Anticommunism, Neoliberalism, and the Rerunning of Socialist Era Films on Romanian Television

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Constantin Parvulescu is associate professor of film and media studies at Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and director of the Janovics Center for Screen and Performing Arts Studies. He is the author of Orphans of the East: Postwar Eastern European Cinema and the Revolutionary Subject (Indiana University Press, 2015) and the editor of Global Finance on Screen: From Wall Street to Side Street (Routledge, 2017). 

In late 2021, a legal initiative of the Romanian National Audiovisual Council (CNA) was sent to the Romanian Parliament and entered the public debate. The initiative called for the insertion of a warning message before the television broadcast of Romanian films made before 1989. Similar to maturity warnings, it was designed to inform viewers that the show they were about to watch was made during a period marked by “censorship and state propaganda.”

The authors of the initiative, the CNA leadership, claimed that their intervention targeted Romania’s younger viewers. These viewers had not lived through the socialist times and their audiovisual consumption needed “context.” By “context,” the initiators meant a corrective memory discourse more or less independently generated. It would make sure that deficiently informed audiences would not uncritically accept visions of good life, stories about the past, and protagonist profiles proposed by the films of the state socialist era.

The CNA initiative was a second and softer attempt to point out pre-1989 film content. A previous effort in the same vein had originated in the offices of the neoliberal political party that provided human capital for the CNA leadership. The more radical and propagandistic party version proposed not only the insertion of a cautionary message, but also the inclusion of a warning icon visible throughout the entire showing of the film.

Placed in the corner of the screen, the icon would have been in the shape of the letter “C,” and would have cautioned exposure to censored content. However, considering the political profile of the initiators of the warning and that the opening cautionary message read, “Attention, film made during the communist period!,” one can safely assume that the initiators wanted audiences to regard the “C” as standing for “communist.”

So far, none of these legal initiatives has been adopted. Nevertheless, such efforts, as strange as they might seem thirty three years after 1989, indicate that anti-communist discourse still generates political and cultural capital. They also show that socialist-era film is still consistently shown on Romanian television, and that, when not engaged in cynical party propaganda, cultural and political anticommunist elites in Romania tend to misread the causes of this successful circulation.

Afterlives of Romanian socialist-era historical film: reruns, story universes, reception,” the article I published with Claudiu Turcuș in Canadian Slavonic Papers last year, addresses precisely these topics. Among the triggers of these misreadings, our article argues, is the anticommunist cultural elite’s disgust toward socialist nostalgia, its limited understanding of film genre, and its effort to use anticommunism to sublate inherent contradictions of present-day neoliberal discourse.

Our research has focused on present-day television distribution and reception of socialist-era historical film, and epics in particular. It shows that, more or less intentionally, anticommunist political elites misconstruct film-triggered nostalgia because they fail to understand that the visual and aesthetic pleasures generated by these films are primarily related to present-day deficiencies within Romanian film culture.

Contemporary Romania lacks the infrastructure for productions that could deliver the visual spectacle and entertainment of historical films from the era of state socialism. It also lacks the types of film stars that could carry such roles. Thus, socialist-era epics might trigger nostalgia, but these forms of longing are not for communism itself, as these elites claim. Rather, audiences long for homemade big-budget films, for the performances of specific actors, and, at their most political, for a film industry with the muscle to produce such content.

Our article also analyzes the way anticommunist elites expose the alleged propaganda and falsifications of history carried out by socialist-era historical films. It highlights that several arguments supporting these acts of exposure emerge from a misunderstanding of genre conventions. Historical films, whether socialist or capitalist, tend to rely on heroic leaders, pompous patriotic verbiage, mass ornament, and traditional gender roles. As dramatic art, they inherently bend the facts of life for the sake of dramatic conflict as well as spatial, temporal, and story unity.

Our analysis reveals that the socialist-era historical film is also disparaged in order to hide contradictions within the neoliberal values underpinning anticommunist discourse. One such contradiction is the push for warning labels I described above. Even if they do not intervene in the film text itself, warnings and the C icon tamper with reception, represent forms of censorship, and reveal that postcommunist advocates of free speech fight political censorship with political censorship.

Further, anticommunist discourse, which advocates for non-interference with the free market, contradicts itself when it attempts to control the distribution of socialist era film. Supporters of unleashed markets re-politicize symbolic socialist-era content to frustrate television’s efforts to depoliticize it. Political concepts such as the manipulation of truth, communism, and propaganda are used against the attempts of private market operators such as television channels to reframe and sell socialist-era films along genre lines and as vehicles for beloved actors.

In its conclusion, our article claims that this apparent lack of trust in the free market gestures toward a broader problem of neoliberal and anticommunist discourses. As Wendy Brown argues in her volume In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, present-day neoliberal discourse no longer serves values like meritocracy, bottom-up establishment of values, and equal opportunities by means of the free market. It is instead in the business of serving and promoting those who have profited from the economic and political predicaments that its widespread adoption has generated.

Similarly, anticommunist discourse has long since ceased to advance the democratization of society by means of depoliticization and “decommunization.” Instead, it has become a discourse that protects the privileges of the winners of the transition from socialism to capitalism. The disparaging of socialist-era film by anticommunist cultural elites must be read in this key primarily—as an instrument of maintaining cultural hegemony—and not as an effort to provide better “context” for understanding the past.