May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
June 22, 2009
I. HOW COULD WE KNOW WHEN I WAS YOUNG ALL THE CHANGES THAT WERE TO COME?
The other night we sat in the playground, watching the kids play. It was a gorgeous late Spring evening, warm enough for the kids to dance over the water sprinkler. Conversation drifted to events in Iran. Marek and I usually have to be careful talking about politics. If he’d been eligible to vote, he’d have voted for George W. Bush, both times. He’s still my friend. I blame his politics on childhood trauma, growing up in the Eastern Bloc. (I blame my own political trauma on George W. Bush, but Marek knows that, and I’m still his friend.) We met shortly after the Wall fell, via the internet — which, unlike more recent revolutions, was not a factor in 1989 in Eastern Europe. In the early 90s, I experimented with a simple email program to communicate with readers of the magazine for which I worked. One of these turned out to be (astonishingly) this guy in Czechoslovakia, who later (even more astonishingly) moved to Chicago and became one of my most faithful foreign-film watching companions.
Like others I’ve known who grew up under the Official Reality of Communism, Marek can come off pretty jaded about politics. But even he can hardly contain himself just now over what is happening in Iran: it’s too close to his own experience for him not to give in to some excitement, even to some hope. We remembered the revolutions of 1989, and the near-miss revolution in 1968 — “Prague Spring.” That was two years before Marek was born, but he’d heard the story from his parents. The thaw began when students complained about dorm conditions and government censorship, marching and chanting “We Want Light!” De-Stalinization was underway, and so the old-school hardline president of Czechoslovakia was sacked by the Soviets and replaced by Alexander Dubçek – who turned out to be much more liberal than his masters had realized. Dubçek’s idea of stabilizing the situation was to introduce a broad range of civic freedoms, what he termed “Socialism With a Human Face.” But then the Soviet boot came down on that face when the tanks arrived to restore the Winter of the status quo.
At school, Marek was taught the story of Prague Spring this way: Enemies of the People threatened the Bright Communist Future until Our Russian Comrades mercifully offered their protection. No wonder he’s so politically jaded. His generation grew up with both the Official Reality and their parents’ deep disappointment and bitter resignation.
By 1989, Marek was as apolitical as most high school students growing up in the provinces — more so, given the cynicism of his parents’ generation. It so happened that he was in Prague that year for a track meet on November 17th — the fiftieth annual memorial to students whose protest of the occupying Nazis was brutally suppressed. Of course, such occasions were always turned into a glorification of the Party, and so to be avoided if possible. This year, though, seemed different. Glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) had unleashed forces now seemingly going out of the new Soviet leader’s control. The Eastern Bloc convulsed with shockwaves of liberalization overwhelming the system, including, just the week before, the Berlin Wall. A teammate suggested to Marek that they check out the march. Their coach (of that older, cynical generation) overheard and said, “Don’t you dare.” So instead of going to the most significant protest in his country since 1939, my movie friend Marek went (of course) to the movies. Foreign film in those days meant Hollywood film — poor fellow. “But this theater in Prague had stadium seats and Dolby sound,” he says, by way of explanation. In any case, when he came out, the streets were filled with riot police.
“We didn’t have Twitter,” Marek says. “I came home that night and my mother was freaking out. ‘What’s happening?’ she asked. I had no idea. The TV news wouldn’t show us what had happened. If anything, the newscasters just spouted the usual propaganda, about how Western influences were disrupting Our Way of Life. Just like they’d been telling us that all those floods of people escaping from East Germany just then through the West German embassy in Prague were all criminals who were ungrateful for all that Communism had achieved.” Marek got up early the next day to listen to Voice of America (the closest thing they had to the internet in those days) to try to figure out what was going on. What was going on was this: the students had overcome their parents’ hardened resignation and joined their march to the ongoing East European revolution.
Now began the all-out assault on the Official Reality. Students called a school strike, demanding the truth about the protest. Teachers scoffed that it wouldn’t result in anything but the kids getting in trouble. The regular state media froze out the story, but Vaclav Havel and his fellow actors launched a theater strike. “Havel and his friends were always getting in trouble,” Marek says. “Holding protests, getting firehosed, arrested. He’d just gotten out of jail for putting flowers on the grave of a young man who’d burned himself to death in protest of the end of Prague Spring. Now he was already getting into more trouble.” Well-known actors took news around the country; people began to get a sense that something significant was happening. “We still had no sense that whatever was happening was IT,” says Marek.
But it was IT. Protests in the capital continued and grew. In Ostrava, Marek and his family watched on TV as The People in Wenceslas Square shook their keys in a peaceful-but-determined gesture: poslední zvonění, “the final bell,” a traditional sign for graduating students: it was time for the government to leave. The Party Secretary resigned on November 24th, and Havel appeared with Alexander Dubçek as public spokesmen for a new government, which came into being over the next few weeks.
“Revolution is not an exact science,” says Marek. “It’s hit and miss.” It missed in 1968, and hit in 1989. No doubt the fact that, despite the fears of the older generation, those Soviet tanks stayed home that second time certainly had something to do with it. In any case, Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution” finally fulfilled of the promise of Prague Spring.
Of course, not all revolutions are so velvet.
II. ROMANIAN REVOLUTION IS DEFINITELY NOT AN EXACT SCIENCE
Marek and I have watched lots of movies over the years. He’s served as projectionist at public screenings I’ve hosted and we’ve explored a range of films, directors and movements along the way. We discovered Iranian Cinema together. Lately, we’ve marveled as Romanian filmmaking has shot up to the highest profile among ex-Soviet Bloc cinema. Indeed, some say the glory that hovered around the cinema of Iran for several years has now passed on to Romania. Among other things which the Romanians are busy making their much-admired films about these days is their own revolution, the grand finale in 1989’s breathtaking spectacle.
For the Romanians, though revolution turned out to involve more than just shaking the dictator away with their keys. There’d been no de-Stalinization in Romania; the country was a Stalinist prison until the very end, under the iron-fist of their “Little Stalin,” Nicolae Ceaușescu. As the end of 1989 approached, Marek remembers his countrymen put candles in their windows in support of this last, stubborn stronghold of East European Communism. When the end finally came, it was bloody and confusing, if no less joyful and real, as the Romanians managed to push through their revolution to get it in before the New Year. The dictator went down in a hail of gunfire and the Romanians joined the general celebration.
And yet, in their recent films about those days, Romanians have retained that familiar skepticism toward Official Realities which Communist rule tends to breed — even toward their own revolution.
The Paper Will Be Blue (2006) takes its title from a password used by military units in Bucharest during the time Romania was awkwardly lurching into the new era. In fact, the confusions of that transition are the real subject here. The film follows a civil militia on patrol of Bucharest during an interminable night when nobody seems to know exactly what is happening. Whether the password has been changed is at first an annoyance, but ultimately a matter of life and death literally, and in a larger sense, considering that one of the old passwords was “Watch Out for the Great Bear.” The soldiers, when they can tune in any channel at all, get contradictory information from other units, command, and the media. Rumor is the only broadcaster coming in loud and clear that night.
The unit commander is a lieutenant every bit as weary and cagey as you’d expect anyone who rose to that rank in this military must be: he’s mostly concerned with keeping order among his own men. Ordinary soldiers’ bickering threatens to escalate into something more serious, while outside the armored car, troublemakers in the streets seem equal parts hooligans and freedom fighters. The whole world hovers on the brink, as if History itself can’t decide which way to unfold and is hedging all bets indefinitely. The lieutenant makes his moves with great care, and urges his soldiers to do the same. He just wants to do his job and stay out of trouble, and keep everyone from getting hurt. “Keep your head down until this whole mess is over because you never know how things will turn out,” says the lieutenant, more than once — in vain, as things turn out.
The film may be especially confusing for non-Romanian viewers, but that’s okay, since the tensions of not knowing and in-betweenness create a singular effect: a dream-like quality that evokes the numbness of shock, the strange clarity of an auto accident or an execution. Unlike most revolution narratives, The Paper Will Be Blue never resolves itself into the satisfying closure of a national hero story, a glorious founding myth. History finally does pick a side, to be sure. But any interpretation of events remains ambiguous.
In a strikingly similar way, another Romanian film about the revolution released the same year leaves questions about the 1989 revolution in a historical fog, albeit with a more comic tone. 12:08 East of Bucharest offers a mock talk show debate on the anniversary of the revolution over whether there even was a revolution, at least in the small town where veterans of 1989 have always claimed to have participated in one. When it comes to national founding myths, patriotic mythologizing tends to overwhelm the facts of history — even during the lives of the eye-witnesses. Yet in this film, the witnesses hammer mercilessly against the account of a professor who claims he and some colleagues stood up to the regime — for a few minutes at least — before the dictator fled.
Whatever the confusion over any particular human endeavor, there’s one thing you can count on: everybody always wants to be a hero — even if it’s just in having a heroic justification for keeping their head down. In 12:08 East of Bucharest, the embattled professor stands by his story, despite withering assaults on his credibility and character. Meanwhile, the talk show host has his own self-narrative to defend: he wishes to be seen as a heroic debunker. Finally, one more guest on the show, a loopy old man still mourning the loss of his wife, confesses that any part he might have played in any revolution was his attempt to be a hero in his her eyes. In fact, there is a bittersweet and stoic power in this film that gently, if resolutely, redirects our attention away from our vain and fruitless narrative one-upmanship toward living in the moment, appreciating the goodness in the world around us which we miss when we’re busy trying to direct the world’s eyes to any alleged goodness in ourselves.
The chastened sense of selfhood expressed in these two Romanian films about the 1989 revolution is an example of real glasnost, an astonishing breath of fresh air in the ancient, fetid atmosphere of national myth-making; who knows what perestroika they might inspire? For most of us know down deep that our individual hero stories would probably not hold up under much scrutiny, or at the very least are open to interpretations alternative to our own. Likewise, each nation has a hero story, its own “Kosovo Legend” — an origin myth, glory myth, grudge myth, entitlement myth, or sacred real estate myth. Every people cherishes a narrative of specialness, baptized with some form of religion — which concomitantly demonizes the most available Evil Other.
Perhaps Romania’s novel embrace of national demythologizing offers some hope in disrupting the traditional (and inevitably deadly) binary of Us vs. Them — which usually translates (respectively) into narratives of The Chosen People against The Great Satan. You’d think, for example, that the recent public admission by a black president of a former slave-holding nation that the US sabotaged the 1953 Iranian election might introduce some healthy circumspection into the Official American Hero Narrative. Likewise, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to hope that the reality of an undeniably home-grown military dictatorship might help Iranians to see that Satan keeps an office in their country, too, and not because he’s on the payroll of the CIA. It can’t be that bad a trade, if we can increase our chances of surviving the rest of our differences by surrendering our ideological Utopias — Communist, capitalist, or Islamic.
III. LIFE TO IRAN!
After we watched Persepolis, Marek laughed like the punk Young Pioneer drop-out he is, telling me, “If you’ve seen one dictatorship, you’ve seen them all.” The scene in the film where the young Iranian girl visits the black market in quest of contraband Iron Maiden tapes hits extremely close to home for Marek: he did the same thing as a teenager in Czechoslovakia. Much later, Marek turned me onto Czech Dream, a film about consumer lust in his country as rabid as anywhere else in the Western world. The film opens with Communist-era footage of people waiting in breadlines, then cuts to more recent scenes of Czechs literally running each other down with shopping carts, trying to be first into the Grand Opening of a new supermarket. So is fulfilled the prophecy of a Scrooge I knew back in 1989, who bah-humbugged the fallen Wall, declaring these ex-Communists would now become mindless consumers like us. What can I say? I’ve seen a new shopping mall in Romania as obscenely opulent as Ceaușescu’s palace, and discussed the ironies of globalism with Marek, sitting in a Dunkin Donuts in Prague.
To be honest, though, I’d gladly continue that conversation in a Starbucks in Tehran. I’m far from insensitive to thoughtful reservations from certain quarters about American support of revolution in Iran — the suggestion that such a posture is but one more guise for an imperialistic impulse that has long been trying to force the country into the Western fold. No doubt, many in the West would cheer change in Iran primarily in hopes of neutralizing one more scary Otherness, happy to deploy the conventional weaponry of KFCs and Coca Cola. I can work up plenty of sympathy for the Iranian ban on Hollywood movies which (with state subsidy of their film industry) is the only reason there’s been an Iranian Cinema. I will mourn the day when some Iranian director leaves for Hollywood to shoot a blockbuster. I’ll gladly join an Iranian protest against some big box franchise moving in.
But for the moment, I’m thinking it makes more sense to join with the Iranians as they continue to demonstrate simply for the right to demonstrate without getting shot at.
On Saturday, they marched in Daley Plaza, three or four hundred mostly Iranian Americans (with the odd white man in a green shirt). Nobody was killed. The police didn’t beat anyone. In fact, at the end, the marchers offered a round of applause for the few bored cops watching. During the march, the nightly news came on the big gaudy TV screen overlooking the plaza, outside the broadcast studio. The marchers surged over to the edge of the plaza to view reports of demonstrations in Tehran, where people were beaten and killed. The marchers did what I’ve often done watching TV news, yelled back at the screen, chanting and shaking their protest signs: No More Blood. No More Violence. Where’s My Vote? They cheered images of demonstrations around the world held in support of the Iranian protesters, even as they were participating in one. It was an electrifying moment. They sang in Farsi a subdued and haunting song, in call and response style, with the march leader intoning into a bullhorn:
Join us darling!
Join us darling!
Don’t be left alone out there,
That such kind of shared agony,
Would never be relieved separately.
Life is hard,
Life is hard,
And such a kind of shared battle,
Would never get eased.
This translation I found online, from someone who said it was the best they could do for the moment, given such great events in play. The song is an old one, taken up by supporters of Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the candidate “defeated” in last Friday’s election who’s become the lead figure in a cause now so much larger than himself. Hearing the demonstrators sing it in Daley Plaza, even non-Persian speakers couldn’t help but feel the power of universal human longing; one could easily imagine students in 1979 singing it reflectively during their Islamic Revolution. For many, 1979 was Iran’s Prague Spring or Tienanmen Square, when such heartfelt longings were deferred, as they found their new boss was every bit as oppressive as the old. That the same song might be pressed into service for this would-be revolution highlights both the deeper, more universal aspirations of that revolution and the possibilities at stake in the present one: including failure and the bitter resignation that can paralyze a generation, co-option by extremists, and a tragic range of other mixed results. Of course, one more possibility is success, or perhaps more likely a lesser form of success, on a spectrum of positive outcomes that may all fall short of the ideal closure of knocking down the wall of oppression with one’s own hands. Like the old man in 12:08 East of Bucharest says: “One makes whatever revolution one can, each in their own way.”
Right now, History seems to be hovering on the edge, waiting for a tipping point — for individuals to finally choose one side or another and events to become decisive. Scanning the headlines stacked in my internet newsreader, I feel myself at the center of a great confusion that can go many ways. The pundits have staked out the usual range of dogmatisms in a situation where, it seems to me, anything can still happen. No doubt there are people inside and outside Iran, keeping their heads down, waiting to see where this thing might go, before they burn their bridges and choose. Others, like Moussavi and various Iranian expats making statements to the world press, seem to be crossing the line, moving into all-or-nothing territory in their public advocacy against the regime.
For me, I realize it’s no skin off my nose — that my body or family or culture isn’t on the line — that it’s easy for me to rush out there to tote my sign in the square before the dictator flees. Indeed, I like to think I have a healthy skepticism about the murkiness of my own motives (though maybe that’s just my hero narrative). There were Marxists in Daley Plaza trying to get a piece of the revolution; I got some great pictures. I introduce this only to personalize the ambiguities of an existence that is, for any of us, anything but an exact science. What I’m more sure of is that those times I feel the strongest sense of moral clarity are when an oppressed people rises against their oppressor and carries my heart with them. In this case, my heart was already with the people of Iran because I’ve been watching them in their films for the past decade — marveling at their creativity and resiliancy in the face of limitations, artistic and otherwise, finding myself personally investing in a people who didn’t seem so “foreign” after all. Indeed, after watching them in their films, Iranians seem in many ways more like Americans — like a people Americans could relate to more easily than, say, the French — than folks who haven’t been watching Iranian films may realize. It seemed, and continues to seem, important to participate — to, as the song says, in some small way share the pain and the battle. Wear green. Put a candle in the window. Something.
Whether the present situation in Iran resolves itself into dancing in the streets, or into the investment for the future it will surely otherwise be, time will soon enough tell. I know I’ve seen some amazing things happen in my lifetime. My friend Marek, who grew up on the far side of a once impregnable curtain, tells me that he’d happily applaud even the Russians, if they should decide to use their tanks to intervene on the right side here — and from an ex-Eastern Bloc member, that’s saying something. My suspicion is that it would be better, somehow, for the Iranians to make this revolution themselves, with as few ambiguities left to wrestle with afterwards as possible.
In 12:08 East of Bucharest, a woman calls in to the television talk show to announce that it is snowing. She also mentions, almost as an aside, that her son was killed by government soldiers in Bucharest all those years before, during the messy days of revolution. “Enjoy it now,” she says of the snow — and of so much more than the snow. “Tomorrow it will be mud.” This is existential real politick. The film ends with a lovely snowfall blanketing the city — where the revolution has not so much turned to mud as to the normal muddied certainties of a life that falls far short of any Utopia. And still, always, there are such precious gifts, like a Christmas snowfall, or an Iranian Spring.