What dreams and desires about oil, capitalism and family did this show plant within us, and where are they now, decades after?
Photographer Barbara Debeuckelaere came to Romania to explore the effects of the popularity of the TV show Dallas – the first exposure to the sensual lure of ‘80s hyper-capitalism experienced by a society with plenty of needs and few liberties. This resulted in a project on the cusp of fiction and reality, a collaboration between the artist and her characters, an appetizing encounter between artificiality – the mad soap opera lighting and histrionic gestures -, “authentic” Romanians, and landscapes from present-day Romania.
Dallas ran from 1978 to 1991 in almost every corner of the world.
Even in communist Romania, Ceaușescu allowed the show to be screened starting with the very same year it show was launched in the United States, as I learned during this interview. I do not have memories from the communist era, but from the stories my folks told me, it is difficult to imagine my mother, who lived on the 10th floor, coming home after four hours in the cold queuing for bread, to watch Pamela and Bobby all tanned, prancing around their white house, which must have been larger than the factory section she worked in.
The word is that Ceaușescu was convinced that the undoing of capitalism would transpire once people saw the lies, the corruption, the greed, the sadness and the treachery of business making. But he was wrong: Romanians were not appalled by J.R., the prototype of the corrupted businessman with a big ego, always plotting a new business scheme, who cheated on all the women in his life. The exact opposite happened; the show gained a wide popularity in communist Romania and all over the world.
People were mesmerized by the easy money, the comfort, the cars and the tricks. “Capitalism was cool, business was dirty and oozing with virility, oil was the best thing that happened to the world and women were sexy and complacent. Not only was the show popular but it also became a phenomenon. The first prime time soap opera, the first soap opera watched by men, the first show with the oil industry as backdrop, the first show with a cliff hanger,” explains Barbara, who remembers watching the show with her family when she was a child.
What initially drew Barbara to Romania was her fascination with the story of Ilie Alexandru, one of the first post-Revolution millionaires, who imbued Slobozia with the Dallas vibe by building a copy of the Ewing house.
After her first visit to Romania, Barbara felt her story was very niche and did not envision building a story around it. She was looking for something more universal. But, what she discovered was that many people she talked to had the Dallas switch on, which brought back memories, stories and sentimentalities about the show, of the empty streets when it was on TV, of the years after the fall of communism when the possibilities seemed endless. So she developed an art project about the symbol of Dallas from a wider perspective, at a time when the climate crisis forces us to reconsider the role of fossil fuels.
Dallas has its own place in international pop culture. Aside from being fun and relaxing, TV shows, music and all cultural products help normalize problematic principles and certain societal pressures: to look a certain way, to buy certain things, to devote your life to certain structures. “A successful soap opera that ran for 13 years worldwide is not just innocent entertainment, but entails cultural prerogatives and a lot of ideology. In the Dallas years, governments were losing power while large corporations were gaining power. The effects of exploitation of fossil fuels on the environment were already known, there were studies available to companies. Surely, Dallas looks ridiculous to us now, with all it’s gloss, but it is very prophetic for our times.”
Irina Margareta Nistor told Barbara that, after the Revolution, oil consultancy companies began emerging based on what people had learned from Dallas. What dreams and desires did Dallas plant in us? What do they look like now, after 30 years? What has become of the capitalist fantasy fueled by strong businessmen with their wives sleeping in full makeup? What has become of the mad years of businesses and privatizations that came barging in after the revolution?
Barbara’s project became a book and an exhibition. She worked with the photographer Andrei Becheru, as fixer, producer and translator, and with Daniela Diaconescu, costume designer and cinema stylist.
Barbara Debeuckelaere studied economy and worked in journalism, radio and television, before studying visual arts. “After many years working in journalism, I started feeling less comfortable in telling stories from a position of power”, Barbara tells me through the Zoom screen. “I believe that the power of journalism lies in its wide reach, but art’s reach is more profound. Now I can spend enough time with people, listen to them and tell their stories alongside them. For me this is a more honest approach”.
Translated from Romanian by Laura Sesovici.