«I’m looking for stories and characters that make the viewer feel lucky to have chosen them»

TIFF / Ahead of the 19th Transilvania International Film Festival, which occurs 31 July - 9 August 2020, Modern Times Review spoke with both Artistic Director Mihai Chirilov and What's Up, Doc? section programmer Ana Maria Sandu.

Film critic Mihai Chirilov is the artistic director of Transilvania International Film Festival, heading a board of programmers responsible for most of the festival sections. He is also the sole curator of the Romanian Days showcase, while the international documentary program, called What’s Up, Doc?, is exclusively designed by writer and journalist Ana Maria Sandu.

Ahead of the 19th Transilvania International Film Festival, which occurs 31 July – 9 August 2020, Modern Times Review spoke with both Mihai and Ana about this year’s edition, documentary programming, and more.

Mihai Chirilov-TIFF
Mihai Chirilov, Credit: Life.ro

Can you explain about the documentary selections and programmes at Transilvania International Film Festival? How are the sections created? What criteria do you look for in films?

Mihai: There are already two major documentary festivals in Romania, one is Astra in Sibiu, possibly the biggest in this part of Europe, and the other one is the local franchise of One World. Each of them has a specific interest and both are doing a great job. However, there are a lot of documentaries that don’t necessarily match their profiles, and this is where TIFF enters. Even though the festival is mostly dedicated to fiction works, our documentaries have a special place and audience. We don’t want them isolated, completely separated stylistically from the fiction works in the other programs, that’s why we are mostly interested in those documentaries that give you the feeling of watching a fiction work. It’s a strange mix of mainstream documentaries and experimental ones. And then there are the Romanian documentaries, where again, we don’t favor the standard docs employing the TV aesthetics, but those creative works that feel extremely cinematic.

Ana: I’m not interested necessarily by the topics in the What’up Doc? Section, which I’ve been curating for several years. Ever since Mihai Chirilov entrusted it to me, I knew that TIFF is not a documentary film festival, so everything that will be found in the program, from this genre, will be in direct battle with fiction films, which, in fact, are the spotlight of the festival. I always choose strong, awkward, brave, honest documentaries. And, very often, only when the final list is ready, I discover that they rhyme well with each other and that they cover a lot of themes. I’m looking for stories and characters that make the viewer feel lucky to have chosen them; stories which the viewer can take home with him and characters that you can’t easily forget. If I had to choose just one of the ten films scheduled this year (a number significantly reduced due to the restrictions generated by the pandemic – this section usually included 15 – 20 documentaries), this would be The Painter and the Thief. Benjamin Ree‘s film takes us to a dangerous area: two works are stolen from an artist. One of the thieves, once caught, admits that he was drugged when he stole them, but his reason remains hallucinatory: «They seemed very beautiful». This incident generates a new friendship fueled by mutual fascination and it born a film that never lets you become judgmental or allows you to assume you know better about the lights and shadows of human nature.

In terms of Romanian filmmakers, who will be shown at the 2020 Transilvania Film Festival?

Mihai: All in all, there are 12 titles, Romanian ones or Romanian by adoption, so to say. There are six new Romanian documentaries: Alexander Nanau’s Collective, Monica Lăzurean Gorgan’s Wood and Sundance awarded Acasă, My Home by Radu Ciorniciuc are obvious highlights, but equally impressive are Adrian Pârvu’s Everything Will Not Be Fine, Tudor Platon’s House of Dolls and Alex Brendea’s Teach – all three being debut works. Furthermore, we have two from Republic of Moldova (Siberia in the Bones by Leontina Vătămanu and The Soviet Garden by Dragoș Turea), one made by a Romanian director who lives between Moldova and Austria, but partly shot in Romania (Please Hold the Line by Pavel Cuzuioc) and a French one made by a Romanian director and shot in Romania (The Delta of Bucharest by Eva Pervolovici). Plus two special events, with a socially engaged documentary, 30 Years and 15 Minutes by Ștefan Mandachi, about the highway crisis, and a classic work made 50 years ago and freshly restored about the most catastrophic floods in Romania, Black Buffalo Water, which is now considered a cinematic manifest of an entire generation of Romanian directors such as Dan Pița, Stere Gulea, and Mircea Veroiu, among many others.

Do you consider there to be a certain Romanian aesthetic or approach to documentary filmmaking that is unique to the country?

Mihai: I wouldn’t go that far. There hasn’t been a revolution in the Romanian documentaries like it happened with the Romanian New Wave. However, there has been one work that I consider truly unique in its approach and this is The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu. The way Andrei Ujică is twisting the reality in this meta-doc is simply brilliant. Going back to the documentaries shown this year at TIFF, what struck me the most was the emotional truthfulness in Everything Will Not Be Fine, The Delta of Bucharest and House of Dolls, made by three young directors who chose to investigate and immersing themselves into different versions of the Past: the Chernobyl disaster, the Communist prisons and the personal lives of one’s relatives. It’s not a unique technique, but it’s damn effective.

Ana Maria Sandu-TIFF
Ana Maria Sandu, Credit: Robert Petreanu

What documentary has been integral in your own development and interest in the genre? Why?

Ana: My background, as a writer and journalist, is the main reason I am interested in both «fiction» and «reality» and the miraculous way in which they combine. I know that the first documentary that left me speechless was recommended to me by a director friend and was about the poetry you can find in the middle of ordinary craftsmen. It simply mesmerized me. Then I discovered Frederick Wiseman with Welfare and fell in love with how «life» can be captured with a camera, how an image can become more present than the world around you.

Mihai: I’m not particularly interested in documentaries, I am interested in cinema no matter what the genre. And I particularly love documentaries that challenge themselves and the traditional way of making one. I’m fascinated by the edge of ethics, the blurring of truth, and the transfiguration of reality in a documentary, and I definitely enjoy being manipulated by a smart docmaker. Which is what good cinema is supposed to be, right?

How do you see the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the presentation and structure of film festivals moving past 2020?

Mihai: I am pretty sure that things will get back to normal in the long run. Not a new normal, but the good old normal. I don’t think that moving online is the solution – some festivals did it out of necessity and it worked somehow, but frankly, they didn’t look like festivals. Other events, like TIFF or Sarajevo, went on with a physical edition resizing themselves accordingly without losing their personality and respecting the current rules. To my knowledge, the upcoming Venice and San Sebastian festivals are going ahead with their established formats, with minor changes. Unfortunately, given their functional structure, many other festivals will not survive the pandemic, some even went bankrupt, and it will be tough to build themselves back.

Steve Rickinson
Steve Rickinson
Communications Manager and Industry Editor at Modern Times Review.

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