Radu Jude’s found-footage film “The Dead Nation,” which screens at Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival, attempts a fragmentary account of Romania in the 1930s and 1940s, using an extensive photo archive by Costică Acsinte together with a voice-over reading of contemporary diary notes by the Jewish doctor Emil Dorian. A rare exception among recent Romanian slice-of-life films that strive for maximum authenticity, “The Dead Nation” uses the images with a historiographer’s skepticism about the comprehensiveness of what they evoke. The diary accounts fill in the gaps regarding the murderous anti-Semitism of the era, a harsh reality that the portraits of Romanians of the same time leave unrepresented.
While shaping the film, were you looking to contrast the visual material with the voice-over account? Do you see a contrast between how Romanians wanted to be represented and what the social realities were around World War II?
The best way to answer that is to explain how I started working on the film. I had the idea of turning the photographs into a film, or a slideshow, and at the same time I was doing research for my new project, which has to do with problems of representation of the past and, generally, the problems of collective memory regarding the fascist period of the Romanian past. This idea came from a sort of dissatisfaction: when 8,600 photographs, a huge number, were found from a period of time when a lot of terrible things happened which left very vague traces in these photographs, this seemed very troubling to me. When I realized that photographs show something and hide other things – and I think it’s more complex than you put it, they don’t only reveal how Romanians wanted to represent themselves – I wanted to show the connection between these things.
There are pragmatic reasons – geographical etc. – for why these things are missing, but they are missing nevertheless. For instance, the mass killing of Jews in 1941 in Iași is very well documented – by the Germans, to be fair, who had photo cameras and made photographic records of it. The task was not so much to find sources that document these matters – that are hard to represent anyway – but rather to pose a theoretical problem, though one with obvious practical repercussions: What does it mean to represent history based on a collection of documents – visual documents, in this case – which you have at your disposal? Why are we so stuck in analyzing images, be they photographic or cinematic, only from the perspective of what they show, and not what they hide?
How did you choose among Acsinte’s photographs, as well as the elements of the soundtrack, from the numerous possibilities you’ve had?
I was interested in the photographs which were dated, to show synchronicity with Dorian’s diary notes. Apart from that, I was drawn to those that were expressive – from an anthropologic or painterly point of view – and especially those notable for mise-en-scène, because they aren’t documents. They are studio photographs and Acsinte acted like a film director. There were three or four painted backdrops, an inventory of gestures – women held their arms along their body in a certain way, soldiers posed with their weapon, others had significant objects – maybe a cow or a bicycle. I thought it matches the discourse of the film: How much is fiction, how much is unwrought reality?
For the soundtrack, we borrowed from propaganda films and radio broadcasts. Some work the same way: They seem to be documents but they are fiction, and even poor quality fiction, since many use some very low propaganda. We chose them to function along with the images. Some are very far away from what the photos have to say, and their effect is ironic.
How much more tolerant do you think Romanian society has become, in our days?
What happened recently with the homophobic Coalition for the Family shows that the Church isn’t separate from the state, as would be normal in a secular European state. With my recent project, I’ve discovered there is large nostalgia for the fascist period of Romanian history. When I talk to people about Marshal Antonescu and say that he was a war criminal, they reply: ‘So what?! He ruled with a firm grip on things.’
What has made you interested in found-footage films?
It is a little-known genre in Romania, even to cinephiles and critics, with a handful of exceptions. At first, I saw a couple of films – Andrei Ujică, Sergei Losznitsa, the ones I’d heard about – and thought I had exhausted them. Searching for them further – and for this, the Internet is a very useful tool – you can discover a whole continent of found-footage films which didn’t have the opportunity to be screened in big festivals and have the proper critical reception, so they were soon forgotten. There is no canon for these works.