Vlad Petri's Where Are You Bucharest has caused quite a stir in Romania, documenting the nature of the 2012 protests 23 years after the revolution. His bold handheld camera style gives one the feeling of being within the protests, caught between the police and protesters on the street as they reclain University Square the site of many anti-comminist demonstrations.
FilmLinc spoke to Vlad about what it was like filming within a protest from its inital days up until the Referendum for the impeachment of the Romanian President. Where Are you Bucharest? will screen at the Film Society for as part of the Making Waves contemporary Romanian film series.
FilmLinc: There has been some discussion about how the film aims to show the incoherence of the protesters and how lost they actually were. Would you say that is valid?
Vlad Petri: For me it was really an experience to start a film like a research project, not knowing what it will be in the beginning but being close to the original footage and taking it from there. Then as a filmmaker and citizen to find out what really happens on the streets of Bucharest and how people behave during the protest.
My intention was not to show the confusion or ambiguity of the protesters but more to make a film that had the feeling or atmosphere of what I felt on the ground. It was an anthropological approach.
FL: I found the three part structure of the film very interesting, as well as the handheld camera aesthetic. What caused you to make these stylistic choices?
VP: It was very important for me to document this event, as it was the first time people had taken to the streets in the 23 years since the Romanian revolution demanding their rights in front of a government. We knew where we wanted the film to begin and end, even after the referendum when the President was back and we didn’t achieve the desired result. The middle we found in the edit.
In terms of the handheld style, I was part of the protest and I wanted the camera to transmit to the audience what I felt there. I really wanted the look to be organic and kept the camera close to my body so it felt like the body of the filmmaker and the protesters.
FL: Another thing I was struck by was some of the violence between the police and protesters. Did you ever feel in danger or was that part of the thrill?
VP: I was at the beginning as protesters were throwing stones and I had to hold the camera steady and avoid getting stitches. After that the police used tear gas which caused me to wake up coughing. However daunting, I had to be there in the role of the filmmaker.
FL: Were the police upset that you were filming them?
VP: With the police it depends on the protest. I was watching what happened yesterday with the Eric Garner protest where the police said even if you’re on the street and a journalist we can arrest you. It’s always a balance between the riot police, the state, the citizen and the filmmaker. For example in Where Are You Bucharest? I didn’t want to make the protesters heroic and humiliate police. I really wanted a balanced viewpoint even if I’m on the people’s side.
FL: Did you find the protesters performed in front of the camera? I was doing some research and Harun Farocki's Videograms of a Revolution (1989) explores this aspect in detail. Was that an influence?
VP: People perform even if I wasn’t aware of it at the moment I was filming. Sometimes this line was very blurred and you would see a sparkle in their eyes for a fraction of a second when they changed their attitude. Farocki’s film really questions this and how we represent reality versus the subjective approach of a filmmaker. That being said I also think sometimes people weren’t aware of the camera as I used a Canon 5D DSLR and I kept it a little bit lower than my eye level so I could also interact with the people. In that way the camera felt invisible.
It’s also my point of view, people expected the film to be close to a journalistic report and to have everything as subjective as it can be but that’s impossible as there’s a filmmaker behind the camera.
FL: How did you choose your characters? A friend from Bucharest mentioned they're very representative of the kinds of people you see at protests there.
VP: When I started editing I didn’t want to focus on the story of one character over another but portray a group of people demanding their rights on the streets of Bucharest. We wanted a large spectrum of people from: different classes, young, old, feminists and different political parties.
FL: There was a moment in the film where a character took your phone number and mentioned he wanted to start a political party? Did you form a relationship?
VP: I know him now, he’s still doing his political party and he came to the premier of the film in Bucharest and did a speech. I think he was excited that night because there had been violence before we met. That’s a moment representative of the camera body feeling. I was holding my camera but he wasn’t aware that I was filming him.
FL: How did the protesters react to their representation in the film?
VP: Some wanted another film that was more heroic, more of an activist film. A lot of them responded to the beginning but the disintegration, the dispersion, the fights between the different groups when they weren’t united, that’s what they didn’t like. Then some people told me that they felt it was a fair representation of what their community was.
I think a lot of people who didn’t go to the protests really liked it and also international audiences who didn’t necessarily know what was going on, it gave them positive questions about politics, and representations.
FL: Did you have any favorite stories from the characters that came out during the film?
VP: Yes many, for example the retired police officer in the film ran as the Socialist candidate for Mayor of Bucharest in the summer of 2012. I then saw some images shot by him in North Korea where he had been officially invited by the government with a comrade of his from Ceaușescu’s presidency.
FL: Was there a difference between what you were reading in the media and what you were experiencing on the streets? Did you feel like the media were shaping what people were reading?
VP: Yes, the media was translating everything into a fiction in a very clear way. They had cranes and reporters; they would cut some people’s viewpoints and put a spotlight on others. I really wanted to create a fair balanced portrayal, showing images of the protest from within as a protester, putting a mirror on it so society could see themselves. The film is intended as a document of our times.