Review: Between Revolutions
- BERLINALE 2023: Vlad Petri’s documentary provides a compelling look back at the history of both Romania and Iran
After releasing his first documentary feature, Where Are You Bucharest, in 2014, Romanian director Vlad Petri returns to the genre with Between Revolutions [+see also:
interview: Vlad Petri
film profile], a documentary screened in the Berlinale Forum, which combines archival footage and fictitious letters in order to explore two very different (in some aspects) but quite similar uprisings: the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the 1989 Romanian Revolution.
One particular strength of Petri’s first documentary, which won the Best First Feature Award at the 2015 Gopo Awards, was the way it captured the anger and the disappointment of Romanian society during a series of protests that were caused by a change in the health-system legislation and soon snowballed into something bigger. With Between Revolutions, the director lingers in a similar area, that of civil unrest, but uses archive footage from both Romania and Iran to show how a society can succumb to the intensity of a revolution and with what results. The pervading idea behind Petri’s approach is that “victories can be confiscated” and that, more often than not, the hopes and wishes of regular people are ignored by those who come to rule a country.
Films made exclusively from archival footage can be quite dry and uninviting, especially when no information regarding the images is given on screen, but this is not the case with Between Revolutions: Petri frames the images within a (fictitious) epistolary conversation between Maria, a Romanian, and Zohra, an Iranian, two good friends who studied together at the Bucharest Medical School before Zohra decided to return to Tehran not long before the Islamic Revolution. The two women’s letters (voiced by Victoria Stoiciu and Ilinca Hărnuţ) were written by Lavinia Branişte (the film’s co-writer, together with Petri), based on documents in the Romanian Secret Police archives. Without directly commenting on the images we see on screen, these letters bring some extraordinary emotion, talking about hopes and despair, about the women’s efforts to move on and their resignation, transporting the film’s audience into a long-gone era and giving a voice to the women of that time. The result is more than compelling; it is haunting.
Petri finds inventive ways to stress the similarities between the two revolutions and the two cultures. Even if the two events happened a decade apart, they synchronised in an eerie way: as the Islamic Revolution, welcomed with such hope by Iranian society, brought the freedom-restricting new rules of Ruhollah Khomeini’s theocratic government, in the 1980s, the Romanians faced food shortages caused by dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s obsession with paying off the country’s foreign debt. And while the 1989 revolution was welcomed with great enthusiasm, the 1990s proved that societies are quite reluctant to change. Petri even finds pieces of footage from the two societies that mirror each other: for example, images of a US flag being burnt by the revolutionaries in 1979 are followed later in the film by the burning of one of Ceauşescu’s ubiquitous portraits in 1989.
Besides providing footage that large parts of the audience have probably never seen before, the documentary’s long-lasting effect goes beyond revolutions and civil unrest. After the screening, there is a lingering impression that, no matter one’s gender, race or country of origin, the bitter disappointments of “big history” can be sweetened (if not overcome) by friendships and the love we feel for those close to us.
Between Revolutions was produced by Activ Docs (Romania), and co-produced by Restart (Croatia) and an undisclosed (for security reasons) Iranian production company. Its international sales are being handled by CAT&Docs.
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