Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 10, 2014

Waiting for August

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:16 pm

Opening today at the Quad in New York, “Waiting for August” is a cinema vérité Romanian documentary about seven children fending for themselves while their mother works as a housekeeper in Italy in order to provide the money the family needs to stay afloat. The father is unaccounted for—we don’t know if he is deceased or has simply bailed ship.

Like the best cinema vérité, especially early Frederick Wiseman, the film is making a point about society but without being too obvious about it. The subject under consideration is the precariousness of post-Communist Romania. At one point, just before Christmas, the children, who range from 15 to 4 by all appearances, are chatting about the upcoming holiday. One of the older children says that the TV will be showing pictures of that guy who was killed around Christmas time years ago. Who do you mean, asks the other? Ceausescu is the reply. He was the dictator under Communism when we had it so bad. You had to stand on line for bread rations. The irony is not lost on the audience who cannot help but be dismayed by the thin line that separates the seven kids from disaster. When you see a ten year old cutting potatoes for dinner, you wonder how long it will take for her to cut her hand. That is the feeling you are left with throughout the film. The suspense is whether they will all make it safely until August, when mom returns.

Seen in economic terms exclusively, a capitalist ideologue might argue that the film makes the case for capitalism since the kids use cell phones, watch cable TV, Skype to their mom on the family computer, and have the bare necessities for staying alive, including food, clothing and a roof over their heads. But crowded into no more than four rooms, their only pleasure besides their own companionship is watching soap operas on TV and passively taking in other electronic diversions on the computer. If Communist austerity was made possible by police repression, capitalist austerity is maintained by the free market—especially in labor as mom—like so many other Romanian parents apparently—is free to work in Italy to keep her children under the same roof. We learn that a nun who is aware of the family situation is on the verge of calling in the authorities to have the children put into an orphanage. It is not too hard to understand how so many young woman from Eastern Europe end up in the sex trade after seeing “Waiting for August”.

Not everything is grim in this documentary. In fact you are impressed with the strength and the love of the older children who function as surrogate parents. It can only make you feel, however, that they are losing the freedom of normal children who are able to make their lives their own growing up.

On the film’s website (http://waitingforaugust.be/), the 33 year old director Teodora Ana Mihai explains her motivation for making the film:

My parents fled Romania in 1988 and were granted political asylum in Belgium. I stayed behind as a guarantee for the secret services that my mom and dad would return: it was the only way for them to flee the country. In the absence of prospects, parents sometimes take risks whose consequences are difficult to calculate in advance. In the end I was lucky: about a year later, after some diplomatic interventions, I was able to leave Romania too and was reunited with my parents. But that one-year absence during my childhood left a significant mark on me.

I remain in close contact with my country of birth, intrigued and preoccupied by its current fate. It’s this connection with Romania that made me realize that, in a way, history is repeating itself there. The difference is that children are no longer left behind for political reasons, but for economic ones. The impact on the child though, remains the same.

The economic migrants are occasionally given a voice by the media, but we hardly ever hear from the young ones left behind. That is why I wanted to tell their story – the story behind the story.

But telling the story of children who are left behind by their parents is a delicate matter. It is a taboo in practically all cultures, as no one is proud of ending up in such circumstances. It was not an easy task to find a family who were not only expressive enough, but who also agreed to be filmed in an open, uncensored way.

As is the case with so many Romanian narrative films like “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”, this documentary turns a gimlet eye toward the contradictions of post-Communist society. Is there an alternative to Communist police state austerity and the insecurities of capitalism? One imagines that director Teodora Ana Mihai hopes that her audience will be inspired to answer that question for themselves, a question that most of Eastern Europe and the entire planet ponders much of the time in an epoch of declining economic expectations.

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