Donbass
Donbass

The Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago on November 9, 1989. I was barely a toddler at the time, so it’s hard to imagine both Cold War-era life and the euphoria and hope that followed its collapse. The American Romanian Cultural Society’s sixth film festival, with eight features and many shorts about defying and redefining borders, helps me breach this mental gap. The Iron Curtain looms large, but so do the boundaries between Western and Eastern European countries, the West and the Middle East, and Russia and Ukraine. With daily talk about border walls and restrictions on travel, the relevance of these subjects is obvious. But the Romanian Film Festival, like most Romanian art cinema since 2004, focuses less on sweeping geopolitical shifts than on the ethical decisions of everyday people, whether facing the repressive Communist regime, contemporary corruption, or the dilemmas of immigration.

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So contemporary Romanian directors are well-equipped to explore geographical dividing lines and their consequences. This year, two of the features also explore boundaries between reality and manipulated news. In Anca Damian’s grim realist Moon Hotel Kabul, the festival opener on November 15, a reporter covering up a soldier’s ignominious death in Afghanistan stumbles across a more dangerous act of suppression. It’s a little too slow and melancholic to be called a thriller, but it’s an effective story of complicity with power and the sacrifices of breaking free.

The far more brutal Donbass (November 17), a European co-production by the prominent filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa (A Gentle Creature), is a series of hair-raising episodes that tackle fake news in Russia’s “hybrid war” against Ukraine. A blisteringly angry nightmare-comedy shot nimbly by the Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu, Donbass depicts the region as a hell where manufactured realities and assumed identities have diffused any sense of responsibility for violence. Expect total silence in the theater after a sledgehammer of an ending.

If Moon Hotel Kabul and Donbass relate directly to the present, Andrei Gruzsniczki's tense, morally thorny The Escape (playing November 17) shows that the ethical tangles of Communist Romania don’t look altogether unfamiliar. Two academics—one a blacklisted nerd who’s refused to join the Party, one a Party-affiliated scientist whose husband has disgraced her by defecting—trying to smuggle a paper out of the country to be published in the West. But the Romanian security service, the Securitate, relentlessly exploits every chance to turn dissidents against one another, leading to a society rife with betrayal and loneliness. If I’m making it sound too grim, I’m not doing justice to Gruzsniczki’s eye for funny absurdity in the apparatus of state tyranny, or to Vivi Dragan Vasile’s poetic black-and-white cinematography.

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One of the most accessible films in the lineup, That Trip We Took with Dad (showing November 17) by Anca Miruna Lăzărescu, also has an expansive outlook in a tale of Communist-era state oppression and alienation. In 1968, a high-strung doctor and his teenage brother attempt to sneak their ailing father out of the country for an operation in East Germany. Their trip brings them straight into the path of Soviet tanks invading defiant Czechoslovakia. The complicated history and geography of the Eastern bloc countries evoked in this film might be mysterious to a mainstream American audience. But as the doctor tries to appease the authorities, while the little brother endangers their mission by shouting anti-totalitarian slogans, the stakes are as clear as they must be in the cronyist White House.

I love Romanian cinema for its fearless intellectualism and determination to produce anti-propaganda, movies that are so allergic to simplification that they make you wary of easy judgments. But if, understandably, you just want a rest from politics, the festival can provide. Corneliu Porumboiu's thriller The Whistlers (showing November 16) stars Vlad Ivanov as a corrupt policeman who learns a whistling language in order to pull off a daring heist. It’s got gunfights, a femme fatale, sacks of money, and a touch of linguistics. Treat yourself!