Off the map. In Bucharest
25 min documentary

Ioana Marinescu & Robert Fearns

The film is a collaboration with the British artist and film-maker Robert Fearns. It implies two perspectives: mine, as someone who grew up in a place that was undergoing a radical transformation, not understanding much at the time, then gradually becoming obsessed with it.
The other, more objective and distanced, yet curious eye, is that of the foreigner, of the outsider. He tries to understand - what is beyond understanding.
The void refers to the demolished area of Bucharest, dictated by Ceausescu in the 1980's, to make place for the so-called 'Civic Centre'- 'The People's Palace' and the 'Victory of Socialism Boulevard'.
The film is based on research I have undertaken for several years on this subject and particularly on an article written for the Catalan magazine 'Quaderns' in July 2003 (The Puzzle) - which was the beginning and the pretext for our collaboration.
We can perhaps categorised it 'a poetic documentary' - footage of the present sites alternate with archival images, the narrator's voice with those of former inhabitants of the area or passers-by, reality with story-telling.
While Ceausescu's Palace is an obvious reality, less known and documented are the demolished districts it replaced. One third of the old town razed to the ground, thousands of houses and historical monuments demolished. The whole Uranus hill flattened. Some of the most historical and picturesque quarters of Bucharest transformed into desolate wastelands. People's lives often shattered.
The premise was to tell the story of this part of Bucharest that gradually falls into oblivion.
What is left when there is nothing left? Does it persist somewhere in people's memories, in their consciousness? In archives and testimonies?
Is it important to understand? To acknowledge your past? To systematically archive and document? What are the consequences of the lack of knowledge? Of the lack of memory?
Trying to find our way around the area, we gradually realized how little is known or left of this part of the city. People's memories are often non-existent or confusing, sources of documentation are scarce. Throughout my research I came across bureaucracy and indifference.
Those who lived in the area, the former inhabitants of the demolished houses are the few who preserve the memory of this place. Most of these people are old now; they had not been materially compensated for their lost properties, neither had they a chance to tell their troubles.
Their voices weave a story that gives meaning to the erased space. They talk about their houses, their gardens, the streets they walked on, their neighbors, the nearby churches. About the traumatic moment of demolition and forced removal into blocks of flats at the periphery of the city. Slowly, you begin to understand.
The reality we are trying to re-create is between history and story-telling.
Ioana Marinescu

I remember my astonishment when Ioana Marinescu first told me about the recent history of Bucharest. All I really knew of it was from the dramatic TV reports at the end of the Eighties. This burst of media interest in the 'revolution' soon faded and was replaced by occasional reports on the poverty and social problems the nation faced. Eventually these too were replaced by suggestions that Romania was well on the road to recovery, becoming a venue for tourists, American film companies and a candidate for the European Community.
But although the country appeared to be rebuilding itself as a European nation, I still felt unsure of where I placed it. East or West? Near or far? Old or new? Talking to Ioana I realised that the country itself raised the same questions, especially with regard to its capital city, where the legacy of communism was so dominant that it could not be ignored. That a new beginning is difficult to conceive when a very different past is so recent, yet lost forever.
It was an extreme example of an area of research I had been exploring for some time, which was how do we perceive our own cities? To what extent does our culture and personal history inform our understanding of space? This raises the question of how we understand other cities, for example as tourists in societies different to our own, and are our possible misunderstandings any more or less relevant or true than those of residents? When Ioana showed me a map of the enormous scale of demolition that had taken place in Bucharest in the Eighties, and the huge numbers of people that had been uprooted so quickly, I felt that even the notion of 'residents' was open to question. Is a resident someone who merely happens to live in an arbitrary place, or someone who contributes to a developing community, where their residence is their 'home'.
Ordinarily I would be extremely wary of taking on a subject such as Bucharest. What right would I have as an outsider, as a relatively comfortable English film-maker, to pass comment on somewhere I admittedly know very little about? On the other hand my approach to the city might be more analytical than that of a resident, less involved with nostalgia and personal history. Working in collaboration with Ioana Marinescu, who grew up in the city, offered the possibility of exploring such a dilemma, leading to a film which combines elements of recollection and memory with distanced, objective observation.
The result is hopefully more than a documentary. The film does not attempt to present a definitive truth. Rather it offers different readings of the condition of the city 16 years after Ceausescu's downfall.
Robert Fearns