Although the countries of the former Eastern Bloc share a history of state intervention and subversive cultural practices, cinephiles often regard them in pairs: Romanian traditions are closer to Bulgarian, than to Czechoslovakian or Polish cinematic tradition, while filmmakers from the latter made film history with strong film “waves” during the 1960s and 1970s; the former were united by their inability to sustain an international profile, partially due to the country’s more repressive and controlling political regimes.
The 1990s saw a prolonged crisis of this practice and eventually the collapse of the studio which had epitomised doc production in Romania for almost five decades. Beyond the crumbling institutional infrastructure and the general economic meltdown, the “death of doc” was also a sort of “death by memory”: too strongly associated in the collective memory with the propaganda of the previous regime, documentary suffered from a poor public image and had to be put aside for some time, as both professionals and audiences needed to disassociate themselves from the past. It was not until the early 2000s that the film community was able to re-engage with a genre that only recently had involved political complicity.
New Funding Spurs Doc Developments
Don’t Get Me Wrong / Nu te supăra, dar… by Adina Pintilie (2006, Romania)
Romanian documentary got on the fast track in 2004 when four films were selected in competition at IDFA and one won the First Appearance Award. The recent Golden Dove awarded in Leipzig to young Adina Pintilie (Don’t Get Me Wrong) has been another significant success, but documentary filmmakers are still not internationally perceived as part of the New Romanian Cinema.
2007 brought a number of significant additions to the domestic scene. Firstly, following on the heels of Romania’s accession to the EU, domestic projects have become eligible for Pre-media support, with three documentaries receiving development funding. Media Desk has also arrived in Romania, and four Romanian production companies recently received financing under the Single Project support scheme.
While Romania’s main film institutions are based in Bucharest, two of the most significant pro-documentary initiatives are based in Sibiu and Timisoara respectively. Chronologically, the first to be mentioned is Sibiu’s ASTRA Film Festival [http://www.astrafilm.ro], the main institution responsible for bringing a steady diet of intelligent and creative documentaries to Romanian audiences since the mid 1990s.
The newest addition to the local doc scene is DocuMentor, the first association of Romanian documentary professionals, whose inaugural event was joining forces with the Discovery Campus Masterschool (DCM) to host Go East: at the Crossroads of International Co-productions’, the DCM’s open session in Timisoara in September.
Go East was preceded by a special two-day session made possible by Pre-Media and targeting domestic professionals, as a mild acknowledgement of the ‘differences in temperature’ between the domestic and the wider international doc culture. Many of the participants were film students rather than the emerging independent producers or commissioning editors initially targeted. The domestic participation in DCM’s open session was also unsubstantial: delegates from Discovery Channel, The Sundance Institute, Channel4, ARTE, ZDF, ORF, HBO were joined by only two commissioning editors from Romania.
Steady Improvement at the National Film Centre
The mechanism of state support for Romanian filmmakers has improved over the recent years. After years of tension between filmmakers and the institutions of the film industry, the financing contest run by Romania’s National Film Centre (CNC) has become a regular biannual occurrence. Each session runs a contest for fiction and one for documentary/animation respectively, the separation of the two being another recent addition to the system, which only became possible after extensive lobbying.
The number of doc projects submitted for funding increased from 34 in 2006 to 51 over the summer/autumn session 2007. The most dramatic increase, pointing to a significant change in perspective, occurred in the feature-length documentary category, which more than doubled, i.e. from 8 to 19 projects. The figures need to be seen in context: for decades, Romania knew only the short-length doc, as another legacy of a socialist distribution system that classified documentary film exclusively as supporting film to a ‘main’ fiction film. It took years of effort (and not least a boost of confidence obtained by Iepan & Solomon from DCM in the early 2000s) to introduce the feature-length documentary as a distinct category for financing under the new CNC regulations.
Co-productions still remain a sensitive area for the Romanian CNC today as the institution operates within a strictly ‘national’ framework. Although projects are initially assessed for their international potential, in the second phase of the contest, when they are ranked according to another set of criteria, the funding secured from international co-producers is not taken into consideration for the final ranking of the projects which are to be given financial support: the algorithm only refers to the funds secured from domestic sources.
On the positive side, the winning projects in the summer session of 2007 pointed to new networks linking professionals based within and outside Romania: three out of a total of six projects supported involved émigré Romanians working with partners based in Romania. A similar model of transnational involvement was provided by a set of mobility grants (STEPdoc) launched earlier this year by the London-based Ratiu Foundation for supporting the development of Romanian projects by early-career filmmakers aiming to enter the UK doc scene. Both winners of the first mobility grants were former participants in the Aristoteles programme – a training programme initiated by another émigré team with ARTE support and an initial involvement of the national television.
TVR’s Cold Shoulder
There are currently no designated slots for creative documentary on any of Romania’s channels, nor there is a clear system of doc commissioning by Romania’s National Television. Two recent films- Cold Waves (Alexandru Solomon) and The Fallen Vampire (Florin Iepan) -were co-produced by TVR, but institutional policy has now changed and the brief period of openness to independent producers has ceased-a major disappointment for those who were starting to regain a sense of normality.
TVR’s crisis led to the resignation of its former general-manager who, in addition to having given the institution a face-lift, had been responsible for opening up TVR to externalisation and for green-lighting a partnership with ARTE for the Aristoteles workshop, which produced this year’s winner in Leipzig. One of the first decisions of the new management of the TVR was to withdraw from its involvement in Aristoteles. The workshop held its second edition this summer-still with ARTE support but without TVR’s vital partnership.
Since September, DocuMentor has been drafting letters to TVR’s new management asking for a public consultation regarding the institution’s policy with respect to independent producers, but has yet to receive a reply. Now, domestic producers are facing a tough future determined at the intersection of TVR’s lack of vision regarding the innovation potential carried by independent production, and CNC’s refusal to consider financial contributions secured from foreign sources.
Recent developments have proven that there is life after death. Recent training initiatives, as well as the transnational mobility of funds, films and filmmakers, inevitably bring about change: a more consistent sense of community is coagulating among documentary professionals, and small-scale projects fully funded domestically are now being replaced by more ambitious projects targeting international markets.
Projects completed or in production coming out of Romania with foreign involvement are Florin Iepan’s Bela Lugosi biopic The Fallen Vampir; Alexandru Solomon’s Cold Waves; Ileana Stanculescu’s Noosfera (in production). Other two titles from filmmakers based in Romania and working internationally are Robert Lakatos’ Bakhtalo!, produced with Hungarian money, and Thomas Ciulei’s Flower Bridge (working title).
Beside the above mentioned, there are a number of new-comers who still need to practice theirs skills of telling powerful local stories with universal appeal, and to negotiate their professional choices on the path between TV commission and cinematic engagement. Keeping close to the debates and developments in the field is crucial for domestic professionals, and DocuMentor’s initiative of bringing Discovery Campus to Romania is something that needs to be continued with other training and networking events. Even if not thriving in a fashion comparable with domestic fiction film, Romanian documentary has been steadily improving over the recent years. Filmmakers are doing their job-but the domestic commissioning editors able to match them are still to come.