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To what extent does art have a responsibility toward its subjects? When does representation cross the line into exploitation? These are the difficult but suitably confrontational questions at the heart of the new film from Ádám Császi, the filmmaker behind 2014’s provocative Land of Storms.
Attitudes toward the Roma community are debated through the play-within-a-film. An ambitious, left-leaning white theatre director works with five young Roma actors, playing themselves as they tell some of the more traumatic stories of their lives. As the play ends, the cast confront him, arguing that staging their past is exploitative and enforces stereotypes. The director disagrees, and the actors quit, only to be drawn back in as the play is transferred to a prestigious Berlin theatre.
What follows is a dream-like exploration of the complicated discourse between art and identity. Through sequences that break the fourth wall and wander between fantasy and reality, we learn that real humans are rarely a matter of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The director brings these lost voices to a national stage, but via methods that increasingly feel like poverty tourism. In one darkly hilarious moment, he finds the derelict house of an impoverished family and imports it to Berlin as stage dressing, exported in Three Thousand Numbered Pieces (the title’s less literal reference is to a line in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, drawing a parallel between Lost Generations).
However, to call the director an outright villain would be untrue. Through their own tales, we hear moments where the cast members have leaned toward their own stereotyping, with behaviour that in isolation would confirm the prejudices of many around them. Császi is not here to judge, but to prod and explore through colourful visuals and perpetually curious dialogue. The key here is not finding a neat conclusion to a complex issue, but giving people a voice. What they do with it is up to them, but what happens next is at least on their terms.
The pace and enigmatic feel of the film may be maddening to those who like their narratives spoon-fed, but there will be many observations that draw a knowing nod from the viewer. As the director, Kristóf Horváth’s view of the stories that unfold shows the unwitting damage that well-meaning art can wrought, as the quest for authenticity can often come at the price of a lot of pain and dignity. So many of the accounts, often delivered intimately to camera, mean it’s impossible to tune out of what is being said, both on the page and in-between the lines.
Thoughtful without succumbing to any condescension of its own, Three Thousand Numbered Pieces tackles the notion of systemic racism in a way that engages newcomers. Instead of a lecture, Császi offers a much-needed conversation.
Three Thousand Numbered Pieces just premiered at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, as part of the Rebel with a Cause strand.