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Transylvanian Screen Test

More questions than answers surround Romania's shaky film industry. And that's good. by Dumitru Balaci 9 July 2003 A year ago, the poster for a new Romanian festival of domestic and international film featured the word Transilvania on a mountain crest, mimicking the cliffside "Hollywood" sign that symbolizes cinema glory.

This year’s poster for the second edition displayed "Transilvania" set in stars like those lining Hollywood Boulevard.

These stars, however, spread out across a freshly harvested field in the rich high plains of Transylvania, not the fabled Los Angeles concrete.

Both images embody the dreams of the Transilvania International Film Festival's organizer, film director Tudor Giurgiu: Shoot high, but give the festival a down-to-earth regional relevance.

Giurgiu's scheme to put Romania on the map of festivals that the industry takes seriously raised quite a few eyebrows before the 2002 event showed that the undertaking was actually possible.

It was a huge task, funded with $100,000, much of it from the instant-coffee maker Nescafe, and fueled by enthusiastic volunteer film freaks.

The event was hosted by the provincial city of Cluj-Napoca in central Transylvania, rather than the capital, Bucharest.

Even more than the setting, the festival's name conspicuously set it apart as a regional endeavor. Some even grumbled that this was a way to avoid associating it with Romania altogether.

Giurgiu's choice of name and venue city was prompted by reasons that had more to do with good marketing, however, than with provincial patriotism.

“Transylvania was a name that comes easily to mind. It already had an international appeal to filmgoers worldwide for reasons beyond our control--Dracula and all the rest," Giurgiu says.

"Cluj was the obvious location not only as the regional capital of Transylvania, but also because in this city, the ratio of moviegoers to the total population is the highest in the country,” he says.

Last year TIFF (not to be confused with the identical acronyms of the better-known--so far--Tokyo and Toronto international film festivals) chose 12 films, all by first- or second-time "debutant" directors, for the competition section, 43 movies overall, and put on 65 screenings in two cinemas.

In the last week of May this year, 13 debutant films competed, 70 movies were shown, and there were 153 screenings in three cinemas.

The funding rose as well, to $130,000.

And enthusiasm was high: Some 90 volunteers, mostly students, from Romania, the United Kingdom, the United States, and as far away as Singapore made the festival roll.

Apart from the opportunities TIFF gives Romanian film industry people to network on their own turf and its focus on debutant films, Giurgiu hopes the wider film world will notice the festival for its dedication to movies on the edge--both in terms of subject matter and technique.

SEEING REALITY DIFFERENTLY

This year’s TIFF opened for a reason with the 2002 Brazilian production Cidade de Deus (City of God), by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund: “It was a sort of a mission statement for what I want this festival to be,” Giurgiu explains.

The film tells of a teenage boy living in Rio de Janeiro's crime-ridden "City of God" housing project in the 1980s, a boy with no prospects who discovers a hidden ability to see reality differently and uses it to become a photographer.

Seeing reality differently characterizes many films festival-goers saw in Cluj this spring, not least Noi Albinoi, Dagur Kari's film about a 17-year-old albino boy who drifts through life on a remote fjord in northern Iceland and dreams of escape from his white-walled prison.

Noi Albinoi beat out the other competing films for the top prize in a vote by a jury made up of novelist and screenwriter (Wild at Heart, Lost Highway) Barry Gifford, Alissa Simon (artistic director of the Palm Springs film festival), Diana Sanchez (international programmer for the Toronto festival), and two Romanians, film critic Leo Serban and director Dinu Tanase.

As well as competing for the main prize, the film joined other Nordic features in a section called "Northern Star." Other sections included Supernova (films that have won awards in the past two years), No Limits (for movies with mind-blowing themes), American Independent Cinema, New French Cinema, a horror-flick sampling called Shadows, and a set of three films by each of three established directors: Pedro Almodovar, Lukas Moodysson, and Lucian Pintilie.

ROMANIAN CINEMA REDIVIVUS

Festival crowd outside the Republica cinema in Cluj.
Domestic movies, while not taking center stage at the event, were strongly represented in a separate section, with nine films produced during the past two years.

The young life of TIFF coincides with the surge to prominence of some 10 young Romanian directors known collectively as “the new wave," not because of a shared artistic credo but simply because their films hit the market at the same time.

What sets these young filmmakers apart "is that they are all modern, meaning that they speak today's film language, and some even push it further and invent [a new language], such as, for instance, Cristi Puiu in his 2001 film Marfa si banii [The Goods and the Dough],” says Alina Salcudeanu of the National Film Center, the government office tasked with stimulating film production in Romania.

Only three years ago there was nothing left to stimulate: Not a single Romanian-made feature film appeared in 2000. In 1999 there were just two domestic features, and three the year before that.

Then the government changed its tune and began pumping money into the industry, mainly in the form of zero-interest loans to fund up to 65 percent of production costs. The results have been impressive. Eight new films appeared in 2001, nine in 2002, and this year the state has allotted 160 billion lei ($5 million) to support 10 movies.

The government ambitiously plans to raise the input of the film industry into the gross domestic product by several times, from a meager 0.13 percent in 2002, and to support 14 to 16 domestic films annually.

Crucially, growth is not to come through domestic films alone. Romania counts on strengthening its recently discovered position in the eyes of directors worldwide as a shooting location and a provider of post-production services. In the past two years, Costa Gavras (Amen), Franco Zefirelli (Callas Forever), and Anthony Minghella (Cold Mountain, scheduled for release later this year) have all come here.

Estimates are that international film productions will spend $200 million in Romania by 2004.

There is still a long way to go before domestic features can hold their own against imports in the cinemas. Young directors face institutional obstacles to getting state support. Worse, Romanian audiences prefer to spend their money on Hollywood products. In both cases there are hopeful signs of change.

Earlier this year a number of “new wave” directors held a press conference to protest the list of films slated for support by the National Film Center. All were to be made by old-guard directors, but this was not the point they wanted to make. The point was that these directors also sat on the film center's consultative board. And someone was listening: On 6 July the government issued an ordinance that, among other things, shut down the consultative board.

Even better news is movie patrons' rapidly rising interest in domestic movies, although they continue to lag far behind Hollywood releases, which account for three-quarters of the 120 to 150 new films screened every year.

At the turn of the millennium, audiences stayed away in droves from what few Romanian features there were. In 1999, just 46,367 tickets were sold for first-time Romanian releases. Two years later, one new Romanian feature attracted a total of 227 spectators who bought $58 worth of tickets for the entire run, and the biggest domestic draw that year was an erotic comedy seen by 12,000 viewers.

By 2002, viewership for first-time domestic releases had jumped to just under half a million--an impressive tenfold increase in just three years. Even so, Romanian films attracted only 10 percent of moviegoers.

Over the next few years, the domestic film industry is likely to wax and wane along with the performance of the Romanian economy. The past two years have been relatively kind to both: Ticket sales for imported and domestic films have risen, inflation has fallen and other economic indicators are promising.

With a movie ticket priced at $1 and monthly incomes averaging $100, it's not hard to understand why film attendance tends to rise and fall with the economy.

The National Film Center's Roxana Dodu says film attendance dropped in the first trimester of 2003 and did so mostly in the poorest regions of the country.

“Film attendance is also an indication of how the economy is doing, not only of the choices film distributors make," she says. “You have to keep in mind that going to see a film these days is a big investment for many people, no longer the normal thing it was before 1990.”

For Tudor Giurgiu, who wants Transylvania's film festival to present movies “that give you questions, not answers,” that probably doesn’t pose any problem.
Dumitru Balaci is a TOL correspondent in Romania.
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