At the 2018 Transilvania International Film Festival, two low-budget Romanian documentaries stood out from the crowd.
(Poftiti va rog, Gazda)
Serestély Szilárd/ Mircea Sorin Albutiu
Romania, 2018/Romania, 2017
If judged solely by coverage in European media, one would be forgiven for presuming Romania is considerably smaller both in size and population than its western neighbour Hungary. Anyone taking interest in current affairs will probably identify the autocratic Prime Minister of the latter, Viktor Orban, the Putinophile whose proudly illiberal policies and regular outbursts have made him one of the most recognisable, influential politicians in the continent’s central/eastern parts. But few outside Romania could probably put a name to the face of President Klaus Iohannis or PM Viorica Dancila.
The latter’s relative obscurity is understandable as she only took office in January, assuming the position after street-protests about a proposed change to the corruption laws drove out Sorin Grindeanu who served less than six months in the hot-seat. Those demonstrations did make international headlines, but Romania has seldom penetrated the global consciousness since those heady days in December 1989 when long-standing Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was so suddenly and bloodily deposed.
«This year most domestic features at TIFF were tepidly received, but those venturing into the marginal areas found rewards.»
A likely factor: Romania so far has proven relatively immune to the populist wave that has engulfed much of Europe during the current decade, and whose progress the international news media charts meticulouly every day. But this is actually the seventh-largest EU state by population –19 million – and the ninth largest in area. On the former count it’s twice as big as Hungary for example, and size-wise it’s nearly three times as massive.
In terms of cinema, Romania – whose «New Wave» was identified by critics more than a decade ago – continues to pull its weight and then some. While Hungary did win the Golden Bear at Berlin last year with Ildikó Enyedi’s On Body And Soul, Romania scored twice in the last half-decade: Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not this February emulating 2013 laureate Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose. The century’s most acclaimed Romanian picture, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, landed the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007, an accolade which has so far eluded Hungary.
Five years previously Mungiu nabbed his first major trophy when his debut Occident won the Transilvania Trophy at the inaugural Transilvania International Film Festival (TIFF) held in Cluj-Napoca. In the intervening 16 years Cluj has become Romania’s unofficial capital, and TIFF has likewise steadily emerged as one of the most vibrant film-related events in the ex-Eastern Bloc.
This year most domestic features at TIFF were tepidly received, but those venturing into the marginal areas found rewards. A local filmmakers’ competition yielded a six-film showcase of shorts, in which a brace of low-budget documentaries stood out.
Cluj-based filmmaker/skateboarder Serestély Szilárd was awarded the runner-up prize in the competition for his 21 minute Poftiti va rog (Please!) – he received the «Golden Paintbrush» (sponsored by an arts centre in an old paintbrush factory) and the sum of €300. While just one-fiftieth of the cash presented to this year’s Transilvania Trophy winner (Paraguay’s The Heiresses), this figure is probably not much smaller than the entire budget of Serestély’s short, shot in the gritty district of Marasti from summer 2016 until this spring.
«Poftiti va rog is a tender portrait of two luckless citizens living mainly on the street.»
For students of Communist-era architecture Marasti is something of a concrete marvel: dozens of eyecatching apartment blocks built by Soviet and North Korean architects between 1970-89 for workers at the nearby CUG car plant. Seldom visited by the tourists who throng the streets of Cluj’s historic centre, Marasti remains a working-class neighbourhood among whose myriad of fast-food options are a couple of joints serving the greasy, tasty sausages mici.
This is the hard-knock background for a tender portrait of two luckless citizens living mainly on the street: elderly widow Anikó, who ekes a living selling flowers on the main drag, and Catalin, a rough sleeper who greets his grim circumstances with happy-go-lucky insouciance. Serestély presents both protagonists in a self-effacing manner (the director is neither heard nor seen) in a film whose rich nocturnal cinematography imbues the poverty-stricken subjects with dignity and grubby grandeur.
The director avoids voiceover or captions until the final credits, which poignantly relate the fate of Anikó and Catalin, but the film doesn’t need overt editorialising. The visual contrast between the haves and have-nots in modern-day Romania is eloquently conveyed: fancy cars whizz down the boulevard at Fast & Furious speeds while hobos poke around in rubbish bins; the concrete-and-glass blandness of a bank’s towering offices adjoins a mega-branch of German discounter Lidl.
Poftiti va rog stands in the documentary tradition whereby sympathy is extended to individuals whom the film’s (relatively well-heeled) audiences would usually overlook or hurry past in the street. Unsentimental but warm in his approach, Serestély (still in his early 20s) betrays his inexperience by occasionally going overboard with background music. But otherwise his eye and ear for the details of marginalised lives is impressively sharp.
The rural existences of the folk chronicled in Mircea Sorin Albutiu’s 40 minute Host (Gazda in Romanian, Khozyain in Russian) are in many ways even more a matter of margins. Long established as a photographer in the Cluj area and beyond, Albutiu travelled to the country’s wild west for his study of life in the tiny village of Sfistofca. Around a dozen kilometres from the Moldavian border, it’s 15 km from the nearest town of any size, Sulina on the Black Sea.
This is the fertile flatland of the Danube Delta, where farming ways continue as they have done for decades – no sign of Communist-era collectivisation in this remote, sparsely-populated corner of the nation. Sfistofca’s population looks to number no more than a few dozen, but it can nevertheless be classified as a village rather than a hamlet because it does boast a church. Indeed, its Russian Orthodox house of worship is a grand and silvery edifice, dwarfing the dwellings which surround it.
«Host gradually establishes itself as a low-key work of beguiling beauty.»
The focus here is on sixtyish farmer-poet Vasile Serghevici Serbov, a member of the «Russian Lipovan» ethnic minority whose ancestors settled this area following an 18th-century church schism. Estimates reckon there are 40,000 Lipovans in Romania, and in places like Sfistofca they cherish their distinctness even when they are plainly well-integrated.
Certain stereotypically Russian traits are discernible, such as a widespread fondness for chess. A tournament (all-male) organised by Serbov is the main «event» of the film, which otherwise is content to observe lazy, hazy days in this tranquil backwater. Man seems at one with nature: Serbov’s black cat contentedly licks its owner’s balding head, his dog stands inquisitively at the prow of a boat gliding through a Danube tributary.
While initially unvarnished to the point of roughness – the director leaves in minute focus-adjustments in his lengthy opening shot – Host gradually establishes itself as a low-key work of beguiling beauty, Albutiu’s photographer-training evident in his unfussy but striking compositions of natural vistas. His vision of the Danube Delta is one of bygone calm and wistful contemplation, a world or two away from the hectic urban dystopia presented by Serestély.
The good life
A conglomeration of provinces of enormous ethnic, lingusitic and social diversity, a testament to a remarkably complex history since its settlement as a kind of retirement-home for eminent members of the Romans, modern Romania is still emerging from the dark period of totalitarian rule and faces some tough demographic trends. Accession to the European Union in 2007 has hastened a significant decline in population, which is estimated to drop a further 17 per cent between now and 2050. Emigration is partly to blame: Romania already has one of the world’s fastest-growing diasporas per capita, alongside war zones such as Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. «Here it is the good life!» beams Catalin in Poftiti va rog … but only partly in jest.