an ongoingvideo archive

a project by Marco Scotini



by Harun Farocki

In 1989, when the Ceausescus were nearing their end, there were hardly any automobiles to be seen on the streets of Bucharest other than Dacias. This was a copy of a Renault produced under license in Romania with a rear end like a duck’s tail, production of which had stopped in France twenty years earlier. Only a few people with foreign currency incomes owned imported automobiles: actors and soccer stars – and the Ceausescus’ daughter Zöe, who drove a Renault 21.

The two-inch VTR technology which had gone out of use in the countries of Western Europe ten to fifteen years before was still there in the television studios. Romania’s first betacam was to be found in the film department of the Central Committee and had been acquired to be focused on the Ceausescus: on their receptions and his speeches. The advantage of beta technology lies in the compactness of camera and recorder and in the resulting mobility. The Ceausescus only did things which had been established down to the last detail in protocol, and if anything deviated from it, it was not to be shown. Did the regime acquire a mobile camera because it suspected the future would bring unforeseeable changes? We have included shots from this protocol camera in our film: the scene on the morning of December 22, 1989, as the crowd was thronging in front of and into the Central Committee building while books and pictures were flying out of the windows and from the balcony, was recorded by this very beta camera (I). It had been positioned on the third floor of the side wing in order to record the organized captive audience in its entirety.

Now a little sociological imagination is required. Imagine a man sent to film school in Moscow during the Stalin era. There he was shown Soviet avant-garde films, and he learned that juxtaposing a close-up from below and a long shot from a high angle lends extreme dynamism to an event. Later, when he was visual director for the Romanian newsreel responsible for appearances by the Ceausescus, he assigned one camera to a raised position on the third floor. If at this point he could still remember why, the reason was forgotten with constant repetition over the next twenty years. (The Unity Party’s dramaturgical problem was to assemble great multitudes a militant mood while not showing an opponent, whose very presence would have testified to the regime’s weakness.)

In addition, the concept of "moral depreciation" is valid here. Innovations devalue things long before they fail technically. Today any cameraman would feel belittled if one gave him a camera used by Josef von Sternberg to make movies, as would any politician if one pointed a camera at him used to photograph Marlene Dietrich. In 1970, French cinema could show Anni Girardot happily getting into a Renault with a duck’s tail – twenty years later this car had become as unbearably obsolete as an old-fashioned tube-camera.

The concept of "moral depreciation" comes from Marx and was taken up again in 1968. The year 1968 was special in Romania because Ceausescu did not participate in the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the states of the Warsaw Pact. This gave him room to maneuver. One has to remember that when Paris took to the streets in May 1968, Charles de Gaulle was visiting Ceausescu.

The worker in the last scene of the film says of Zoë Ceausescu, the woman who drove the Renault 21 , that she had ninety-seven thousand dollars in her account while he and people like him could never enjoy themselves – the lights went out at six o’clock. He says this in a factory and not in a business district, where our television has long given a say to people with less than ninety-seven thousand dollars in the bank. So that the politics doesn’t take away our time for the pictures, l will sum up: 1968 saw the acceptance of the idea that what is truly important is not the production of goods, but rather the production of consumers of goods. Anyone capable of craving goods or services can have his say. The worker at the end of our film does not covet goods enough to still have a voice in the future.

Romania was also behind the times when it came to non-professional camera equipment. The relatively few VHS cameras attracted users who regarded shooting pictures as a craft and not as a function of the camera’s program. Many whose material we quote in the film learned from textbooks or in courses that a foreground gives depth to a frame or that you have to make intermediate cuts because a process filmed in a long, continuous take can hardly be shortened otherwise. The man on his balcony who captured the moment when army soldiers fired over the heads of the Securitate, thus siding with the revolution, gave his tape to a student archive without bothering about its utilization. Many others, however, have tried to use recordings of the revolution to promote their media professions. It is hard to avoid the thought that the cameramen of the revolution wanted to use their work to apply for jobs in post-revolutionary television. With the future political elite in front of the camera and the future television elite behind the camera, we observe the attempt of both these groups to rid themselves of their amateur status.

But why were video recorders privately available at all in a state whose police registered typewriters and kept proofs of the typeface? The obvious answer is the correct one: the police were fixated on the written word. The workers' movement had been organized through writing – a memory which persisted in the security services. It was also true that that time, no resistance movement had been organized on the basis of video communication. Videotapes evidently don’t attract authors capable of making imaginative use of them. While a piece of paper can be used to design a different life and the method of obtaining it, a videotape serves rather to record and to represent that which has happened. In the Romanian revolution, video cameras did hot even have this documentary function. The news that the security forces had shot at children in Timisoara, that there had been mass protests, and that the army had withdrawn only reached Bucharest via foreign broadcasts (in words transmitted by radio), through telephone calls, from travelers, various rumor channels, but not through video-tapes.

At this point I should like to discuss the long shot at the beginning of our film: a man holds the camera from the window; because his lens does not allow him to get close enough to the body of the protest march, two-thirds of the picture is taken up by two six-story residential buildings and a flat garage block. So trivial a picture is endurable only for a man who lives in the place and is accustomed to look out of the window to reassure himself of his specific existence. One should thank the cameraman for having persevered with this view, a vision which hits the target precisely because it misses.

The man behind the camera does not shoot the picture in the hope of being able to distribute it and thereby also the idea of the revolution. Perhaps he has a couple of friends in mind to whom he could show it to, thus preserving the factual character of the event. Were the demonstrations to be suppressed and the Ceausescu regime to emerge victorious, it would be difficult to hold on to the memory of the uprising. With his picture, the man behind the camera proves that he did not just look away. In addition, his film looks forward to times in which one can show such pictures; it serves to summon up the dawn of such an era.

The revolution, an unforeseen and unusual event, comes into the camera’s field of vision. Behind the pictures of the revolution another image shines through, that of a foreseeable and everyday world, a world the camera equipment was designed to record. A protest march passes in front of a camera which had been produced and sold to record family celebrations or vacation trips, and it is in front of just such a camera that the trial of the Ceausescus is held. A member of the military was given the task of starting and pointing the camera; this trail cameraman outranked the court stenographer.

A few charges against this film:

  1. Because the trial is lit and shot using amateur equipment, the pictures are not suited to attest the legality of the action. The VHS images of the trial, blurred and frayed as they are from repeated copying, would be more in keeping with a terrorist action. To use an amateur camera is to debase the defendants – no different from the prosecutor and attorney who swear at the Ceausescus roughly.
  2. When it is a matter of life and death, at least two cameras ought to be used. When it is a matter of life and death, one cannot foresee which moments will prove important and which embarrassing. Imperceptible ("soft") edits will be unavoidable – and with footage from only one camera, they will give the impression of having been faked.
  3. By filing trial and execution, the makers of the revolution are admitting that people will not take them at their word. (In the United States executions are filmed for entertainment, but not to prove that they actually took place.) The Romanian military wanted to prove: "We gave them something like a trial" and "In the end they really were dead." The first time the trial pictures were broadcast on television, the night after the executions, they were shown without original sound and accompanied by a commentary which included long pauses. In our film’s montage these pauses can acquire a quite dramatic meaning; when, for instance, the commentator says, ”The sentence was final and carried out by firing squad," and you see the Ceausescus, penned in by school desks, remaining seated for a long time. After the first broadcast back in 1989, many viewers were not content with this sophisticated omission and demanded to see pictures of the bodies; these were shown the next morning
  4. "[...] life’s babbling must cease so that the legal ceremony can take its course. In this the same holds true for justice as for religion, theatre, or lessons. It can be performed anywhere (a table will suffice), but only on the condition that procedural time and space be kept separate from private time and space" (II). The presence of a camera will always belittle a court.
    The images of the trial and execution are probably the worst filmed of the entire revolution. The criticism is not aimed at any particular camera movement or a particular framing, but rather at the film’s basic organization. When working for electronic representational media today, the essential thing is to order suitable apparatus; the personnel who utilize it will follow. lust as in the production of material goods, the equipment used for work will determine its performance.
    In the near future, it will not be possible to manufacture automobiles or television sets without the involvement of at least some human labor. Similarly, fully automatic recording of sounds and images will not be possible in the near future either, at least not outside the studio. A person qualified to be a journalist, a salesman, or a meter reader will transport a device to a location without having to know more than how to turn it on or off. The apparatus will use sensors to create an "optical outline" and transmit the data to headquarters where they will be computed to form views from above and from below, close-ups and long shots, pans and tracking shots, low-contrast and high-contrast pictures. Processes of calculation will replace the camera-technician. Algorithms will determine the style, the handwriting, the thoughts, the spirit. What about spirit?
    Our film shows the Ceausescus hurrying over the roof of the Central Committee building in the company of a member of the armed forces and getting into a helicopter. This recording is by an amateur who went into commerce after the revolution (and gave his material to a student archive and didn’t concern himself with it any further). Because he stood with his camera on the square in front of the Central Committee, the helicopter soon leaves his field of vision. We then cut to a recording made from the balcony of a hotel room by a man probably working for the Securitate. In continuation from the previous shot, this camera follows the flying helicopter panning over roofs crowded with spectators. Did the first recording result from a spirit of liberty and the second from the spirit of a police state? (Alfred Döblin quoted a lot from police transcripts, Thomas Mann from scientific texts.) Or did the secret policeman change sides while filming – enabling him too to go into commerce after the revolution? Even if one is just filming the flight of a helicopter, the point of view of the recording subject and the movement of the object recorded do not decide everything. Similarly in written language, the rules of syntax and propositional calculus do not determine an expression completely. It seems to be more difficult to impart pictures with spirit than words; and it seems more difficult to read that with which the pictures were imbued. Furthermore, pictures cannot describe everyone.
    The uprising in Bucharest started during a speech by Ceausescu broadcast live on television, in the course of which he began to feel disturbed, whereupon the broadcast was interrupted. The next day, television started revolutionary broadcasts and from then on Studio 4 competed with the Central Committee balcony for the position of center of the revolution.
    The regime’s fall was sealed by the broadcast of the trial and execution. These events were first depicted without original sound or pictures of the dead bodies; then without the original sound, but with pictures of the dead bodies; then with a (shortened) original soundtrack, but without pictures of the prosecutors, defendants, or judges; and finally in complete form with sound and pictures, including a shot of those just executed lasting several minutes. The pictures of these events led to many months of conflict, as once words gave rise to religious wars. So we drove to Bucharest to collect material addressing the question whether the cameras had "reproduced" images of the revolution or "produced" them – (in Vilém Flusser’s terms, whether the imagination was ”old" or "new"). We had envisaged a discussion, but soon came to realize that the material required a filmic narrative. A narrative which by its fractured nature included the discussion.
    The archives not only contained Mircea Dinescu’s first call for revolution in Studio 4, "Let us look up silently to God, but before that we call on the entire army," but also the preceding dress rehearsal. The actor Caramitru wants to stage-manage the poet Dinescu, he therefore suggests to him to look at his notebook, ”Mircea, l will introduce you, show that you are working." From this we can understand why later on the actor says of the poet, "Before you is our hero, Mircea Dinescu, the poet. Look, he is working." And addressed to Dinescu, "Tell us what you are doing." In the meanwhile Dinescu has put his book down and picked it up again several times, and in doing so has forgotten that he is supposed to be working - he just starts speaking. In doing this he ruins the transition which is conventional in television thus failing to stick to the code which governs the representation of truth today. This demands that speech be derived from the action – politics from a telephone conversation, philosophy from driving a car (a Dacia perhaps). The continuity director in Studio 4 said, "When we go on air twenty-three million people will be watching"- and we did in fact discover some footage to illustrate this thought. In a lounge in a modern apartment block, we see a family with four children and a grandmother in front of the television set watching the first revolutionary programs from Studio 4 on December 22, 1989. The father is recording on VHS, and the mother makes comments, ”They know who’s with whom/’ and ”Nobody can understand." The cameraman then left the apartment and went to the city center, where he found a space on a loudspeaker van in front of the Central Committee building and recorded the speech made from the balcony. We quote this later on in the film. Yet, for our filmic journey from the apartment block to the city center we could choose a different vehicle to use - a Dacia. As though inspired by the nouvelle vague, the camera stares out from the automobile at the street, we can hear the occupants and chansons from the radio.

A filmic narrative requires above all else that people and places reappear in different guise yet remain recognizable. In order to sustain the development of the action, montage above all has to confirm continuity of the events. Because our filmic narrative is composed from found footage and because there was no central direction of the persons in front of or behind the camera, it seems as though we are seeing history itself creating its own shape.
A scene from Bucharest, shortly before the revolution:
Father This year one communist regime after another has fallen, sometimes within hours. They could obviously last only as long as the Soviet Union could protect its sphere of interest, the area it was granted in Yalta.
Mother Precisely the Ceausescu regime, which has claimed since 1968 that it was independent of the Soviet Union, was able to hold out the longest.
Daughter When they see the rift which has opened up in the power structure, the army, militia, and Securitate will all try to change sides. Precisely because he had distanced himself from the Soviet Union, Ceausescu failed to understand that Moscow was not interested in his survival.
Grandfather Bravo, a genuine revolution! One like ’68 in France, when de Gaulle was here. I saw a film with Anni Girardot once, she was driving a Dacia.
Daughter No, it was a Renault!
Grandmother You can have some dentures made soon, you didn’t have the money till now.
Son The fall of all these regimes this year was completely undramatic. The celebrations in Paris for the anniversary of the revolution were more spectacular than all the real revolutions.
The youngest daughter Things will be different here in Romania.

Although this scene was written to illustrate that that there are some ideas which play a part in people’s actions yet hardly ever find expression in scenic dialogue - the child proved right.


(I) References are to the film VIDEOGRAMS OF A REVOLUTION by Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica, FRG 1992, 16mm, color.
(II) Alain Finkielkraut, Die vergebliche Erinnerung — Vom Verbrechen gegen die Menschheit (Berlin 1989).