blog documentaire

wednesday 18 april 2012
AFTER THE SILENCE what remains unsaid does not exist?
Article by Ms Camille Bui
(english translation by Alexis Tadié)
We enter the film from the sky. Against the dark blue of the sky, the clouds are scattered and brought back haphazardly by the wind. The moving sky, which is initially silent, welcomes the first words: « – Do you remember speaking to mum about it ? Your Mother? – We haven’t really talked about it, no. – And with Teona? – No, not with Teona, Teona doesn’t know much about history… you know, the communist period.” This snippet of dialogue between the director and her friend Ioana introduces the question of the silence, that instrument of dictatorship around which the film is built. The game of questions and answers which unfolds between the two women throughout the film is one way of breaking the silence, by pointing to, and turning upside down, the apparent void that silence has left in memory and in the transmission between generations. Vanina Vignal’s film interrogates the possibility of bringing up what is unsaid and to (re)build links that were damaged by the necessity of remaining silent, in order to survive, both psychologically and physically.
AFTER THE SILENCE was born of a friendship between Vanina Vignal and Ioana Abur. They met in Bucarest in 1991, shortly after the fall of Ceaucescu. The director’s perspective is born out of this relationship. She questions Iona’s story from the position of a friend. AFTER THE SILENCE is the material and the medium of a dialogue between Vanina Vignal and three generations of Rumanian women: Iona, her mother Rodica, and her daughter Teona. Vanina Vignal is a stranger to Communist Romania, so that her position is both intimate with, and at a distance from, History and the women she records. She constructs her film from this singular position, a position which is figured by her position as a speaker in the film, but she also speaks through a voice over which accompanies the spectator, in a discrete and persistent way throughout the film. The voice over “takes charge of the analysis which the characters always refused to produce” but it refuses to be “a god who would know everything, as opposed to the characters who don’t”. She speaks from her own, humble, position, her knowledge is different from that of the characters, it is built from the outside, through meetings and empathy.
The film opens with a picture of Vanina and Ioana, in 1991, their own reflection framed in a shop window, under heavy snow. Vanina films Ioana. From these images of the past that were shot in Hi8, the film takes us towards present day Romania. Before the shot of the sky, we read the fragile subtitle “what is not said does not exist?” Then, facing the camera, in 2011, Rodica, Ioana and Teona express in turn the difficulty they have of remembering, of thinking about, of talking about the communist period. At the heart of their narrative, we perceive silence, fear and the unsaid, which are like traces of the totalitarian regime, almost like a negative film. Progressively, we understand that Rodica carried the weight of her father’s arrest, who was deported as a prisoner, in order to work on the massive building site of the canal which now links up the Danube to the Black Sea. This piece of engineering relied on the work of thousands of men, many of whom lost their lives in the process. Ioana, Rodica’s daughter, was always kept ignorant of the reality of Romanian politics by her parents who wanted to protect her. She was told a transformed version of the history of her grand-father, a story which she, in turn, has not questioned. Teona, Ioana’s daughter, is not terribly interested in history and would rather not talk about Ceaucescu. The film and the questions raised by the director bring back the past to the mutilated present of the lives of these women. If ever Vanina’s questions do not bring back the past to the present, official definitions in a dictionary of the communist period do so. On Ioana’s face, emotion can constantly be seen – she is in turn overwhelmed by a surfeit of memories or, on the contrary, something in her shuts down, in a defensive refusal to think. Throughout the film, Vanina Vignal follows Ioana’s emergence from the bubble of silence which had been built around her, at a moment in her life when she wonders about what she has received from her parents and about what she passes on to her daughter.
The broken interviews with Ioana, but also with her mother and her daughter, yield few clear lines in their family history. What is felt through words is more subtle than a list of forgotten facts which are later unearthed. The film records the ways in which the aftereffects of the silence, as well as of the oppression it fostered, leave a mark on a body, on a face, in a mind. The true event in the conversations lies in the words that emerge from the bodies after having been censored and stifled for decades. Throughout the film, Ioana is engaged in a physical struggle to overcome the difficulty of emerging from the silence. Silence seems to be inscribed in her body. Vanina films her face, her eyes. The frame of the picture is the interface between the faces of the two women. The organisation of the bodies in a shot/reverse shot system defines the form of dialogue between them. The director says: « In Ioana’s life, I am someone who disturbs, who questions ». In the cinema, Vanina places Ioana in front of her camera and of her microphone.
As a counterpoint to these pictures of 2011, Vanina Vignal introduces short films that she shot with a Hi8 camera twenty years earlier. Ioana is seen as a happy teenager. This apparent carefree attitude is echoed by Vanina’s spontaneous, amateur filming. The film is thus built on a complex movement between pictures from the past – when silence was not ready to be undone – and the images of the present, which are visually more austere, more direct in their frontal construction. This to and fro movement between two eras of Romania and between two phases of the relationship between the two friends allows us to measure the distance separating the past from the present. It is sensitivity that makes us understand what separates the smiles of yesterday from the emotion that accompanies the moment when silence is finally broken. The pictures of the past which are seen with the eyes of the present show the difficulty of a genuine communication when what was unsaid was denied. Conversely, the pictures of the present, which are seen between pictures of the past, are heavy with the weight of a silence from which Ioana is trying to emerge. The juxtaposition of both sets of pictures is thus a way for the film to generate a link between the past and the present, a condition for understanding history. These shots that were made by the director between 1991 and 2011 are supplemented by other pictures. Children or family photographs, accompanied by Iona’s or Rodica’s commentaries, immerse us in the uncanny of Barthes’s “it-was-once”: this little girl, the man or the woman in the picture have lived through the horrors of the dictatorship, in their most intimate everyday lives. Elsewhere, Vanina Vignal introduces the beginning of a propaganda film, in which Ioana featured, as a teenager. When Ioana starts speaking in the “Young Rumanian Socialist”, the film stops on her face, and the director’s voice takes over to deflate the discourse of propaganda, which is another way of restoring the link between a past immersed in lies and the beginning of the end of silence.
Through the grouping of these heterogeneous pictures, a multifaceted dialogue is constructed by the editing process, between the camera-holding director and three generations of Rumanian women, but also between two stages of the end of the communist regime in Rumania, since “it is not enough to kill the dictator to kill dictatorship.” Thanks to dialogue, between pictures and people, the film brings out everyone from their own inner silence. Cinema enables the painful past to exist in the present, in order better to face the future. Without imposing a dialogue between generations, Vanina Vignal hopes it will happen, and she shows the first signs of it. She stays with the characters from the end of silence to the beginnings of discourse. This discourse is still fragile, wondering about its own possibility, but it interrupts the transmission of silence. With AFTER THE SILENCE, Vanina Vignal gives birth to action in speech.
1. Vanina Vignal, Interview published in the Journal du Réel, N° 1, March 2012. Available on line
2. Idem.
3. The film The Young Romanian Socialist was directed by Cornel Diaconu in 1985 in the studios of the Centre for Cinema Production in Bucarest (Casa de Filme 1). Cf. trailer of After the Silence.
4. Vanina Vignal, Author’s note.
Available on line