The Bucureºti Experiment


An interview with Tom Wilson by Paul Doru Mugur




PDM: How would you define reality? Is there a way to define reality? As a filmaker, as somebody interested in politics and also the social aspects of life how would you define reality? It is a question that will come back several times, I am sure...

TW: I think because I have always been very politically minded I always see reality through an ideological lens. I don`t believe you can see the world in a non-ideological way. I think that people, humans are animals of culture not of nature. And so there is no ideological free way of seeing people. Everything that we have, everything that we do and everything from the way we see the world to our dreams, our fantaisies, our escapisms are all colored by the ideologies. I think it is impossible to escape that. The only thing that you can do is to highlight the fact that this exists and to remind people constantly about this. I think this is an important thing to be reminded because a lot of things that we believe are writen in stone about humans and about our political systems, that we believe that are objective truths are in fact subjective truths influencedby the ideological systems that we live in. So in a way when we look at people talking about the limits of government or what governments can do or the limits of how we can improve the world, how close we can get to an ideal situation, a lot of things that we believe that are set in stone are actually there because we live in a capitalist liberal meal, liberal consummerist world so we became very skeptical about things like utopia, about the government making a lot of people better and getting involved in society and we are kind of frightened of that and then we have a kind of laissez faire attitude towards economics. I think this shows that the truth is a construct. In a film, I construct a fake world and I am making it credible. When you find out this is not true, it is quiet an unpleasant thing and you feel cheated, you feel you have been lied to. Which is what happens everyday in our lives when we have a certain view of the world, a certain view of the way that we should act as humans and the way that we should interact with one other. But this view is partial. There are a lot of way of living and I think it is up to us to decide whether there are better ways of living, better ways of organzing ourselves as a society...I think that obviously there are.

PDM: When you think about the relationship between the individual reality and the consensual social reality do you think that the environment, the culture in which people live are molding their reality? For example, under communism in Romania, especially under Ceauºescu there was a split between the consensual reality shown on the TV, „Cântarea României”, etc and on the other side the private reality of each individual. These were schizophrenic times when the communist system was imprinting its fake reality upon the human beings like in Kafka`s „Penal Colony” and people were struggling to remain sane. In communism this split was crystal clear. Now in the capitalist times in which also Romania lives today when you look on the TV and you see all these shows, all this advertisments also there is this split between the individual reality and the consensual reality that the media is imposing.

TW: I think though in a way it was easier under communism to keep your subjective view of the world going because there was a difference between the public faith and what people said at home and the way that people behave and I think that what is very pernicious about advanced capitalism is that there isn`t this split anymore because people no longer believe there is an alternative, most people believe that capitalism is the only game in town, is this Fukuyama type of idea about the end of history, that all the political systems have been tried and failed all that we can do is tinker with capitalism which I think is wrong. I think the crisis of capitalism that we are seeing now shows just how ill fit capitalism is to our current situation. It is harder and harder for people today to have private dreams and private views of the world and private ideologies because there are so few people that actually believe in utopian projects, social democracies, sindicalism,anarchism, safe socialism, fascism whatever your belief system is, however you believe the world may be made better, feminism or whatever reaction to capitalism you have. I think it is harder to sustain any of these alternatives now because people lost their optimism about changing things. This is because capitalism has this very pernicious image, its ideology is so powerful that it removes the public/ private distance. Now even our dreams, even our fantaisies, even our most private moments for example our love lives are infested by consummerism. Our love is meant to be a shelter from the depressive world outside, it is the most intimate space that we retreat into but capitalism or late consumerism has transformed the nature of love into transactions, power relationships, tit for tat, what can you give me, are you going to improve my situation, whether is about status or sexuality or looks. Things were not meant to be like this; love was supposed to be based on an emotional and spiritual connection. As capitalism becomes more sofisticated it invades these private spheres and there is no corner of our lives that is not transformed by the capitalism impulse which is all about self interest. Marx always talks about the way capitalism expands its ideology that can`t be stopped. Once the genie is out of the bottle it expands geographically and it has to keep reinventing itself and define new spaces to conquer. I am talking almost like an orhodox marxist but I am not an orthodox anything. I think these critiques are very important in order to see the world that we are living in for what is. It is a contingent world.

PDM: How can we resist the enchantment of the capitalism, of the consumer world and have a more direct acces to the real? And which is the most direct acces to the real? Philosophy, science, religion, art, mysticism?

TW: A lot of writers have written about the way that any movement to escape consummerism (I would use the term consummerism rather than capitalism), any way of opposing consummerism is immediately sucked in into the sytem, used, and repackaged and resold. If you look at a very simple example, the jackets that the miners wore during the 1984’ miners strike` in England are now very very fashionable. They are called donkey jackets so what used to be a sign of rebelion was turned into a consummerism thing, has become now the latest fashion. This idea of taking the sting out of rebellion and making it into just style, removing the substance and making it style is what consummerism does all the time, you almost have to perpetually reinvent a new mode of rebelion because as soon as it appears it becomes sterile. Nowadays images of the 68` protesters and situationist slogans are used in advertising. Advertising is extremely powerful in the sense that as soon as something new apppears that looks slightly transgressive it is immediately used by the system. It is very difficult to be transgressive nowadays because as soon asthe system finds a symbol or a transgressive idea it immediately appropriates it, the appropriation of transgression. It is very worrying how art and aesthetic have become the most powerful pros of consummerism. We like to think that art and artistic pursuits through film and drama and music and fashion, all these things create a kind of spiritual, transcendental connection to something greater than capitallism and consummerism but in fact they are alos products. We have lots and lots of very talented idealistic young people and like me, they they want to write screenplays, they want to make animation films, they want to become fashion designers. This potential body of intelligent, educated, idealistic people that under a different system mind would be a threat to social stability, they are in fact cyphered off and redirected into the aesthetics of consummerism. Really, when I think about, tell me who needs a new film, a new novel, there are so many great films and great novels in this world, I will never have time to see all the films I want to see, I will never read all the novels I want to read!!! Our culture is becoming an industry, it is simply a safety valve for consummerism, it takes a potentially dangerous element for society somebody like me for example and it neutralizes them. Artists looks are transgressive, you look at young artists living in Williamsburg and living in Hacken in London which is the Williamsburg of London and people dress in certain ways, like to believe in a non-consummerist way but in fact all they are is a different brand of consummerists. You see this very clearly in things like the new fashionable signifiers, drinking draught beer rather than manufactered beer, riding a bycycle rather than a car, wearing second hand cloths rather than buying new cloths, it is just a different kind of consummerism and I think my generation has been tricked into believing we are genuinely transgressive and we are not. I would like to believe that being a filmaker is transgressive but it is not. If you want to be radical you should be part of Occupy Movement. There are so many things we can do but it is difficult and it is not seen in a positive way by people my age, which is unfortunate, people they would rather be working on films than trying to change the quality of wealth in the West which is far more important. As an artist or as someone that aspires to create things I really have a slight feeling of guilt knowing that what I am doing is not the most useful thing to be doing right now.

PDM: The guilt that you are feeding the system.

TW: Yes, I am just a producer of products which is sad.

PDM: Another way to oppose this cultural consummerism may be by getting closer to nature, nature is another force. I was thinking about all those succesful young Russians that moved to these vilages in Siberia. What do you think about this type of alternative? Trying to live without TV, without internet, cell phones, etc.? Do you think that this is another way of escapism or it may be a solution for certain individuals?

TW: Certainly, for some individuals it may be a solution, I am not sure I could do it myself. I don`t want to be prescriptive either it is not for me to tell people how to live their lives, anyone that is searching for alternatives is wonderful, consummerism just levels out, we all live the same lives now, we all spend our time in front of the computer, our lives are basically the same, my life is basically the same as your life and your life is the same as the life of someone working in a bank. We just do slightly different things with our times so this idea that our life styles have been leveled so people should go back to nature is great, I am all for it but I do think there is a slight problem with the Green Leftist movement because we idealize community and pre-industrial society in a way that isn`t actually true. I think that a lot of people look back at these utopian pre-industrial projects and say let`s back there but if you look closer at what life was before the industrial revolution you will change your mind. It was pretty horrendous back there, life expectancy was very low, infant mortality was very high. I think because we are very disillusioned with pharmaceutical companies and oil companies and multinational corporations we forget the great things that industrialization has brought and I may sound like an orthodox marxist again when I say this, but I think it is really important what Marx said, Marx loved industrialization, he thought the industrial revolution was wonderful, he thought that capitalism and the transition from a merchantile society to a free market society was great and this is what is great about marxism as a philosophy it is not retrogressive it is very progressive it does not say let`s go back to the past no, it says capitalism has brought the potential for a leisure society this is the advantage of capitalism you don`t have to spend all day ploughing the field because you have industrialization, mechanization and it should allow us free time. At the same time, I think that retreating to our roots and reconnecting with nature is really really important, my brother does that, my brother is a rice farmer in Japan, at harvest time they work with their hands, the way they have done in Asia for thousands and thousands of years and you get a real sense of conection to the land and all these other wonderful things the Green movement tells you about. As a social organization of our society I feel it would be a step back and we should take the good bits of industrialization, and the good bits of technological revolution and use them. We need to sort out, of course, a lot of things like distribution and giving people meaningful jobs. I think this is the problem: in modern society we can provide for all, the problem is that we see economics as a morality play, we believe we should distribute just based on somebody`s merit, and somebody`s merit comes from his status in the free market. We believe this is a signifier how hard you work so if you are poor you should be punished to be poor because you did not work hard enough, you must work even harder, that`s the logic, this is why society becomes more and more uneven, so yes I think that somehow take the good bits of the industrial economy and move on and faces the challenges of inequality and distribution deciding which is the best distribution. I don`t have the answers, I don`t know how equal I would want a society to be, but we have to take steps in that direction because for the moment we are going in the completely opposite direction. I also think the realy big question the Green movement poses is the dilemma of constant growth neither Left nor Right thought about this, nobody regards it as a failure. It is obvious that continuous economic growth is no longer possible, we came out against our resources frontier and whether it is CO2 in the outer atmosphere, whether it is water table or whether there are minerals there is a shortahe somewhere. Today there is a shortsighteness in believing the big problem we are facing is Global Warming. If it wasn`t the Global Warming it would have been the next big frontier which would probably be fresh water, the problem it is not Global Warming, it is the method of economic organization proposed by both Left and Right which says that constant economic growth is both possible and desirable and it is not. I think that the return to the Earth movement or the Green agrarian movements are great because they say we have to think of other ways to conceive economic systems that do not involve constant growth, do not involve devices that are faster than we can use them.

PDM: Coming back to what you do as a visual artist; you conceived „The Bucureºti Experiment” as a combination between a documentary, a reality show and also a fiction movie so you did this type of hybrid in order to maybe better capture reality and also to maybe been able to ask the right questions. Which is the best medium to capture reality: feature movie, documentary, reality show? Do you believe we can get closer to reality by suing the realist style or the style does not matter?

TW: I don`t think there are such a thing as approaching reality, I think that our idea that we can approach reality is wrong because reality is beyond our grasp, we see things through our subjective prison.The idea that there is some kind of objective way of seeing the world is wrong. I think it is dangerous to pretend that there is a unique objective way to see the world. This is what totalitarian or essentialist regimes, whether political or religious, say: our way is the only way to see the world and if you don`t believe in it you are wrong.

PDM: Reality is a concept that you are building yourself.

TW: Yes, exactly. I don`t think that any particular way of filmmaking brings you closer to reality, I think it depends how you use this medium. A great work of fiction tells us great things about what it means to be alive, what it means to be human, and a great novel completely made up inside someone`s head will tell you more about reality than something that is suppositely objective. I feel that documentaries are equaly fictionalized. Everybody is trying to make a documentary but when you sit in the editing room, when you start cutting your movie or even before that, when you start selecting the angle or where to place the camera or what shot to take you are already manipulating reality. Everything in filmaking is about manipulating reality, simply deciding what light to use is manipulating reality. I don`t think documentaries are objective at all, all documentaries, even fly on the wall documentaries, aren`t objective. Campaigning documentaries of the type selected at Sundance are great, we need more films like that inform people about what is going on in the world. On the other hand the philosophical belief that a realistic style brings you closer to the truth is wrong. I think that as a film maker you have to be aware from the start that you are building up a construct and this construct isn`t reality, is just another way of seeing the world. That`s what the film does, it builds up a reality and at the end it says you have been lied to and this is why a lot of people walk out of the film with quiet an unplesant feeling because they have been taken for a ride for the past hour and when they realize that it is not pleasant at all. I hope that feeling of anger gets transfered to the real things so your anger kind of switches over and you get angry about things from the real world like the reality of corruption and the way people are manipulated and the way that we are never told the real history of communism, of the Revolution or what happened after the Revolution in Romania.

PDM: Your movie „The Bucureºti Experiment” is also about asking questions. At the beginning the question is: what made the capitalistic transformation possible in Romania and your give us a tongue in the cheek answer but then at the end you present very briefly the Piteºti Experiment and you say: guys, wake up, the first question is not the right one. The real question is: how was Piteºti Experiment possible? In order to get to the question of what happened at the Revolution just ask yourself what happened before that, what happened with the Piteºti Experiment.

TW: Exactly. I totally agree. I am saying you cannot understand anything about Romania today if you don`t look at how Romania was before the Revolution because the sad thing is that it is the same clique of individuals back then are also now in power. I also feel in a way the film is about the impossibility of telling the story of the Piteºti Experiment. I have been talking to a girl after the Leeds film festival and she has been studying film after the Rwanda conflict and she was saying it is impossible to make a movie about Rwanda because you are falling in the same cliches: africans being murdered, victims that as soon as they appear on the screen become just other victims that you have seen of a genocide, you pigeon hole people immediately and it is hard to convey the real horror of what happened knowing that this is happening to other people very far away. Because we have so many preconceptions about Africa, about the african genocide which is always something happening to people in another country, very different from us. It is hard to not see through this post-colonial eyes and I feel quiet the same way about the Piteºti Experiment. What happened was so horrendous so even if you sit through hundreds and hundreds of hours of interviews with the survivors you can never get to the core of what happened. It is beyond us. It is so horrific that we can not imagine it happening to us, of course we can sympathize, but we can not really empathize because we never had something similar happening to us. We can not even conceptualize what happened properly because things like this almost damage our ability to conceptualize so I think that the film is almost about not being able to make a film about the Piteºti Experiment. I was trying to find another way to tell a story and I think this is why there are so many threads going at the same time in the film, there is a love story there, there is another story about the music, there is a story about the psychological changes of the Revolution. It is not as tidy as a narrative as I would have liked it, I think that ideally the narrative should have been tidier. As a director I felt I can not tell the story I wanted to tell, I have been struggling and I failed but I think all movies, all works of art are essentially a failure because you can never capture what you want to capture what matters is how you try to get that matters and I tried to get that. I like to think I failed to get that and I failed in an interesting way.

PDM: Do you think that Romanians as spectators are more gullible than other spectators and that your movie can create some type of Cargo movement in Romania because your conspiracy theory is so close to reality that it may create a reality by itself and people are going to look for the music of Carmen Anton or the devices invented by Iustin Caprã?

TW: This is interesting because Romanians definitively aren`t more gullible than anyone else. Romanians are very, very smart and media savvy consummers even more so than in Britain I think although it is hard to say. Romanians have such great access to the internet because they had such an enthusiasm for things like Western culture and information after the revolution because they could not get it before. Yes, it easy to be mistified. In fact Carmen Anton really exists and also her music. Did you know that? Did you know that she was actually a singer?

PDM: I didn`t know that before seeing your movie and then searching on the internet for her and checking the facts. In your movie you mix reality and fiction in an extremely credible way and only when you showed your cards at the end I realize that I was tricked. People hearing about Iustin Caprã and his experiments with vibrations modifing the human mind and behavior tend to be more skeptical because it sounds like science fiction but the scenario that you propose is not impossible. A mind changing device that uses vibrations and sounds is not yet available, but who knows, it may be build someday.

TW: I am interested in conspiracy theories in general, I think they are fascinating not because I believe in them but because they tell us a lot about people. What is interesting about Iustin Caprã is that he really is on the frontier of esoteric science. When I went to interview him for the first time, he told me about an experiment of making an iron bar levitate using sound waves. A real experiment. Conspiracy theories are amazing because when you think about them there are so many things in life that we take for granted and it is not possible to verify every single truth. Let`s take something very basic like the idea that the sun is a ball of nuclear reactions. Just veryfing this scientific claim independently it would mean devoting years of your life to the process. We believe that the sun is a nuclear explosion in the sky because science has told us that. Most of our information about the world comes from second hand sources and this means that we are very easy to be manipulated. It is very easy for someone to come along and say that nuclear explosion in the sky is in fact a chariot of fire being pulled by winged horses across the heavens. In fact it is quiet hard to dismiss something like that. Conspiracy theories play on the idea that for us it is very hard to verify the truth for anything and the truth is always beyond our grasp. The other reason I like conspiracy theories is because they are indicative of society`s dreams and apirations. When you don`t have an ideology to believe in like Communism or Socialism or Anarchism, when you don`t have a system and you start inventing other things, you have to find other ways to explain the disastrous situation of the world you live in and then you say that the world is controlled by jews or the world is controlled by the Illuminati. Conspiracy theory are almost like the ideology of people that are looking for something better that want to believe that life can be better than it is. The heart of it is politics. Politics is about saying that we can make life better than it is and saying that there are things that we can change and we need to change and there are basic things like give women the rights to vote and revolutionary things like a world without exploitation. So getting to the heart of it, conspiracy theories even if they sound wacky and crazy are just about people struggling to find something to believe in. They spend their time saying life can be better and things like that our pineal gland have been fluorified by the fluorine in the water and this prevents us from having transcendental experiences, life could be so much better and we could live now in Utopia if Illuminati would not put fluorine in our water. To me this is fascinating. For a lot of people, conspiracy theories are just about finding a way out from the mess they live in.

PDM: You can also look at conspiracy theories as a basic need to know reality. Know the reality behind, discover the matrix. It is in the human nature to search for the truth and to ask themselves whether there exists a more profound truth than what is seen. In Romania after 1989 there have been all these discussions about what really happened at the Revolution, who shot the people after Ceauºescu’s flight. This is an open wound of questions and never ending speculations. Do you think it is important to know this? I was there during the Revolution and I have my own opinion about this. To me this question is very important but do you think is even possible to find out what happened then?

TW: I don`t know if it is possible to find out the truth but I really think it is important to struggle and try to find it. I think we need to have that anger present to find the truth. The only people who are going to benefit from our apathy are the people who took power. I think we need a constant reminder to people in power that we are searching for the truth. I am going back to England and I see the British society that has been hugely unequal for hundreds of years. People accept this great imballance because they look at families that have been in politics for generations and they have the seal of approval. It almost looks like: this is the way the things should be because this is the way things have always been. Capitalism allows an elite to take control, to have a privileged position and to use that privileged position to seek more power, it`s Edmund Burke „Power begets more power”. In Romania all this is very new and because here everything happened relatively recently we still have a sense of righteous anger about what happened which I think it is really important. I think in Western economies people have forgotten and the imbalance of power has become accepted and has become part of how the things are. It became something like: we have always been ruled by people better than us, by people more educated than us, by people with more power than us . We have been through a lot of changes in British history that led to the accumulaton of power building up the power structures that we have today. This is why I am quiet optimistic in a way about Romania because people in Romania still have the impression that things should be different, the way things are now is not right. In the West because consummerism has been there for so long and we had an advanced capitalist society for hundreds of years, (capitalism really settled down in England in the 1830`s), we no longer have this feeling of righteous anger in England and the idea we can change the power structures has become radically utopian. Nobody in Britain believes anymore that we can change big things. People in Romania still have this idea because you have lived through a revolution when big changes happen overnight. Sometimes I am more optimistic about Romania`s future than the British future. Look at the protest of hydraulic fracturing in Pungeºti. The majority of the protesters were educated people. There were similar protests in England but there we have the feeling that someone else would do it for you because there are so many protest groups. In England people say I am not going to protest about Shell gas because someone else is going to do it for me and everybody thinks like that In Romania there is still the idea that people can change things. And we saw that at Roºia Montana people going out into the streets, even older people, people with families. In Britain people don`t do that anymore. People don`t protest in England because they are scared that police will box you in. You can stay there for twelve hours and be freed but there are horrendous stories of protesters with diabetes that were collapsing because they were not allowed out, people left without water, people not allowed to go to the toilet. Even if Romanians are alwyas complaing about the lack of civil society and the lack of political engagement I am more optimistic about Romania than I am about England in a way.

PDM: Besides being for you an artistic tool is filmaking also for you a philosophical tool, a medium through which you can ask questions, a form of dialogue similar to Socrate`s method in ancient Greece?

TW: I think that generally I have been always more interested in ideas and the interplay of ideas than in anything else. I also think about literature and there is a difference between essay novels and novel novels. An essay novel is a novel where you are less concerned about the characters and emotions and more concerned about the interplay of ideas so the novel must be a vehicle for saying things you can not say otherways. I think I am slightly more inclined towards that. When I see a film I am more interested in what it has to say, in the ideas that come across than sympathizing with the characters or getting emotionally involved. Of course I can not say that basic characters and emotion development are not important for a film and the changes that characters go through. I don`t think you have to choose between the two. A film without some kind of dialogue of ideas behind it is already a film that is weakened just as a film that does not have characters with whom you can sympathize with and relate to and does not have emotional depth is equally weak. I think filmaking and art in general is about finding that golden balance so I think you can do both.

PDM: I read on the internet that both movies you did were done with very low budget. Do you think that after  „The Bucureºti Experiment” you can get some support from the Romanian institutions so you can move on and develop larger projects?

TW: I hope so. I would love to have a big budget. On the other hand I don`t know what is going to happen in the next few years but right now I am thinking about my next film and I would really like to do exactly the same thing I did with “The Bucureºti Experiment”: do a movie with low budget and use non-professional actors. I still feel like an outsider in the film world and I think this is a good thing. I think it is nice to be on the outsider and do things your way. I would like to be in a position where you can take risks and I think the more money you get and the bigger your budget is the less risks you can take. This is a problem with filmmakers and I spoke with other directors. The bigger the budget they get the more they say “I wish I could make a lower budget film” and so we`ll see. I would love to have some money to be able to play with. For the time being is just me and the camera and going out and being the best that you can with the limited resources you have. One of the things I really enjoy about film is working with non-professional actors which is something I really hope to carry on in the future. I feel that ordinary people have so much to say. Everybody has great stories and everybody has lived through so much. You just have to tap into it, you just have to find the right way getting the stories out of them like I was able to do with Carmen in the film. Carmen has never ever acted before. If there is one thing that I would like to happen because of ”The Bucureºti Experiment” is for Carmen to be able to do some more acting because she was just amazing, really amazing. Coming back to the low budget question, the interesting thing about digital technology is that digital technology removes the barrier between the artist and the capital, now you can make a film without having financial support and this is for me revolutionary. As soon as you have that connection to capital you become ideologically connected which is something you don`t want.

PDM: How was your movie received by the public and the media in Romania? Were people offended by your use of this lateral approach to construct reality?

TW: The response was really, really positive. On the other hand it definitively divided audiences. There were some people that thought this is an unacceptable way of approaching this subject and some people were quiet offended by the way I chose to tell the story and the combination between truth and fiction and they were repulsed by this aspect. I also got some very positive feedback. For me this is great, dividing your audience is brilliant. The worse thing you want is make a film that leaves people indifferent. You just have to try to satisfy the right people and try to piss off the right people at the same time.




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