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Witness to Revolution: Eastern Europe Comes to the Berlinale

By Ted Levy

A black and white photo of a man waving to a crowd, Alexander Dubcek, November 1989.

The First Annual Berlin International Film Festival opened forty years ago at the focal point of a Europe newly and conspicuously divided. By 1951, almost a dozen countries to the east had fallen under Stalinist control.

This year at the Berlinale, things were different. In October, 1989, East Germany made the first big move in a game of democratic dominoes which rippled down through Czechoslovakia and across the Balkan states. Events happened with such astonishing rapidity that filmmakers and film festival directors alike were caught unprepared, as documents of revolution were rushed to their Western premieres. From regimes under which moviemaking had inevitably been a state-sanctioned enterprise came images of pain and joy, defiance, and ultimately, victory. At the same time, other films scrutinized the conditions that precipitated these events and examined stumbling blocks to come.

Within this charged environ­ment, documentary filmmakers from Central and Eastern Europe were universally eager to discuss the dramas unfolding in their countries, their films and their lives.


On December 21, 1989, violent protest erupted against the oppressive regime of Romanian strongman Nicolae Ceausescu. Frustration ran so high that soldiers broke ranks and joined forces with citizens battling the Securitate, or secret police. Over 1,000 people reportedly died in Bucharest during the first twenty-four hours.

Alexandru Spartaru, a cinematographer for Sahia Documentary Studios, had "an instinctual reaction to what was happening.

"We just grabbed cameras and went out into the streets, because we were in two positions. One, we were cameramen making a movie, but two, we were demonstrators who wanted our freedom. No one was directing during this time. I only knew it was important to document everything."

An intense, dark-complexioned man in his thirties with nine years experience at Sahia, Spartaru knew the Securitate had "orders to arrest anyone with a camera.

"At one point I heard someone yell to me, 'Securitate!,' and I saw two of the secret police running towards me. But then someone took my hand and pulled me away, and I saw the crowd of demonstrators form a human wall, shoulder-to-shoulder. The Securitate had no way to get to me.

"That afternoon, I didn 't know if the Securitate would try to arrest me, so I went to the apartment of a friend and left the film with him. And I kept taking pictures for the next four days."

Dead Securitate lie slumped against crippled tanks on the streets of Bucharest. Meanwhile, bloody fighting continues for control of the state­ owned TV studios. Music by Wagner swells and crescendos: "The Twilight of the Gods."

From Decembrie 1989,
Romania, 1990

While at the festival, the makers of Decembrie 1989 joined a hunger strike in sympathy with fifty of their colleagues in Bucharest. Petre Roman, the new Prime Minister, had just reneged on an agreement to abolish censorship and governmental restric­ tions imposed on the Romanian film industry.

"We want a free cinema," says Alexandru Spartaru, "not for politics but for aesthetics. If you look at documentaries, you see that almost all of them are the same. They have the same kind of structure, the same style. Even if the subject matter is different. We want to be able to express emotions through a new and different aesthetic language, and for this we need a free cinema."

Shortly after it began, the hunger strike was suspended when Roman agreed to reopen negotiations with the filmmakers.


The upheaval in Romania was brutal and inconclusive ; by contrast, the Czechoslovak revolu­tion that began November 17th was almost bloodless. Galvanized by a violent police blockade against student demonstrators, mass protests led to dissolution of the confused and divided Communist leadership within two weeks. Despite a series of tense stand­ offs and hordes of humanity, the transition to independent republic went so smoothly that it was dubbed "Nezna Revoluce," or the Velvet Revolution.

Dr.Jan Slaby, a production chief for film-news and documentaries at Kratky Studios in Prague, met with his colleagues on November 20th to discuss the events of the past three days. "We were in shock, and the majority of us, including many Com­ munist Party members, were against the government actions of the seven­ teenth. So along with the other studios, we drew up a protest petition and decided it was our duty to film the events in the streets, schools and theaters."

Over the next few days, five film-news crews shot 15,000 meters of 35mm color footage. Realizing that only one-fifth of this would be used for a series of ten-minute newsreels, director Jiri Strecha gained permission to make a feature-length documentary on the revolution. "They agreed that I could do it with one of the other directors, Petr Slavik,"he recalls. "And it was absolutely horrible because for editing this film we had approximately ten days, no more. We knew that on the third of January people from the Berlin Film Festival were corning to Prague, and we really wanted to have the film to show. It was the first big international opportunity for screening this film, and making publicity for what had happened in Czechoslovakia. So I was working day and night in the editing room, except for Christmas Eve which I spent with my family around the Christmas tree."

One of a new breed of young, independent-thinking documentary directors at Kratky Studios, Strecha taught himself to work quickly making sports documentaries, "where it was not necessary to lie: tears are tears, victory is victory, and this does not depend on policy at all." He found Petr's style "exactly the opposite—very slow, philosophically discussing everything. He would call you in the night and in the morning want to change a lot of things. We made a lot of mistakes because we had no time to work seriously, but on the other hand, it was fantastic.

A high official addresses the throngs of people assembled in a railroad yard. "If we want to go forward," he intones, "it is not possible without the Communist Party!" "It is possible!" the angry crowd responds in unison.

From Nezna Revoluce,
Czechoslovakia, 1990

"A lot of people in the smaller towns were isolated," says Jan Slaby, "and did not understand what had happened in Prague. Even after the 24th, the 1V would have some interviews and commentary, but not visual material of what was happening in the streets. I think our films had the atmosphere of these days, and so they were important."


“For months, I couldn’t say anything to them because [my imprisonment] made no sense. If I'd committed a crime or something, but..." The ex-inmate shakes his head, baffled. "If they'd told me that I'd killed Napoleon, I would have bad to accept that, too."

From Recsk 1950-1953,
Hungary, 1989

Unlike the Czech Revolution's immediate leap from street to movie theater, the subject of Livia Gyarmathy and Geza Boszormenyi’s Recsk was not only unknown but taboo for 35 years. During a grueling four hours, their film meticulously details for the first time conditions that existed at an Hungarian labor camp near the northern town of Recsk. Between the years 1950-1953, weavers and carpenters, lawyers and doctors were deported to the gulag because of former political associations, or for whimsical reasons known only to the party hierarchy. Placed on a 1,200 calorie-a-day food ration, the inmates were routinely tortured, physically and mentally, by operatives of the secret police. Recsk illustrates the horror of the camp almost exclusively through current-day interviews with surviving victims and their tormentors.

Although a major Hungarian liberalization in 1986 and Gyarmathy's reputation as a feature and documentary director enabled her to get minimal funding for the project, working conditions were hardly hospitable.

"The film did not take three years to make because we were unprofessional," she emphasizes. "During the shooting, we received a lot of very angry letters, some of which were anonymous death threats, and so the party chief said we should stop for a few months until people had calmed down. The letters were from former Stasi men (secret police).

"Also, while we were shooting in Recsk, we found the tires of our cars cut to pieces five different times, and the local chief of police positioned policemen all around us to observe the shooting. At one point, a secret agent sent a message to me, to give up this project and instead to do 'a nice love story.'"

A victim of Recsk displays permanent lumps on his deformed body, the result of repeated beatings. "What I did was necessary and important," insists a former camp commander, with no sign of compunction.

From Recsk 1950-1953,
Hungary, 1989

The hair on his head is prematurely white; his hand trembles noticeably. "I did the first interviews with the Stasi," says Gyarmathy, "because my partner Geza Boszormenyi was a prisoner in the camp. He would not have been able to be objective if he interviewed these people. He suffered too much to do that."

"In Recsk," says Boszormenyi, "we realized that it is very easy for one man to be manipulated by another man. And most people, if they are unlucky enough to be put in that kind of position, will break down. The great majority of people cannot stand on their own, only as members of society."

The death of Stalin in 1953 brought a milder stance from the Soviet Union and a closing of the gulag. "If Stalin hadn't died," an ex-prisoner in the film says unequivocally, "we would have died at Recsk."

Although hopeful for the future of Hungary, Gyarmathy is convinced that no progress can be made by avenging the past. "And if we took revenge today," she points out, "it would be on the children of the criminals and that would be terrible—that we should never do.

"I think that the greatest control we have today is society," Gyarmathy says. "It is stronger than any prison. "


The premiere of American director Nina Rosenblum's documentary Through the Wire added an unsettling counterpoint to the images of Recsk. The film exposes a Lexington, Kentucky High Security Unit (HSU) that opened in 1986 exclusively to house female political prisoners (see: "Female High Security Unit" in ID, Spring/Summer 1989 issue). Violent strip-searches, sensory deprivation and debilitating isolation became standard practice in the underground chamber. Comparing the convicts' treatment to that of prisoners at Recsk, Rosenblum observed that "it creates in some ways the same kind of results without any marks on the body. That's why it's such a dangerous form of torture, because an investigator comes in and looks at the women and says: 'This all looks OK' Except for one thing. If these women had not been gotten out of that unit at the time that they were, they would have died. When I saw Susan Rosenberg and interviewed her...I felt like I was with someone who was barely, barely holding on to life."

In this case it was not the death of a national figure, but months of exhaustive media and political pressure that closed the HSU after twenty­ two months of operation.

The women sleep under the constant glare of fluorescent lights. When they protest being woken up every hour, they are awakened every half-hour instead.

From Through the Wire, USA, 1989

"The purpose of the HSU was to take those females that the director felt needed that type of security and place them in it," is the tautological argument of Lexington warden L.P. Dubois. Rosenblum sees things much more ominously: "I think the reason the High Security Unit existed was that the Bureau of Prisons wanted to send a message out to political people around the United States, saying, '.if you do this, this is what will happen to you."'

Not surprisingly, Rosenblum found herself fighting a bureaucracy in which "nobody would admit [the HSU] existed, nobody would let cameras in, and nobody would allow the story to be told." At times her experiences bore a chilling similarity to those of the Romanian and Hungarian filmmakers. After photographing the prison exterior, she recalls, "we were followed out by an unmarked car. A friend of ours took us to a restaurant, went back and changed his clothes, got on his motorcycle, picked up the film and sent it out, and we got on a plane and got out of town. If I'd stayed I would have gotten arrested, no question about it...who knows, disor­ derly conduct, anything."

In September 1989, the Federal Court of Appeals ruled that "political beliefs and associations are a legitimate basis for placement in a controlled unit."According to Rosenblum, "there are over 300 political prisoners in the United States," and she believes that the creation of several new HSUs represents the potential for future abuses of American human rights.


For the first time in the festival's history, films were shown to sell-out audiences in East as well as West Berlin. Five documentaries on recent events in the GDR were screened immediately after completion. Newly unveiled footage depicted the Czechoslovak enlightenment of the 1960's (when socialism developed "a human face") that finally prompted the invasion of several hundred thou­ sand Warsaw Pact troops. And a series of special programs presented eighteen non-fiction films from the Armenian SSR, made over the past twenty years.

Despite the economic obstacles that lay ahead, documentary directors from Central and Eastern Europe were anxious to get beyond revolution and on to project s of a more personal nature.

"Everything is different now," marvelled Livia Gyarmathy. "We can make whatever films we want."

Ted Levy is an ACE Award-winning editor of documentaries, music videos and commercials. He is currently pursuing an interest in writing and directing.