31 July 2018

Dacians: Unsettling Truths (Dacii: Adevaruri Tulburatoare) (2012)

Daniel Roxin presents a documentary about Dacia, country of the ‘bravest and most just of the Thracians’ as they were described by Herodotus, in which he argues that the history of Romania has been misrepresented by historians.  The film asks the question why in official and academic terms the Dacians have been dismissed as a primitive tribe which was erased from history by the Romans, and Romanians have been told they trace their lineage from Rome.  It makes the point that only about 14% of the Dacians’ territory was conquered, so the opportunity for Latin to penetrate Dacia as a whole was limited, yet we are expected to believe that Latin displaced the Dacian language entirely.

But how could it be that the Dacians would forget their language and traditions, especially as they were under Roman occupation for much less time than some other parts of the empire, where those subjugated did not forget their own language?  People in such places as Gaul, Palestine, Spain and Britain did not carry on using Latin after the withdrawal of the legions, yet we are expected to believe that Roman influence in Dacia was such that the entire region was permanently Latinised.  A possible explanation is that Romanian was not derived from Latin but both were derived from an earlier proto-language, and are thus sister languages.

There is ample evidence that the Dacians were highly respected by classical authors, and statuary of Dacians by Roman sculptors is plentiful.  However, when Romanian nationhood was being formed in the nineteenth century, a disproportionate influence was wielded by Transylvanian Catholics indoctrinated by the Vatican who emphasised the Roman aspects and marginalised the Dacians as barbarians who were exterminated by the Romans, so that they could argue present-day Romanians were descended from the Romans.  They entirely ignored the historical continuity of Dacia.  Despite this, many Romanian intellectuals have sought to stress the Dacian links, while the failure of some modern historians to mention the Dacian heritage throws their credibility into question.

Another line of evidence is provided by paleogenetics, studying preserved genetic material.  Analysis of bone fragments from the Bronze and Iron Ages by researchers in Hamburg was compared to the DNA of modern Romanians and it found that while there were similarities with Bulgarians and Greeks, markers for Italians were in general less close.  Mitochondrial DNA markers showed a close relationship between the population living in the Romanian area during the Bronze and Iron Ages and modern Romanians.  Romanians are not descended from Rome as Italians belong genetically to a different group.

However there are genetic links with northern Italians.  Drawing on Livy, the film argues that after the fall of Troy, which was in Thracian territory, Aeneas and his crew founded Rome; Troy had been in Anatolia, in Thracian territory, so that thus far from the Romanians being descended from Rome, Romans are descended from Thracians.  This would explain the respect Romans had for the Dacians, Dio Cassius referring to war between Trajan and Decebalus (the last Dacian king) as war between two brothers.  Therefore the history of Romania as generally presented is based on a false view of its origins.

Moving on to writing, it had been assumed that Sumerian was the oldest writing system, but recent evidence shows that the Tărtăria tablets from the Neolithic Turdaș–Vinča culture, which was partly settled in present-day Romania, are 1-2,000 years older than Sumerian writing.  Dating of bones found with the tablets established that they were 7,500 years old, so the tablets would be as old, if not older, overturning the accepted wisdom that they were no older than 2,000 BC.  Yet in the official historiography these important tablets and other artefacts have not been given their due place in the history of Romania.  Is this due to neglect, or are there more sinister forces at work?  Roxin promises further documentaries.

20 July 2018

The Nun in Romania

News reaches me that the forthcoming film The Nun is set, and was entirely shot, in Romania.  This is the latest instalment in the Conjuring franchise and is directed by Corin Hardy from a story co-written by James Wan, who directed The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2.  Originally scheduled for release this month, the date has been pushed back to early September.

Set in 1952, the plot concerns a Roman Catholic priest, who is of course haunted by his past, and a novice, played by Taissa Farmiga, who are sent to Romania to investigate the suicide of a nun.  According to the teaser trailer, Sister Irene has been having a series of visions each ending with the image of a nun, leading to this piece of dialogue:  ‘Word of my visions reached the Church and I was asked to accompany a priest to an abbey in Romania.’

Well of course she was.  Naturally, as they investigate the pair find that not all there is as it should be (doorway to Hell, etc.).  This is a long way from Audrey Hepburn and Peter Finch in The Nun’s Story.  Wan has said one influence on the film is the 1986 film version of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, but it is obvious that whereas William of Baskerville uncovered a human perpetrator, The Nun’s is going to be demonic.

Taissa Farmiga is sister of Vera, who played Lorraine Warren in The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2The Nun is a spin-off of the latter, featuring Valak the demon nun, a character seen proving troublesome to Lorraine and husband Ed in the suburban setting of Enfield, north London.  Valak is again played by Bonnie Aarons, and in chronological terms the film is first in the Conjuring cinematic universe.

But Catholics in an overwhelmingly Orthodox country?  According to promotional material the setting is the Cârța Monastery, near Sibiu in southern Transylvania (a structure which has its own tales of ghostly monks).  The Cârța monastery was originally a Cistercian establishment but is now a Lutheran church in one of the remaining Saxon communities, the monks having been expelled by Matthias Corvinus in 1474, somewhat before the film’s setting.  How the script deals with the presence of nuns in the monastery, and presumably an absence of monks, will either be ingenious or, more likely, the difficulty will be ignored.

Some filming was done in Bucharest, at Castel Film Studios and at the Palace of the Parliament, as well as at Hunyadi Castle and in Sighișoara.  Why 1952 was chosen has not been revealed.  It could be because that was the year a new constitution was unveiled, ‘the constitution of building Socialism’, consolidating communist power, or perhaps merely to fit in with the Conjuring universe’s timeline.  It will be interesting to see if there is any sense of the political situation in the country.  Bearing in mind how The Conjuring 2 played fast and loose with the Enfield case, probably not, and it is unlikely much of the film will be taken up with visa applications.

One of the nuns is played by Ingrid Bisu, who was born in Bucharest.  Appearing on a San Diego Comic-Con 2018 panel (18 July), she is quoted as saying, ‘It was awesome to be known hopefully for something different than “Dracula”.  We’re ready for something fresh.’  Different and fresh?  The Nun is not a huge leap from Dracula in genre terms, and it sounds as if the film is trading on Transylvania’s image as somewhere mysterious and menacing, for which Stoker’s story is largely responsible.  Bisu went on to talk about the crew’s exposure to Romanian food, particularly the sour cream aspect, so at least it sounds as if everyone was well fed.

Update 27 July 2018

Also at San Diego Comic-Con, director Corin Hardy claimed he had seen a pair of ghosts during filming.  As ghosts have allegedly put in appearances on previous Conjuring films, a paranormal event on the set of The Nun could be expected.  This experience involved a sequence called ‘The Corridor of Crosses’ being shot ‘in a fortress’, as Hardy put it.

Hardy had monitors set up in a small cell-like room off a long corridor.  As he walked into the room, which only had one door, he noticed a couple of men sitting at the back, and as he assumed they were from the sound department they must have looked normal, and wearing clothes that were unremarkable.

Hardy briefly said hello and sat with his back to them.  The scene was a difficult one, so he concentrated on the monitors for about half an hour.  Shot completed, he turned round to see what the pair behind him thought, only there was nobody there.  He concluded there never had been because they were obviously ghosts.

His evidence largely hinges on the claim he felt they were there the whole time, and they could not have left without him noticing.  Yet if he had been absorbed in organising the shot, they could easily have walked past without him realising they had gone.  Hardy apparently made no effort to find out if they were flesh and blood.

When talking to CinemaBlend (20 July) about what happened he concluded, ‘I can only assume that they were probably like Romanian soldiers…’, though one would expect costumes to match, and he should have noticed such a distinctive manner of dress when he walked into the room.  The most likely verdict is that Mr Hardy is ramping up the hype for his film, but without putting much effort into conjuring a convincing story.  The fans will love it though.

Update 7 August 2018

The Daily Mirror (4 August) carried an article on the film which covered its mysterious on-set happenings.  Undermining Ingrid Bisu’s claim that ‘It was awesome to be known hopefully for something different than “Dracula”.  We’re ready for something fresh,’ the article cites screenwriter Gary Dauberman:

‘Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula was an important visual and tonal reference for The Nun. It’s a fair comparison as much of the filming was done in the vampiric Romania in order to capture the right mood. While the movie is set in 1952, a lot of sets were based in 14th century buildings.’

Worse, Taissa Farmiga is quoted as saying ‘it [the ambience] helped her get into character. “With castles, cloisters and rolling countryside it doesn’t feel as if you’re in the modern day – it feels as if you’re transported back in time,” she said. “It feels as is a demon could possibly be around the corner.”’  If I were a Transylvanian I’m sure this sort of attitude would annoy me.

Father Cosmin, an Orthodox priest, blessed the production at Hunyadi Castle, though Hardy later found a ‘handprint’ he could not account for in the dust there (no details given as to why this was noteworthy).  The article mentions the anecdote of the Romanian soldiers/sound technicians/guys caught illicitly putting their feet up and sliding out discreetly while the boss is busy, and gives the location as Mogoșoaia, adding that Hardy believed they were Romanian soldiers ‘curious about the filming’.  Why then did they not stick around to give their verdict?

17 July 2018

Dracula Country, by Andrew MacKenzie

As the subtitle ‘Travels and Folk Beliefs in Romania’ indicates, Andrew Mackenzie’s 1977 book covers more than Dracula, though the historical figure looms large.  MacKenzie had been travelling to Romania annually since 1968, initially for general journalistic purposes, and had become interested in the country’s folklore.*  He was visiting during a period when the stories were disappearing under the weight of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s modernisation programme, though the traditions still lingered in remoter regions, mostly among the elderly.

At the same time the country was opening to tourism and beginning to capitalise (albeit with some reluctance) on the Dracula associations, and the book is a combination of travelogue, history and investigation of what remained of rural folk traditions  In that sense the title is misleading as there is much more here than the Dracula myth, though it is a useful peg to generate interest (more likely to attract readers than the subtitle would have had it been used as the title), and MacKenzie’s aim is to draw attention to a neglected corner of Europe which was still seen as mysterious in the 1970s.

MacKenzie intertwines a stab at outlining Romania’s complicated past with chapters on Dracula in fiction and the busy, and gruesome, career of Vlad Țepeș, followed by portraits of Sighișoara, Dracula’s birthplace, and Poenari Castle, which has more right to be considered his castle than is Bran Castle, that staple of present-day Dracula tourism.  MacKenzie then discusses beliefs in strigoi and werewolves before resuming his geographical treatment, dealing with the history and folklore of different areas: ‘Sibiu and tales from the villages’, ‘Cluj and tales from the mountains’, ‘Bistrița and folk customs in the valleys’, and Maramureș, with a conclusion in which he reiterates how the sorts of stories he has recounted are becoming rarer as life changes under the impact of industrialisation, tourism and television.

This is a valuable snapshot of Romania in the 1970s, when it was exerting its independence from Moscow but still following a strict ideological line.  When MacKenzie was writing travel in remote areas was a significant achievement, and Dracula Country is still a useful addition to the literature despite its age, but there are weaknesses.  Firstly, he did not speak Romanian and relied on translators, which he concedes was a problem in interviews when he was often told that something could not properly be rendered into English, but also meant he had to rely on English-language sources for his historical perspective.

More significantly, he does not acknowledge the extent to which what he was told might have been coloured by adherence to approved policies.  In his preface he notes ‘the benefit of three excellent interpreters provided, with a car and driver, by the Ministry of Tourism.’  These were not just interpreters but were there to keep an eye on MacKenzie and his interviewees, who must have known it even if Mackenzie did not, and this could have influenced the information he was given.  MacKenzie talks little about the regime and reading the book it is easy to forget the political situation of the period.  He might not have wanted to offend his hosts by highlighting the issue, but as a result he comes across as naive.

Despite these flaws one has to admire MacKenzie’s industry, and the result is worth reading both for the travel aspects and the folklore he collected despite obstacles of language.  The history is too compressed, and requires some background knowledge for it to make sense, but MacKenzie’s affection for the landscape and the people he met are obvious.  Despite the difficulties Romanians were facing as part of the Eastern Bloc, MacKenzie had huge optimism for the future: ‘In the long run they have everything – natural riches, great scenic variety, widespread education, gifted people – which will make for a brilliant future’.  When he was writing there was little available about the country in English, and almost total ignorance about its history and culture, and it is books like this that to an extent have helped remedy that situation.

*MacKenzie was a Council member of the Society for Psychical Research.  Dracula Country was reviewed in the Journal of the SPR by Renée Haynes though the suspicion arises that at best she merely skimmed it, and as a devout Catholic was surely not the best person to ask.

10 July 2018

A ‘black ambulance’ in Bucharest

Credit: Euronews

Euronews (9 July 2018) carries a peculiar article about a woman sleeping overnight in a van in Bucharest attacked by a mob which suspected she was involved in the abduction of children [1].  Apparently they mistook the vehicle she was sleeping in for a mythical ‘black ambulance’.  The black ambulance is an urban legend in parts of Central and Eastern Europe, seen as a sinister means whereby organ harvesters ply their grisly trade abducting children and murdering them for their blood and body parts.

According to the Euronews report, such stories originated in Poland and were promoted both to help instil hatred of the West and to help cover up abductions by the secret police.   However, an article on Polish urban legends notes that in the 1960s the vehicle was a Soviet Volga, painted black, and the alleged market was the Soviet Union (presumably symbolising blood-sucking Russia) rather than the West [2].  The legend travelled to Czechoslovakia, where the car became a black ambulance.  In both Poland and Czechoslovakia the fear was alive in the 1980s and ‘90s [1, 2, 3, 4]; it travelled even further, to Romania, where it clearly still exists.

In the present case, Romanian writer Doina Popescu-Brăila had hit on the idea of converting an old ambulance in order to travel round on a book tour as cheaply as possible.  She lives and sleeps in it and uses it to sell her work.  Its purpose is unambiguously proclaimed by a sign on the side which says: ‘Ambulance for literature’ (Ambulanţă pentru literatură), a rather nice idea.

On 4 July she parked up for the night near Bucharest’s main railway station but just before midnight a hostile crowd gathered, believing the ambulance was there for the abduction of children.  Initiated by several ‘hysterical’ women, the incident snowballed as more people arrived.  Later Popescu-Brăila gave an interview to Euronews in which she said that the crowd formed quickly, trapping her, and seemed organised.  Social media posts publicised what was happening, drawing still more participants.  Even if the numbers are an overestimate it must have been a terrifying experience for her, which included physical assault:

‘“They started filming me, they got into the ambulance and someone put out a cigarette on my cheek”, the writer told Euronews. “They started going through my things, they saw the caravan toilet chemicals and believed it might be blood or a medical substance of sorts. I showed them my books and they got so scared as if I was showing them voodoo dolls. When the police got to the scene, there were close to 500-600 people from the surrounding neighbourhood encircling the van. A woman even stole the ambulance number plates to help fuel the general hysteria.”’ [1]

A commentator puts the figure at 100, which may also be a back-of-a-fag-packet estimate but is more plausible [5].  Popescu-Brăila herself rang the police, who arrested three people, a man and two women [1, 6, 7] (the Romania Insider report indicates five men were directly involved in the assault [6]).  Demonstrators then gathered at the police station, angry that Popescu-Brăila had not herself been arrested.  She was given medical treatment at the police station but refused to go to hospital because she feared for her safety there.  She was upset at the lack of support from fellow authors and at the way the business was treated by a sensationalist media in search of ratings:

‘“I am a writer, not an organ trafficker. I am shocked to see no other writer or intellectual taking a stance against this incident. I am even more surprised by how the entire thing was depicted on TV, with some news shows, in their quest for ratings, talking about the “black ambulance” as if it were a real thing not a bogus story”, Mrs Popescu Brăila decried the event.’ [1]

She had begun the project in 2016 and this was the first time she had run into trouble.  Despite her ordeal she vowed to continue her tour.  On Facebook, the police and Ministry for Internal Affairs urged calm and rational behaviour, and requested that individuals refrain from posting fake stories about the non-existent black ambulance [1, 6].

A paper presented by Petr Janácek at the thirtieth Perspectives On Contemporary Legend Conference, at Göttingen, Germany, in 2012, was titled ‘The Black Volga Revisited: Child Abduction Legends and Rumours in Countries of the Eastern Bloc’, and he draws attention to the complex nature of the theme [4].  While prevalent in various countries previously within the Soviet orbit, such rumours were not confined to them he said, having appeared in places as far apart as Italy, Brazil and Nigeria.

He notes that these stories began circulating in the 1930s, with a generic black Soviet car as the basis.  They have constituted a stable and long-lasting narrative with social, economic and political implications, for example attitudes to state-run health services and xenophobia towards Jews, Germans and Arabs, all of whom at various times were accused of driving black vehicles in pursuit of children.  He considers racism the most common driver nowadays, but this would hardly cover Popescu-Brăila’s dreadful encounter.

In fact the whole affair is hard to credit, unless the entire crowd possessed zero literacy skills and could not read the sign on the side of the ambulance (which would have been ironic given their target).  The only common feature between the author and the alleged organ harvesters is the ambulance, but here it is blue and white, not black, and has its function displayed on the side as well as her name in very large letters.  This is hardly the behaviour one would expect from a murderer hoping to work undetected.

Such panics are symptomatic of social malaise, as Janácek indicated in his talk, but why this urban legend has persisted is a mystery, as is why Popescu-Brăila suddenly became a target after two years on the road without any problems.  It is also curious that it occurred in the middle of Buchaest rather than in a rural area, where superstitions might persist longer than in an urban environment.  Perhaps there was an anti-intellectual element, dislike of an independent woman travelling alone, or a group of poorly educated and bored individuals seeking a licence to vent their frustrations on someone seen as an eccentric outsider.


[1] Writer attacked by mob who mistook her van for mythical 'black ambulance': http://www.euronews.com/2018/07/09/writer-attacked-by-mob-who-mistook-her-van-for-mythical-black-ambulance-

[6] Romanian writer assaulted in urban legend frenzy https://www.romania-insider.com/romanian-writer-assaulted-urban-legend/

[7] Cele trei persoane suspectate că au agresat-o pe scriitoarea din Brăila care dormea într-o maşină asemănătoare ambulanţei, plasate sub control judiciar: https://www.news.ro/social/cele-trei-persoane-suspectate-ca-au-agresat-o-pe-scriitoarea-din-braila-care-dormea-intr-o-masina-asemanatoare-ambulantei-plasate-sub-control-judiciar-1922403506002018071418222322

28 June 2018

Maria (2013)

Maria is a short (19 minutes) documentary made by Claudiu Mitcu, shot on his smartphone.  Maria is an old woman dying at home, watched over by female family and friends who try to make her comfortable.  When they are not doing that they are chatting to each other in the easy manner people who have known each other a long time have.  They talk about Maria as if she were already dead, eulogising her accomplishments and discussing funeral arrangements.  This might seem astonishingly insensitive, but these are tough women and their compassion is of a practical and unsentimental kind.

Maria is conscious but does not seem distressed by what she hears; it is probably similar to conversations she has had herself while nursing dying relatives.  Mitcu sits unobtrusively in the corner filming, and the behaviour of the women is totally natural.  There is nothing prurient or intrusive as the film feels like a respectful act of love.  We do not follow Maria to the point of death, in fact the film breaks off at an arbitrary point mid-conversation, but that is like life: we enter and leave at arbitrary points, and it goes on without us.

The talk turns to personal matters and one of the ladies worries about who will look after her in old age the way she looks after her parents.  Tines are changing; the participants are enacting an age-old ritual, but in some societies it has become far less common than it used to be.  With sophisticated technology increasingly prevalent as we reach the end of our lives we are in danger of losing the human touch that connects us to each other.  Maria is fortunate.  This is how people should die whenever possible, not in a hospital ward but in your own bed, surrounded by those you love, though perhaps not necessarily such chatty ones as these.

Source: YouTube/Cinepub

25 June 2018

Metrobranding (2010)

Subtitled ‘A Love Story Between People and Objects’, Metrobranding is a documentary film directed by Ana Vlad and Adrian Voicu.  It consists of interviews with middle-aged and elderly people reminiscing about the production of goods they helped to manufacture pre-1989, before western-style consumerism hit Romania.  The result of a planned as opposed to a free-market economy, rather than competition for a share of customer spend, Romanians were limited to a single brand for any given product.  To explore this strategy, Metrobranding looks at six particular brands that had monopolies and each of which was produced only in one town: the Ileana sewing Machine, Finca plimsolls, the Mobra motorbike, the Pegas bicycle, the Relaxa mattress, and the Star light bulb.

These were all familiar to the citizens of communist Romania because they were ubiquitous, and this familiarity explains the attachment people still have towards them, emblematic of a vanished era and one evoking nostalgia for many.  Those who were involved in their manufacture look back and see good times for their communities and pride in what they achieved.  They worked hard certainly, but had a sense of purpose.  In a changing world some of the products could not compete, and this is a story of changing tastes and decay more than one of industrial archaeology.  There are many questions raised by the film though little attempt to answer them, but the feeling of loss comes across clearly.

Some of the questions include: Why did old brands fall by the wayside?  Could they not compete with more efficient production methods (the mattress factory is still going, but looks inefficient) or cheap imports?  Does monopoly lead to shoddiness because the market is captive?  Did products simply become unfashionable because of their familiarity, or associations?  Do they have a retro appeal?  What happens to a town reliant on a single commodity when that commodity is no longer viable (one thinks of Detroit here as an example).  When thousands worked in a factory that operated round the clock, what do they do when the factory closes and they lack the skills necessary for other employment?

There is surprisingly little emphasis in the film on the politics which were concerned to build a society that could have its needs met with limited resources, even if much of the output was for export.  This omission is a problem, as decisions about how production should be organised were made centrally, and it is unclear to what extent there is wistfulness for these vanished products rather than for the old political system that authorised them.  Such views were implicit, but not much examined.

Times have changed – school students were sniffy about the plimsolls compared to their trainers even though they looked elegant and well made – but the film does highlight the issue of state planning vs letting the market decide.  We are used to the idea of competition (or at least the notion of competition – there may be cartels at work), but really are we any happier with having massive freedom of choice when it comes to buying a mattress or a light bulb?  Either way, the film has a broader dimension: it may be specifically about a limited range of brands in one country, but it touches on a universal feeling of loss for what is gone, wherever you happen to live and under whatever system of government.

Source: YouTube/Cinepub

21 June 2018

On the Footsteps of the Prince

 Kickstarter funding is being sought for a documentary film, On the Footsteps of the Prince, the prince in question being HRH Prince Charles.  He has visited Romania repeatedly since 1997, and has a holiday home at Viscri in Transylvania.  The idea of the film is to explore why he has taken such an interest in Transylvania, and use his involvement in the region and its conservation as a peg to promote the area further. 

Subtitled ‘The story about a hidden paradise’, which goes some way to answering that question, the film will focus on the landscape which has so captivated Prince Charles.  The intention is to capture ‘the other side’ of Romania which, in the words of the Kickstarter statement is ‘peaceful’, ‘serene’ and ‘beautiful’.

Bucharest-born artist and filmmaker Nono Pirvu Lucian is behind the project and he has launched a campaign to raise £20,000 to fund it.  There are various rewards available to those who make donations.  As at this writing there are not many days left to run and it is fair to say that the total raised so far is well shy of the target.

Tied in with the film there is an associated website, which is still under construction.  It will highlight parts of Romania so far little visited by tourists, with information on suitable places to stay, in an effort to advance the sort of sustainable tourism that Prince Charles is keen to encourage.

It is a worthy project, and it would be good to see it succeed, though I’m not sure Transylvania is quite as neglected as Lucian says.  It has attracted filmmakers in the past, not least Charlie Ottley who made the Wild Carpathia series, for which he interviewed Prince Charles.  I hope the title is amended before the film is released so that it reads In the Footsteps of the Prince.

The Kickstarter page is here:

The project’s website is here:

A press release is on the Digital Journal website:

18 June 2018

The Romanian Centenary Garden

A few days ago (14 June) I visited Belgrave Square in London to see the ‘Great Union Garden’ established outside the Romanian Cultural Institute (RCI), though ‘garden’ is perhaps a slight exaggeration as it is effectively a large planter located on the opposite corner to the Institute’s splendid building.  It is part of a programme put on by the Institute to commemorate the formation of a united Romania in 1918.  The square’s garden is not open to the public, but the Romanian garden lies outside the fence and is therefore accessible.

The planter has been designed roughly in the shape of Romania, ‘stylised’ in the words of the RCI (though you would need a tall ladder or a drone to get the full effect).  The space within contains flowers from all parts of Romania, laid out to mimic their distribution in the country itself.  An adjacent information panel describes the purpose of the project.

The intention is the creation of ‘a botanical metaphor’ of the various provinces that constituted Romania in 1918: Banat, Crișana, Maramureș, Transylvania, Bucovina, Moldova, Bessarabia, Dobruja, Muntenia and Oltenia.  The seeds, while being of species found in Romania, were cultivated in the UK, itself a nice metaphor for friendly relations between the two countries.

The planter is on a busy road, so it is lovely to see plants anyway, but it is a splendid way to publicise a significant date in Romania’s history.  The RCI refer to the garden as an ‘installation’ and their website indicates it will be removed this month, so anyone interested would be best advised to check before visiting it, in case it has been dismantled.

The RCI can be seen in the distance

In addition to the garden, to commemorate the centenary the RCI put on a series of events, including exhibitions, a talk, and a book launch.  The book, which was launched last month, is The Transylvania Florilegium.  Comprising two large volumes, it was inspired by Prince Charles, who thought that some plant species might be vulnerable to changing agricultural practices and suggested a visual record be made both to show the diversity of the region’s flora and to highlight the urgent need to protect the environment.

A selection of 40 of the book’s 124 paintings was put on show in the RCI along with photographs of Bucharest parks, but alas I missed the exhibition by a couple of days.  Still, I was happy to see the Great Union Garden and felt a little bit of the Romanian countryside had been successfully transferred to London’s dusty streets.

8 June 2018

Independența României (1912)

Independența României (Independence of Romania), subtitled Războiul Româno-Ruso-Turc 1877 (The Romanian-Russo-Turkish War, 1877), is a Romanian silent film made in 1912 and directed by Aristide Demetriade (1872-1930).  The subject of the film is Romania’s 1877-8 war of independence from the Ottoman Empire.  An intertitle announces it was made with the support of the Romanian army and with members of the National Theatre in Bucharest (where Demetriade was an actor).

The film opens with peasants dancing and making merry.  But conflict is brewing between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, and the Romanian ruler, Carol I (played by Demetriade himself), summons the Council of Ministers in order to mobilise the army.  There he signs the Declaration of Independence from the Ottoman Empire.  The troops mobilise.  Back at the village an elder breaks into the dancing to read the proclamation, to general celebration by the men, but sorrow from the women.  On a personal level, the hostilities interrupt a love story and the lovers bid each other a sorrowful farewell.

A group of friends go to off to war, but one, Cobuz, falls at Calabat by stupidly sitting on top of a trench playing a pipe while his comrades dance below, making him a target for snipers.  Carol is upbeat, but the Russians get hammered by the Turks crossing the Danube.  At a Romanian camp the soldiers dance (so much dancing) and new flags are blessed.  Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia, commanding the Imperial army, sends a telegram to Carol requesting assistance to fight the Turks who are defending Plevna, and the Romanians cross the Danube on 19-20 July 1877.

The Tsar gives control of the Russian army to Carol so he can command a combined force.  After a lengthy disembarkation sequence, the allies go into battle against the Turks, who are put to flight, the Romanian cavalry wreaking havoc on the enemy.  A Turkish patrol is easily dispatched, once the riders realise they are being shot at.  Osman Pasha, wily leader of the Turks at Plevna, disposes his men, inflicting a reverse on the Romanians.  Carol gives encouragement to boost morale and his troops go on to defeat the Turks at Grivita, capturing the Turkish standard.  The Russians under General Skobeleff attack the Green Mountain.

At the Valley of Weeping the dead and dying litter the landscape until a truce allows the bodies to be buried, while Carol and Tsar Alexander II visit the wounded at a first aid station.  Here our lovers are reunited, as she is a nurse, but alas he is badly wounded.  Meanwhile at Plevna fighting continues with the Turks counter-attacking, pinning down the Russians until the Romanians intervene.  After a fierce battle the Turks capitulate.  Osman Pasha surrenders his sword to Alexander, but the Tsar returns it in honour of his gallant foe.

The Russians and Romanians are victorious, and the defeated Turks are forced to trudge under mounted escort through the snow.  Our wounded soldier and his lady love are on the side of the road returning home when a Russian column passes and the colonel shakes his hand, a token of friendship between the two countries.  A final Intertitle declares: ‘After 35 years the celebration of the independence of Romania’.  The military parade held on 10 May 1912 concludes the film.

Filmed in what was intended to be a realistic documentary style, Independenta Romaniei was propaganda promoting Romanian nationhood; the Russo-Turkish War is firmly referred to as the Romanian-Russo-Turkish War.  It is ambitious in scope for its period, and predates D W Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, with which it bears some similarities in its epic aspirations though not in mastery of technique, by three years.  Unfortunately Demetriade was no Griffith, consistently employing a static camera with extremely long takes and pedestrian cutting between scenes that fails to generate any dynamism by their juxtaposition.

Additionally the pacing is ponderous as the director wants to make the most of his cast of hundreds, their horses and artillery pieces (if marching is involved, you can be sure that the scene will continue until every man has passed in front of the camera), but he has trouble blocking, often creating uncertainty in the viewer as to what is going on.  The cast occasionally betray their theatrical origins by overacting.

The battle scenes are amateurish to modern eyes and lack tension, failing to capture the kind of energy that Griffith was able to inject into The Birth of a Nation.  Nor does Independența României manage to integrate the national and personal in the way that the Stonemans and Camerons were used to show the effects of the American Civil War on individual families.  However, the project was hugely ambitious and Demetriade did a creditable job bringing this foundational experience of the Romanian nation to life on what was clearly a much smaller budget than Griffith had.  Whatever its flaws, Independența României was well received on its release.

The film is available on YouTube.  The original running time was about two hours but the running time of existing prints is only 82 minutes.    This version has an English translation of the intertitles:

There is a Romanian-language Wikipedia page devoted to the film which is very detailed, much more so than the English-language version:


30 May 2018

Romania in Bulgaria

During a recent trip to Sofia, Bulgaria, I looked out for references to Romania.  I saw hardly any, which surprised me as Bulgaria and Romania are neighbours, but I got the impression there is little love lost between the two.  I was certainly surprised by a comment made during a day trip to Rila Monastery.  The painted external walls reminded me of pictures I had seen of the painted churches of Bucovina.  When I asked the guide about the prevalence of such churches in the Balkans he was dismissive of the comparison with Romania, which I think he saw as demeaning to Bulgaria.  He then claimed, apropos of nothing, that Romania was a Catholic country.  As over 80% of the Romanian population identify as Eastern Orthodox, compared to only about 5% as Catholic (fewer than Protestants of various denominations) his statement was either supremely ignorant or intentionally misleading.  Either way it was irrelevant to my question.

I did find references to Romania, though I had to look hard.  One was in Krystal Garden Park, opposite the giant head of Stefan Stambolov.  Here, surprisingly, was a series of information boards on Bulgarian studies in various countries, one devoted to Romania and Moldova (shown above).  Fortunately the text on all the boards was in English as well as Bulgarian albeit the former was abbreviated.  The Romania and Moldova one notes the establishment of the first Department of Slavic Studies at the University of Bucharest in 1891, and most of the panel is devoted to a list of those Romanians and Moldovans who have worked on Bulgarian culture.  The Institute of Ethnic Studies in Chișinău is highlighted as another centre for research, and the Society of Bulgarian Studies is included as an important institution in the field.

There were more references to Romania in Sofia’s splendid National Gallery, which has a few works by Romanian artists among its collection, if fewer than I expected.  I recorded those I saw, though I cannot guarantee this is a complete list.  The titles are taken from the caption cards.  Of the 12 pieces, ten were paintings and two were sculptures.  Half of the 12 were by Corneliu Baba (two of which are on loan), two were by Ion Gheorghiu, two by Ion Pacea, and one each by Zoe Băicoianu and Ada Geo Medrea:

Corneliu Baba (1906-97)
1907, 1951 (triptych)
The 1907 Uprising, 1951
Harlequin, 1970
The Mad King, 1977
Maternity, 1979
Self-portrait, 1981

Zoe Băicoianu (1910-87)
Woman Bathing, 1940s (sculpture)

Ion Gheorghiu (1929-2001)
Hanging Gardens, 1973
Hanging Gardens IV, 1978

Ada Geo Medrea (1917-92)
Nestinarka, 1950s (sculpture)

Ion Pacea (1924-99)
The Red Cupboard, 1976
The Painter’s Tools, no date

The standout is Baba’s large-scale triptych 1907, on loan from a private collection.  Its title alludes to the peasants’ revolt of that year which was brutally crushed.  The three elements are combined pictorially with a common horizon, and a brooding sky conveys menace and a sense of doom.  The larger central panel shows a procession of determined-looking peasants wielding agricultural tools as weapons.  On the left-hand panel a couple are working in a field; the man is rising to his feet and looks as if he might be about to join the demonstrators.  In the distance a man on a horse surveys the scene.  On the right-hand panel two women are surrounded by dead men.  One is standing, imploring heaven, the other crouches over a corpse, her hand covering her mouth in horror.  It is a powerful work encapsulating the heroism and tragedy in a single scene.  The 1907 Uprising from the same year is a smaller work with a similar composition to the tryptich’s central panel, and may be a preliminary study.  It too is on loan from a private collection.