A screening and discussion of Maria Șalaru’s debut documentary Blocul (The Block) took place at the Romanian Cultural Centre on 8 December 2016.
Șalaru, a PhD candidate of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Oxford, gave a brief presentation of what her documentary – an ethnography of a communist-built housing block, so common in Romania – attempts to convey. The film, she said, stemmed from her ‘intellectual curiosity about post-socialist change as seen through the lens of infrastructure’. Though Șalaru is an anthropologist, the documentary displays cinematographic talent in multiple ways. Images are excellent, choicely portraying the atmosphere of Piatra Neamț, her hometown. It’s a remarkable achievement for someone still in her studies.
The documentary began with a clip from the 1972 film Geneze. An idyllic piece of propaganda, it dealt with the urbanization of Romanian peasant society, and brought to mind questions like ‘Is this true? And what do we actually do when history is illogical?’
The ‘protagonist’ of Salaru’s ensuing documentary is quite a character. Gheorghe Bud is the administrator of a well kept, freshly painted block. An engineer evidently proud of what he’s managed to do, Bud has retained the dark, dry humour of those who’ve lived the better parts of their lives through the Communist era. He’s the antithesis of the stereotypical Romanian block administrator, typically seen as ineffectual and simply interested in the personal benefits of the job. At one point Bud says, ‘It hurts when I stay outside all day in the cold and they don’t care at all’. This is telling of a larger issue – City Hall inefficiency – and also of Șalaru’s ability to find the unusual in the apparently banal.
The neighbors are a socially varied group and all excel in humor. The first neighbour introduced is evidently Catholic (in a predominantly Orthodox country): something hinted at comically by the camera’s focus on his religious statues, suggesting the importance of one’s home to identity. He’s also a Catholic with a penchant for pickles, making the audience laugh with his continued praises and obsession for bottling vegetables in the storage room. Mr. Bud and he are an excellent duo. An outraged elderly woman complaining of the other neighbors has the audience roaring with laughter by exclaiming, ‘‘Who is God’s name eats garlic and fried onions every night?!’ Romanian superstitions are often referred to, and cited very amusingly – an example would be excessive fussiness over moths and wind.
The documentary also deals with inhabitants’ attitudes to care of the building – Șalaru remarks that design comes second to the care and maintenance of a home, and the problem of heating is discussed – in Romania, social and infrastructural shifts have caused the gradual change from neighborhood-wide heating to block heating, and now to central heating for each individual apartment. The heating towers of the blocks have remained as relics of a bygone socialist era, visibly emphasizing Romania’s full participation in the capitalist world. As a result, inhabitants of Mr. Bud’s building often complain of it being too hot – ironic considering there was a period when Ceaușescu, in his project to pay off debts, ruinously restricted heating. Layers of color and texture on the blocks, according to Șalaru, symbolically indicate both the stratification of society and the material, pragmatic side of things as well. Mr. Bud’s block, in contrast to others we’re shown, offers a lucky example. Many other other blocks in Romania, such as the one right next to Mr. Bud’s, look decrepit from outside.
Dr. Inge Daniels, Șalaru’s PhD supervisor, presented a clip and images from her observations of Japanese apartments, encouraging comparison between the Romanian and Japanese housing. What particularly struck the mostly Western audience was a photograph of a woman sleeping underneath a set table -according to Dr. Daniels, this was an indication of the Japanese association of warmth with coziness. It was interesting to compare this to the complaints of Mr. Bud’s block members, who said that they couldn’t use their quilts because of excess heating.
Șalaru punctuated the discussion by encouraging us to consider the global housing problem in a time of uncertainty – particularly by comparing Romania to the UK. While housing in Romania and the UK seem at first glance incomparable (or at least arguably more different than Japan and Romania), she’s certainly widened the scope by bringing a study of Romanian social anthropology to Britain. This was an intriguing event, and the effort to support young people in cultural endeavours like this an admirable one.
Maria Șalaru’s Blocul (2016) was part of the ongoing programme of cultural events at the Romanian Cultural Centre, London.