by Justine Smith Featured Film

Merman — Ana Lungu [FIDMarseille ’24 Review]

July 5, 2024

What is the difference between a filmmaker and a filmer? Watching archival films assembled from home movies, it’s difficult to escape the long shadow of Jonas Mekas — a man who did not view his work as artistic, but compelled by a “necessity” to move forward, to keep recording. With her latest film, Merman, Romanian filmmaker Ana Lungu delves into an archive of 8mm left behind by her uncle, Alexandru P. With footage ranging from WWII to just past the Romanian revolution in 1989, Lungu organizes and narrates an imagined life for a man who would otherwise be lost to time. His personal films cover his trips and his romances, with fleeting hints of Méliés. Lungu’s voice, a poetic monotone, blends history and imagination to put into focus a man who was a passionate communist, a musician, and a great lover. While Alexandru appears sometimes in his own films, Lungu is more fascinated by his role behind it: why did he pick up a camera and decide to shoot what he did?

Unlike Mekas, who filmed and edited his own work, thereby structuring it (though, if you were to believe him, often with a certain randomness), Lungu enters as a mediator. The footage doesn’t reflect Alexandru’s perspective, despite being composed of his images. Looking through the collection of images he amassed over his life, Lungu puts forth a structure built around the women of his life — many of whom were only vaguely known by the filmmaker. Imposing this reading on the footage becomes ethically dubious, something that Lungu seems well-aware of. It strips the film of its nostalgia and also its specificity, rendering it from mere filmed images into art.

As fiction imposes itself on these tapes, the fiction of our lives comes into clearer focus. On one hand, it’s clear to see how the imposed reality of Lungu’s filmmaking might find parallels in the way Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime framed a new reality. We see this especially in the sojourns into the uncle’s vaguely pornographic tapes: images of lovers nude, lounging, and open, only vaguely pornographic by our terms but potentially punishable by prison time in the oppressive Romanian state. Through his unpracticed lens, we sense both curiosity and love in his lingering gaze. While his camera pauses on breasts, butts, and vulvas, there’s a sense of curiosity rather than titillation driving his camera. The women, while nude, remain anonymous; only through Lungu’s montage, which offers up a series of portraits (as well as gardens full of flowers), do they come into human focus.

Overflowing with ambiguity and dubiousness, these erotically charged images become the film’s strongest part. Lungu’s new ownership over these black-and-white bodies, mostly shot over 60 years ago, feels both radical in its rebuttal of censorship and transgressive in its infringement on privacy. While the personal archival documentary is hardly anything new, she pushes the boundaries of ethical acceptability in her approach. It complicates the way we see her uncle’s images, as his voice gets lost in the shuffle. The filmmaker’s elliptical approach to the narration further complicates his sense of self, as he becomes more obscured as the film goes on. It becomes increasingly clear that what he sees doesn’t necessarily reflect what he thinks. Lungu’s context transforms them into something new.

Much of the rest of the film lingers on questions of art and artistry. Through the narration, we learn that Alexandru felt that people became more cultured through communism, but the culture suffered. We learn of his desire to be liked, to be important. He was a musician, though one who would likely be lost to history, if it were not for his niece’s revival of his archive. Yet, even while immortalizing him through her film, Lungu erases her uncle from it. Who we see is not the real man; we get little sense of his art or talent. His legacy becomes crowded with limitations and the imposition of other voices; the government first, and then later his own blood.

The film’s original title, Triton, refers to an irregular musical interval that inspires dissonance and tension. While most pieces of music that employ a tritone often circle back toward some musical resolution, it’s unclear if Merman ever reconciles the film’s various tensions. As a reflection on Romania, the film seems to suggest that the anxieties of the dictatorship that fell 35 years ago remain thorny, a tangle of values and questions still largely unresolved.

Published as part of FIDMarseille 2024: Dispatch 2.