I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Winner of the Crystal Globe at the 2018 Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Radu Jude’s latest film is a complex blend of satire, historiography and manifesto. By turns hysterically funny and deeply unnerving, I Do Not Care is an accomplished and nuanced film that lives up to its weighty subject matter.
I Do Not Care follows a radical director putting on a controversial piece of public theatre in modern-day Bucharest. Maria (Iona Iacob) is using a military re-enactment event to force Romanians to confront their historical role in the Holocaust, specifically the 1941 Odessa massacre, in which thousands of Jewish people were murdered by the Romanian Fourth Army. Jude previously tackled the subject of the Romanian Holocaust, the nation’s role in which has been diminished to the point of erasure, in his 2017 film Dead Nation, a photomontage essay which worked to uncover the hidden history of Romanians in wartime. I Do Not Care illustrates the motivations and difficulties inherent in creating this kind of work. Although it was Romanian partisans who tried and executed Nazi collaborator Ion Antonescu, in part for his participation in ethnic cleansing, memories of the subsequent Soviet occupation and the excesses of Nicolae Ceaușescu have all but eclipsed contemporary acknowledgement of Romania’s collaboration with the Nazi extermination programme.
The film follows Maria through a hot Bucharest summer, battling to save her production and preserve its integrity. On top of marshalling a largely amateur and volunteer-based cast, Maria has to contend with an oleaginous city official determined to declaw her performance, the chauvinism of her extras and a self-absorbed married lover. Jude has, in interviews, expressed his intention to create a director-protagonist who was more than a cut-out for himself. Iona Iacob, in her first leading role, makes the character totally her own, furiously arguing with bigots, retreating periodically to her bath and pleading, cajoling and threatening to protect her work. Her energy propels the film through some of its slower sections, managing to keep the tempo even when long direct quotations, from Hannah Arendt or witness testimony from Antonescu trial, are introduced.
The first of these texts read out by Maria, in this case to her lover over Skype, is a short story by Isaac Babel. Crossing the Zbruch is an account of being billeted on a rural Jewish family during the Soviet-Polish war (1919-21). The narrator, a Russian soldier, is at first contemptuous of the family but then is forced to witness the violence they have suffered at the bands of Polish troops. Maria reads this story in its entirety, the camera following her around her apartment. The effect of inserting a whole story rather than a quotable excerpt is to compel the viewer to assimilate it into their understanding of the film as a whole, rather than as an aspect of Maria’s character. This fusing of drama and film-essay techniques works well, each vitalising the other and enabling Jude to lay out some complex arguments (on the definition of realism and the ‘usefulness’ of historical memory, for example) without descending into turgid agitprop.
In I Do Not Care, it remains unclear how much of the action is spontaneous and how much scripted by Jude. The actual producer, sound designer and costumer appear as themselves within the film and Iona Iacob begins the film by introducing herself and explaining she will be playing Maria, who like her was raised Orthodox and who, unlike her, is an atheist. The cinematography from Marius Panduru (who worked on Aferim! with Jude) is deceptively low-key: beautifully framed shots appear to happen organically as the camera follows the pacing actors. The opening scene is filmed on a handheld which follows Maria through the military museum that will be her production base. The camera then switches to a calmer, more cinematic style, following Maria through the various hurdles of rehearsal and avoiding censorship. For the actual performance, the film returns to the lower quality handheld, allowing cameramen and boom operators to appear in shot and enhancing the sensation that this is a real-world performance with a real-world crowd watching it. This switching between fiction and staged radical performances is reminiscent of the work of ’60s Japanese filmmaker Shūji Terayama, in particular his 1971 protest film Throw Your Books Away, Rally In The Street, which pivots between a young working class man’s coming-of-age and provocative acts of street theatre performed by Terayama’s company in Tokyo. This blending of obvious fiction and purported reality allows for ambiguity as to the ‘realness’ of what we see on screen. Are those really secret policemen who appear in Terayama’s film to remove the penis-shaped piñata set up at a crossroads, or are they actors? At the climactic theatrical performance in I Do Not Care, the crowd applauds the Wehrmacht and even helps capture an escaping Jewish man, is this Jude’s direction? It feels nightmarishly real.
Finally, the film is easily the best satire of the art world released recently; far more relevant and far, far funnier than Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw or 2017’s The Square. Maria’s repeated battles with the man who controls her funding, treading a treacherous path between losing his backing and having dinner with him, are nail-biting.
Finally, a use for military re-enactments!