By Brandon Konecny.
As we gear up for Academy Awards, it’s important to note the countries not taking part in this all-too-American enterprise. There are the usual absentees, such as Belarus, Tajikistan, Bhutan, and Armenia; but then there are the countries we were certain would submit something. In this case, that unanticipated absentee is Moldova. Granted, Moldova has a notoriously small footprint in the international film scene, but recently it’s been showing signs of a reemerging film culture. The little-known country made its first entry to the Oscars in 2013 with All God’s Children (2012) and followed it with The Unsaved (2013) in 2014. Now, nothing? What makes this particularly curious is that 2015 marked the Moldova’s most significant stake yet in the contemporary cinematic landscape with Anatol Durbală’s debut feature-length film, What a Wonderful World (2014). With its bleak view on police brutality during the 2009 parliamentary election protests, coupled with its skillful exercise in the in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time political thriller, What a Wonderful World offers viewers an unclouded window onto the recent history of Moldova, all the while testifying to the extraordinary potential of Durbală as a director.
The action takes place on April 2009 in Chişinău, Moldova, where thousands of protesters are storming the capital city over alleged rigged elections that gave the Communist Party a majority of seats in Parliament. Amid the civil unrest is an oblivious Petru (Igor Babiac), a twenty-two-year-old student at Boston University who’s returned to his home country to visit his family for Easter. Eager to Skype with his girlfriend back in the States, Petru goes to his high school friend’s Khrushchyovka-style apartment to retrieve a computer monitor he loaned him years ago. Normally, such an action would be innocent, but mass looting of the parliamentary building and presidential palace leads to police scouring the street for thieves. As he returns to his apartment carrying his bulky monitor, two plainclothes police officers mistake Petru for a looter and attack him, knocking him unconscious and dragging him away with the others.
The officers deliver Petru along with several other young people to a police station, wherein viewers witness scenes of police brutality, torture, and personal denigration, all of which Durbală captures in urgent handheld long takes. After being held in in a poorly ventilated cell with several other detainees, the guards bring Petru to the Major (Igor Caras-Romanov), his interrogator and foil. What ensues is not simply an interrogation for political purposes, but also an interrogation of a youth who, as the Major sees him, is miles away from the Moldova he knows. We sense that his indignation toward Petru is rooted less in the details of his trumped-up charges than in his bewilderment at Petru’s entire generation, one who works and studies abroad, increasingly identifies with Romania, and eagerly engages with European and global culture. As the interrogation continues, the division between the two widens and climaxes in a frightening burst of violence from the Major that punctuates the danger and futility of his backwards nationalism.
While the plot is straightforward enough, What a Wonderful World is one of the peculiar films whose poignancy resides not so much in its bare-bones plot, but in its cinematic packaging, as it were. What Durbală’s film gives viewers is a successfully realized, fully believable world. To do so, he subordinates all the cinematic tools at his disposal to entrench viewers in the human rights abuses that followed the 2009 postelection riots, most notably by using meticulously coordinated long takes to both capture the minutiae of the characters’ actions and foreground the particularly drab areas of Chişinău. In this way, the film’s cinematography has inspired some reviewers to compare it with that of the Romanian New Wave, and this isn’t entirely unwarranted. However, it should be noted that this resemblance only extends so far, because the film’s camerawork jettisons the New Wave’s penchant for static frontal tableaus for a more active camera that freely moves about the profilmic space.
Take Petru’s wrongful arrest, for instance, where Durbală stages the whole event in a gasp-inducing sequence shot. The camera begins by surveying the Moldovan police shouting at spread-eagled bodies on the cold pavement from the top of a nearby building. The camera leaves the safety of this position and mellifluously cranes downwards, penetrating the bare tree branches hovering above the street, until it reaches ground level. In the same shot, the camera becomes handheld and progresses toward the detainees to witness a new addition to the lineup—an unconscious Petru, who’s dragged there by two plainclothes cops. He regains consciousness to a barrage of screams and whimpers; and even though he calmly asks the surrounding officers about the reason for his arrest, he’s berated for doing so and forced into a police van. There’s no New Wave-style static shot here, no stolid straight-on view on the plight of these detainees—such a cinematographic strategy would be too passive for the intensity of this narrative, and Durbală knew it. In this sense, we see that where the New-Wave camera takes in the totality of a scene, Durbală’s camera intervenes.
Notable, as well, is Durbală’s intermittent digressions from Petru’s wrongful arrest to the ordeals of his fellow detainees. Throughout the film, the camera departs from our protagonist to show police officers conversing about their love interests, young people begging for water while crammed in a poorly ventilated cell, and stout cops forcing a teenage-looking detainee to hold a television antennae at an impossibly high angle, beating him each time they lose reception. Interestingly, these scenes neither intertwine into a fully developed subplot nor push the story along in any discernible manner. And that’s just as well, because their purpose is mainly rhetorical, not purely dramatic. They provide viewers a panoramic view of the police force’s torture and mistreatment of detainees, situating Petru’s personal ordeal within the collective suffering of those victim to the post-election crackdowns.
Now don’t take the foregoing for overheated boosterism on my part. The film has its share of imperfections. Characters often converse by way of stock dialogue, and the Major’s fits of rage sometimes degenerate into cartoonish displays of caricatured nationalism. What’s more, there are moments when characters come naggingly close to becoming overt mouthpieces or stand-ins for Durbală’s political views. But let’s keep matters in perspective. These criticisms mark less an indication of directorial ineptitude than of pitfalls common to first-time directors, and it must be said that the sheer fact that this film even exists is a well-nigh Herculean accomplishment.
To fully understand why the film’s existences is a small miracle of sorts, it is necessary to provide least a brief sketch of the current filmmaking climate in Moldova. In 1991, the country’s film industry nearly collapsed along with the Soviet Union, and it’s a blow from which it has yet to fully recover. To date, Moldova virtually lacks any film schools, funding for film budgets, solid intellectual property protection for filmmakers’ work, or film industry. Moreover, there’s hardly any domestic audience for cinema in general, an issue which came to a head in 2004 when Moldova possessed the second-lowest film attendance rate in the world.[i] With little opportunity in their home country, most Moldovan film enthusiasts look abroad. In fact, every year young filmmakers vie for two film scholarships offered to Moldovans by the Academy of Film and Drama in Bucharest, Romania, the training ground of some of the foremost figures of the Romanian New Wave.[ii] Not surprisingly, most of them never return.[iii] What’s most troubling, perhaps, is that the Moldovan government contributes to the impoverishment of its own country’s film culture by making no legislative effort to protect or cultivate a domestic film industry. Moldovan filmmakers are, therefore, left to fend for themselves for issues such as adequate funding and copyright protection, which, needless to say, makes local feature-length projects nearly impossible.
In view or such challenges, the above critiques should neither eclipse Durbală’s budding talent nor the importance of his film. Durbală’s What a Wonderful World offers a poignant lesson on the nature of political power that will doubtlessly reverberate with Moldovan and international audiences alike, especially in an era when dissent is increasingly cast as disloyalty and fidelity to old ways becomes a mask for ideologies which oppress entire populations. Despite the film’s unfortunate absence at the Oscars, it is my sincere hope that Durbală continues to make films in his home country and inspire other Moldovan film enthusiasts to do the same. Whatever lies ahead for Moldova’s film culture, if Durbală continues to make films in his home country, its future will be in good hands.
Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
[i] Romania & Moldova (Lonely Planet Publications, 2004)
[ii] Overview on Moldovan Cinema, Vitalie Percun (http://www.dabhub.com/datas/media/Moldovan%20Cinema%202013.pdf)
[iii] Moldovan Cinema: The Present Struggle for a Past Glory, Dumitru Marian (http://www.dabhub.com/datas/media/MOLDOVAN%20CINEMA%20THE%20PRESENT%20STRUGGLE%20FOR%20A%20PAST%20GLORY%20BY%20DUMITRU%20MARIAN_1.pdf)