Authoring From the Shadows: Creativity and the Film Archive in The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu

Raluca Iacob
Dana Bunescu is one of the most recognised and appreciated Romanian film editors, a key figure in the landscape of New Romanian cinema. This essay will address Bunescu’s artistic contributions as an essential part of collective film authorship. While Bunescu’s career encompasses some of the most well-known and acclaimed Romanian films of the last two decades, this essay will focus specifically on her work on the film Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu/The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (Andrei Ujică, 2010, Romania/Germany), using the theoretical framework of Paul Sellors on authorship, in order to make a close analysis of particular edits and processes that will help reveal Bunescu’s role as an author.
Dana Bunescu; Andrei Ujică; Nicolae Ceaușescu; editing; editor; montage; authorship; compilation film; archival film; memory; New Romanian cinema.

Some Editorial Considerations in Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu

History and Interpretation – The Archive as Repository of Memory

Editorial “Utterances”

Editorial Intentionality

Bunescu as a Collaborative Author




Suggested Citation

Some Editorial Considerations in Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu

In 2010, the film magazine Sight and Sound listed Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu in its selection of the top 12 films of the year, because “Ujică’s reconfiguration of archival propaganda material, quietly needling out its intrinsic irony and the seeds of its own unravelling, is stunningly innovative in the realm of documentary” (Gray 2010). The film was compared to the documentaries of Péter Forgács and Sergei Loznitsa because of the ways in which it combines archival footage with design sound (Cagle 2017). In a study focusing on the representation of memory in documentary film, a comparison between Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu and the films of Péter Forgács was also made by noted Romanian documentary filmmaker Alexandru Solomon1 (2016). However, despite praising the film’s thought-provoking editing, Solomon, like film history and theory scholar Chris Cagle, constructs his argument around the figure of the film’s director, while the editor – Dana Bunescu – remains in the “shadows”, so to speak.

Bunescu started to work in film and sound editing in the early 2000s after graduating from the National University of Theatre and Film “I.L. Caragiale” with a degree in Multimedia. Her filmography, which includes credits for both editing and sound design, collaborations with some of the key names of the Romanian “new wave” (also alternatively called the New Romanian cinema) – Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu, Calin Peter Netzer, Corneliu Porumboiu, and Radu Jude, among others. When asked in a discussion-interview (Corciovescu 2017) about the job of the editor and her perspective on the demands of the job as they relate to gender, Bunescu acknowledged that historically, in more likely to be undertaken by a woman; however, she disagreed that this was a woman’s job, citing men who had worked as editors, including during communism. She noted the qualities necessary for an editor – attention to minutiae, patience, and curiosity – being not necessarily identifiable as specifically “female” characteristics, meaning that gender identity does not (or no longer does) determine who works as an editor.

Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu is constructed exclusively out of archival footage, in order to (re)tell the (hi)story of the half century of Romania’s communist-leader-turned-dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu. Through the attentive selection and arrangement of archival footage, the film explores issues of history, identity, and cultural and collective memory. The film’s origin, an imagined autobiography2 of Nicolae Ceaușescu, can be traced back to a meeting between director Andrei Ujică and producer Velvet Moraru in December 2005 in Bucharest. The two had worked together more than a decade earlier on the documentary Videograme ale unei revolutii/Videograms of a Revolution (1993, Germany/Romania), which Ujică co-directed with Harun Farocki. Moraru had an idea about a film on Ceaușescu, which she proposed to Ujică. Upon his return to Germany – he had emigrated to Germany in the early 1980s, where alongside his work as a filmmaker he also teaches at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design – Ujică discovered an interesting angle for the film once he decided to work with collections of audiovisual material, looking for the “man behind the historical cliché” (Ujică, qtd in Harris 2011).

Having decided to use archival footage as the basis for the film, Ujică – unable to spend the time required to research the subject – tasked fellow filmmaker Titus Muntean with the associated research in the archives of the National Television (TVR) and producer Velvet Moraru with the same in the Romanian National Film Archives (ANF). The direction they were given by Ujică was to look specifically for moments that had not been seen by audiences before. Alongside official, state-sanctioned footage of Ceaușescu, the filmmakers also found a trove of private footage in the archives showing the Ceaușescu family as they were enjoying their vacations, or pursuing various hobbies, for example.3 The footage, which was produced at some point during the height of Ceaușescu’s power, was intended for only a small audience consisting of the dictator and his family.4 Indeed, Ceaușescu had around seven cameramen who would travel and film not only state or official visits, but these private moments as well. Muntean and Moraru’s research took six months, during which time they watched an estimated 1000 hours of footage, from which they selected around 200 hours from the National Television and 60 hours from the National Film Archive, was then presented to Ujică and Dana Bunescu, who had by then become one of Romania’s preeminent film editors, described by Ujică as “an incredible artist” (Ujică qtd. in Lim 2011). The two proceeded to identify the material and index it, creating a database of sorts, following the historical accounts of the communist regime in Romania, while making sure to focus on some of the key moments of Ceaușescu’s rule (White 2011, Harris 2011, Fillippi and Rus 2014).

Among a list of recognised and awarded film titles, Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu emerges as a significant work in Dana Bunescu’s oeuvre. Of course, due to the fact that it is a found footage film, Bunescu’s role as editor5 has been recognised as particularly essential for the finished product. However, its significance also lies in the fact that working on the film seems to have been extremely challenging, yet also rewarding, as Bunescu explains in some detail in several interviews (Bîrsan 2017, Filippi and Rus 2014). The film is given ample space in all discussion-interviews with Bunescu, but her comments on the subject in a discussion with Ileana Bîrsan in 2017 for the online film platform stand out. Here, Bunescu responds to a prompt from an audience member asking about the most difficult situation she faced while working on a film by referring to Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu, which, because of the content material and her own experiences under communism, led her to experience several panic attacks during the viewing of the approximately 260 hours of footage. However, the choice of this film as a case study for the argument for Dana Bunescu as a film author rests beyond its personal relevance within her overall filmography. This film’s particular relevance lies in how, by intently subverting the propagandistic nature of its footage and infusing it with an ironic subtext, Bunescu and Ujică create a heteroglossic discourse that contains at once the rhetoric of the communist ideological apparatus and the veiled rhetoric of irony instilled by the authors through audio-visual editing.

History and Interpretation – The Archive as Repository of Memory

Bunescu (qtd. in Filippi and Rus 2014) recounts that in the early stages of thinking about the film she and Ujică had considered several possibilities with regard to the structure and approach to the narrative; however, it was not until they started editing the footage that they were able to choose a way in which to treat the material. According to Bunescu, the most difficult period of the filmmaking process was the early days of editing, when she and Ujică were first viewing and selecting the archival footage, unsure whether the material would be able to stand on its own without commentary (Filippi and Rus 2014). At that time, they were considering including voice-over, either by an actor performing Ceaușescu’s perspective or by an authorial voice that would narrate the story. After this initial period of uncertainty, however, Bunescu and Ujică saw that the footage alone – and more importantly, the combination of archival materials (both audio and visual) – could thoroughly carry the creative intention behind the film, and they decided to forgo any voice-over commentary. It is this lack of commentary that allows the value of the editor as a creative contributor to become even more evident, as illustrated by Bunescu’s precise and poignant montage.

The film follows the three decades of Ceaușescu’s rule, each decade with its own tone and mood, reflecting the general feeling of the time and the decade’s position with respect to the overarching trajectory and history of the country and the dictator. The 1960s – a period in which the pivotal moment of Ceaușescu’s rule was the condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia – are represented as relaxed, hopeful, and upbeat, with multiple scenes depicting celebrations or parties. The following decade is defined in part by a sense of pomp, constructed especially from official state visits and in part by the natural disasters faced – first the floods of Spring-Summer 1970, which affected the whole country and produced major economic losses, and then the earthquake of 1977, which severely impacted the capital city, Bucharest. In the 1980s, when the cult of personality surrounding Ceaușescu became much more pronounced and the population was confronted with austerity policies and economic shortages, the atmosphere becomes more claustrophobic, sober, and oppressive, conveyed through state-sponsored footage of, for example, Ceaușescu’s visits to shops fully stocked with food (when most of the population was struggling to find basic essentials, like bread, oil, meat, etc.) or of state-organized public demonstrations depicting Ceaușescu as a leader who should and must be worshipped. As Dana Bunescu describes, the visual representation of each decade of Ceaușescu’s rule is distinguished by subtle differences in the film, as the filmmakers decided to infuse each decade with a certain mood and identity (Filippi and Rus 2014). The first period “emphasized the wide, mood-related angles” in order to “construct a relaxed world”, which in turn became “subdued once Ceaușescu decided that the role of ideology needed to be ‘a bit’ more precise, after his visit to China” (Bunescu qtd. in Filippi and Rus 2014, my translation).

The impression of the film being an autobiography, as stated in the title , is given to the best possible extent by the film’s structure, achieved through meticulous editing, which establishes the film’s main figure – the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu – through a circular narrative that begins and ends with footage from his televised trial in December 1989. It is through (re-)use and (re-)interpretation of the archival footage that was found, indexed, and joined together that this becomes a creative statement – in this case, about the tyrannical protagonist, but also, more broadly, about Romania’s trajectory and identity during the quarter of a century that the film covers. As such, the power of the author – an author who is, I argue, both the director, Ujică, and the editor, Bunescu – is based on subtle yet impactful decisions which interpret the visual and aural space and affect the film’s narrative. The heading of the film as an “autobiography” toys with usual notions of interpretation and faithfulness to the original material. The title itself is used with some underlying irony. As Ujică notes in an interview, the film does not fall within the perimeters of the official protocols of the time it depicts, being a “fictitious autobiography” which would never have been approved by Ceaușescu, as he would have found fault with the moments in the film which portray him as foolish or even grotesque (Ujică qtd. in Pfeiffer 2011).

Ujică and Bunescu’s approach of reinterpreting archival material is not unique, nor is it groundbreaking, having been pioneered decades earlier by the Soviet editor and filmmaker Ėsfir’ Shub (Esther Il'inichna Shub)6, who advocated for the preservation of film footage and the establishment of film archives (Shub 1988). Adopting a constructivist perspective, Shub managed to “put together an entire episode from scattered parts of footage”, while at the same time underlining the importance of filmed materials as historical documents (Kostina and Dyshlyuk 2016: 18). Her legacy can be found in the genre of “political documentary cinema, where archive material is used dialectically or against the grain as part of a historical argument or debate” (Burke 2013: 843). The same can be said about the film under discussion here, where Bunescu and Ujică reinterpret (and even invert) the political ideology of the material they use through the deconstruction of visual footage and its reassembly and reinterpretation in new forms, a direction that is supported by the sound design. The use of archival material in documentary films, according to Stella Bruzzi, “has rarely been used unadulterated and unexplained”, being instead used “illustratively, as part of a historical exposition to complement other elements such as interviews and voice-over” (Bruzzi 2000: 21). While archival footage in Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu “unexplained” by commentary, it is not “unadulterated”, since the editing – in essence the cutting and joining of audio-visual material – is constructed in such a way as to provoke reactions within a contemporary audience which might have experienced an amnesia of sorts towards the period of Ceaușescu’s rule.7

Ujică’s intention with Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu was to transform historical documents and render them into an aesthetic form, believing that art can better illustrate historical mood than a scientifically accurate account can (Ujică qtd. in Blaga 2009). His intention was to make a “historical epic” in which “the documents mentioned are not used as arguments in a demonstration, but rather as preserved fragments of life, which are waiting to be reintegrated in the historical sequence” (Ujică qtd. in Harris 2011). While analysing this film in his study of memory representations in documentary film, Alexandru Solomon connects it to Aby Warburg’s picture atlas Mnemosyne, which Solomon identifies as a model for the archival compilation film, since the atlas consisted of images – drawn from different sources and eras of art history and arranged on black panels, without any kind of explanation or commentary – that could be perused by audiences from any direction. While Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu does not have a conventional commentary8, much of its commentary emerges out of the associations between images and especially from the soundtrack, which was constructed almost entirely by the filmmakers. Due to the methods of archiving at the time, the footage was preserved without audio, and the filmmakers had to reconstruct practically the entire soundtrack, either from separately archived audio footage of some of the events (as with Ceaușescu’s visit to Czechoslovakia in 1968) or by mixing audio from a number of different other sources. In an interview, Ujică notes:

The sound is the secret true fictional level of the film. [...] We reconstructed the soundtrack on different levels, creating realistic sound and also using abstract sound to create dramaturgical effects. The film does have a commentary but it’s a nonverbal commentary (Ujică qtd. in Lim 2010, online).

The essential role of sound in this work is particularly evident in its depiction of a crucial moment of both Ceaușescu’s rule and the overall destiny of Romania: the 1977 earthquake, which destroyed a significant portion of Bucharest and affected most of the south of the country. Bunescu constructs the scene on the basis of an audio recording of the actual earthquake – which, as Ujică explains, was possible because the Radio Hall in Bucharest was recording the ambient sound of a classical concert it was hosting at that moment, and the microphones captured the sound of distant voices yelling and the shaking of the building(s) (White 2011). Interestingly, while the majority of the film is constructed on the basis of visual footage which helps illustrate a discourse, in this 30-second scene the driving force – and, indeed, the only source of narrative information – is this audio footage, as the sounds are played against a black screen. According to Ujică, the intentionality behind this choice to present the event solely through sound was primarily to give the footage and the represented events a “context fitting its gravity”, although he also admits that a symbolic reading proposed by the interviewer – in which the sounds of screaming represent the suffering of the people under the oppressive rule of the communist dictatorship – could be applied (Ujică qtd. in White 2011). Through its subtle and at times even subversive use of sound, the film not only provides a background for the images it displays but also helps the transitions from one scene to the next, and from one (historical) time to another.

Editorial “Utterances”

Working as they were with pre-existing material, Bunescu and Ujică, were limited by the content, form, and cinematography characterising the archival footage available to them. However, through careful image and sound editing they manage to create a new narrative, resulting in an “intentional action” produced by what Paul Sellors calls an “intending agent that causes a text” (Sellors 2007: 263, emphasis in original). By adopting Paisley Livingston’s concept of “utterances” connected with the idea of the author, Sellors stresses the “contribution to the filmic utterance” as a key element of identifying the (collective) author. The reinterpretation of archival material through editorial decisions, and thus the construction of the author through utterances, was pioneered – as noted above – by Soviet filmmaker and editor Ėsfir’ Shub. Shub connected seemingly disparate and unrelated materials through a discursive structuring that allowed an undercurrent commentary about the communist period to emerge.

In Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu’s opening sequence, the filmmakers construct a narrative with an underlying ideological commentary on the image of the Romanian dictator and his time in power, by intricately connecting footage from multiple sources. The film begins in December 1989, during the televised trial of Elena and Nicolae Ceaușescu. The camera captures Ceaușescu as he engages with the prosecutor whose accusations can be heard off-screen, with the camera zooming in and out, moving shakily between him and his wife. As the prosecutor asks the Ceaușescu couple about one of the indictments of their trial, the December 1989 genocide9, the camera zooms in on Ceaușescu as he looks up and away (Fig. 1), while the sound transitions to that of a crowd of people in the streets, as the image jump-cuts to an overhead shot of people running in the streets (Fig. 2). This association would lead a first-time spectator to infer that a causality exists between the images of people in the streets and the crimes of genocide which Ceaușescu had just been accused of. Yet, as the sequence further unfolds, it becomes apparent that these images are from a different time, when Ceaușescu was just about to come into power following the death of his political mentor and his predecessor as Romania’s ruler. Utilising the techniques of montage developed by Soviet filmmakers, the film creates meaning from the association of images, simultaneously guiding the spectator through the content and structure of the film and allowing the spectator to develop an understanding of things by creating inferences. Through this technique of creating one type of expectation which is then subverted, the filmmakers put the spectators on guard with respect to the content of the film, and alert them to the fact that it is not a typical biography. Constructed from multiple sources, the footage shows people rushing in the street, waiting in line to pay their respects for the deceased leader and passing through the frame as anonymous bodies seen from both overhead and at eye level, returning the gaze of the camera (Fig. 3). The procession passes through a room where Ceaușescu is but one of the men standing (Fig. 4), and continues with the expected formality of a state funeral.

Frame grab taken from Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu. 2010. Source: DVD edition, © Icon Productions.
Frame grab taken from Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu. 2010. Source: DVD edition, © Icon Productions.
Frame grab taken from Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu. 2010. Source: DVD edition, © Icon Productions.
Frame grab taken from Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu. 2010. Source: DVD edition, © Icon Productions.

Even more than the visual detail, it is essential to highlight here the sound design, as Bunescu’s aim was to create a heavy silence. In order to achieve this silence, Bunescu used some audio fragments from Princess Diana’s and President John F. Kennedy’s funerals, over which she added the sounds of steps and breathing. The only sound in the scene which is not constructed from other sources is a short platitudinous speech given by Ceaușescu at the funeral (Fig. 5). Interestingly enough, he is introduced by another member of the politburo; however, this figure’s speech is not heard, but his words, which are subtitled, clarify that Ceaușescu will be the central character of the film. It is in this type of “utterance”, this choice to present a silent/audible10 character as the result of an intentional action, that Bunescu demonstrates her belonging to the figure of the collective author. Furthermore, as the discourse ends and the procession moves towards a mausoleum, the soundtrack transitions to the second movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92, which Bunescu uses to provide an ironic undercurrent since, rather than a mournful and sad mood, the piece conveys gravitas but also a sense of anticipation, suggesting that, for the main character, the ceremony represents less of a funeral and more of a culmination.

Frame grab taken from Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu. 2010. Source: DVD edition, © Icon Productions.

Following this moment, a rapid montage of footage, which shows all human activity – in settings ranging from industrial to agricultural to urban – coming to a standstill for a moment of reflection in memory of the deceased, uses techniques of image association that were pioneered by the Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s. This scene stands out especially since, while most of the sequences in the first hour of the film emphasise wider camera angles and longer takes, here, the fast-paced flurry of images is closest to the aesthetic tradition of Soviet montage, whether the influence comes from Ėsfir’ Shub, Dziga Vertov, or Sergei Eisenstein. This scene, with footage produced by the communist apparatus with propagandistic intentions, can also be read as heteroglossia since its original intent becomes reverted by Bunescu and Ujică’s ironic discourse. If the Soviet filmmakers displayed sympathy for the proletariat and the destruction of imperialist culture, here Bunescu and Ujică use the footage as an ironic gesture towards the communist system and its centering of hierarchy, a dynamic which will become even more significant in the later parts of the film, as the Ceaușescu couple adopts increasingly monarchical attitudes.

Editorial Intentionality

The concept of “utterance” is generally associated with linguistics, and especially with the spoken word; however, Paisley Livingston and, later on, Paul Sellors suggest another application of the term, which is, according to them, essential in understanding the contribution of the author to a text. The relationship between archival compilation films and the idea of film as a text is underlined by Ujică, who observes that “in this kind of syntactic cinema, the images, the morphology, they already exist” (Ujică qtd. in Harris 2011), thus identifying the archival images as morphemes. He goes even further and explains the ways in which Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu is constructed around the respective “preexisting morphological material”. This material first needed to be deconstructed – stripped of its previous editing, its propagandistic function, and its voice-over narration. Then Ujică and Bunescu proceeded to “make a semantic interpretation of these ‘morphemes’ in the form of fragments of reality preserved as moving images” and to (re-)construct the scenes according to their own intentions for the narrative (Ujică qtd. in Harris). This discussion of semantics echoes, yet again, the work of Soviet filmmakers, especially Boris Eichenbaum’s work, whose formalist analysis of film sees the construction of it through a semantic of the shot and montage. About this he writes: “the basic semantic role belongs to montage, since it is precisely montage which colours the shots with definite semantic nuances in addition to their general sense. There are well-known examples of film editing where the very same shots, placed in a new ‘montage context’, take on completely new meaning” (Eichenbaum qtd. in Eagle 1981: 78). It is easily inferable from Ujică’s statement that Bunescu, as both editor and sound designer, provided the film with a significant contribution, having collaborated on the deconstruction and the creative reassembly of the existing “morphological material”.

Sellors states that the intended function of an authorial utterance is to “make manifest or communicate some attitude(s)” (Sellors 2007: 206), an approach which can have very broad applications. A claim could be made that all forms of communication that intend to convey some message fall within these conditions of expressing or transmitting some attitude. Contrary to the earlier forms of the author theory (Andrew Sarris’ application of the concept in particular), which viewed the author within strict parameters usually leading back to the figure of the director, the framework provided by Sellors suggests a much broader application, which could extend to virtually anyone working on a film production. However, I believe that, rather than focusing solely on the act of utterance, it is more relevant to stress the intentionality, of those engaged in the process of utterance.

In the case of Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu, the overall intentionality of the authors appears to be that of undermining – or, rather, rescinding – the propaganda and ideological underpinnings of the dictatorial figure and communist agenda. The film is a combination of official state visits, speeches, public manifestations, inspections and work visits but also includes footage from the Ceaușescu family’s personal archive. While the general approach is to present facts and events from the perspective of Ceaușescu, in a manner that implies a first-person point of view (POV), it is clear from the treatment of the material that there is an undercurrent of irony, which in part humanises the despised figure of the dictator and in part sarcastically dismantles his inflated cult-of-personality politics. This is more clearly discernible in the sequences which use private family footage, filmed immediately following Ceaușescu’s election as a president by the communist assembly. In one such example, Ceaușescu is seen playing volleyball with his entourage, repeatedly and very clumsily attempting to get the ball over the net, in a scene reminiscent of slapstick comedy. This footage is accompanied only by the faint sound of a projector, a choice by Bunescu which seems to underscore how this type of footage was intended only for the family’s private consumption. It is especially in their showcasing of such awkward moments (for example, the footage of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu splashing each other after struggling to swim – especially Elena – while on vacation at the Black Sea) that the filmmakers de-mythologise and satirise Ceaușescu’s persona as a leader. Still, though, the fact that all this footage was preserved within the Romanian National Film Archives (Arhiva Națională de Filme) meant an acceptance by the Ceaușescu family that the private might become public, as it did through the film under discussion here. However, Bunescu and Ujică have done more than just release this previously-unseen footage; they have infused it with a pointed note of sarcasm by stripping away its original morphology and reconfiguring its content in order to be able to make a “semantic interpretation”, as noted by Ujică above.

The subtleties of satire which Ujică and Bunescu include in the film can also be observed in the comparison they stage between Ceaușescu’s speeches from the 1960s and those given towards the end of his reign in the 1980s (see Figure 6-9). While his early speech denouncing the invasion of Czechoslovakia is met by cheering crowds, the speech for his 70th birthday, a prolonged and improvised address in front of a small audience of political apparatchiks, leaves both the audience and his wife visibly bored. This focus on satire and biting irony is one of the key characteristics of the Romanian “new wave”, where it functions as a way to draw attention to frailties in society and as a useful tool for social criticism.

Frame grab taken from Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu. 2010. Source: DVD edition, © Icon Productions.
Frame grab taken from Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu. 2010. Source: DVD edition, © Icon Productions.
Frame grab taken from Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu. 2010. Source: DVD edition, © Icon Productions.
Frame grab taken from Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu. 2010. Source: DVD edition, © Icon Productions.

The film presents a clear escalation of Ceaușescu’s cult of personality, an escalation which occurred following his visits to North Korea in the 1970s.11 At one point in the first half hour of the film, the editing follows one of Ceaușescu’s televised speeches with propaganda footage of his visit to country fairs and inspecting large-scale film productions, thus, projecting himself both as a man of the people and the country’s supreme leader. Ceaușescu’s concern with perpetuating an image of himself as a national hero impacted the national cinema during his reign as well, as the production of historical epics was strongly encouraged, as such films reinforce an exalted nationalism, and aim to establish the sense of a tradition and lineage of great rulers throughout history dating back 2000 years to Dacian and Roman roots. Bunescu and Ujică ridicule this self-aggrandising projection of the dictator in Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu through subtle parody: in one sequence, Ceaușescu, who imagined and styled himself as a descendant from a genealogy of great rulers, is seen being greeted in highly ceremonious fashion by an actor playing such a figure, a scenario staged in order to triumphantly12 equate the communist dictator with historical rulers and the the mythos and splendour associated with them. Here, the filmmakers highlight Ceaușescu’s exalted ego and the personality politics that would overwhelm his rule. The footage included in this sequence is a combination from several sources. Its audio consists of a recording of a stanza from a well-known poem written by Mihai Eminescu13, which describes the meeting between a medieval Romanian ruler and the counterpart from the Ottoman Empire, in which the underdog Romanian bravely stands up against the more powerful sultan. The parallels constructed here between the exalted patriotism and apotheosis of both great historical leaders represented in these epic historical fictions and Ceaușescu’s cult of personality, do not identify the communist dictator with national heroes of this kind; rather, the sequence satirises this propagandistic comparison Ceaușescu had hoped to present to the public.

Bunescu addresses criticisms of the film which decried the fact that the filmmakers had forgone the opportunity to highlight the difficulties of life during the Ceaușescu rule, especially in the 1980s when shortages of even the most basic necessities were the norm. In response, Bunescu underscores how she and Ujică wanted to maintain the consistency of their initial idea – of constructing the film as it would be told from the perspective of its protagonist – and Ceaușescu would not have had the chance to see, for example, long lines of people waiting to buy food. Instead, his appearances in grocery stores were carefully staged for his viewing, a fact towards which Bunescu shows much more artistic affinity, since it allows the film to explore the same scenarios through more subversive methods. Bunescu notes such a sequence:

There is a short scene with pensioners who had found a certain technique of figuring out what grocery shops Ceaușescu was set to visit, so that after he had left they could attack the stocked shelves. In those images, the people are applauding feebly, out of a foolish reflex, but at a closer viewing you notice that each one has shopping bags, ready to grab anything they can from the shop (Bunescu qtd. in Filippi and Rus 2014, my translation).

From this, one could infer that the intentionality of the authors can be understood as a subtle, evocative criticism – not an explicit indictment – of Ceaușescu’s period in office. Through an accumulation of small gestures and moments the film constructs a portrait of an individual who is both victim and perpetrator within his own dogmatic environment. Regarding Ceaușescu’s condition as a victim of his own making, Ujică has stated:

Ceauşescu was indoctrinated when he was fifteen, an age which, as we know, predisposes to a lifetime of ideological rigidity. After that, he spent a great part of his youth in jail, where the idea that he had to seize power germinated and became a mission he had to accomplish. So he was anything but a hypocrite. That’s why his biography, indeed, gradually takes on a tragic dimension. There is a Shakespearean touch in him, of a character captive to an evil beyond him, which ‘leads’ his path. (Ujică qtd. in White 2011).

As Ujică acknowledges (Pfeiffer 2011), Ceaușescu would never “have authorised such a film”, since he would not have appreciated the irony expressed throughout it. In fact, some critics denounced the fact that the filmmakers omitted to show the atrocities of the Ceaușescu regime, presenting instead “hours of hosannas” of the “dictator moving from one bright moment to another at home and abroad” (Kauffmann 2011). What Kauffmann fails to appreciate here is the constant undercurrent tone of satire that is emphasised throughout the film through carefully constructed, small moments of ironic commentary. Such commentary is exemplified in one of the key recurring images throughout the film: Ceaușescu, accompanied by an entourage of political apparatchiks, going on inspections and giving directives in domains ranging from agriculture, to industry, to urban design. However, the filmmakers, and Bunescu in particular, are able to undermine the image constructed by Ceaușescu’s propaganda machine – an image of expertise – through the careful, though impactful arrangement of images and sounds dispersed throughout the film. At one moment, Ceaușescu is speaking from a podium about the country’s economy, only to cut to people in the audience diligently taking notes. This is followed by a cut to a corn field where a combine harvester is collecting the crops, while in the background Ceaușescu and his entourage are observing the process while they discuss the possibilities of improving its efficacy. The sound would seem clearly connected to what is seen on screen; however, through the camera angles and the editing of the footage Bunescu creates a sense of disassociation, though the voice of Ceaușescu is easily recognisable. Here, as throughout the film, Bunescu plays upon the public persona of Ceaușescu as presented by the communist propaganda machine – a walking encyclopaedia, an intellectual with expertise in all possible fields, whether international politics, or the economy, nutrition, agriculture, etc. – by introducing a tone of ironic dissonance.

Indeed, perhaps the most pertinent moment underlining the irony implied by Bunescu and Ujică in their (de)construction of Ceaușescu’s expertise occurs with the presentation of his most famed moment as a leader. Much of Ceaușescu’s national and international political capital was born out of his defiance of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, and his speech denouncing the invasion, which constituted an effort to emancipate the Romanian communist party from Moscow. However, a week before taking this stance, Ceaușescu had gone on a trip to Prague where he visited a factory and gave a press conference to local journalists. This material – which Bunescu notes they were surprised to find among the footage kept in the archives (Filippi and Rus 2014) – presents a relaxed and almost informal Ceaușescu, and one seen by the local journalists as a knowledgeable authority on the politics of a socialist country, a worthy source of valid information.

After the destruction produced by the 1977 earthquake, Ceaușescu became obsessed with rebuilding Bucharest, and his focus and energy were directed towards the monstrous construction of the Palace of the Parliament (aka People’s House). The sequence begins with a slow tilting shot over the decision edict to start building the palace, signed in 1984 by both Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu.14 Despite their ideological position as anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist, the family embraced a bourgeois way of living, which Bunescu depicts through astutely crafted editing. In the very next sequence Ceaușescu is shown enjoying a favourite pastime of his: hunting. This does not depict him as a member of the proletariat, but rather as belonging to a “nobility” of sorts, an occurrence which returns throughout the film, as he and his family recurrently are seen enjoying leisure activities with decidedly aristocratic associations. Indeed, the construction of the Palace, due to its gargantuan size and the cost of its construction has been compared to the building of the pyramids of ancient Egypt, and Ceaușescu, with his almost single-minded focus towards the construction of this structure as his legacy, adopted many characteristics associated with monarchs. The entire sequence focused on the plans for the People’s House lasts about four minutes, and includes footage of the couple inspecting the construction site and an architectural model of the building. As throughout the film, the soundtrack provides much of the authorial input and the ironical commentary: here it is constructed from the sound of people cheering in the street for the couple’s inspection of the construction site, while the abstract sounds of György Ligeti’s Poeme symphonique for 100 metronomes play over the inspection of the architectural model. Both the sound of people cheering in the streets and the beats of the metronomes act as subversive commentary to the seemingly benign images of the Ceaușescu couple and their entourage. What Bunescu does here is to maintain the sonority of the applause and cheering throughout the first scene: even when the images show the Ceaușescu couple and their entourage discussing the plans for the building we do not hear what is being said, as the sound of the crowds continues to dominate. Similarly, in the second scene the discussion regarding the architectural model is muted, while the sound of the mechanical dial of the metronome suggests a more metaphorical reading, representing the pressure of the entire regime on its people, who become nothing more than cogs in a machine.

Bunescu as a Collaborative Author

While Paul Sellors (2007) claims that authorship is the result of intentionality, Paisley Livingston adds that it needs to “embrace[s] both future-oriented intentions and ‘present-directed’ ones” (Livingston 2005: 9). Therefore, intentionality has both a broad focus, which is established from the inception of the film and gives the film production its direction – expressed in the case of Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu through the decision to present the film as an imagined autobiography – and a narrower, more detailed focus that directs the decisions of what footage or soundtrack to include or exclude, as well as the ways in which the materials are presented and edited. Livingston’s theory draws from the notion of the “talented artist” who “can deliberate over the sort of work to be made, lucidly make a decision, draw up a plan, and then skillfully execute it” (ibid.: 32).

While it is difficult to quantify or measure with exactitude Dana Bunescu’s contribution to the finished film, several aspects revealed through interviews with both her and Ujică help illustrate the significance of her work. Though the film’s initial intention can be attributed solely to Ujică (the future-oriented intention that set the direction of the film as an autobiography, out of which all other decisions emanated), there are decisions in the film for which Bunescu’s contribution was essential. For example, Ujică has stated (White 2011) that Dana Bunescu was the one who proposed the inclusion of the Bobby Fuller Band version of the song I Fought the Law (1966) over images of people dancing at a party and a flurry of urban activity. This choice is important not only because the song better fits the footage included in the scene than would have been the case with Ujică’s original idea, but also because it provides a satirical commentary on the film’s main character, especially in how it plays upon the figure of the communist leader as the ultimate revolutionary, and simultaneously reflects his eventual demise (“I fought the law, and the law won”). About this choice, Ujică has stated: “We had finished editing the shot with 1970 youth dance, something I put in the film because it reminded me of my high-school prom, which took place the same year, and we were looking for music to add to it. I remember listening for an entire day to “Like a Rolling Stone” with Bob Dylan in the legendary Manchester concert in May 1966 […]. Unfortunately, this piece was in tune only with my state of mind and not with the images.” (qtd. in White 2011).

In fact, one can deduce from all the comments made by both Bunescu and Ujică that the whole process of watching, cataloguing, and selecting footage – and then editing that footage into the film – was a collaborative effort. Therefore, it is evident that the contributions of both director and editor are equal in the case of Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu, which indicates that they should both be considered as essential contributors – through distinct artistic “utterances” – to the finished film and thus as belonging to the figure of the collective author.

Working in the shadows, so to speak, Bunescu operates out of public view, yet her contribution to Romanian cinema over the last two decades cannot be understated, and her position among not only contemporary Romanian, but also European, film artists, is cemented. Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu is an example of her artistry and creativity, highlighting not only her work on montage, but also her skills in sound editing. Underlining the connection between the two, this film stands as a quintessential example of the importance and value of the editor within the framework of the film author. However, it is essential to note that, in Livingston’s argument regarding authorship, this label is determined and attributed on a case-by-case basis. This means that, while in this essay I have attempted to demonstrate and show the contribution of Bunescu as a crucial contributor to the figure of the author in the film Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceaușescu, the same argument does not automatically apply to other films to which she has contributed – rather, each film needs to be analysed individually.

Raluca Iacob

Independent Scholar


1 Solomon, whose credits include among others Marele jaf comunist/ The Great Communist Bank Robbery (2004), Cold Waves (2007), Kapitalism – rețeta noastră secretă/ Kapitalism – Our Improved Formula (2010) and Ouăle lui Tarzan/ Tarzan’s Testicles (2017) is also an associated lecturer at the Bucharest National University of Arts.

2 The reference to an official autobiography in the title refers in part to the production of content by the communist apparatus, which the filmmakers deconstruct and assemble based on their own artistic direction, but which is the result of a “protocol archive” produced by Ceaușescu’s “own propaganda or media apparatus” (Ujică qtd. in Harris 2011).

3 These private archives, which have been rediscovered in the National film archives – as part of a special collection (Mapă specială/ Special portofolio) – containing thousands of hours of unseen footage from the communist period, from which the group of Ujică, Bunescu, Titus Munteanu and Velvet Moraru have extracted only a small portion.

4 The Ceaușescu family had a 16mm projector and a small, private cinema in one of their residences in Bucharest, where they could watch such footage. They also had several personal cameramen who would follow the family and film their holidays, parties, activities, etc.

5 In Romanian, the terms one would generally translate as ‘‘editing’ or ‘editor’ are not generally used to describe either the action of film-editing or the person responsible for such work. Instead, variations from the concept of ‘montage’(montaj) has led to a terminology that generally refers to the one who performs act of cutting and joining footage as monteur/ monteuză.

6 For an in-depth analysis and more detailed discussion of Shub’s contribution to Soviet and world cinema please see Issue 6 (2018) of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures of Central and Eastern Europe, specifically the articles by Lilya Kaganovsky and Adelheid Heftberger.

7 Interestingly, two of the film’s trailers play with this idea, directed by Marian Crișan and Radu Jude, which present versions in which the commentary from ordinary people is essential. Crișan’s promotional material being a vox populi highlights people’s memories and knowledge of the times of Ceaușescu, focusing especially on teenagers who had not even been alive during communism (published on the film’s YouTube page, and available at: Jude meanwhile presents the dialogue of two adult men watching and commenting on the film footage, in a darkened cinema ((published on the film’s YouTube page, and available at: These two trailers both highlight the range of experiences and thoughts on the figure of the dictator, from ignorance to bitter irony, a dynamic which is echoed by the films approach that is both informative and ironic.

8 The most common form of documentary, which is frequently used by TV stations in their non-fiction programming is what Bill Nichols terms the “expository mode”, which uses a narrator to directly address the audience and present the facts under purview (Nichols 2001).

9 In December 1989, as the Ceaușescu regime was starting to lose control of the country and to destabilise, events culminated in a violent overthrow of the government and ultimately the trial and execution of the dictator and his wife. The armed conflict, which was especially concentrated in some of the urban centres around the country, resulted in over 1000 deaths and 3000 injured, a toll which constituted one of the indictments cited at his summary trial on 25 December 1989.

10 The play between sound and silence has been employed by the Soviet filmmakers, which, as Adelheid Heftberger observes in a study of Dziga Vertov’s Tri Pesni o Lenine/Three Songs of Lenin (1934, Soviet Union), allows for a stronger emphasis of both elements, as the use of sound highlights the moments of silence and the other way around (Heftberger 2019).

11 As two communist countries, there were strong connections between the Ceaușescu regime and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Il-sung. Ceaușescu visited North Korea four times in the 1970s and 1980s (1971, 1978, 1982 and 1988).

12 Ceaușescu is shown walking through a lane of film extras, and his way is paved with flowers.

13 The poem, Scrisoarea III (part of a series of Letters/ “Epistles-Satires”) is an epic poem turned into satire, formulated on the basis of a virulent criticism of phoney patriotism.

14 By this point Elena Ceaușescu had become just as involved in ruling the country as her husband, transforming it from a single figure of dictatorship to as close to a monarchy as possible in a communist state.


Raluca Iacob is an independent researcher, working for a documentary film festival. She graduated in 2015 with a PhD in Film Studies from the University of St. Andrews, with a thesis on post-communist Romanian cinema. Her research engaged with understanding the development of post-communist identities by analysing Romanian films through the perspective of marginality. Her research interests include world cinema, documentary studies, communist and post-communist cinemas, and critical theory.


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Suggested Citation

Iacob, Raluca. 2018. “Authoring From the Shadows: Creativity and the Film Archive in The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu.” Women Cutting Movies: Editors from East and Central Europe (ed. by Adelheid Heftberger and Ana Grgic). Special Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 7. DOI:


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