By Jim Gilles
One of the most interesting documentary films included in this year’s SEE Fest (South East European Film Festival) in Los Angeles is Eva Pervolovici’s The Delta of Bucharest (92 min., Romania, 2020).
Today the wild wetland of Văcărești is a symbol of nature’s resilience in the middle of the dense-populated urban center of Bucharest. However, this place has an old and complex history filled with ghosts. Pervolovici set out to make a film about the abandoned land that is Văcărești today – as the film projects “the dreams of the past and the future” in space that is a palimpsest of stories, remembered and forever lost. The fine cinematography of Dominique Colin was recognized with a Jury Award for Best Cinematography at 2022 SEE Fest; it can be viewed online with MUBI.
As Eva Pervolocivi’s explained in an interview: “1984 was the year I was born. Ceaușescu ordered the demolition of an architectural monument of the 18th century, the imposing Văcăresti monastery in Bucharest, transformed into a political prison in the 20th century. He wanted to build an artificial lake in its place. After having built five kilometers of walls, he did not have time to see the completion of his project. History caught up with him as he was executed in 1989.” Pervolocivi became interested in the stories of women who had been imprisoned in Văcăresti during the Communist dictatorship of Ceaușescu. Her research led her to set out and interview a number of older women who were once incarcerated there.
“Making this documentary means plunging back into my memories, but going even further back, before my birth, to seek the history of the place. The trigger is Lena Constante’s tapestry, sent to me in Paris by my mother. Lena was a political prisoner. Trying to learn more about her years in Văcărești prison, I found out that a great number of women gave birth in between this prison’s walls. Today, Romas are born in that same geographical place, between the lake’s walls in similar conditions as the political prisoners back in the 60s.”
The film interweaves three stories – the past, the present, and the future. The largest element are the stories of the past, which are encapsulated in the research and interviews done by Pervolovici with surviving older women who were imprisoned in Văcărești on dubious charges of being in opposition to the Communist government. Sometimes they were married to men charged with espionage or subterfuge. Some were artists suspected of harboring anti-Communist views.
One woman, Oana Orlea, emigrated to France after her long imprisonment, never to return to her home country. Her memoir, Les Années volées – dans le Goulag roumain à seize ans (1991), led filmmaker Pervolovici to interview her in Paris, where Pervolovici herself also lives. That memoir was one of the key links that the filmmaker pursued in contacting other women who are interviewed in the film. Lena Constante was a Romanian artist, essayist and memoirist, known for her work in stage design and tapestry. She was also imprisoned in Văcărești and it is one of her tapestry pieces that serves as a Proustian “madeleine” for gathering memories of women’s lives in that dreadful prison.
Originally Văcărești was an imposing Romanian Orthodox monastery built in the 18th century on what was then a village on the outskirts of Bucharest. Its name is related to the Wallachian aristocratic Văcăreșcu family. It was the largest 18th-century monastery in Southeastern Europe and it had a church in the style of Curtea de Arges Cathedral. It was also designed to be used as a fortress, and was seized in May 1771 by the Imperial Russian army during the Russo-Turkish War. Parts of Văcărești Prison were used as a prison in the 20th century in the early 20th century for members of the anti-democratic, anti-Semitic fascist Iron Guard. Later as a prison during the Communist era, Văcărești Prison served as a place of torture and incarceration of anti-Communist leaders and those suspected of subverting the government.
In the 19th century, many Jewish immigrants settled in Văcărești, most of them coming from Imperial Russia. Văcărești and Dudesti were the areas where the poorest Jews settled. On 21 January 1941, the fascist Iron Guard started its coup against Ion Antonescu, with whom they had shared government power. The Iron Guard legionnaires killed 125 Jews, including in Văcărești and Dudești. On 24 January 1941 Ion Antonescu suppressed the rebellion and the Iron Guard was banned and the members arrested. Almost all the Jews emigrated to the newly created state of Israel after World War II. Văcărești was one of the quarters that was completely torn down by Ceaușescu and nowadays few traces of the old quarters remain.
Văcărești was originally a neighborhood of Bucharest, built under Communist rule on land reclaimed from swamps to make room for several grand architectural projects, including new buildings for the Ministry of Justice and Supreme Court, and an artificial basin, Lake Văcărești – part of an ambitious hydrological infrastructure plan to connect Bucharest to the river Danube.
None of these projects would be completed. In 1989, the Romanian revolution removed President Nicolae Ceaușescu from power. He was executed, and his grand schemes abandoned. While the lake was at an advanced stage of completion, a major engineering defect made it almost useless. And that is how Văcărești remained: An empty lake, hidden behind high concrete 0dykes, in the middle of one of Europe’s densest cities.
There are several sites in Bucharest with a similar history: grand projects ordered by communist leader Ceaușescu that remained unfinished after the 1989 revolution, entangled in overwhelming red tape, thorny legal feuds and a lack of interest from investors. Yet while most of these are now simply ruins or barren land, Văcărești has regenerated itself in the most astonishing way.
After the execution of Ceaușescu in 1989, the abandoned basin of what was to be Lake Văcărești became overgrown with plant life and a sanctuary for wildlife. A number of Roma families found the place to be to their liking and lived in the wetlands for an entire generation, but at the time of the making of this documentary, there was only the Roma family of Gica left living there in their make-shift hut – even in the snow of winter. One charming feature of The Delta of Bucharest is the interaction with Gica’s family, who lived there until 2020.
Without human interference, wildlife has reconquered this abandoned lake and transformed it into a green oasis in the middle of one of Europe’s densest cities. Here are rarely ever more than a handful of people present when you visit Văcărești, Bucharest’s wild wetland just a 30-minute stroll from the city center. Few people venture into the park itself; the perimeter wall – a five-meter concrete embankment that isolates this unique green space from the surrounding city – remains a special green space with one of Romania’s most diverse ecosystems. Recently, following a four-year campaign led by a small but determined group of environmental activists, the government finally granted it protected area status, officially making 183-hectare Văcărești one of the biggest urban nature parks in Europe.
The Roma families that settled in Văcărești became “part of the ecosystem of the lake. It seems that the relationship between those living in informal housing and the nature activists has not always been ideal, but now Bărbulescu adds that Gica, head of one of the Roma families, has been key in helping the association tackle the issues of poachers, illegal logging and fishermen. At the western edge of the park, despite the many campaigns to clean the area, there has been a lot of debris including a fridge, tires, clothes, plastic bags and hundreds of broken decorated tiles. Eventually they hired Gica as Văcărești’s first park ranger.