Vol 1, No 24
6 December 1999
A Fascinating Trickle
Romanian and Moldovan cinema at the 9th Cottbus film festival
Andrew J Horton
The standard measure of what sort of health a country's cinema industry is in is taken by the measure of how many films it produces. However, Mihai Poiata, director of the Vice General Director of the Moldovan National Centre of Cinematography, joked at the Cottbus film festival that the correct measure for his country's output was how many years it took to make a film. Echoing his thoughts, film-maker Tudor Tartaru joked that the process of getting his films made was actually more interesting than the film itself.
Indeed, while film-makers in countries like the Czech Republic and Poland whinge about the number of films that are made each year and then squander the few opportunities they get on sentimental pap or gung-ho action, directors in the East European Romance countries are truly bearing the brunt of the recent political changes. In 1989, per capita cinema attendance stood at 8.8 visits a year in Romania. Even cinephillic Hungary only had an average of 5.4 visits per person that same year. By 1997, Romania's figures had plummeted to 0.4 visits per head a year, while Hungary's figures had suffered far less, falling to 1.7 visits a year.
Not only that, recent Romanian legislation on preserving the domestic film industry by imposing taxes on television stations (the main rival for cinema) has failed to be enforced, and Moldova has yet to draft its proposed cinema law, which would help protect the domestic industry. The Romance countries clearly have a problem which is on a completely different scale. But for all this, Romanian and Moldovan cinema is remarkably fresh and challenging and certainly worthy of attention.
Moldovan film came into being as a discernible cinematic trend with Khruschev's thaw, producing the genre of the "Moldovan poetic film." This style of cinema combined romance with the realist traditions of Soviet film-making practice, which gave documentary films particular importance. Names who emerged in this hay-day included Emil Loteanu, Valeriu Gagiu and Serafim Saka.
In the stagnation years of the 1970s, Moldovan film-makers had to work under more hostile conditions as the precepts of Socialist Realism were once again enforced by studios. Further political change again influenced cinema, and glasnost allowed Moldovan cinema to blossom in the late 1980s again as a new degree of freedom came. Whilst politics influenced Moldovan cinema in the Soviet era, economics have been the primary force since independence, and the number of features made in the last decade barely scrapes into double-figures.
That Moldovan film-making can survive even in through dark times was demonstrated by the highlight of the Moldovan cinema series - an old classic from some of the more restrictive years of film-making, Emil Loteanu's Tabor ukhodit v nebo (The Gypsy Camp Vanishes into the Heavens, 1976), upon which the country's international reputation largely rests.
The film shows some of the principle obsessions of Moldova: passion, landscape and a sense of otherness. Based on stories by Maxim Gorky, the film is centred on a Romany horse-thief, Sobar, and his love for a beautiful young girl, Rada. The film's charm is that it evokes an extraordinary degree of passion for life in all its forms and of freedom (especially in the context of Brezhnev's Soviet Russia). Painted as some sort of "moodscape," Tabor ukhodit v nebo combines sweeping scenery with an epic and timeless tale of ill-fated love.
Loteanu was at the festival, bounding about to present awards and generally looking a lot younger than the young directors did. At a panel discussion he revealed though that his film-making career is far from over, and he currently intends to direct a new film. An international co-production, the film intends to cross cultures while at the same time touching on issues close to Moldova, by making a "biopic" of Marie Cebotari, the Moldovan opera singer who worked in Germany, eventually dying there in World War II.
As with many other countries, Moldovan film-makers have found co-productions a convenient way to finance a project, and Loteanu is by no means the first to work this way. Valeriu Jereghi's Si va fi... (And It Shall Be..., 1992) is a Russian-Moldovan-Romanian co-production. Almost entirely wordless, the film shows an eerie post-apocalyptic landscape in which a brutal and sadistic tank unit terrorise a woman and a young child. Symbolic rather than realistic, it is a poetic cry of despair at the constant harassment by the organs of power in particular against those who seek peace and communion with nature.
Landscape and poetry
Sergiu Prodan's Cea mai bun dintre lumi sau simpla zi toamna (The Best of the Worlds, 1990) is in some ways a very similar film. It uses a bleak and barren landscape and sparse dialogue to equally dramatic effect. The action takes place as four different characters travel in the same direction on a journey across unwelcoming terrain. One of them travels by bicycle, one by ox and cart and one by horse and trap, with his driver making up the fourth. As they cross the strange landscape, they repeatedly meet and overtake each other in series of terse encounters. Again, the film is symbolic, but this time, the protagonists' struggle is more with themselves and with each other than with any wider concept of misused power.
Less symbolic, but still interested in mood and landscape, Ultimul Rol (The Final Role, 1999) by Stefan Bulicanu was shot in the director's birthplace, using the autumn and winter landscapes as a backdrop to this story of post-Soviet poverty and village ways of life.
Some of the best received films at the festival were those by Tudor Tataru, director, producer, musician, viniculturist and all-round bon vivant. Tartaru’s short films satirise the backwardness of his native Moldova, while at the same time paying homage to the warmth of its people.
In Mos Ion in cosmos (Uncle Ion in Space, 1992), a passing alien drops in on Uncle Ion to sample Moldovan wine, which he is so impressed with that he decides that he will abandon his mission to destroy the planet, while in Ratacirea Demonului Bland (The Rambling of a Kind Demon, 1989) he imagines what would have happened if Matthias Rust had dropped in for a refuel in a remote Moldovan collective farm on his famed flight to Moscow’s Red Square from Germany.
The themes of visiting outsiders continues with his Polobocul (The Barrel, 1992). Tartaru switches the bulk of the action to Chisinau, but his interest is no less in simple country folk and the film is a fast-paced slapstick jab at the lack of urban values in Moldova’s towns and cities. Tataru's interests in the visitor's view do not seem to be abating, and the working title of his next film is "The Germans are Coming."
Moldovans are perhaps a more poetic people than their Romanian neighbours, and Romanian films have tended to be more interested in portraying reality directly as it is. As a result, a far greater percentage of Romanian films are a direct commentary on social and political events.
Radu Mahaileanu was the most famous director to be shown in this collection, having won the audience prize at Cottbus last year, with his Trenul vietii (Train of Life, 1998), a film about a village which tries to save itself from the Nazi Holocaust by buying a deportation train and dressing up as a transportation in order to travel to a land of hope. He has benefited from his position as a French citizen in getting French-Romanian co-productions, and the corresponding money, to make high-quality films.
This time he chose to show his Trahir (Betrayal, 1994), which like its successor, depicts the process of trying to find hope in times of oppression. Starting in the 1950s, the film is seen through the eyes of a Romanian poet and journalist who lands himself in jail with his newspaper headline "Betrayal – Romanian air is still pure, do not pollute it Comrade Stalin."
With no other prospect of release, he signs a deal with a Securitate agent which wins him his freedom in return for signing declarations and denunciations. The deal seems innocuous enough – he will not be asked to provide information which they do not already know and he will not be forced to sign false declarations. He is released, as is his secretary, whom he soon marries, and his anti-regime poetry is allowed to slip through the censors, allowing him to gain the reputation of a "Romanian Solzhenitsyn." But he keeps his secret hidden, and despite the apparent harmlessness of the papers he signs he soon finds himself in a situation where he is morally culpable for a friend’s death as a result of his actions.
Trial by media
Trahir ends in the post 1989 era with the writer seeing his world collapse around as the former Securitate destroy his life by leaking his denunciations to the press. Where Trahir leaves off, Marius Th Barna’s film Fata in fata (Face to Face, 1998) carries on. Trahir is more interested in explaining
Victor Petroni wakes up one morning to discover that his name is all over the news. His role as an informer has been exposed and the press are just lapping it up. More important for him than facing up to the cameramen is facing up to his wife, who finds out her husband's dark secret from the television. It is hardly surprising that the press are so interested as he is the editor of a major newspaper and she is a well-known dissident writer.
For the next 24 hours they argue it out "face to face" while the media can scarcely control themselves in their rush to expose the developing scandal. Victor’s Securitate controller even appears on the television to discuss his declarations, although shrouded in anonymity to protect him.
Often mimicking the frantic pace of a news broadcast, Fata in fata analyses the role of the media in exposing informers. Taking for granted what Trahir shows, Barna points to the hypocrisy in a society which can tear apart two people's lives while protecting the real criminals, the Securitate.
The film caused something of a stir when it was released in Romania. Opinion was divided as to the film's message, but for Barna this is not so important. More valuable is the fact that it started a debate and caused people to think about the role of the media.
Where Fata in fata is critical, Sobolanii Rosii (Red Rats, 1991) is vitriolic, and the film - the first to be privately financed in Romania - has been one of the top three successes of the decade in Romania. The story charts, the disillusionment of a sculptor and stuntman Stefan, who sees the new "democratic" Romania as being a continuation of the corrupt old Communist regime.
Sobolanii Rosii is a powerful and uncompromising expose of the Romanian bitterness at the failure of the revolution. Its message is all the more convincing in that the storyline is semi-autobiographical. Director Florin Codre trained and worked as a sculptor before making Sobolanii Rosii. The film is his first and only one as he returned to sculpture following its completion. Whilst this background may add impact to the film, it is truly tragic, as Sobolanii Rosii - a low-budget film by an autodidact - is undoubtedly one of the most frank and revealing Central European films to explore the state of post-Communist society. Indeed, it is some measure of the power of the film, that for legal reasons it was felt necessary to add an "Any resemblance to real persons..."-style disclaimer at the end of the film, an unusual step in Central Europe.
Whilst Sobolanii Rosii looks at the "red rats" who stayed on in power with the transition to democracy, Lunga calatorie cu trenul (Long Journey by Train, 1998) has a more down-to-earth approach in examining Romanian society. Focusing on Vali, a thirty-three-year-old with one leg too short who wishes to sell his kidney, the film is a quiet study of desperation and hope.
In most Central European countries a popular formula has been the light comedy which takes an affectionate and sentimental look at those good old bad old days of Communism. Popular ingredients are youthful innocence, love and only a modicum of social reality. Whilst Romanian cinema has by and large avoided nostalgia, Nicolae Caranfil's E pericoloso sporgersi (1993) shows that it can indulge in it occasionally. Set in a small country town at the beginning of the 1980s, the film presents three inter-twining adventures in love from three different angles. Witty, well-written and with its fashionably post-modern portmanteau narrative structure, the film is certainly one of the better examples of this rather unadventurous and overly prevalent genre in Central European cinema.
Off the shelf again
Not all recently released Romanian films are new, however. Radu Gabrea's Dincoli de nisipuri (Beyond the Sandcliffs, 1973) has just been taken down off the censor's shelves after having being banned by Ceausecu himself. Furthermore, it has been restored to its original uncut form.
A perpetual loser, Ion is consumed by a series of obsessions that lead him into ever-mounting danger and ultimately to his death. First of all, he tries to avenge his father's death, secondly he embarks on a romantic liaison with an ill-matched girl and finally he sides with the rebels who after the end of 1945 tried to resist the imposition of Communism and fight for freedom. Dincoli de nisipuri, one of numerous dramas from this period, conjures up something between the atmosphere of a Western, a Shakespearean tragedy and film noir, yet at the same time it has to it, as the critic Cristina Corciovescu has pointed out, "a remarkable formal beauty" to it. It's dark and foreboding feel are in particular assisted by the disquieting musical score by Tiberiu Olah.
Romania's film output is just a trickle, but it is a fascinating one. Although the situation is very bleak, it is (as in other Central European countries) past the low point of the mid-1990s. Not only is film production increasing (seven films were made in 1999 as opposed to just four in 1995) but interest in Romanian cinema is on the up as well. Aside from the Cottbus festival, there will be a retrospective of Romanian cinema in Trieste in January 2000 and in 2001 there will be another even bigger season of Romanian films in the same town.
Undoubtedly, films such as Dincoli de nisipuri and Sobolanii Rosii will emerge with enhanced reputations and they will begin to be discussed in cinema histories of the region. Also, interest in Romanian cinema internationally will make it easier for Romanian directors to find co-producers abroad, which currently seems to be the most realistic way of Romanian film flourishing.
Andrew J Horton, 6 December 1999
Mihai Poiata, "Moldovans and their Films"
both published in the 1999 FilmFestival Cottbus catalogue, available from the festival.
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