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Ramona Mitrica- interview with a foreign friend - about the place Romanian creativity occupies in the imagination of the artistic world (Part 4)

The Romanian version of this interview was published in CULTURA Magazine / nr. 616 / October 2020

Foto: Mike Phillips and Cristian Mungiu (Soho London, 2003)


More about Mike Phillips

Ramona Mitrica - Interview with a foreign friend. About the place Romanian creativity occupies in the imagination of the artistic world

I want this interview to tell a story - a story about you MIKE PHILLIPS.
How has your experience of Romania and Romanian arts affected and influenced your views as a critic and an author?

Ramona Mitrica – I’ve been very good so far, and I’ve let you describe your encounter with our cultures in your own way, but now I have to interrupt you and try to clear up the general direction of some of the things you’ve said. To begin with, I notice that you’ve been talking about the similarities between artists and cultures irrespective of where they come from or think they belong, but the linkages are not very clear to me. As a matter of fact, in the last part, part 3, you have made a distinction between two different traditions. One is the classical European, as exemplified by Shakespeare, Goldoni, Tolstoy and so on, the other is exemplified by the style of modernist writers like George Arion. What I want to know is how you connect all of these traditions, and how they fit into your thesis about the relationship of various cultures all over the world. We are speaking here specifically about the Romanian culture, which we see as being shaped by specific ways of living, and by specific historical circumstances, going back to the roots of European culture, with the Roman Emperor Trajan, for example. What is or how do you describe the relationship between this, and, for example, a collection of English speaking postcolonial cultures?

Mike Phillips – I guessed you’d let me talk myself into a box, but let me try and explain. Part of the problem is concerned with our contemporary usage of the word culture, along with the way that we think of people’s social behaviour. Most of this development is due to the influence of an academic language of ideas, dominated by Francophone philosophers, like Baudrillard and Foucault, and their use of words has penetrated relentlessly into the language we employ to talk about ourselves. So we talk now about everything which influences our behaviour as “culture”.

As you would expect, this has revealed resemblances and relationships between all kinds of cultures, not to mention the human tendency to take over and exploit every behaviour which happens to be convenient or useful. This is one of the reasons I began with talking about my own cultural background, which was full of cultural experiences that were similar or identical to experiences from areas of which I’d never heard.

For example, one of my childhood memories is about my grandmother’s brother, Uncle Joey, who was an oilfield worker in Trinidad. He visited us in Guyana every year and we all looked forward to seeing him. The highlight of his visits came in the evenings, when he sat on the stairs, in the dark, with us, the children of the house, to tell stories. For a long time I was convinced that my uncle’s stories were special and specific – tales of witches and evil spirits, mysterious beggars and talking animals, desperate mothers and fathers sacrificed - intrinsic building blocks of “our” culture. But much later on, I found myself reading or listening to various versions of the same stories, which had the same narrative links between internal and spiritual worlds, and which were imbued with similar attempts to explain the mysteries of human existence. In the circumstances, it seemed to me, we all began our lives with very similar cultural foundations.

Ramona Mitric─â – That’s obviously true. But when you’ve said that, all you’ve said is a recognition of what we share as human beings. You’re right about the fact that stories like the ones you describe can be found in every part of the world. When you talk about them it sounds very familiar. They’re fundamental elements of everyone’s folk art. But if one recognizes these activities as the foundation of a culture, and if one follows up the modern language of public discourse by calling every human activity ”culture”, how can one distinguish between different kinds of human beings?

Mike Phillips – That is what makes it so difficult. I’ve been talking about a group of memories and trying to link them up with the impressions which defined my grasp of Romanian culture, but the problem is that I’m not sure at any point how to distinguish it from any other network of cultural phenomena.

Let me take any day wandering in Bucharest or Sibiu or Iasi. Or, indeed, any one of my conversations with you (Ramona) and Liviu (Antonesei), George (Arion), et cetera, et cetera.

We all belonged, as we spoke, to an open internationalist culture in which the major figures were European or came with European credentials. Our references were literary. Our discussions were based on analysing or understanding the past of European culture. The problem was that, wherever we happened to be, this method of communication was part of a different world, a species of language, which refined, then excluded the speech and the habits of every day, ordinary people. Therefore we could engage with Shakespeare or Pushkin or Dickens wherever we came from, whether it’s Nairobi or Chicago or Cluj, without reference to local origins or behaviour.

So let’s put this definition of culture, that is, the practice of “international” writers, intellectuals and poets to one side for a moment, because I suspect that language itself creates bridges which are more to do with recording history than reporting culture.

On the other hand, when we talk about “cultures” in the contemporary moment, we are also talking about the massive social changes which have been introduced in the last century, by industrialization, by universal education, and by the dominance of one or the other system of politics.

One of the characteristics which has most clearly marked these changes, is a gradual shift from literary to visual communication, from the habitual use of words to the mundane reproduction of pictures and images.

This has created a very different relationship to “culture”, which you can see merely by looking at the collection of images presented on the screen in front of you. So if you want to, you can share the experiences of a shepherd in the Carpathians or a policeman in a Danube port, at the flick of a switch. Do you want to know what it’s like to walk down a street in Washington? Get yourself the right software and you can do it. Do you want to soar above the mountains or share the intimate moments of family life in a Transylvanian village? Get yourself a drone. In this sense we’re all migrants now, free to explore the cultures of the world. If we can afford it.

One night on the way back from Sibiu I sat in the back of a taxi, occasionally trembling with terror as the driver negotiated the long climb down the mountain, spinning round the endless curves, speeding past huge lorries packed with machinery, and trying not to look at the massive falls which lined the sides of the road. In contrast, he was cheerful and chatty, talking about the different countries in which he’d worked – Italy, Spain, Germany, and bombarding me with the usual questions – who are you? What do you do? Why are you here?

“Is it true,” he said at point, swerving round a loaded truck, “that the English put milk in their tea?”

We were halfway to Bucharest before I finished answering that question. From this distance our ensuing discussion, about mamaliga, and chiftele, and sarmale, sounds banal, but, apart from taking my mind off the dizzying road and its dangers, the conversation reminded me of how much I had in common with this stranger, along with dozens of friends halfway round the world. Thinking back on the trip, however, I am reminded about the old joke about the Romanian New Wave, which said you could tell a production of the New Wave because it would feature two people sat in a car, talking interminably.

Well, here we are. I started my reply trying to illustrate the connection between my own existence as an artist and the way that it links me to cultures which seemed, at first, very distant.

But I’ve also been thinking, while I spoke, about how to describe what I saw of the Romanian culture. To begin with the habits and behaviour I was observing under the label of culture, were all in a state of flux. The recent dictatorship had presided over a complex system of patronage and censorship which had established a kind of stability on the world of arts and literature. On the other hand, it had also created an atmosphere of stasis. At the end of the century, a foreigner, like myself, could be forgiven for feeling that nothing much had happened since the days of Marin Preda, whose first volume of the novel Marometii exemplified most of the nativist elements that Romanians cherished as a corrective against the Communist influenced wave of social realism. But it was this moment, the last decade of the century, when the country’s cultural tableaux seemed to shake and go through a kaleidoscopic splintering. I imagine that this was partly to do with the vanishing of the restrictions of censorship, along with the rediscovery and retelling of recent history. As powerful as any of these changes however, was the impact of technology, which is where the cinema comes in.

You (RM) introduced me to Cristian Mungiu at what must have been the beginning of his career in films. We met in a café in Soho, and he reminded me strongly of one of my students from the postgraduate course I had been teaching at the University of Westminster. He was slight, pale and friendly, and he was interested in much the same issues as any of the other young people who were my friends in London. It was some time before his importance as a cultural figure struck me.

I make the point because it seems to me now that some of the cultural changes pioneered by the cinema were about the changing style and concerns of a new generation. This was a group which had begun to reject the limitations of old certainties in a manner similar to their counterparts in the rest of Europe, and they looked at the past with different eyes, examining their history with a fresh and nuanced appraisal. This was not simply a matter of taking political sides or delivering commentaries about past regimes. Unlike Preda’s villagers whose anxieties were about the future of a common identity, Mungiu’s heroines, along with Mr Lazarescu and the heroine of Sunt o Baba Communista, seemed to me to share a new and individualistic anxiety about the possibilities of the future. The joke about characters conversing in cars, isolated from everything around them, wasn’t just about production costs. It was actually a trope which highlighted the solitude and alienation of our contemporary lives.

There was yet another element which served as a boundary around the space in which these culture wars were taking place. This was related to my early impressions about the existence of a spiritual hinterland where rural customs, the Orthodox religion, and a deep reverence for nature, all came together to form a foundation for Romanian identity. This element also served as a platform from which the past could interrogate a future for which it would be, itself, responsible.

“… this ours no longer had any trace of meaning in real life. The country’s men? But who among the persons present truly cared for the country?” (Augustin Buzura. Report on the State of Loneliness. Profusion, 2009. p. 498)

Buzura links Romania’s military and political history together with the customary folk practices of its countryside, along with the mystical traditions which emerge from its relationship with the natural world. In this way, he avoids the banality of the “island of Latinity” claim, and carries out an exploration of Romanian identity which argues its authenticity, while staging an intervention into the contemporary cultural wars.

This is the point at which a kind of answer to your question about identity begins to emerge - “how can one distinguish between different kinds of human beings?”

End of fourth instalment

Dr Mike Phillips OBE FRSL, FRSA

Mike Phillips was educated at the University of London (English), the University of Essex (politics), and at Goldsmiths College London (education). He worked for the BBC as a journalist and broadcaster between 1972 and 1983 before becoming a lecturer in media studies at the University of Westminster. After a spell as Resident writer at the South Bank Centre in London, he was appointed Cross Cultural Curator at the Tate Galleries in Britain, and then worked as Acting Director of Arts (Cultuurmakelaar) in Tilburg in the Netherlands. Later on, he lectured in Milan and worked as a freelance curator in London, Belgium, Venice, the Netherlands and Los Angeles, notably with the Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen.

He was awarded the Arts Foundation Fellowship in 1996 for crime fiction, and the OBE in 2006 for services to broadcasting. He served as a Trustee of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, but he is best known for his crime fiction, including four novels featuring black journalist Sam Dean: Blood Rights (1989), which was adapted for BBC television, The Late Candidate (1990), winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger Award, Point of Darkness (1994) and An Image to Die For (1995). The Dancing Face (1998) is a thriller centred on a priceless Benin mask. A Shadow of Myself (2000) is about a black documentary filmmaker working in Prague and a man who claims to be his brother. The Name You Once Gave Me (2006) was written as part of a government sponsored literacy campaign.

Mike Phillips also co-wrote Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain (1998) to accompany a BBC television series telling the story of the Caribbean migrant workers who settled in post-war Britain. London Crossings: A Biography of Black Britain (2001) is a series of interlinked essays and stories, a portrait of the city seen from locations as diverse as New York and Nairobi, London and Lodz, Washington and Warsaw. Recently he wrote a series of libretti for the compositions of musician Julian Joseph, culminating in a version of Tristan and Isolde, performed at the Royal Opera House.

Together with Romanian arts administrator and facilitator Ramona Mitrica, Phillips has worked over the last two decades to establish the cultural consultancy Profusion, which created the annual Romanian Film Festival in London. During that period he co-authored, with Stejarel Olaru, a history of the life and times of the notorious serial killer, entitled Rimaru - Butcher of Bucharest. In addition, as joint director, editor and translator, he worked on and helped to publish a series of Romanian works, including books by George Arion and Augustin Buzura. In 2019 he was awarded the Trofeul de Excelenta of the Augustin Buzura Cultural Foundation by Academician Professor Dr Jean-Jacques Askenasy, at a ceremony in the Military Circle in Bucharest.

Mike’s thriller The Dancing Face will be re-published by Penguin in 2021.