu. The DVD menus play it in the original Danish with English subtitles (which his old TV could not show) if you select English from the main menu.

    He gave it back quickly.