Eastern Europe, 1835. Two riders cross a barren landscape in the middle of Wallachia. They are the gendarme Costandin and his son. Together they are searching for a gypsy slave who has run away from his nobleman master and is suspected of having an affair with the noble’s wife. While the unflappable Costandin comments on every situation with a cheery aphorism, his son takes a more contemplative view of the world.
Radu Jude’s brilliant third feature AFERIM! has been aptly compared to films as diverse as THE SEARCHERS, THE LAST DETAIL and PULP FICTION (the latter for its rambling, coarse and endlessly entertaining dialogue), but the film is ultimately a moving parable about late-feudal Europe developed from historical documents and songs: its power structures and hierarchies, people’s ideas of themselves and others, interaction with minorities and the resulting conflicts. A Balkan Western in black-and-white that brings the cacophony of the times strikingly to life and explores the thematic arcs that stretch into the present.
Cineuropa interviewed Mr. Jude on the occasion of his film’s inclusion at the Berlin Film Festival:
Cineuropa: These days, filmmakers prefer to shoot their films digitally; what persuaded you to return to film and black and white?
Radu Jude: DoP Marius Panduru and I decided that the film should be shot in black and white out of a wish to highlight the historical re-enactment artifice: we wanted to make the audience understand from the very beginning that what they are seeing is a subjective re-enactment, one carefully played out, but still only a re-enactment. We therefore tested different methods: a digital camera, one colour film and two types of black-and-white film. Comparing them, we concluded that the black-and-white film (namely, Kodak Double-X) was the most expressive and the one best suited for our project.
Information about Gypsy slavery was removed from the historical accounts published during the Romanian communist regime. What difficulties did you encounter in documenting the year 1835 and this particular topic?
It’s not really a subject lacking in documentation. There are several Rroma histories, studies and archives that also depict their slavery. Besides, our main historical consultant, Constanţa Vintilă-Ghiţulescu, helped us immensely by suggesting more titles of interest. I cannot say we faced major hurdles, but the past is obviously lost, and we can access only limited information. Starting from there, all one can do is try to create a sufficiently accurate image of the past.
Naturally, the biggest risk – and we have warned the audience of this risk through the way the film is made – is to forget that we are always involved in a process of interpretation. We interpret everything, starting from the reality around us that we access through our senses and brain, so of course we pass our historical reality through the same process. In this respect, I recommend the video installation created by Anca Benera and Arnold Estefan, Pacta sunt servanda (http://www.arnoldestefan.ro/art-projects/-pacta-sunt-servanda/). The installation shows how the same historical event, the Trianon peace treaty, is presented differently in history books from Hungary and Romania. This goes to show that when we speak of the past, we in fact speak of our perspective of the past. I hope this view is obvious in my film and that the vigilant cinemagoer will take note of it.
The events in the film take place 180 years ago, but many of the characters’ remarks are relevant to the present day. Is your film a satire of the present?
I truly believe what Johan Huizinga said: “We analyse every age for the sake of the promises it contains for the next age.” My film is about the relationship between the past and the present – or, even better rephrased, about the relationship of the present with the past.
The film’s conversations are peppered with sayings and aphorisms taken from the works of a number of Romanian and foreign authors from those times, whom you list in the closing credits. Why pay so much attention to the folkloric culture of the era?
I started by reading works from the 19th century in order to familiarise myself with the language and mentalities of those times (which, I think, are the true theme of the film). At one point, I found in Iordache Golescu’s works some beautiful sayings that were perfectly appropriate for one of the sequences in Aferim!. I used them in the screenplay, which I wrote together with Florin Lăzărescu, and then we found others that we used, gradually “stuffing” the story with quotes from the literature of those times. This was also a declaration of love for the Romanian language and a way to stress the “artificial construct” characteristic of the film.