Videograms of a Revolution



Volker Pantenburg



“The revolution will not be televised”, sang Gil Scott Heron in 1970. Yet a bare 20 years later, in December of 1989, live TV cameras followed the overthrow of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s regime in Romania. Even more importantly, on December 22, demonstrators occupied the studios of the state TV station. For five days, improvising as best they could, they broadcast coverage of the revolution, including the summary trial and execution of Ceauşescu and his wife on December 26.

Two things seemed to make the Romanian revolution almost predestined for cinematic rendering. First, only ten days passed between the initial unrest and the execution of the country’s erstwhile ruler and, secondly, the events were concentrated in just two cities – Timişoara and Bucharest.

The reproducibility of political and historical processes plays a central role in Harun Farocki’s film. He tackles the issue of using the film medium, without resorting to undue simplification or distortion, to portray complex events, many of which result from decisions made in secret and therefore outside the spectrum of what can be filmed. Farocki questions how we can get the material to speak to us without pressing it into the service of our own interests.

In Videograms of a Revolution Farocki and his co-director, Andrej Ujică rely on images that were a result of the revolution itself. The film is composed entirely of footage shot in Bucharest and Timişoara during the brief few days of the coup. Some of it was shot by amateurs with their own private cameras, some of it using state television equipment after the broadcaster had been taken over by democratic forces. Harun Farocki wrote a text titled “Substandard” as a complement to the ideas contained in the film. There he wrote, “because our narrative is made up of found footage, because the people both in front of and behind the cameras weren’t subject to any central directorial instructions, it seems as if history is creating itself before our eyes”.  That is why not only Romania’s Central Committee, but also its television studios were a key location in the radical changes that took place.

Even before the film’s opening credits, we’re catapulted into the midst of historic events. A woman is transferred onto a hospital bed. She has apparently been shot by the secret police. Now, shortly after being operated on, the injured woman delivers an impassioned political speech in front of a shaky video camera wielded by an eyewitness. She proclaims her solidarity with the youth of Timişoara in their fight against Ceauşescu and for a better life; for bread and freedom. She calls for the Securitate, the Romanian secret police, to be abolished and the dictator and his family to be brought to trial. She speaks without pausing. She is delirious, yet seems completely clear and aware of how historic the situation really is.

This breathtaking opening is followed by a montage that is simultaneously a chronological reconstruction of events and a reflection on how the media communicated them. “We first imagined it would be a discussion, but we soon realized that the material demanded a filmic narrative. However, it’s a narrative where the breaks comprise a discussion.”

There is a good example of how the segue between two images can serve as a discussion point, which Farocki uses to good effect in his later film “Cut” (1995). At one point in Videogram, amateur Paul Kossigian is filming Ceauşescu’s speech live on television. The broadcast is interrupted for some reason and Ceauşescu’s image is replaced by a red screen that still displays the words “transmisiune directa”. At that point, Kossigian pans away from the TV set to shoot out a window. On the street, crowds of demonstrators are streaming by – away from the official state rally where the dictator is speaking. If we view the live broadcast as a way to assert power, then the technical difficulties as well as the confrontation with the opposing images of the demonstrators leaving the rally are recognizable as a way of subverting it. Showing both images in one pan establishes the montage as an instrument of political analysis.



Volker Pantenburg is professor for Film Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. This text has been provided by the Goethe-Institut on the occasion of the Kete Aronui film club screening of Videograms of a Revolution.

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