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GOCRITIC! Trieste 2019

GoCritic! Review: The Distance Between Me and Me

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- Read our review of the Romanian documentary which recently had its Italian premiere at the 30th Trieste Film Festival

GoCritic! Review: The Distance Between Me and Me

Two well-established names in Romanian New Wave cinema - producer Mona Nicoara (Our School [+see also:
film review
film profile
]
) and editor and sound designer Dana Bunescu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, Aferim! [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Radu Jude
film profile
]
, "I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians"
 [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
) – have teamed up to portray the poet, composer, intellectual and devoted communist, Nina Cassian, in their co-directorial documentary debut, The Distance Between Me and Me [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
.

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Opening with a Securitate report detailing Cassian’s whereabouts and her many opinions - public and private, written and spoken – the film immediately homes in on the poet’s status as so-called enemy of the state. There are a number of documents along these lines, which are shown throughout the film in a simplistic manner, the camera scrolling through the document or zooming in to emphasise particular sections. The film also utilises archive video and audio recordings of the poet as she recites romantic poetry, reads children's books on TV, and discusses trends in poetry criticism. What the film doesn’t do, however, is go into any real detail over the radical actions actually carried out by Cassian, the political clashes she experienced, or indeed, anything which shows the viewers unfamiliar with her life and work that she was in fact the "decadent persona" the regime considered her to be.

Her political involvement is revealed to a far greater extent through a talking head interview which was shot in 2014 by Nicoara and Bunescu, in the New York residence where she’d lived ever since escaping Romania in 1985. This interview turned out to be her last, as Cassian passed away later that year. In it, we see Cassian lighting one cigarette after another, despite having difficulty breathing. She’s 90 years old, but she’s remarkably sane and lucid as she reflects on her life, commenting on archive footage of herself and making bold statements. “I was the greatest supporter of communism” she insists. “But what we had in Romania was anti-communism and an excuse for autocracy.”

The dramaturgy of The Distance between Me and Me follows one simple rule: each segment of archive footage is followed by an interview sequence. The archive footage, however, often feels redundant and chosen as mere filler in the absence of any genuinely engaging content. Different segments of the same footage appear on several occasions throughout the film, with no logical or chronological order. The archive material fails to include any real examples of the ways in which Cassian’s works have resonated with the public, and if her work, her position or the recognition she enjoys within Romania has changed over the years, and, if so, how. A segment which follows Cassian’s visit to a factory comes close to providing such an insight; we see her reading her poems and discussing modern and classic poetry with the labourers, but whether she has enjoyed the respect of the working class remains unclear.

The film itself doesn’t tell us much about her legacy, about the significance of her poetry or about modern-day perceptions of her beliefs, but as the two co-directors explained when the film screened at the Trieste Film Festival: “She’s one of those authors who’s required reading at school”. Audiences who aren’t aware of this fact, however, can only guess at Cassian’s status as one of the biggest Romanian poets and authors of the past century. In fact, it’s only when the end credits roll and Cassian is listed as the film’s OST composer that we finally get an inkling of her broad artistic engagement. While admirers of her work may find The Distance Between Me and Me a pleasant homage, the uninitiated are left with an incomplete picture of a subject who comes across as thoughtful and inspiring, but who, on balance, probably deserved a better film.

This article was written as part of GoCritic! training programme.

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