On the New Romanian Cinema

Marina Kaceanov

The notion that Romania could emerge as one of the most vibrant and exciting filmmaking centres in Europe, if not the world, would have seemed far-fetched a decade ago. And yet, in four short years a generation of remarkably talented young Romanian directors have produced an impressive body of films that have consistently landed at the top of international critics' polls and in the coveted top tier of film festivals from Cannes to New York.

This spectacular revival of Romanian cinema - from this most ignored and downtrodden of Eastern European nations that had an almost invisible film culture for decades - has been welcomed by critics and cinephiles the world over. Some call it a "New Wave," others dispute the title, but everyone agrees that recent Romanian filmmaking is now perceived as the hotbed of a fresh, expressive, and pertinent cinematic renewal. This development was inconceivable, especially considering Romania's poverty and totalitarian past. The new Romanian cinema is very much concerned with this past, with the historical conditions an entire nation had lived through for half a century.

Of all the Communist bloc countries, Romania had the worst social and cultural conditions. Paradoxically, those very conditions work in its favour today. For clearly propaganda purposes with respect to culture, the communist leaders manipulated the people's minds, but in significantly different ways. While the Romanian government limited all film production to pure propaganda in the service of communist ideals, Russia and especially Bulgaria developed their film industry at the highest level possible for that period. They built state-of-the-art production studios; they gave enough funding for making films with good production values; they supported the education of young people; they even paid to accustom the public to go to the cinemas; and they published film magazines with professional reviews by international critics. All of these practices undertaken for ideological purposes, resulted in the creation of a community of filmmakers and film critics, a few of whom were even granted access to international film festivals, thereby allowing them to communicate beyond the "wall" between the socialist countries and the rest of the world. And this ideologically well-educated community grew year after year. However, this very process prevented new thinking during the post-communist period. This large community of seasoned filmmakers could not immediately accept new views on cinema. They were not prepared to think differently. And the Hollywood money invested in recent years in the industry, will not help until a new open-minded generation is on the scene.

Romania did not experience such privileges at all. Their roster of directors remained the same during all these long years, featuring persons like Sergiu Nicolaescu from the age of 30 to 78.

The Romanian Revolution of 1989 ended decades of oppressive rule by the Communist despot Nicolae Ceausescu, but it took another dozen years before a group of young (30-something) Romanian filmmakers finally found their voice and vision, made a name for themselves and turned the nation into a synonym for fresh cinema on the international scene... much like the Iranian filmmakers did before them.

Thanks to the Revolution, the Romanian government relaxed the censorship laws. However the cultural institutions, led by The National Centre for Cinematography, still have a reputation for favouring old era veterans who apparently exploit their status for all it's worth, and bring nothing new to the fast-growing local film scene.

But, one should never underestimate the historical gravitas that comes with generations of brutal dictatorship, the effects of its violent overthrow, the demise of an obsolete and corrupt system, the years of silence and the presence of unrealised talents. In Romania there were troubled years of transformations, socio-economical problems, and constant battles with the bureaucracy of the National Centre for Cinematography; and the growing conflict between past and present finally exploded into a cultural revolutionů The present requires its own chroniclers, and the younger and more in touch they are with reality, the better. When there is no room, funding or support for younger people, an opposition is born.

Let us forget for a moment about the recent successes and look back at what we actually know about Romanian Cinema. Some fifty years ago, a Romanian short entitled Short History / Scurta istorie (1956, 10 min) by Ion Popescu Gopo won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for Best Short Film in 1957. It was the first and, until 2004, the only Romanian film to be known on the international scene. The rest may be silence, despite some outstanding works by the controversial director Lucian Pintilie - especially his Reconstituirea / Reenactment (1968) that was banned by Romanian officials who forced the filmmaker into exile in France where he became the Romanian auteur for the world public.

After the revolution, film treasures that had been gathering dust in archives, such as Radu Gabrea's Beyond the Sands (1973), Dan Pita's The Contest (1982) and of course Lucian Pintilie's Reenactment , finally came off the shelves and inspired a handful of talented directors who have literally had to fight entrenched traditions and stand up to the national funding bodies. The result came in 2001 when Cristi Puiu's debut feature Stuff and Dough (Marfa si banii) was premiered at Cannes and received the FIPRESCI award at the Thessaloniki Film Festival. This successful and detailed portrait of youth in present-day Romania was the first sign of a refreshingly new Romanian cinema that gave the critics hope for the future.

Director Radu Jude, whose The Tube with a Hat won the Sundance International Short Film Award in 2007, says Romanian cinema never had a neorealist period; the new wave is making up for lost time. And, yes, the following years show a unique mix of works satisfying both the Italian Neorealist and French New Wave requirements. They form an auteur cinema that does not have an inherent political message but is set among the poor, is filmed in long takes on location, frequently using non-professional actors (as with Italian Neorealism); and at the same time it is a cinema that rejects classical form and propagates a spirit of youthful iconoclasm, selling well, collecting awards abroad, and inspiring critics (as with the French New Wave).

Each of the years 2002-2004 brought promising feature debuts for two filmmakers - Cristian Mungiu with Occident , Radu Muntean with Fury in 2002; Titus Muntean with Taxi a.k.a Limousine , Calin Peter Netzer with Maria in 2003 (especially Maria got wide attention and received awards at Locarno and Rotterdam); Napoleon Helmis with Italian Girls and Catalin Saizescu with Weekend Millionaires in 2004. However despite bright flashes during this period, these films could still be defined as merely honest exercises in portraying Romanian society in transition.

The real revolution came in 2004 and remarkably it came with shorts. Following the festival circuit for many years, I just can't remember so much attention and so many major awards given to five short films, made in the same year from the same country in just one festival year. Cigarettes and Coffee (13 min) by Cristi Puiu - Golden Bear for Best Short Film in Berlin; The Apartment (20 min) by Constantin Popescu - Grand Prize in Venice; Liviu's Dream (38 min) by Corneliu Porumboiu - Filmmaker Association Award in Helsinki; C Block Story (14 min) by Cristian Nemescu - Prix UIP Angers (European Short Film), and finally Traffic (15 min) by Cătălin Mitulescu - Golden Palm, Cannes.

In what ways were these shorts different and revolutionary? The answer could be both difficult and at the same time very easy to understand: while continuing to reflect a specific social reality, these directors extended their artistic curiosity to a contemplation of the general human condition. These shorts demonstrate an enormous talent for making films out of nothing, using a universal language and a very specific style - realism with an almost documentary style of editing and a great sense of suspense. This might be called a new school of filmmaking, a new way of cinematic thinking and this is what we love short films for - their ability to challenge and inspire by using incredibly minimal means.

It is disputable how long Cristian Nemescu's C Block Story will remain in people's minds. However those who were lucky enough to see the film will never forget this brilliant line: "Excuse me, could you please tell me what I could do with a girl in an elevator?" Just hearing this line had an amazing effect on audiences.

Almost all of the directors of these shorts returned the following years with their first or second feature, where they deepened their remarkable stylistic freedom and aspiration for renewal, offering a number of unusual and exemplary films with great originality.

After Cigarettes and Coffee , Cristi Puiu returned in 2005 with an extremely successful feature, The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu , that continued to tell the stories of simple people, yet this time in a much sharper, almost grotesque form. An old lonely man gets sick and calls for an ambulance, but the problem is that he has cancer (which he knows nothing about), and the paramedics cannot 'save' him: the ambulance just takes him here and there, from one hospital to another... and nothing more happens. The miracle was in the way in which the viewer was kept breathless (the film runs a little over two-and-a-half hours) in an obstacle course, racing against the clock and against Death. A plethora of feelings from impatience to guilt emerges during this agonising black comedy with its painful precision of details. The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu had its debut at Cannes in 2005, where it won the "Un Certain Regard" award, and elsewhere picked up another fourteen prizes as well, including best director at the Transylvania International Film Festival in 2005. The film was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award in 2006 and was released in a number of countries, including France, the UK and the US, to wide critical acclaim, which made it the most highly profiled Romanian film ever.

In the following year, 2006, world attention was once again drawn to a number of remarkable Romanian films. Corneliu Porumboiu picked up the Camera d'Or for his riotous 12:08 East of Bucharest , Catalin Mitulescu's nostalgic The Way I Spent the End of the World won Best European Project at Sundance and the Best Actress award at "Un Certain Regard" in Cannes, and Radu Muntean's gloomy The Paper Will be Blue won the Special Prize at Cottbus. While these three features returned to the Communist past, offering three different takes on the revolution of 1989, an absolutely outstanding second short by Cristian Nemescu - Marilena from P7 - created a buzz on the short film scene.

This 45 minute film tells its story in exactly the time it needs, keeping viewers glued to the screen and savouring every second. Though the synopsis sounds like a simple love story - a 13-year-old teenager, living on the outskirts of Bucharest, decides one day to steal a tram in order to impress Marilena, a prostitute he has fallen in love with - the film is much more than this. Nemescu's talent brilliantly unfolds, showing horrible conditions in a Bucharest ghetto, a Gypsy impersonator who sings "Love me Tender" in Gypsy, the dirty facades of the Ceausescu era buildings, and the people who inhabit them all remind one of a nightmarish reality no one would ever want to come close to. Nemescu's gift is in rendering that reality not only accessible to everyone, but actually attractive and interesting.

Yet in 2006 the unknown first-time director Radu Jude, 29 years old, just began his victory march with the 23-minute short The Tube with a Hat. Even when he won the Grand Prix in Bilbao and the Cottbus Short Film Prize, it was impossible to imagine that this simple story about father-son relationship would go on to become the most highly awarded short film in the history of Romanian cinema. No one could even dream that this Romanian short would win the Best Short Film Award at Sundance in the beginning of 2007. It was the only Romanian entry accepted at this prestigious festival in Utah. Winning at Sundance automatically broughts the film forward for an Oscar nomination. Since then it has been shown at virtually every known film festival all over the globe, proving over and over again that simplicity is a very effective quality of Romanian films.

Radu Jude had previously worked as assistant director with Radu Muntean on Fury in 2002 and Cristi Puiu on The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu in 2005. It is therefore not surprising that the film speaks the same naturalistic and humoristic language, or that it captures ordinary people in situations that at first glance appear simple, exploring human behaviour when the situation becomes more complex. Yet it is also a kind of road movie, as were both Fury and The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu . But at the same time it is Radu Jude's own unique film, with its light and open humour in contrast to the much darker humour of Mr. Lăzărescu .

A seven-year-old boy, somewhere in an isolated Romanian village, wakes his father early in the morning to take their aging TV set to the city to be repaired. His father had promised that they would have it fixed before the afternoon movie. Here their comic misadventure begins. The village is not only remote, but a long way from life as most people know it in the 21st Century; if it rains, water floods the house and in order to cross the river, one has to improvise a foot bridge. Of course rain starts making carrying of the heavy TV set wrapped in a blanket even more difficult, but the father and son move forward - one because he wants so much to see the movie with Bruce Lee and the other because he promised his son that he would help to make this little pleasure possible. In the city, the father and son go to a specialist, Bichescu, who after a couple of unpleasant situations finally repairs their TV set and they both return happily home and in time to watch the boy's favourite film.

For me, originally coming from the Communist bloc and living in Moldova (a Romanian border-neighbour) for 15 years, the situation was so familiar and the characters so recognizable that I didn't doubt for a second that the story was simply taken from real life and shot on camera. However when I told of my reaction to this film to some of my Western colleagues they disagreed, arguing that many of the troubles faced by the father and son were exaggerated and that the director used them to dramatise the little family's relationships and to heighten little victories in our life. They also insisted that tube TVs could only be found in museums, even in Romania. Neither of us was right or wrong. The whole story is fictional and the film was shot on the basis of a script written by Florin Lazarescu, based on the novel Sunday Story . Only one character in this story is real - Mr. Bichescu lives with the same name and repairs TV sets somewhere in Romania. And tube TVs are still in use in Romania as they are in Moldova, Russia and many other post-communist countries. But these facts are of no importance, because what counts in this film is its tribute to life's little pleasures that we all need so much and so often forget.

It is a joy to have a father who will sacrifice his Sunday to getting the TV fixed just because his son wants to see a movie; it is a joy to have a son who will go to all this trouble to help his father and to make his own wish come true; it is a joy to return home to the mother who is waiting with a warm dinner and dry clothes; it is a joy to give pleasure to someone you love and to enjoy it together even if the rain still leaks into the room. Having this pleasant smile on a face, who cares whether or not tube TVs are still in use in Romania?

The Tube with a Hat is a great example of universal cinema - still very national and at the same time understandable for any other nation in the world without any references to the country of origin or characters. It is a breath of fresh air even in the context of the successes of New Romanian Cinema.

Radu Jude has stated: "Directing this film, my main concern was to tell the story as honestly as possible. I didn't make any moral judgment about the characters, their actions and the world they live in. I only wanted to understand them, and to reveal their humanity." To tell the story honestly and openly without any subjective or moral judgment is a common quality of recent Romanian films - both shorts and features - the main quality appreciated by film critics and rewarded by film festivals at any level.

Cristian Mungiu with his new film, Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days ( Patru luni, trei saptamâni si doua zile ) took the Palme d'Or in 2007. It was the third year in a row that Romanian films topped in Cannes. Cristian Nemescu's first and last feature (he was killed in a car accident in August 2006), California Dreamin' won the "Un Certain Regard Award" in Cannes and the FIPRESCI Prize also in 2007.

Did they find a secret formula for success that other filmmakers might easily adopt? There is no formula, but some filmmakers could probably learn a thing or two from these models of narrative focus and invention. These directors create memorably idiosyncratic characters and incidents while following specific events as they unfold, usually disastrously, often comically. Social issues raised by this unusual approach to storytelling become even sharper and more challenging. These directors, most of whom write their scripts as well, don't exploit drama with their minimalist means, though their stories and settings have a common and recognizable style (long takes, hyper-naturalism and hand-held camera) which is not solely an aesthetic choice - it's also a result of low budgets and poor financing. If they have a common denominator that can explain such a "community" success, it is a wish to make a sincere cinema - to focus on familiar characters in recognizable circumstances, in which Romanian audiences can see themselves. Tragedy, irony, and satire are all part of these young filmmakers' moral and aesthetic arsenal.

Being teenagers and film-school students they all witnessed the old regime, and a "new democracy" made the country like so much of the Third World, on the outskirts of legality, poverty, and social order. They all learned from the older oppositional generation, utilizing the best they found in the work of their predecessors yet turning it into their own creation. Thanks to Ceausescu's ideological lack of foresight, they weren't as heavily brainwashed as the Russians and Bulgarians had been and were able to skip the "wiping-the-slate clean" period. No surprise then that the films are similar in style and offer a glimpse into a society that's gone through all the promises, disasters, and turmoils of past and present conditions. They have largely avoided the easily digestible model of an affectionate and sentimental look at those good old/ bad old days of communism - prevalent in several recovering Central European countries. While Bulgarians are still putting the puzzle of national history and culture together - sentimentally and in a decadent fashion, the Romanians rely on shocking imagery that is almost proudly austere, yearning for that crude realism of desperation and the ability above all to laugh at it.

It is remarkable that all of these directors started by making short films as a first attempt to explore a taboo-theme that would later be extended in a feature film, often by another director as for example with the theme of banned abortion, started by Corneliu Porumboiu in Liviu's Dream (2004) and brilliantly deepened by Cristian Mungiu in Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days (2007). A kind of collective development, but still each of the directors managed to follow his own path, telling stories in his own individual fashion.

Radu Jude has succeed with The Tube with a Hat to take yet another step forward - from a dark, tragic and grotesque contemplation of the past to a universally meaningful depiction of human nature; from death-rattle humour to open and light-hearted laughter. Still it is hardly a cinema of mindless or merely clever entertainment. It is rather a cinema that makes people squirm, think and feel not only with their brains but also with their hearts.

Radu Jude will return to the Sundance Film Festival in 2008 with his first feature, The Happiest Girl in the World (following the proven path: make a short then return with a feature). The film, which is a family drama (unfortunately not as light as The Tube with a Hat) is already nominated for Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers Award. Aarhus is fortunate to be hosting Radu Jude, who does not travel much, at the International Short Film Symposium on March 12-15th 2008.

It is not easy to predict whether, in the long run, the New Romanian Cinema will fulfil the requirements for success. What remains certain is the cyclical apparition of the creative spirit, periodically bringing energy and brilliance to Romanian cinema. This time around the invocation of the spirit is much more forceful than ever before. But if these young directors are to meet all of our expectations and expand their body of work beyond its promising beginning, they need to diversify and this requires another level of financial support.

Indeed, the milk factory logo in the opening credits of the Caméra d'Or-winning 12:08, East of Bucharest will look at least unserious in the future. Until now, Porumboiu has admitted to relying almost entirely on the financial and logistical support of his wealthy father, as well as local businesses. And it's hard to believe that Mungiu will continue to use personal belongings as he did to decorate 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days .

Here begins another challenge - how a higher level of funding could be possible when Romania produces only two movies per year (Bulgaria produces five to seven) with the support of the National Centre for Cinematography. If the health of a country's film industry were measured by the number of annual productions, Romania's would have been pronounced dead by now. International co-productions seem to be the only way out. After all, Martin Scorsese produced Mitulescu's The Way I Spent the End of the World . Runaway Hollywood productions, such as Miramax's Cold Mountain , have done a world of good for the local industry; while the privatized Castel Film and Media Pro Studios served as training grounds for a number of now successful filmmakers who later went on to found their own production companies. Still, having only 38 movie theatres in the whole country and almost zero audience, Romanian cinema seems to thrive only in the rarefied environments of world film festivals, and like Iran's cinema, to be almost totally ignored at home.

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