AFI Fest 2018: “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians”, by Scott Nye
“I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” begins as documentary, proceeds as political comedy, climaxes as a live event, and concludes as the most laser-accurate indictment of the modern culture we’ve yet seen since neofascism seized the world stage. The variety of mediums (16mm film and cheap digital cameras, at least) and forms may be surprising for those of us who only know Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude from his picturesque 2015 film Aferim! (his only one to receive Stateside distribution, I believe), but the comedy and the moral clarity are right in common. That film was set two hundred years ago and gave no relief to a modern audience hoping for a righteous companion to guide them through senseless violence and depravity; “I Do Not Care…” too offers little relief for our contemporary world.
After a brief documentary on the Odessa massacre, a shorthand for the mass murder of tens of thousands of Jewish people in the Ukranian town while it was under Romanian control in 1941, less than a year after they had aligned with the Axis powers (having initially assumed a position of neutrality). If you don’t know your Romanian history, don’t worry, I don’t either, but the film gradually gives the impression that this is an event most Romanians would either rather forget or ignore. So when theatre director Mariana Marin (Ioana Iacob, who introduces herself and her character to us) selects it as her subject for a city-commissioned live reenactment of a Romanian military campaign, well, it stirs up a lot of feelings.
As in Germany, then-Prime Minister Ion Antonescu rose to power in Romania on a nationalistic platform of strength through suppression, which inevitably turned into execution. The title of this film comes from a speech he gave to instigate the massacre (hence the quotation marks). Though he was convicted of war crimes and executed, Antonescu’s reputation in Romania remains somewhat controversial. In one scene, Mariana notes how strange it is to find a film on TV that casts him sympathetically, noting that no such film about Hitler could ever be shown in Germany, or almost anywhere.
Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), an official tasked with overseeing and approving Mariana’s production, is not necessarily an Antonescu fan, but walks the fine line many do in polite society, insisting that there are some other unseen, unheard people who will be unhappy that this is the way they choose to portray Romanian history. He proves Mariana’s chief sparring partner, and their debates – about moral equivalency, denial, public approval, and the tricky difficulty of declaring truth in history – are the liveliest and, in the short term, most rewarding aspect of the film. Mariana is whip-smart, with an answer to every challenge, certain that it is more important to acknowledge your country’s history, no matter how horrible, than to placate it with easy nostalgia and propaganda.
Iacob is extraordinary in the role, assuming all of her character’s moral righteousness alongside the easygoing rapport she has with an unwieldy citizen-cast. None are actors, but each has a definite opinion on the event they’re depicting, and the calm way she coaxes them to play to her vision contrasts nicely with the combative approach she takes to Movilă. Most such portraits stuff their artists into glad-handers, rolling their eyes to a friend before smiling at their foe, but Mariana more frequently treats his opinion seriously yet dismissively. It’s a fine line for an actor to walk, especially as she practically enters the film with our sympathy – “yeah, call out the bastards!” we cry – yet cannot rely solely on that. That neither of them come close to predicting the effect the reenactment ultimately has on the crowd is just as damning as the crowd’s reaction itself.
The film is shot mostly on 16mm, and until smartphones and laptops enter the picture, it’d be easy to assume it a period piece. The film stock instead – its graininess and high-contrast nature fully embraced – serves as an intrinsic way the past and present coexist. While the film is certainly indebted to Jean-Luc Godard’s didactic political work in the late 1960s and early 70s, the film deals with just that sort of nostalgia, Mariana clearly eager to slide into the activist art circles of a time that’s passed her by. This further underscores her total blindness to the political era in which she’s actually living, a blindness we become complicit in due to the film’s relatively ferocious pace (it’s still Romanian, but this is among the liveliest and most dialogue-driven films I’ve seen from that country) and how charismatically she articulates her view. The film switches to low-grade digital camera for the reenactment, giving the impression of a live-television broadcast that slyly convinces us that the crowd’s reaction is 100% authentic.
Cinema, an art form built on immediacy that is nevertheless quite slow-moving, is just now catching up to the Trump era. This year, even outside the documentary realm, has seen mention of international authoritarianism in films as distinct as Burning, Private Life, and BlacKkKlansman. “I Do Not Care…” is less explicitly concerned with the U.S. situation, but makes clear it is not alone in simplifying its history to fill an emotional void left hollow in a rapidly-changing world. It also makes clear that you can have all the right answers, but they hardly matter when you’re missing the questions and in fact aren’t even having the same conversation. It’s impossible to know whether the film being so deeply of its moment will keep it resonating for years to come, but for now all I can say is that it’s absolutely one of the best films I’ve seen all year.