Wednesday 17 February 2021

The criminal type: "Uppercase Print"

As the Greek Weird Wave subsides, the Romanian New Wave persists in the work of Radu Jude, who's continued the project of mining his country's recent past for telling, damning stories. His latest Uppercase Print is an adaptation of sorts, bringing to the screen a theatre piece by the writer Gianina Carbunariu that drew on reports filed by the Romanian secret police, the Securitate, in the early 1980s. (Jude opens his film with the Foucault quote about seeing lives reduced to ashes by a few sparse lines of text.) What makes these reports so compelling is that they collectively form a chronicle, apparently updated daily, of ground-level resistance and its repression by agents of the Ceaucescu regime. In 1981, a series of messages were scrawled in chalk around Bucharest, alerting citizens to the dire state of the country's economy and the new-found freedoms being negotiated in neighbouring Poland by the rejuvenated trade union movement; these slogans were eventually attributed to one Mugur Calinescu, a teenager passing on word he'd heard on the frowned-upon Radio Free Europe. Jude places his actors on a set and has them read the relevant reports to camera, in their original, ultra-formal language, a reminder that language and its uses were core concerns of the Romanian New Wave. The reports reveal not just the type of betrayals that were a commonplace in Bucharest circa 1981 - inevitably, the investigating officers went almost as hard on Calinescu's friends and neighbours as they did on the lad himself - but the Securitate's bizarre obsessions, not unlike John Redwood with his bloody fish. In the early stages of this investigation, more attention was paid to the way individual letters were written than to their combined message; round about the time the 200th memo on this matter is filed, you can't help but think this is an awful lot of time and ink to expend on some punk kid graffiti artist. That, Jude posits, was this system in a nutshell: any dissent - any dissenter - had to be documented, classified and finally neutralised. No child left behind.

On paper, which is where much of the film is happening, that might have left Uppercase Print sounding a little dry itself. Yet Jude folds in intriguing snippets from other texts that in their own way represent something like the official state line at this moment. The film opens with a clip you sense Adam Curtis will kick himself for not seizing upon: three actors rehearsing a televised message of solidarity for Ceaucescu, and looking mighty uncomfortable while doing so. There are excerpts from a desolate-looking cookery show, advising viewers what to do with the modest rations they might have to hand, and from the Romanian equivalent of Cheggers Plays Pop (Ceaucescu Plays Pop?) with its unnerving studio full of kids and balloons. It's obvious now how bad things were. A fitness freak speaks of how his home gym "removes the need for tranquilisers". An interview with the hospitalised victim of an industrial accident suddenly cuts to an image of the severed hand under discussion, which prompted my sharpest intake of breath this entire pandemic. I'm assuming the bulk of this footage was shot and broadcast around 1981, to tie in with the main narrative; to the untrained eye, however, it could easily be mistaken for 1951. Jude establishes a contrast between that which was floating around on the surface of the Romanian media - that light entertainment used to distract the masses from the hot-water shortages and queuing, insisting that everything is for the best in this best of all possible nations - and the suspicion and paranoia writ large through the middle of those reports. Sometimes, there's alarming crossover. Jude digs up a segment from a That's Life!-style magazine show in which a film crew operating in collaboration with the police pursue drivers who've broken the country's new "no honking" directive. This is framed as jolly teatime fun, but the sheepish interviewees radiate fear once pulled over; it may have been the case that some were never seen or heard from in public again.

As an enlivening formal approach - and a means of unlocking the Romanian national psyche as it was under Ceaucescu - this collaging proves broadly effective: in places, I was reminded of Pablo Larrain's expert splicing of dramatised and archive footage in 2012's superb NO, on the fall of the Pinochet regime. You'd happily watch a two-hour movie made up entirely of the clips Jude has sourced; it'd be something like the BBC's I Love 1981, only you'd have to retitle it I Fucking Hate 1981. (Stay tuned for the world's most depressing funfair: the cars hang off the misery-go-round like corpses from lampposts.) What's crucial here is how those clips uphold or undermine the revelations in the dramatised material - which, of course, isn't really dramatised material, rather words set down by some dull-minded apparatchik in the service of a merciless tyrant. The risk Jude runs in these sequences is that he's dissecting the Securitate's deathly dull control fixation: Calinescu's story initially grabs the attention, then gets drawn out to a ludicrous degree. This is the point, one assumes: that in Ceaucescu's Romania, even minor transgressions were made subject to the full apparatus of the state. Anywhere else, Mugur Calinescu would have received a smack on the wrist and had his chalk taken away from him; in his homeland, he had the tag of "perpetrator of hostile inscriptions" hung around his neck, was set in front of his classmates so they might denounce his "attack on the people" (there's a "will of" missing there, surely), and was then stalked by the authorities for the rest of his tragically short life. It's both absurd and exhausting to revisit - imagine what it must have been like to live through. At the very least, Jude's film sets up some instructive parallels: it's a salutary watch at a moment when the UK's so-called government, fresh from the great triumph of a six-figure Covid death count, is gearing up to wage its long-promised "War on Woke" within our own learning hubs. I'd suggest we invite Jude over here to complete his next project, but there'd doubtless be visa issues.

Uppercase Print is available to stream today via MUBI UK.

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