Transylvania International Film Festival: Dispatch Three

The festival has successfully wrapped up its 13th edition. Over 200 films paraded onto the silver screens around the main square in Cluj-Napoca. This year, the festival organisers omitted multiplexes from their cinematic marathon, opting for the small cinemas as well as alternative spaces such as the Student House, Military Centre and university. In this way the festival highlighted the woeful situation of small town cinemas. The number rapidly fell down after the revolution from several hundred to several dozen. Save the Big Screen is a campaign initiated by TIFF´s organisers to reverse this dreary state. Traditionally, the festival boasted Romanian Days section, a cinematic panorama of recent domestic productions. This section sheltered both mainstream fare and more arthouse oriented films. 

The recent box-office hit #Selfie was also one of the feel good films of the fest, a true crowd pleaser, mostly for youth. Designed for commercial success, the plot is build upon well-known and occasionally tweaked formulas of summer teen romances and the road movie. Three friends flee from prom night, to party just two days before finals. As rules dictate, things get out of hand and the race to make it in time for finals becomes the main plot framework nursing romances, break-ups, walk outs and beach high-jinks. Director, Cristina Jacob and two other screenwriters participated on the script, inflating the film to an unnecessary 123 minutes, clogged with myriad of supporting characters.

I am an Old Communist Hag plunges into what appears to be the subject of recent discussions on Romania. After capitalism and its consequences have nested sufficiently, a wave of nostalgia has hit older generations. Luminita Gheorgiu stars as Emilia in this generational clash of and reflection on recent and past times. The film names the common phenoms in Eastern countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union, resulting from an unflattering economical situation which is slyly embedded in the script. Emilia´s daughter comes on a visit from the U.S., as life should be financially easier there compared to Romania. However, the contrary is the case and parents remembering the bygone era of Ceausescu´s regime are determined to help their daughter and soon to be son-in-law despite jeopardizing their own modest living standards.

Director Stere Gulea eschews direct comparison but rather draws upon actual course of events in Europe (unemployment, debts) while pushing back a tiny tear of nostalgia. Even though the main protagonist reflects on herself and her non-oppressive upbringing during the Communist era, no explicit indictments are brought to the surface. In this case, I am an Old Communist Hag pretends to be a light-hearted humorous fare despite sheltering bleak themes in the background. 

Roxanne, by Valentin Hotea, plays on the "sins of the father" trope as its main plot and thematic line. Twenty years after the Romanian revolution, Tavi Ionescu, feels a sudden bitterness over an old incident when somebody ratted on him to Secret Police. The original catalyst comes in the form of a home inspection and interrogations for Tavi when an innocent letter to the radio Free Europe about playing Roxanne by The Police for his then sweetheart. Tavi finds out that he might be a father to a now almost adult son. Once again, the film puts on  the skin of a decent comedy, but deals with the backlash from "those times", and the consequences which persist even after the fall of the regime. Abruptly developed paternal instincts become the main fodder for the moderate laughs, although bitterness prevails in the end. The omnipresent leitmotif of forgetting becomes incarnated in Tavi´s mother as Alzheimer´s irreversibly devours her memory, as opposed to Tavi´s poking into his forgotten history. 

While waiting for a ceremony gala in front of the National Theatre, I bumped into Tudor Cristian Jurgiu, the director of The Japanese Dog that was also on the display in Romanian Days section. After several minutes discussing the production process on the film, it turns out that I was waiting in the wrong queue, and Tudor was there expecting his pupils from TIFF´s initiative for kids filmmaking. Before hitting my spot in the ceremony gala, the obligatory question had to be asked about Tudor´s expectations as his film ran in a competition section. "You sort of always know before," he replied humbly, implying that he is not expecting any award. "You never know, maybe I will eventually see you on the stage." I tried to cheer him up a bit. Fifty-minutes later, Tudor was rushing to the stage to receive The Romanian Days Award for Best Debut.

This anecdote illustrates the informal almost familial atmosphere infiltrating the whole festival. Tudor´s film is a minimalistic venture into the life of Costache Moldu (played by famous Romanian actor Victor Rebengiuc) shortly after nature has taken his earthly belongings and his wife. This is the film where the script (penned by Tudor, Ioan Antoci and Gabriel Gheorge) and the execution stand out. The scriptwriters need really small and ordinary gestures to sketch out the particular characters, while direction follows the minimalistic style in a slow-burning narrative accompanied by long observational shots (by Andrei Butica, the DP that lensed The Death of Mr.Lazarescu and Child´s Pose) deepening the introspection. 

Veteran filmmaker Nicolae Mărgineanu took viewers on a stroll to a labour camp in 1949, another return to the former regime in The White Gate. Mărgineanu uses double exposition, one examining a real icon of baby Jesus wearing a labour camp coat and the second on three students trying to cross the border. Two boys are caught by police while the girl´s destiny rests unknown. The White Gate stands on the crossroad of drama and documentary halved by fragmentary narrative and collective protagonists. The fates of various people interweave creating an image of the darker period in Romania. The cruel work on the Danube-Black Sea Canal alternates with gregarious camaraderie as one of the tools to retain sanity until the wistfully expected release. The film was shot on location in a real (derelict) labour camp, unfortunately with a digital camera. The crystal clear grainless image erases the tracks of time, and it is even hard to pinpoint the film to a concrete period judging from the first scenes. The director himself confessed that the film would profit from more grain and explained the reason for digital camera... a small budget.
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