A wandering camera follows a performance crew as they prepare for an upcoming show. This documentary style stops once we get to see an audition taking place, where a few old people are asked to play victims of an incident. They are asked to cry and scream and beg for their lives. The film immediately sets up its tone: It is going to be a dark comedy.
I Don’t Care If We Go Down in History As Barbarians (Radu Jude, 2018) is about Mariana, who wants to direct a public performance recreating the 1941 Odessa massacre, or the Odessa Holocaust, where the Romanian state mass murdered the Jewish people. However, this proves to be a very difficult task for her in a society that has been trying to throw that memory under the rug and replace it with made-up heroic narratives of Romanian bravery during the WWII. For decades, the population has been exposed to massive propaganda on their media, praising the generals who were war criminals; people been taught to be proud of every part of their history instead of learning the dark sides of it as well, which maybe and just maybe it would avoid repeating similar atrocities. Mariana faces resistance from her own cast and crew, from the city official who also funds the project, from the state, and from the local people. They’re all in this denial together.
Forcing the audience to face this darkness and contemplate on it, the film includes shots where the camera lingers on still photos of the massacre for a long time. We can hear characters talking about what happened in those photos and, more generally, about bigotry and violence. The viewer has no choice other than to stare at the reality of this part of Romanian history which has been ignored for a long time.
The film might look inconsistent in its style and tone. It starts in a documentary style but that style is dropped until the very end. Then there are scenes where characters just sit and discuss historical, political, and philosophical matters for a long time. There are scenes where Mariana reads long excerpts of books. And then, there are scenes of the crew rehearsing or discussing the performance and the struggles they’re facing, which are usually more fast-paced with more camera and character movements. However, in the end, the movie brings a mixture of materials to back up its core argument: Every nation has to learn its history, including the deeply dark sides of it. But the question remains: What would come out of learning that history? The film tries to explore this question, but it has a very pessimistic answer to it.
There is a scene, where the city official, who tries to censor the show, asks Mariana whether she thinks knowing the real history would avoid repeating similar mistakes in the future. She answers no, but even she cannot hide her surprise by the audience’s response to the final performance. At the same time, the film brilliantly depicts how she, herself, is guilty of the same “crime” her audience commit. The scenes where she and her friends sit together to watch propaganda videos of mass murderers, she and her crowd cannot be more emotionally detached from the atrocities. They start to make fun of the generals and soldiers, or even worse, they start to discuss how handsome some of them are and whether they would sleep with them or not. They discuss those things casually and have fun with it. Mariana and her friends are the ones who have decided to face this history, but how are they facing it? In the end, she is shocked by the truly disturbing reaction of her audience, but is she better herself?
The film is bracketed with two documentary-style sequences, matching the relationship between reenactment and realism the film and the crew within the film are exploring. This is one of the recurring themes. Note that there is no moving image of the massacre remained for them for this reenactment. Only still photos. They have to rely on those photos to recreate an atrocity that has not been well-recorded. On the other hand, there exist so many state-produced propaganda films and videos to provide a revisionist history. So, the film tries to explore two questions: 1) How would one learn about a forgotten and not properly recorded history? And 2) Can a reenactment ever have as powerful of an influence on its audience as the real event would have?
This film cannot be more timely, and at the same time, this is a treasure that should remain for all future generations. This should be shown in history classes and beyond. Almost all nation-states are guilty of revising the history and forcing a falsely positive and heroic history of their nations to their populations. Those nations who have committed bigger and more atrocities are obviously much more guilty of this. At the time that you’re reading this, some powerful countries are bombing or putting sanctions on other countries; people are killed or forced to die out of famine and not having access to medicine due to the greed of some more powerful nations. Those powerful countries have been trying to revise the history and depict those atrocities as heroic acts for freedom, democracy, and justice. That has been the dark history of humanity from the beginning, but it has become much worse over the past few hundred years with stronger weapons and stronger media power.
This self-reflexive dark comedy makes the viewers reflect on themselves too. Have they been complicit with the lies of their own nation? If not, the film shows that it is up to each citizen to take part in learning and recording the history as it is. Because once forgotten and revised, coming back to it may come with a lot of detachment, and so, it would not be efficient and maybe the responses would be even shocking by the standards of any decent human being.