The originality of Andrei Ujică’s Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu derives from a serious attempt to engage the question raised by the documentary format: what information is really necessary for a portrait? What information is necessary to tell a story of a monster like Ceaușescu?
Ujică’s response was to avoid almost every element of a conventional documentary: narration, biography, interviews, analysis, interpretation, clarification of the historical context, …. Where conventional documentaries attempt to reveal the intimate character of their subjects, Ujică restricted himself to Ceaușescu’s public persona, restricting himself to footage documenting Ceaușescu’s public appearances.
The banality and absurdity focus attention ... elsewhere. You start to become fascinated by the arrangement of the spectators, the arrangement of the banners, the seating of the dignitaries, the receiving of bouquets, the speeches no one attends to, and, above all, people applauding each other, people applauding. All these things that a historian concerned with arguing a thesis would pass over as utterly irrelevant ….
This deliberate impersonality, and sustained focus on ostensibly trivial details of late-communist PR pageantry, results in a movie that is a devastating portrait of Ceaușescu as a bad actor—a puppet making inept gestures of thoughtfulness, decisiveness, encouragement while enunciating falsehoods without conviction. It’s brilliant and mean, and wildly entertaining.
It’s also completely unfair—not that fairness is relevant, here. You could do the same thing to anybody: footage of public appearances would tell the same story about Queen Elizabeth, Einstein, or FDR. But the strategy is more than a mode of ridicule. It’s a demonstration of the fact that present-day authority is so internalized, repressed and covert, that it no longer has any public face.
But the traditions of governing, and the premises of democracy, demand events happening in public Hence the endless, extravagant production of utterly empty gestures, so cynical in their meaninglessness they don’t even pretend to actually register any human content. A proliferation of … nothing, ... followed by people applauding each other.
12 Years a Slave also seemed to be a response to a question: Is it possible to portray slavery? Is it possible to see it, without the overwhelming distraction of subsequent history?
Steve McQueen's movie had a great many negative virtues: it is not sentimental, it is not simple-minded, it is not an escape flick, it is not a journey of self-discovery, it is not a manifestation of pride, it is not a celebration of the human spirit …. It’s no small thing to approach the subject of slavery without falling into one or all of these traps.
Chiwetel Ejiofor commanded sympathetic attention. The gravely beautiful Lupita Nyong'o provided a contrast to Michael Fassbender, chewing up the scenery as a crazy, ignorant, drunken racist savage out of a Simpsons history of the Civil War.
It was unflinching in depicting savagery, but it was fundamentally calm. There was no anxious effort to manipulate your emotions. It documented injustices and outrages with the earnest, troubled objectivity of a naturalist documenting the collapse of an ecosystem.