Sheffield Doc/Fest: Hanging on the telephone

Sheffield Doc/Fest: Hanging on the telephone

Vienna-based Moldovan director Pavel Cuzuioc talks to Business Doc Europe about his second feature doc Please Hold The Line, which world-premiered at Sheffield.

In Cuzuioc’s wry and amusing sophomore feature doc, it’s not long before we realise that modern-day communication is about more than just mobiles, Wifi and broadband. Among the older residents of Moldova, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Romania, HD TV and internet access may be essential, but one-to-one verbal interaction offers so much more.


In the film we meet telecommunications operatives and engineers as they go about their business, fixing lines and cables, shimmying up ladders and reconnecting service. Some seem more organised than others. There are those who wear overalls, others don’t. While the Moldovan telephone exchange is a pristine and impenetrable Fort Knox of wires and transistors, the office in Tsarevo (Bulgaria) is haphazard with a peeling paper map on the wall that is referred to for appointments.


But core to the work of all the personnel is the human touch. As the latter day knights go from home to home, restoring electronic contact with the 21st Century, we meet their customers, all of whom seem desperate to chat (in one case on the subject of a brutal murder), to share (the best vodka a meagre pension can buy) and to seek medical advice (for a hiccoughing cat). “We have more electronic capacity to communicate these days, but it doesn’t mean that the communication is getting any better,” Cuzuioc says. 


One of the telephone engineers we follow is Ukrainian Oleg, through whom we meet a gentle painter whose walls are festooned with iconographic works, and a Quebecois woman who patiently deflects his criticisms of North American women “who don’t like to clean [or] to cook.”


We are also introduced to a pompous Moldovan orthodox priest who opines to camera about the iniquities of modern-day forms of communication, likening it lyrically (if somewhat ludicrously) to “breaking the neck of a nightingale in the woods.” Thankfully he is halted in full flow by an incoming phone call.


“He is annoying, on purpose annoying” agrees director Cuzuioc, who was happy to let the priest drone on nonsensically. “Communication? It’s not only the internet, it’s also what we get from TV, what we get from radio and media. And before all this existed, there was someone like this priest talking to people, guiding them, brainwashing them, whatever you name it. Telling them what is right and what is not. So I wanted him to reflect upon communication – but at the end it was dramaturgy. It wasn’t something concrete. I wished him to be non-coherent.”


The flip side of the annoying priest is the vodka-offering painter of icons, or the guy who reclaims old television sets and restores them, or the poor Moldovan who queries why he must pay 35 cents for one call, or the equally poor (but chatty) Romanian residents who are thrilled to hear their neighbour is having broadband installed so they can piggyback his signal. 


“The camera works sometimes as a weapon but sometimes as a therapist. People are sometimes getting afraid of it, but it is maybe one of the few moments in their life to open themselves up. Everybody wants to be heard and talking helps, and the camera is the one that hears, and the director helps to liberate them,” says Cuzuioc. 


The other lynchpin of the doc is the quiet and contemplative Ghena, a phone engineer from Moldova, whom we meet at the beginning of the film as he is holding on the line for an answer. At the end of the film he is still holding, and espousing opinions on a wide range of matters such as how sophisticated telecommunications should be used to bring peace and harmony to the world.


Cuzuioc points out how, as frustrating as it can be, the process of having to hold on the line liberates you from other responsibilities (as there is little else you can do), and therefore frees up the time for such thought and contemplation. 


“We have to wait because at any moment the other side can pick up, so it’s the only moment I have to reflect, a limbo time,” says the director. “The music makes me contemplative and brings me to meditating, to thinking.”


“Maybe we should be thankful to the telecommunication company for that very reason,” he concludes.