16 Jun 2024

To understand Ceaușescu's story, you have to talk to people who knew him

1. Where did the idea for the documentary come from and what motivated you to get involved in the project?

I started in 2019 and spent a lot of time watching all the documentaries about Ceaușescu, one of the most controversial dictators of the 20th century. The films seem to fall into two categories: about the actual revolution and, secondly, various interpretations of who did what, when, and to whom, in the last days of the "revolution." The narratives were subjective and often seemed contradictory. Among foreign documentaries, I didn't see a clear and balanced documentary that answered the question: how did a poor boy from the countryside of Scornicești manage to become the predominant figure in Romanian politics and then play an important role on the world stage alongside the great powers? Ceaușescu's dominance lasted until the suffering he caused became too much for his own people to bear and until he was no longer accepted by the new world leaders. Even after 34 years, Nicolae Ceaușescu remained a subject that no one really wanted to talk about, the sentiment being "better not to wake the sleeping dog!"

My challenge was to trace his rise and fall with accurate information before everyone who was around him disappeared. I tried to tell a balanced story that would be relevant to all Romanians, especially the young. At the same time, I wanted to complete a trilogy covering 160 years of Romanian history: The King (The King's War, 2016), The Queen (Maria: Heart of Romania, 2018), and The Dictator. Of the three, I believe Ceaușescu had the greatest impact on today's Romania.

2. What do you think "Tovarășu’" brings in addition to other documentaries about the Romanian dictator, such as "The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu"?

As a producer trained in America, working alongside a British writer and director, Trevor Poots, I believe we approached the subject from an open perspective. We tried to understand his evolution as a young man, one of 9 siblings, who walked 5 kilometers barefoot to school and back every day; to understand his early struggles, his political indoctrination, his rise as a young general, and to understand why everything went wrong at some point. We analyzed his school records, his arrest documents, and his prison records, the comments of other inmates, the transcripts of his conversations. We spoke with his family, read his autobiographical statements, letters to his sister, or poems he composed in prison. You could see the resentment, alienation from his family, from the outside world, his growing anger and vanity. He spent a third of his youth behind bars, sometimes even in isolation, after secretly meeting his girlfriend and future wife, Elena. We also analyzed him from the outside, through the eyes of world leaders he met, including Presidents Carter, Ford, and Nixon, Charles de Gaulle, or Prince Philip of Britain. We talked to Westerners who dealt with him – the head of the CIA, Robert Gates, and the head of the National Security Council, Dennis Ross, Carlos the Jackal, the world-renowned terrorist (who is still in prison), and prominent people who met Nicolae Ceaușescu, such as tennis champion Ilie Năstase. As we progressed with the production, the CIA declassified many relevant files. Gorbachev's translator told us remarkable things about how Ceaușescu was even willing to accept Soviet military intervention to save communism.

I don't think Ujică's 3-hour film, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu, is what I would call a documentary in the traditional sense. It doesn't come with an interpretation, and all the video material is produced by Ceaușescu's own propaganda machine. I'm not saying it's not interesting or doesn't have its merits. It just doesn't allow the viewer to understand much about the dictator and what was happening in his world. To understand Ceaușescu's story, you had to talk to people who knew him – from simple drivers to ministers. You also had to talk to those who were his victims, who are present in our film. As Professor Cazacu noted, the entire population of Romania was Ceaușescu's victim.

3. The documentation process took over three years. How did it unfold? What were the main stages?

First of all, I have experience in documentaries and interviews, both those made in Romania and almost 150 in the United States. I place great importance on historical sources. For this reason, I relied on renowned historians such as Lavinia Betea, who probably wrote the best book about Ceaușescu. I also spoke with the Romanian-French historian Matei Cazacu, the British historian Dennis Deletant, and the Cluj researcher Vasile Pușcaș, among others. We had our own researchers at the Romanian archives, who spent so much time there that the staff at the National Archives thought they were employed there! We also researched archives worldwide – London, Paris, Washington, New York. We found Ceaușescu's "falsified" school grades from Scornicești. If we didn't have information confirmed by at least three independent sources, we put it aside. We researched at the U.S. Department of Defense and found unpublished materials at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, related to Romania and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The documentary-making process involves research, story outlining, writing and rewriting, and skillful editing by Mircea Lăcătuș. In total, about 20 people worked on the project.

4. How did you manage to get access to all these personalities you interviewed, as well as the premiere archival footage?

We had access to Ceaușescu's world through several people who were close to him – across the entire government hierarchy. We told them they had nothing to lose and that their testimonies had value for future generations. Being an outsider was a plus. As politely as possible, we told them it would be a shame to take their secrets to the grave. The word spread, but not to everyone. Some doors opened, and I am grateful for that. They understood that we didn't want to put Ceaușescu in a better light or bury him deeper. Unfortunately, some died along the way, like Pacepa, and others were too sick to be interviewed. We worked against the clock. My success with previous documentaries assured them that their testimony would not be wasted.

5. What were the biggest obstacles encountered in making the documentary?

After convincing people to talk, the biggest difficulty in making this documentary was COVID. We had to stop production because none of the elderly interviewees wanted a film crew – cameramen, sound technicians, etc. – in their homes. Additionally, a few key people changed their minds at the last minute, no longer wanting to be recorded.

6. What do you want the audience to take away from the screening? What can it mean for the younger generations who didn't live through communism?

I hope young people will better understand what happened during the 25 years of the dictatorial regime. They and others will be able to understand what was in the dictator's mind, how he evolved from poverty, to isolation, to pride, anger, distrust, fear, revenge, to total alienation from his people and a break from reality. Historical truth in general – and this story in particular – is not the final vision of Ceaușescu; dissident Ana Blandiana said it very well: it may take 50 years or more, but I think we have made a big step forward, and I am satisfied with that.

The historical documentary film "Tovarășu’" will enter the National Historical Education Tour circuit at the end of 2024, initiated in 2019 by Mr. Dan Draghicescu, the tour's executive director, along with Mr. John Florescu.