Uppercase Print: Begin the Bygone, by David Bax
We are informed by the opening text that Radu Jude’s Uppercase Print is an adaptation of a “documentary play” by Gianina Carbunariu. Documentary theatre as a form has existed for decades, building plays out of transcripts of actual court proceedings, interviews, news reports and so on. The idea, ostensibly, is to bring to life cold, hard facts that may read as dry on their own. So it’s a counterintuitive choice on Jude’s part to have his actors repeat the words of those they are portraying in as flat an affect as possible. It’s also a choice that works magnificently in the whip-smart, mocking way for which Jude is known, making clear that the official, historical record of Romania’s recent past is nowhere near as daffy as the reality.
In addition to being a film of a documentary play, Uppercase Print is also just a straight up documentary. Scenes from its story–the police inquiry of a teenager who scrawled protest messages on a public wall during the Ceausescu era and the trail of consequences for the boy and his family–alternate with archival footage not pertaining to the case but giving us an a wider image of Romania in the 1980s.
These include a TV report in which drivers who broke the recent ordnance banning the honking of horns are confronting by a cameraman and a probing reporter, multiple songs about how great Romania is (some of them quite catchy!) and other evidence of a society being lied to and manipulated into self-policing by a corrupt leadership. These sequences–which probably take up just as much time as the main narrative–are dropped in almost at random and allowed to play at length, which only makes them seem stranger and funnier. Very little about any description of Uppercase Print would make it sound like a comedy but it plays like one (a bitter one, at least). Even in the reenactment portion, if you want to call it that, Jude finds a way to make us laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, like when the actual text of what the teenager wrote, which starts out as “WE WANT JUSTICE AND FREEDOM,” seems to get longer with each witness’s recollection (as we find out when we finally see it, it actually was quite long).
Much of the archival footage is in black and white, which contrasts starkly with the transcript readings, which are bathed in colorful light and take place amidst large, graphic, programmatic interpretations of real settings like the boy’s family’s apartment or the secret police interrogation room. Uppercase Print gives us an impression of Romania in the 1980s, yes, but it uses these juxtapositions to examine the era’s legacy today. Perpetrators of injustice self-servingly insist that the past is the past; it’s been marked down and documented and we can be done with it now. But the consequences of injustice aren’t so easily put to bed.