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ASTRA 2021

Review: Certainty of Probabilities

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- Raluca Durbacă's found footage documentary assembles a glorious portrait of the Romania in 1968 while elaborating on the means and meanings of audiovisual propaganda

Review: Certainty of Probabilities

In recent years, Romanian cinema has dusted off many local audiovisual archives, mainly thanks to Radu Jude’s exploration of history, nationalism and collective responsibility through his documentary essays The Dead Nation [+see also:
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and The Exit of the Trains [+see also:
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interview: Adrian Cioflâncă
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, the theatre-like experiments I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians [+see also:
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and Uppercase Print [+see also:
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, but also in his latest Golden Bear-winning fiction feature Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn [+see also:
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interview: Radu Jude
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. Unlike Jude, who is highly critical towards those images from a political viewpoint or openly ironises them by coming up with entertaining collages, juxtaposing past and present, Raluca Durbacă’s Certainty of Probabilities, showing at the Astra Film Festival, does not contradict fiercely with the spirit of the time, neither aims to mock the official image of society propagated by the state. Choosing a form closer to the video essay, the director rather tries to objectively analyse the tools for constructing an image of a well-off and happy nation – an approach that could be recognised not solely in the Communist propaganda newsreels but in all forms of contemporary audiovisual works that are trying to imply certain messages. In this regard, more than discussing a concrete year of Romanian history, the film draws universal conclusions about the application of ideology and the use of language in audiovisual culture, as well as on the knowledge and open senses needed for its proper interpretation.

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Opening with a catchy Dadaist-like scene in which an ostrich knocks rhythmically with its beak on a typewriter, Certainty of Probabilities throws to the viewers some food for thought regarding the choice of the title, which will later be revised with further details. Other than that, the unfolding collage narrative lays out somewhat expected and typical agitprop scenes from “the most stable, prosperous and optimistic year in the history of socialist Romania:” the progress in housing and education, agriculture and industrialisation; foreign guests on the local cultural scene and local students sent to the West to film and criticise consumerist society while their compatriots at home work hard under the slogan “High incomes, low spendings!” And, of course, leader Nicolae Ceaușescu preaching here and there with an accent on his famous defiance speech against the 1968 intervention of the Soviet troops in Prague – a detail that emphasises Romania’s independence status within the Warsaw Pact in the Eastern bloc. This enthusiastic portrait of a nation in development is sporadically interspersed with written elaborations on the exclusive dominance of the ruling ideology, on the use of language as a standardisation tool and on the importance of the receiver’s ability to decode the messages in order to interpret the projected images. Although the textual part is not always perfectly coherent with the associated images, the film reaches its goal of providing a critical and universally applicable reflection on the ways in which media works with ideology.

Durbacă has researched and taken over the footage from the Alexandru Sahia state film studio – the most important in Socialist Romania – which since the 1950s has been documenting daily life in the country and the evolution of the Communist regime, by following the current political trends and complying with the imposed censorship limits.

Certainty of Probabilities was produced by Velvet Moraru for Romania’s ICON Production. Ruth Films handles words sales and distribution.

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