The Fourth Dimension of an Event

17 August 2011, 16:32

And there, in the north, by the bay

Where the dale shimmers with blue mist

Pariswants to pick up the wide stride

And places a herd of bridges over the river

                                   Czesław Miłosz

It may seem strange to start this dialogue between the banks of the Seine and the Dnipro with a scene suggesting a hero who does not fit into the late 20th century. But by saying “banks” we mean at the same time the silt, and if that’s the case, we have no control over what the river brings us. In any case, the sediments are as valuable as the abandoned mines, and they invite one to take a deeper look at what they conceal.

That is probably the sense of what the Romanian film director and screenwriter Andrei Ujica has done. With the help of his creative heritage he proved that there is another approach to the very concept of event. News feeds us with large and small events at a speed that keeps us from capturing the essence of what is happening or understanding it.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Ujica met two people who also worked in the field of the philosophy of “facts”: Svetlana Aleksievich, who collected touching evidence of the Chornobyl catastrophe, and Paul Virilio, a modern philosopher who emphasizes the crucial role of speed in understanding “events”. This resulted in a conversation between the three, which revealed features typical for an event of the 21st century.

“In the past,” states Virilio in the filmed conversation, “accidents happened in space. The Titanic sunk in the Northern Atlantic. A plane crashed on an airfield.”

“After Chornobyl,” Alexievich says, “the idea of time has gained a drastically new dimension. Time turned into eternity. The end and the beginning merged.”

Virilio explains such changes using the concept of “post-history,” but hurries to hedge off unwanted connotations: “Not in the meaning that Francis Fukuyama attached to it, but rather as rupture of common historical sequences. History is a sequence in time, which means that it exists ‘before,’ ‘during,’ and ‘after’ an event. Now the ‘after’ has lost its meaning.”

Why are we coming back to these conversations after so many years? Because the event is still happening in confusion, as if we didn’t know where to catch up with it. Speed, globalization, or the unknown, something you can’t touch, typical of the microcosm, – all of this undermines the usual sense of the story, because it aligns phenomena which are intrinsically different, like the collision of elementary particles, an earthquake, or an economic crisis. It’s impossible to put an equal sign between these “events”; we need to emphasize the change of settings through which we learn “what is happening.”

Virilio says chronology is being replaced by “dromology” (from Gr. δρομος – run). And when dromology dictates its own rules, it allows us to build a system upon obstacles, “dromocracy”, the empire of speed. Does it imply such radical changes that we can speak of revolution? “I don’t know if it’s a revolution,” the philosopher says, “but it is definitely a discovery. There is a phenomenon lying in front of us and maybe it’s not divine, but it’s mystical. (…) We have to operate on the attributes of God: ingenuousness, omnipresence, and simultaneity.”

And conversely, does, for example, the rise of a certain Romanian leader to power from 1965 to 1989 bring us back to historical events as they were comprehended in the last century? Ujica tries to recreate what was happening between these two dates, relying exclusively on the examples of propaganda which were carefully collected by the Leader. And that’s where the name of the film comes from, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu.

First the leader is shaped in the post-Stalinist world that requires submissiveness, then the Ceauşescu couple observe (apparently not without some surprise) their own exaltation, and finally find themselves in a company of “the great ones” who pretend to respect them, from Richard Nixon to Kim Il-sung, not to mention the British Queen, Charles de Gaulle, Erich Honecker, or Wojciech Jaruzelski. The film refrains from comments of any kind, the shots are eloquent enough to arouse reflections about the blindness and irresponsibility of officials, as well as the submissiveness of a society that gave in to fear, and thus gave up.

The film neither accuses nor simplifies, it just shows, like in a theatre, the play of all the actors. We don’t see the backstage, only the “characters in the foreground” and the “chorus” – people from an ancient Greek tragedy, who will sing until they lose their voices. Twenty-five years of tyranny, the hissing and catcalling of the crowd, and the downfall that will take only a few hours.

The director resolves this battle between the screen and the written word, the contest between the image and the meaning as if by turning a glove inside out, returning the original meaning back to the phenomenon.

This is a battle in which both banks joined together in an attempt to carry on the voyage without nostalgia or bitterness from what used to exist and what still exists, from one European bank to another.


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