12.08pm was the precise time Romanian dictator Ceauşescu fled the capital, Bucharest, on 22 December 1989, bringing a dramatic end to the authoritarian and brutal state he presided over. The event was captured live on television and beamed straight into homes across the country. The film explores what happened in one town east of Bucharest, focusing on the lives of two individuals, who participate in a shoestring television debate marking the sixteenth anniversary of that momentous day.
The prime concern of the TV interviewer appears to be whether the townsfolk rose up against the state before or after 12.08. Were they part of the revolutionary vanguard or did they only rebel once they knew Ceauşescu had been whisked away in his helicopter?
Manescu, one of the interviewees, an alcoholic teacher at the local school, claims he sparked off a rebellion in the local town square along with three other colleagues (conveniently now either dead or emigrated). However, Manescu’s version is strongly contested by people who phone into the TV show.
But does it really matter whether the town square was full of rebels before or after that magical minute? Not according to the other TV guest, Piscoci, an old man who provides a poignant engaging story of what happened that day. I tend to agree.
The important fact is that by the end of 22 December people all over the country were fighting for a better life and within a few days Ceauşescu had been executed. However, 12.08 East of Bucharest fails to capture, let alone portray, any of the excitement and energy of December 1989. That could be due to the failure of the revolution to deliver the hopes of Romanians.
It is a low-key film devoid of colour. Drab and dour, the landscape of the town consists of grey concrete housing estates, lifeless school corridors, and decrepit vehicles littering potholed roads. The only excitement is the firecrackers set off by the bored youngsters, punctuating the wintry air.
This is Romania as it is today – a country that is clearly very poor. The revolution offered so much promise, and while it did bring about a more democratic state, little else appears to have changed. This is captured by one of the callers into the TV programme who informs them that it is snowing outside. Enjoy it now, she states, because tomorrow it will turn to mud. This offers a depressing metaphor for the revolution.
Although director Corneliu Porumboiu did win an award at Cannes for the best debut film, it is not easy to watch. However, there is a certain charm to it, and it raises questions about life in Romania and who has really benefited since 1989. Few people, I fear.
A film that deserves its acclaim
The greater terror was internment
A story of excitement and fear