'Film is still not accepted as an official art in Romania' Transylvania International Film Festival's Artistic Director Interview

Twitch loves to explore all corners of the international film festival world, particularly the underrepresented events. One of those events is TIFF, the Romanian one. Transylvania International Film Festival is no more just Romanian business, it´s has gone worldwide now. Growing from year to year, boosting its international reputation equally as programming sections, TIFF is on the rise even despite the unflattering economic conditions in Europe. Twitch sat down with the artistic director of TIFF, Mihai Chirilov to discuss the festival´s production, programming, New Waves, the renaissance of Romanian cinema and other aspects of cinema like what is happening with European genre production.

 
Twitch: The year has passed and Transylvania Film Festival is back with a strong and interesting line-up in all sections. However, the situation is not that bright due to financial setbacks in Europe. Many film festivals had to introduce various rather unpopular measures. How did TIFF survive these apocalyptic times and cope with changes? Were you forced to employ certain actions?


Mihai: Somehow yes. First of all, I tried to reduce the number of films screened at the festival - not necessarily because of budget problems, but simply because the number was already too high and hardly manageable by the audience. The more films you have the higher the frustration of those who want to see as much as possible. Therefore, I cut by 20% the number of films, ending up with 155 features (and almost 40 shorts), which is still a lot and difficult to cope with, but the costs diminished.


However, we didn't want to cut any of the special programs or sections or events that we initiated in the past and worked, such as "Let's Go Digital", a several-day training workshop for children and teens who want to make films or "10 for Film", a special presentation of 10 theater actors to give them the opportunity to be known by the film community. That would have been silly - just like starting to build a structure and invest in it accordingly, only to abandon it in ruins.


Anyway, there are always solutions to make things work - firm negotiations with sales companies when it comes to paying huge screening fees that cannot be covered by exploiting the films in the festival, given the local economy and the ticket price, or being more careful with the travel expenses for guests or the accommodation costs, or slightly cutting salaries. One thing's for sure: we want to keep the festival spirit the way it always was, because the moment you violate this, no matter how justified it may be because of budget problems, people will lose interest.


The government has cut some financial support also for International Film Festival Rotterdam. What about TIFF and the state financial support and the state attitude vis-à-vis the biggest Romanian film festival capped with international reputation?


This year, TIFF underwent the most severe cuts in its history, meaning less money from the Ministry of Culture or the National Film Center. This has something to do not with a lack of money, but with corruption - there are several dubious film events (non-events, to be precise) that are generously financed by state institutions and no one can do anything about it.


On a general level, film is still not accepted as an official art in Romania, despite the constant success of the New Romanian Wave abroad - hence the yearly scandals about financing the new Romanian films. Politicians are not dumb though. They are aware of our festival reputation and would do everything to show up and show off at our event, pretending that they care. They all want a share of it. It's disgusting.


Thankfully, the local authorities of the region understood the importance of our event for the city of Cluj-Napoca and continue to support it, calling it a brand - but still, the level of their financial involvement is the same like six years before, whereas the festival got much bigger ever since.


What was the programming process for this year´s edition like? What themes, motifs you have picked up for 12th edition? You will be projecting a great number of films, 190 altogether. You have some big films, Vic+Flo from Berlinale, controversially accepted Pieta from Venice, acclaimed makers like Cantet, Dolan, Whedon and of course film from art-house circuit. Was the selection process tough?


There are more and more films submitted and sometimes there could be pressures - but I've learnt how to navigate troubled waters. I have a solid programming team and yes, it can be tough, given the amount of work, but it's a pleasant work to dig in and find the gems. I don't have a hidden agenda as far as the programming process is concerned and I'm not looking for themes or motifs. I'd rather let them find me, so to say. I'm certainly not the terrorist type, I have an open mind and would always favor diversity and good films. I don't want to put the audience in a box, but rather play with their expectations. The more eclectic and surprising selection, the better.


Do you regret not having certain particular films?


Of course, but I've learnt to live with regrets in life and the next day I always forget, no matter how passionate I am about the films that won't make it to the festival. It's therapeutic. There are so many good films that deserve a chance to be shown that I won't consider jumping from a building just because a certain film costs more than I can handle or a certain distributor is playing hard to get. Exceptionally, I regret having to cancel this year a special section that I was working on (I won't say which one, because I don't want anyone to steal my idea) - but I postponed it for next year.


One of the program sections is This is the End referencing the Mayan 2012 craze. Despite the tongue-in-a-cheek label, the section covers existential dramas or upbeat road movie. What is the intention behind this section?


I always have a themed section at TIFF, but like I said, I don't set the theme, and then start to look for films that fit. On the contrary. I'm trying to see as much as I can during the year and then, bang!, I have a revelation, as certain themes or rhymes stand out in the crowd. There have been years when either films about terrorism or films about religion (and faith) were given more exposure than others - so that was the theme I've picked for that year's edition of TIFF.


Lately, it seemed to me that more and more films dealt with this idea of something coming to an end or of someone reaching the end of the road - von Trier's Melancholia or Haneke's Amour made it so obvious. Blame it on the Mayan craze and the way it permeated our subconsciousness. Or maybe it's just my interpretation and the perspective I've favored in  films like Living or La cinquieme saison or Me Too or Lifelong... Hence this section called This is the End - which can be about the end of the world or of a certain world, the end of one's life, the end of a marriage or a relationship, the end of memory a.s.o.


Surprisingly, there are no genre films, which could be expected in This is the End section. They are in Shadows section. You cover also another Romanian festival, Full Moon, dedicated solely to the genre films. What is the current situation of genre films within the Europe? Are genre films a threatened species in the Europe?


It's true, there aren't that many good genre films made in Europe - maybe because one doesn't expect Europe to deliver on this ground since American cinema does it so much better. It's also true that for most of the European filmmakers, a genre film is not compatible with an "auteur film". They tend to look down on genre films anyway because they're so formulaic. There are exceptions though, but they always lose the battle against their American counterparts.


A low-budget thriller like Taped (from the Netherlands, included in our Shadows program), no matter how cool, effective and well-made it is, will have a limited appeal. The best-case scenario is that a European filmmaker doing good genre films will end up being assimilated by Hollywood. It's a vicious circle.


The focus sections are aimed at the national cinema of Greece and Slovakia. Both could be regarded as parallels to Romanian New Wave with sudden appearance of formalistic innovative and critically acclaimed films. Why did you choose these two countries and what appeals to you about them?


Every year I invite one or two countries in our Focus section. Some of them simply had some good years in cinema - and their success needs to be praised and highlighted. It's the case with Greece - where films like Attenberg and Dogtooth set the trend, but it's equally worth considering the sensitive context in which these films were made. Others take you by surprise (like it was the case in the past with the Romanian New Wave) and become fashionable overnight, because of sudden festival hits - if you're an adventurous programmer, you won't wait to see three or four more years for that specific country to confirm, you instantly set a showcase - like is the case with Slovakia.


The episodic narrative proved to be a potent rival to feature films. Mainstream film has started to lose great numbers in audience in favor of skillfully crafted TV dramas (and video games as well, but that is for another discussion). Did you consider integrating also one or two TV series into this year´s program as several of others film festivals (Venice, Toronto, Pusan, Rotterdam, there is even one dedicated only to TV production in Monte Carlo)?


I'm an avid fan of various TV series and of course I considered showing them on a big screen. I did that in the past and I try to do it every year, through so-called marathon screenings. Mike Nichols' Angels in America was a smashing hit with my audience, I remember the full house with people also lying on the floor, completely transfixed, for six continuous hours. Or the 11-hour showing (on 35mm!) of von Trier's The Kingdom, with the surreal intervention of Udo Kier in flesh and blood (the devil in the series) on the sixth of June in 2006 (06/06/06), right in-between the first and the second season, when we were giving a well-deserved break to the audience. This year I went for Assayas' Carlos (shown in its entirety - in a retrospective dedicated to the French director) and Kurosawa's Penance (a 5-episode TV series that blew my mind last year in Venice).


Do you deem them as innovative or as the enemy of features film? Is there some TV series that enthrall you?


They are far more innovative and enthralling than most of the feature films - but it's true that in a good TV series you are given a huge advantage: you have time on your side, you have plenty of time to develop the characters and foray into the deep soul of a story. I'm a Lost fan, but I also adored The Wire, Damages and The Killing. I have my guilty pleasures too, the most recent ones being Merlin and Revenge.


Beginning some years ago, there has been a Renaissance in the Romanian national cinema. How did the national cinema evolve so far? What is the Romanian film industry like even in these financially hard times?


There are slightly more films made every year, despite the terrible financial conditions, and it's incredibly rewarding to see that the Romanian cinema is still riding the Wave, grabbing awards everywhere, despite some critics bitching about it (sometimes for good reason though). Most of the Romanian films that get awarded abroad don't find their audience at home, though, and perform poorly at the box-office - which is a shame.


It's true, there aren't that many theaters in Romania, which is a major handicap. There are big cities with not a single theater. There's no consistent or systemic strategy designed to optimize the impact and the presence of the Romanian films on the local market. There is no law to protect the visibility of the Romanian films in the cinemas, especially in the multiplexes. The National Film Center is a compromised and archaic institution, marked every year by scandals, anomalies and corruption. If there's one little positive outcome, albeit a debatable one, is that this major frustration that the Romanian cinema doesn't deliver at the local box-office gave space to a bunch of genre films, mostly comedies of dubious quality that hit the jack pot. At least, people are back in theaters to watch Romanian films. And one could say that this is a sign of normalcy if we really want to pretend that we have a proper film industry, not just some great films that don't quite make money. This is in a nutshell - the discussion is, of course, long and more complex.


Are there enough opportunities for young and emerging filmmakers to show their talent?


It's very limited. The National Film Center doesn't provide that much funding for emerging filmmakers. They have to stay in line for years if they want to make a film with state money, sometimes they are even humiliated like it was the case with Adina Pintilie's first feature. Her script was widely awarded, but it was snubbed by the National Film Center commission when she first applied with it. Other filmmakers gave up waiting in line and turned to guerilla filmmaking, private sponsorships and alternative solutions.


What is the stance of government/state on Romanian films as the country is not always painted in bright colors?


Predictably, they bitch about them, accusing most of the Romanian films (especially the multi-winning ones) that they don't show a proper and inviting image of the country, as if a filmmaker should be a travel agent. Rather than being proud, seeing the big picture and "using" the films as a promotion tool, they speak out loud, expressing their personal views on them like a regular viewer would do. Once I talked to a Romanian Ambassador saying that he didn't want support the screening of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in South America because he didn't like the film. No comment...


You cater also Romanian Film Festival on the other side of Atlantic Ocean. What is the reception of Romanian film by US audience?


I was invited to be the artistic director of the Romanian Film Festival in New York by Corina Suteu, former director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York. The year was 2006, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu hit it big in the States, the reviews were unanimously fantastic, and she had the providential idea of mounting a film festival there, where it matters the most. The festival started at the Tribeca Cinemas and soon became a fixture in the New York cultural landscape, got bigger and bigger, and made front lines in New York Times and Village Voice. Two years ago, it went on the next level, by being invited to move at the Lincoln Center, as an annual event, under a new name: Making Waves. It is an audience hit, some screenings are sold-out - which is quite a performance in New York.


There has been some misunderstanding from the point of view of Romanian government in supporting this event. Is everything OK now?


Despite being the best platform designed to offer visibility to the Romanian films in New York, to both local and Romanian audience, the festival had a hard time at its 2012 edition, because of the tormented political changes of last summer. The Romanian Cultural Institute changed their board and priorities, and the festival's existence was threatened - as it was, until then, financed through public funding. We were denied access to any state funds and were forced to devise overnight a Plan B to find donors and private funds. We even initiated a Kickstarter campaign, the first ever for a Romanian-themed project in the States and we managed to reach our goal thanks to more than 300 people who donated money. The Making Waves festival was once again a hit. Nothing else changed though for this year's edition: all our applications so far for state money were denied. We're on our own, again! No amount is too small - in case anyone wants to join our enterprise, by supporting once again our Kickstarter campaign, to be found on our website, filmetc.org.


What can we expect from Romanian cinema in months or years to come?


This year, at TIFF, we'll be showing no less than 11 features in our official program, and 9 other brand new titles in closed screenings for film professionals and festival representatives. It's an eclectic offer that's gonna surprise all those who think they know what to expect from the Romanian cinema. I've seen all of them and I can say that the future looks bright.


Your favourite Romanian film from the New Wave?


Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. It's the best and most truthful of them all. It's a life-affirming film, even blackly comic, despite having death in the air and in its title. It goes beyond all the story levels, ultimately being a film about the human condition.


And the film you regard as the most crucial in Romanian New Wave?


Definitely, it's Cristi Puiu's Stuff and Dough. It came out of nowhere, back in 2001 when it was released, took everything and everyone by storm, and set the tone and the esthetics of everything that followed and counted in the Romanian New Wave.


What would you recommend to not miss out on this year´s edition of TIFF?
 

My favorite of them all in this year's selection is Alexei Balabanov's Me Too, included, but of course, in the previously mentioned section, This is The End.


Thank you for your time and the interview and best of luck in preparing the next edition of TIFF.

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