When moviegoers receive history lessons from film, they are often given with a journalistic detachment, whether fictional accounts or documentaries. But Irene Lusztig’s ’97 first feature-length film, Reconstruction, achieves its historical perspective through exactly the opposite methods. Made with a uniquely personal purpose, Reconstruction gives a fresh approach to documentary filmmaking. It is a historical account told with a wonderfully subjective self-awareness, as it is the story of Lusztig’s own family, not just the powerful story of a politically motivated bank heist in Communist Romania.
Reconstruction hinges on an account of the “Ioanid Gang” bank heist of 1959, in which six prominent Jewish intellectuals robbed an armored car with over one million lei on its way to a branch of the Romanian National Bank in Bucharest. The title refers to a propaganda film made by the Romanian Communist Party in 1961 entitled Reconstituirea (Re-Enactment), which was a literal re-enactment of the bank heist using the actual robbers, who by then had been condemned to death by the government. Two of these six were Lusztig’s grandmother, Monica Sevianu, and her husband Gugu. Gugu, along with the other four men, were later executed, while Sevianu was given life in prison and eventually released in 1964 due to the political amnesty. The film uses archival footage from the original Reconstituirea, interviews with Lusztig’s mother (Sevianu’s daughter, Miki Lusztig), and footage from the filmmaker’s eight-month stay in Bucharest to piece together and explore the political context of the heist, as well as Lusztig’s own familial identity, all framed by an examination of contemporary Romania as a land attempting to define itself in a post-Communist society.
The idea for the film came to Lusztig during the tail end of her work on her thesis film in 1997. “It’s just such a great story...one that I knew,” said Lusztig. She began feverishly researching the project, only finding out after she had begun that the propaganda film had been made in 1961, which added an entirely new dimension to the project. “My mother had found it very uninteresting, but to me as a filmmaker it seemed more than relevant,” she commented. Armed with a whetted curiosity surrounding the intentions of her grandmother, Lusztig decided to learn Romanian and spend nearly a year in Bucharest, digging into secret police files on the highly controversial case, and even gaining access to the original propaganda film due to her relationship to Sevianu.
The first viewing of the propaganda film was shocking for Lusztig, not only because it “starred” her grandmother, but also due to the amount of effort put into its creation, even though its purpose was purely political. It is framed as a contrived detective story, and progresses from the heist itself to an eventual capturing and convicting of the criminals. “It’s a really horrifying film...in a way it reminded me of a porno. You know the purpose, and you wonder what the plot is for. The spectacle it creates made it all the more terrible,” said Lusztig, recalling her first time viewing the film. Selected scenes from it are used in Reconstruction, most notably the recreation of the bank heist itself, and also some examples of the “detective” work. Lusztig juxtaposes the plot of the propaganda film to her own work on Reconstruction, essentially comparing herself to a detective, digging for clues to piece together an unknown. This thematic framing device is used throughout Reconstruction, and helps to add dramatic weight to Lusztig’s search for her grandmother, the absent hero of the story.
Probably the most important “character” in Lusztig’s film, however, is her mother Miki (Sevianu’s daughter). Her recollection of the subsequent arrest and imprisonment of Sevianu, which left Miki virtually abandoned, is an important part of Reconstruction’s modern-day framing. Watching Lusztig’s mother return to Romania for the first time in 30 years is one of the film’s highlights, a touching and intensely personal sequence of remembrance that resonates strongly with the historical background given on Romania. Lusztig also showed her mother, who was 17 years old at the time of the bank heist, the original propaganda film, which she had never seen before. “It was harder for her to see her stepfather, Gugu, in the movie than her mother because she had memories of her later in life, while her stepfather was executed,” said Lusztig. This sequence was later cut from the film.
The experience of shooting in Romania was a defining one for Lusztig, who is Jewish and a second-generation Romanian immigrant. “I don’t believe being Jewish is relevant in the context of being American...it’s something I never thought about,” said Lusztig. “But as soon as you get to a country like Romania where historically it’s an issue and currently it’s an issue, you suddenly become very aware.” But Lusztig didn’t see this as a barrier for her to cross, but rather another feature of a country still confused with its own identity. In the film, which is narrated entirely in the first-person by Lusztig, she describes her visit to Bucharest as eliciting a “phantom nostalgia,” a sense of longing for what had once been a charming cosmopolitan city, the “Paris of the East,” until it was demolished during the last Communist regime in Romania. One rather humorous comment in the film from Lusztig’s mother describes modern-day Romania as “ugly.”
Lusztig spent four years researching, shooting and editing Reconstruction. However, she already has a distinguished body of student work. Lusztig graduated with a joint concentration in East Asian Studies and Visual & Environmental Studies from Harvard. Her thesis film, For Beijing with Love and Squalor, which she shot in China during her time as a student at the Beijing Film Academy, has been shown at several film festivals throughout the US, East Asia, and Europe. She also has made one short film, entitled Crema Roz. Her future plans include pursuing a Ph.D. in film in London and researching a film on Moscow and the end of the Cold War.
This project was more daunting than anything she had previously worked on, and she learned a valuable lesson from its production. “(I learned to) never, ever, ever, make a feature length film all by myself,” Lusztig said with a laugh. “I’m kind of wavering between the real and the student worlds of filmmaking, where it is feasible to do everything on your own.”
Reconstruction is a truly excellent documentary, fully realized with a surprisingly fascinating, obscure historical context. Lusztig has shown her dominating presence in the world of filmmaking, and has proven that a trip to the art house doesn’t have to be cold and devoid of behind-the-camera personality, but can be warmly, forgivably subjective.