Cluj 2013: Sheila Seacroft reports (part 1 of 2)

L.G. strikes a POSE

Cluj’s Transilvanian International Film Festival, now in its twelfth year, continues to engulf this handsome city with its benign embrace. Nowhere in the centre seems more than a few steps away from the cheery red flags denoting a TIFF activity, or a purposeful red-teeshirted volunteer or lanyard-garlanded guest.  For a country still bottom of the European league in the proportion of cinema screens to inhabitants, it seems to be teeming with cinemas in comparison to provincial Great Britain, now with two multiplexes in out-of-town malls as well as the three more characterful city centre cinemas.

TIFF also sets up two open air auditoriums as well as using two other public buildings for screenings, so the choice of films is immense, despite a drop in funding nationally. But support from local authorities and businesses underlines the value the city sees in this impressive shop windowing of its charms (It’s bidding for European City of Culture in 2021).

Two years ago the preoccupation of the Romanian film world was: how can the Romanian New Wave develop, and where does it go next? It’s now seven years since the touch paper for that cathartic explosion of films about the Ceauşescu years was first ignited, but already audiences who were not even born during his dictatorship are coming of age and wanting films relevant to them. One of the points of interest now in visiting this festival is to see how far Romanian cinema is finding a new voice.

I think it’s coming. While nothing strikes the heart and mind as strongly as, for example, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in those heady days of cramming into cinemas with standing room only and feeling privileged to be present at the birth of something remarkable, the latest crop of films has mostly stopped looking back and takes on Romanian society as it now is.

Golden Bear winner Child’s Pose (Poziţia copilului) casts a critical eye over the new bourgeois power bases and shows that not a lot has really changed, even though the ruling classes who pull strings are now the middle class wealthy rather than the Communist Party elite.  Luminiţa Gheorghiu  is as majestic as any Hollywood grand dame as the monstrous Cornelia, a wealthy architect and poisonously possessive mother, obsessed with conniving to get her weak son Barbu to leave his wife, and behaving in the most petty of ways, even cross-examining the cleaner about their household doings.

When Barbu negligently kills a child while speeding, she springs into action to buy off the police, the witness (a splendidly glacial Vlad Ivanov), and even the victim’s lower-class family. It’s a claustrophobic film, filled with faces, rooms, car interiors, allowing the viewer no perspective on the wider world, and Cornelia is hemmed in by the reality that has come to bite back and has to be faced rather than bought off.  Gheorghiu is simply wonderful, it’s her picture, even at her most monstrous somehow retaining our sympathy, and when redemption comes it’s from the old Romania, messy but decent, far from the glossy lives of the comfortably off.

1980s poster

Another middle-class relationship is taken on, not totally successfully, in Dan Chişu’s Déjà Vu. Mihai, unhappily married to a famous TV presenter, decides to break out from the burden of a celebrity wife and come clean with her about the existence of Tania his mistress ( the excellent Ioana Flora), a task for which he decides, oddly, that  it’s best to take the rather reluctant Tania along.

Use of subjective camera for Mihai’s point of view as the day spirals beyond his control means we never see him, making it not easy to judge or understand him – and strangely the effect is more alienation from this person whose experience of  the day we are sharing than empathy with him,  so he comes out of it as a bit of  fool. It’s interesting, but not really interesting enough, and even at a skimpy 78 minutes a little too long to spend with these not very sympathetic folk.

Another preoccupation of Romanian films, and this also includes the Slovak Made in Ash and Italian Nadea e Svetla also reviewed here, is emigration and the situation of the children left behind. One of these, one the most beautiful films here, was Matei, Child Miner (Matei copil Miner), a very impressive first film from Alexandra Gulea. It’s the story of an eleven-year-old living with his grandfather in a mining town while his parents are working in Italy.

Like many mining villages in the UK it is still half rural, and an early sequence establishes the potent presence of the countryside as we see Matei and his grandfather working together happily in their orchard on the slopes above their little town.  It’s a loving home life until Matei is drawn into trouble at school and unfairly expelled, at which his grandfather beats him.  He tries to take refuge with an old family friend in the countryside, but on being sent back home takes off again to Bucharest, carrying along with him his impressive collection of the preserved insects which he has been studying  and scientifically cataloguing.

In the city he finds his way unscathed (rather surprisingly) to the natural history museum where he is, again rather against expectations, befriended by the curator. On his eventual return home he finds his grandfather on the point of death.  He now seems unwanted by anyone, and when his mother returns he refuses to go back with her to live in Italy, instead staying in his beloved countryside. Somehow despite his unhappiness Matei seems blessed and protected by his innocence and love of nature, rather in the way that another deprived child of the coalfields Billy Casper in Ken Loach’s Kes, is enraptured and empowered by his kestrel. Some unlikeliness in the plotting and the odd overdose of poignancy hardly mars the fact that, with scarcely a shot that isn’t beautiful, it’s a potent and sorrowful poem about childhood, and won a nomination at Rotterdam for their Big Screen Award.

Another film on the same theme of the children left behind, which won for its first-time director Laura Capaţâna-Juller  the Romanian Days Award here, is the documentary Here… I Mean There (Aici… adică acolo). Set this time squarely in the contemporary Romania of McDonald’s, TV and clothes shopping, it centres on two young teenagers, Ani and Sanda, who live with their grandmother and extended family in rural Maramureş while their parents work in Spain, coming home every few months for much longed-for visits. The plan is to use their earnings to build a fine house in the village, but though this has been going on for 10 years, which is most of the younger girl, Ani’s, life, the shell of a house remains unfinished.

Together they are a close and normal family, but as we see day to day life when they’re separated in intimate and banal detail, the frustrations and sadness of the girls comes over in gentle and understated fashion. In particular Ani, whose role as family joker belies her distress at the situation, is the more hurt, as she reveals movingly in a to-camera sequence where she speaks about  the family life she wants being perpetually put on hold, till it’s too late and she will be grown up.  Emotional scenes of separation at the airport, a regular happening on any day at any airport in the country including during my own departure at the end of the Festival, bring home this mundane national tragedy.  Though it could have been edited more tightly, the film lingers in the imagination and in its unassuming unfancy way packs a mighty punch.

The Bucu.Exp.

So, to the last of my Romanian films, and what to say about it without spoilers? The Bucureşti [sic!] Experiment (Experimentul Bucureşti) by English Romania-resident Tom Wilson is a one-off, strange, amusing affair detailing attempts by the secret police before the 1989 coup/revolution to brainwash certain individuals to prepare them for success in the free market which they knew would inevitably come. The preposterous story centres on the memories of a personable nationally famous TV songstress with regard to the wealthy man she loved. The film reunites them, and using archive material investigates the murky dealings which may have changed him and many others, also using increasingly bizarre present-day interviews with crazy inventors, unlikely scientists and self-obsessed nuts. Does capitalism really need brainwashing to work or does it come just naturally? The ending is a surprise, pleasant until a dour and harsh coda wipes the smiles off our faces in no uncertain terms.

Accompanying this is a short, Before the Fall (Înainte de cadere) by the same director, telling of an Englishman’s  journey to the fascinating, once important but now decaying  town of Sulina in the Danube Delta  to discover the truth about  the fate of his grandfather, an ethnologist  who mysteriously disappeared while  researching the curious Lipoveni sect who lived there. Genuinely unnerving.

Promise for the future may be spied out from TIFF’s ample programme of home-grown shorts, fictional and documentary, and though screenings were at 10am the cinemas were almost full to capacity. Among the documentaries, I was most impressed by Paula Oneţ’s As You Like It (Dupa fel şi chip), a tender story of old people choosing  photographs for their gravestones, made with beautiful delicacy and imagination, the old people allowed to speak their thoughts and recount memories frankly and with humour, a true humanist gem.  Rio 2016, also good value, is a sometimes alarming look at the world of the gymnastics training of a group of elite pre-teen girls all with their hearts set on the Olympics, children having to cope with adult-sized pressure and ambition.

Best Short award went to Radu Jude’s cautionary tale of a priest’s handling of the last rites Shadow of a Cloud (O umbra de nor), an expert blend of  comedy and darkness.  Claudiu and the Fish (Claudiu şi Crapii), a surreal and funny anti-supermarket tale of the epiphany  of the lad on the fish counter when he suddenly recognises his scaly wares as sentient beings, and  The Pill of Happiness (Pastila fericirii), a pleasing fantasy of a TV gameshow which dishes out revenge to jobsworths, both gained special mentions.

My personal favourite among the fiction films was The Ditch (Şanţul), the well-told tale of Vasile, an idle husband, and his attempts to avoid household chores, that in its 18 minutes packs in comedy, irony, home truths, and close observation of humankind.  The Finnish Cow (Vaca Finlandeza)  a coolly shot fiction inspired by the actual exhibiting of a dog starving to death presented as an artwork in Central America in 2008, also impressed, and Bad Penny (Andrei Cretulescu) showed  black comedy with the lightest of touches. Lots of reasons to be hopeful.

Sheila Seacroft
17th June, 2013


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