Mugur Călinescu’s story faded from the edge of public knowledge when he died in 1985, aged just 19. Three years earlier, the schoolboy had been apprehended by the security services for writing graffiti in chalk on the walls of the Communist Party HQ in his hometown of Botoșani, demanding freedom and an end to long food queues. Then, in rapidly declining health, he was diagnosed with leukaemia. Although his fate was left out of Romania’s official history, those close to him suspected Ceaușescu’s regime had killed him by slipping radioactive poison into his coffee during frequent interrogations.
It wasn’t until 2013 that Călinescu’s demise grabbed Romania’s attention, thanks to Gianina Cărbunariu’s play Uppercase Print, inspired by the teenager’s secret police files. Now, director Radu Jude is bringing his story to the global masses: collaborating with Cărbunariu to launch a feature film of the same name, screening last week at the Berlin International Film Festival.
“[Călinescu’s] story was totally hidden before,” said Jude when The Calvert Journal sat down with the 42-year-old in Berlin. “There was a class element to this. People in the intellectual realm who opposed the regime, such as journalists and writers, were more well-known. The ones who did it from the periphery of society, like this teenager, or workers, didn’t have the tools to make their experiences known. It’s important to show morality, idealism, and courage existed among everyday people too.”
Nicolae Ceaușescu headed Romania’s communist regime from 1965 to his overthrow and execution in 1989, ruling over a state apparatus known as one of the most brutally repressive in the Eastern Bloc. Even if Călinescu was not directly murdered by the state, the stress and social ostracisation caused by the case around him surely contributed: “All the paranoia that existed in the 80s around the superpowers of the state security system was probably exaggerated, and whether he was poisoned is not clear, but he had suffered a social death, anyway,” says Jude. Călinescu’s home was bugged, and his family and friends, under suspicion simply by association, were also called in for rounds of questioning. “His friends at school started keeping their distance out of fear, and he didn’t have a normal future in that society. He was apparently very depressed. But exactly what happened is shrouded in mystery.”
Uppercase Print shifts back and forth between actors voicing parts of Călinescu’s police files in a minimalist studio set, and archival footage of socialist TV shows, interspersed with rousing propaganda songs and historic public service broadcasts on the power of good citizenship. “I wanted to put together this dialectical montage, so that this secret history — small, personal, and hidden — clashed with the official, visual history of Romania, which was being televised at exactly the same time as these [case files] appeared,” Jude says. “If the regime showed any self-criticism at all, it was to tell the population that if there was a problem, they would solve it, but of course they only chose small problems, like a broken park bench. It was an insidious way to show social control, because, of course, the real problems were completely different.”
“There is no reason to deal with history unless you can find something in it of the present time. If these problems had been closed, I wouldn’t make films about them”
The film’s contrasting weave of public propaganda and classified information reveals the gulf between the regime’s pretense of harmony, and the suffering and dissent it could never completely suppress. “I really liked this idea of constructing a film using materials that don’t conventionally belong to cinema,” says Jude. “Cinema can be much more than a way of storytelling; it’s something to provoke thinking.”
The regime was so unaccustomed to the populace daring to voice unauthorised ideas, and so desperate to re-establish its all-encompassing, iron-fisted grip, that it went to great lengths to find Botoșani’s graffiti mastermind. Agents with tracking dogs patrolled in shifts, and 30,000 writing samples were lifted from tenants’ association expense lists and other civic paperwork in order to be painstakingly analysed. When Călinescu was caught red-handed four weeks later, the authorities were surprised to find that he was only a child, rather than a foreign spy or hardened activist. Călinescu had followed the path to disillusionment himself, listening clandestinely to outlawed station Radio Free Europe and adopting the kind of ideas that the authorities moved quickly to “correct”.
Radio Free Europe, funded by the US government to encourage the free flow of information banned during the Cold War, was a common source of alternative views for countless citizens of the era, Jude said. He recalls when he first heard the station himself, while on a visit to relatives in the countryside, aged around nine. “An older cousin turned it on, and it was beyond shocking for me to hear Ceaușescu referred to only by surname. In our propaganda, he was always ‘Our Great Leader Ceaușescu’, or something.”
Jude’s films often bring dark chapters of his country’s history to the forefront of public consciousness. They include Aferim!, which dealt with the enslavement of Roma in the 19th century, to I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians (2018), which confronted Romania’s complicity in the Holocaust and lingering anti-semitism. At this year’s Berlinale, he also premiered Exit of the Trains (2020), a collaboration with historian Adrian Cioflâncă that bore witness to the victims of the Iași pogrom that the government carried out in 1941 under dictator Ion Antonescu. Wartime co-operation with Nazi Germany “was a forbidden topic in communist times too”, says Jude. “That sounds ridiculous, but the Ceaușescu dictatorship was also nationalist, so all these things were not talked about, and hidden.”
In Uppercase Print, the only line Jude added to the existing texts was a reference to Cambridge Analytica, the company at the centre of a recent scandal over the misappropriation of Facebook data to undermine democratic processes. It’s a cheeky insertion that makes explicit the resonance of Călinescu’s case with issues of sinister surveillance and autocratic power grabs across the globe today. “There is no reason to deal with history unless you can find something in it of the present time,” says the director. “If these problems had been closed, I wouldn’t make films about them.”