Review: I See Red People

Maybe learning about the past is like learning to drive. Although the RMV gives you a handbook of applicable laws and procedures, much that you need to know only comes as you absorb tacit rules of the road: in Boston, you’d know turn left just before the light turns green, but elsewhere that might not be a good idea. When one confronts the past, how does one know when to go forward and when to yield? Who gets to set the rules, particularly when new technologies and systems come into play?

In Bojina Panayotova’s I See Red People (Je vois rouge), the film maker, who grew up in France, returns to Bulgaria where she witnesses mass demonstrations against remnants of the previous communist regime. She discovers that she can request to see her family’s secret police dossier. Overtaken by curiosity, Panayotova begins to navigate the transitional justice, seeking out the truth of her parents’ former lives in communist Bulgaria. Her parents, particularly her father, disagree. She discovers, perhaps more than she would wish, about how to discover historical facts. Thirty years after the regime, how can one understand these facts, and who gets to control them: the media, protesters on the street, the state, the persons themselves?

Panayotova skillfully takes viewers toward these questions by employing a split camera, which allows her to show her own face as she observes, listens, and reacts, as well as the faces of her interlocutors or the scenes that her camera views. This experimental device adds to the film’s visual interest and reflexivity, but also serves her well as she documents her many arguments with her parents. Panayotova also brings archival footage from Bulgarian media and her family’s home movies and media appearances into the film, in order to show the changing contexts in which we understand the authoritarian regime. At times, the film becomes almost a detective story, with Panayotova seeking the whereabouts of a former political police officer for whom Panayotova’s mother may have acted as an informant. In a particularly stressful scene, her mother argues with her the entire ride to find the retired officer, but nonetheless feels compelled to confront him. In its allusion to the Hollywood blockbuster The Sixth Sense, I See Red People reveals that those who collaborated with the authoritarian regime might be beside one all the time. However, knowledge of this truth never exorcises the spirits of this regime. Will we ever arrive at a place beyond recrimination?

Throughout the film, a driving instructor guides Panayotova as she learns the rules of the road in today’s Bulgaria and also begins to understand the norms that conditioned her parents’ lives as intellectuals living under the authoritarian regime. In addition to filling the film maker (and the viewers) in on the way things were done before political liberalization, his cynicism and humor make him a perfect foil for the young film maker’s idealism and earnestness. Together, they make a compelling and entertaining cinematic pair as Panayotova tries to piece together her parents’ story. They also offer two takes on transitional justice. If Panayotova must always pursue the clearest facts, her instructor is willing to let the past alone. Of course, he has an understanding that Panayotova’s parents could hardly have avoided compromise with the regime. Each driving lesson unfolds Panayotova’s discoveries as a shared document, facts on the way to becoming matters of public knowledge, mediated by the rules of the road that she learns with her driving instructor as tutor.

Not lost on the film maker is the way that current neo-liberal regimes in Bulgaria and elsewhere create even more knowledge of their citizens through a variety of technological means, including CCTV surveillance, cell phones, and social media. Those of us living in relatively democratic surveillance societies condone these technologies while condemning the means of surveillance—personal and often face to face—practiced under authoritarian regimes. Thus, her film features footage that Panayotova acquired from surveillance cameras in the archival offices she visited to access her parents’ secret police dossiers. At one point in the film, Panayotova also covertly films a former political officer. If we feel discomfort, is it because such scenes point out the danger of our pursuits individually or collectively to create knowledge? Should we remain anxious about how we produce and distribute truth?

Discussions of transitional justice often consider truth as a salve, the first step in healing trauma remaining from an authoritarian regime. In a sense, we think of transitional justice as overturning a large, rotting log in the forest: by turning it over and exposing everything to light, we can stop the corruption and come to terms with a troublesome past. Of course, those of us who seek to come to terms with the authoritarian past have a legitimate desire to see the archives; when, as on Taiwan, these desires have not been met adequately, suspicion results. As a public, we may even have a duty to uncover the truths of the everyday manifestations of authoritarianism, as well as significant instances of White Terror, such as the February 28th Incident. Such a process would reveal the workings of the party-state as both connected to forms of privilege and also intensely personal. In showing the family psycho-drama resulting from the director’s attempt to discover truth, I See Red doesn’t dismiss the idea of transitional justice as much as it complicates what it might mean to know. Approaching these questions of justice, truth, and social control with a measure of self-deprecating humor, Panayotova has created an amusing and provocative film.

Watch the trailer for I See Red People.