Sibiu, winter panorama

We call it Transylvania—”the other side of the forest”—which is also how speakers of Romanian (Ardeal) Hungarians (Erdély) know this long-fabled corner of Europe. But in German the Carpathian-hugging province in western-central Romania is still Siebenbürgen, “Seven Fortresses.” These strategic settlements were scattered across an area for centuries dominated by Teutonic elements, stil referred to here as ‘Saxons’ .

Until World War II, the third biggest of the septet, Sibiu (a.k.a. Hermannstadt) was still majority-Saxon. The percentage dwindled through the Nicolae Ceaușescu era, and plummeted drastically after the dictator’s execution on Christmas Day 1989, democracy coming hand in hand with open borders and ready routes “back” to the Fatherland.

Only 1% of ‘Sibians’ now class themselves as ethnically German, with Romanians overwhelmingly dominant (89%). Among that 1%, however, we find the remarkable figure of Klaus Iohannis, mayor since 2000, and re-elected with landslide wins in 2004 (89%) and 2008 (87%).

When I visited the city in early October for the 22nd Astra Film Festival, Iohannis’s presence was near-inescapable. The right-winger’s broad mug stares out from every other billboard in town, a stern, almost domineering presence in his jacketless white shirt and blue tie. These hoardings officially and noisily advertise Iohannis’s candidature for the Romanian presidency, but also give a clue to why his bid for higher office is—at the time of writing, a fortnight before November 2nd’s  initial round of voting—apparently doomed to failure. Latest surveys have him lagging behind centre-left Victor Ponta, currently the Prime Minister, by around 10%.

Because if Iohannis can’t be confident of securing a hefty majority in his own home-town, where his tenure as burgomeister has seen Sibiu confidently emerge as an affluent regional hub of culture and tourism, what hope can he have of carrying the country as a whole? And if he is confident of winning this river-hugging conurbation of 147,000, why waste valuable resources on buying up so much advertising-space here, rather than directing more of his resources towards bigger conurbations such as Timișoara, Iași or Bucharest?

Iohannis poster blocks Bucharest pavement

Then again, locals warn that polls have always been notoriously unreliable prognosticators in Romania. And Iohannis is clearly not a man to be underestimated. His headline achievement so far has been to guide Sibiu, whose pleasingly intact historic centre exudes a strong feel of 18th-century Germany, towards European City of Culture status in 2007. This honour was at least partly in recognition of the richly multi-ethnic  tapestry woven and re-woven here by Saxons, Romanians, Hungarians and Roma (Sibiu has been referred to as the “world capital of gypsies”) over the last 900 years, albeit not always peacefully.

Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the Treaty of Trianon, signed in the aftermath of WW1 and the collapse of Hapsburg rule (that dynasty’s influence unmistakeably evident in much of central Sibiu’s architecture). The ceding of Transylvania to Romania ranks high among the reasons why Hungary and Romania haven’t been on friendly terms for nearly a century. And it’s partly why the Euro 2016 football qualifier in Bucharest, on the night of the Astra festival’s conspicuously military-themed closing ceremony (officially in honour of the WWI centenary) carried a certain charge.

busted old train-carriages, stranded in Sibiu

I watched the second half of this bad-tempered, controversy-stoking 1:1 draw in the forlorn, edge-of-town railway-station’s overlit bar, among lager-sipping, Sobranie-puffing blokes—a scene which, apart from the incongruous brightness of the illumination, resembled an out-take from the work of Hungary’s cinematic misery-maestro Bela Tarr.

Culture of the traditionally “higher” variety remains, nearly seven years after the EU spotlight moved on, a prominent element in Sibiu’s urban landscape: theatre, dance, classical music, opera, ballet and literature. But the seventh art? Not so much. Billboard posters for Hollywood productions are conspicuously absent, and the last remaining picture-house (there were well over a dozen in Ceaușescu’s heyday) is tucked humbly away behind a roundabout on the south-western fringe of the city centre.


I’d managed to miss this cinema during three long perambulations that took me to far-flung quarters furlongs from any tourist trap. Firstly I trekked to the distant fringe of Șelimbăr, to where the Seviș stream runs under the E68 highway. Two days later I headed for the old village of Gușterița, out beyond the train station, and kept going down Strada Podului as far as the factory of the Vienna-based brick-and-tile giant Wienerberger, adjoining a rubbish-choked rural stretch of the city’s main waterway, the Cibin river.

On my last afternoon I found myself in Țiglari, a rough-edged residential district adjoining the dinky,  duck-populated, industry-ringed Lake Binder. The latter, I subsequently learned, also has a brick-and-tile connection: it was only formed in the last century when a local business’s exploitation of a nearby water-source eventually yielded catastrophic consequences. Binder has been dubbed a “lake of death” by local media, with half a dozen fatalities annually ascribed to its treacherously chilly year-round sub-surface temperatures.

Lake Binder

While Țiglari is nobody’s idea of Beverly Hills, none of my excursions yielded any vista which could remotely be called a ‘slum.’ I did, however, encounter evidence that Sibiu’s  prosperity may not be built on the strongest long-term foundations. Beyond the immaculately-maintained historic centre, chains of banks, betting-shops, money-offices and pharmacies abound. Most of the more traditional small businesses have seemingly disappeared thanks to the success of ‘Shopping City’, a bland mall complex on the city’s south-western flank, across a four-lane highway from sleepy Șelimbăr.

Shopping City currently lacks a multi-screen cinema, which maybe explains the survival of Cinema Arta on Aurel Vlaicu Place. Somewhat surprisingly, Arta has never been used by the Astra festival, a documentary-dedicated event which has been running since 1993 under the auspices of a venerable cultural organisation whose origins date all the way back to 1861: ASTRA, short for Asociaţia Transilvană pentru Literatura Română şi Cultura Poporului Român (Transylvanian Association for Romanian Literature and the Culture of the Romanian People).

Until last year, all screenings were held in the unreconstructedly Ceaușescu-era ‘Trade Unions’ Culture House’ (Casa de Cultură a Sindicatelor). Now four extra venues have been added, none of which are otherwised used for film-screenings: the Gong Theatre (home of puppet-plays and children’s entertainments), the Habitus bookshop (in the basement of the main Catholic church); the Astra Library (a 19th-century edifice of high ceilings and opulent Hapbsurg excess); a room in the organisation’s charmingly rickety main-square offices; and tastefully fancy classical-music venue Thalia, the latter perched amid well-preserved multi-level fortifications.


On my last night in town I played “hooky” from the festival and tracked down the Arta, a one-screen venue which exudes an early-seventies ambience. Resisting the cheesy appropriateness of catching Dracula Untold in Transylvania, I instead joined the few dozen twentysomethings who paid 15 Lei (£3) to see Liam Neeson take A Walk Among the Tombstones—a Hollywood film which, I learned as the opening credits rolled, was shot by Bucharest’s very own Mihai Malaimare Jr.

Malaimare Jr, cinematographer on Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and two pictures for Francis Ford Coppola,  has surprisingly few high-profile Romanian productions on his CV. So far he has, for whatever reason, not been associated with any of the leading names of the much-ballyhooed Romanian New Wave. The “wave” is generally reckoned to have kicked off with Cristi Puiu’s raucous road-movie Stuff and Dough (2001), peaked first with Puiu’s mordant, marathon meditation on mortality The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005) and then with Cristian Mungiu’s Ceaușescu-era abortion saga 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)—both of them winners of top prizes at Cannes—and concluded with Puiu’s study of middle-class, middle-age murderous anomie, Aurora (2010).

Puiu performed double-duties at this year’s Astra. As well as serving on the main-competition jury, he took part in an on-stage discussion (moderated by myself) with Sergei Loznitsa — the Ukrainian director whose soberingly stately documentary of revolutionary tumult Maidan received its Romanian premiere in Astra’s main competition, and was awarded the Grand Prix.

The Train Stop

Putting Maidan in context, the festival also showed three of Loznitsa’s shorter, earlier works: Train Stop (2000), Landscape (2003) and Blockade (2005). Of the trio, the most remarkable is Train Stop, a 25-minute record of sleeping “passengers” in the tiny waiting-room of a tiny station in some speck on the vast Russian map. Cinematographer Pavel Kostomarov’s specially-adapted lenses yield monochrome celluloid images which, even via Astra’s (regrettably far-from-high-def) digital projection, manage to transfigure this most mundane of settings.

The anonymous dozers sometimes appear to be frozen inhabitants of medieval religious paintings, at other times they take on the heroic mien of bellowing Bolsheviks in Soviet-era propaganda-photography: Rodchenko redux, indeed. But their immobility and passivity, Loznitsa seems to imply, aren’t merely a temporary consequence of their exhaustion…

In the current decade, of course, proper revolutionary fervour has of course manifested itself not only in Ukraine’s Maidan square, but across the Middle East and far beyond. In Venezuela the late Hugo Chávez successfully cast himself as a West-baiting, America-taunting ardently socialistic Comandante—although inequalities of wealth and environment haven’t yet been eradicated from his native country.


German director Markus Lenz finds rich material in the capital Caracas, where an unfinished bank-tower is main location for the eye-opening debut Ruina, a highlight of this year’s Astra festival. In defiance of the authorities, a couple of thousand squatters have successfully transformed the Confinanzas building into an ad-hoc vertical community—nothing luxurious, to be sure, but also very far from the “vertical slum” decried by some ill-informed fellow caraqueños.

Sympathetic and engaged, but with a proper film-maker’s eye for telling detail, newcomer debutant Lenz economically compiles a vibrant snapshot of this precarious experiment in 21st century urban living, the tower-dwellers’ inspiring, enterprising chutzpah simultaneously in the spirit of and at odds with Chavismo‘s can-do spirit of brazenly defiant self-reliance.

The film is also a topical warning to all of what can happen when bubbles burst. It’s something the well-heeled citizens of Iohannis’ burg may wish to ponder as they survey the uniformly hideous, mirror-glassed  edifices of the financial institutions which stand, stake-like, not far from their city’s heart.

Neil Young
20th October, 2014

written for Tribune magazine

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