The New Romanian Cinema: Editorial Remarks

By Christina Stojanova (U of Regina) and Dana Duma (Hyperion U, Bucharest)

© Christina Stojanova, Dana Duma, 2007

About a year ago Dana and I decided it would be a good idea to propose a special issue on New Romanian Cinema for KinoKultura, which seems to be the only serious internet publication interested in the latest developments in the cinemas of Central and Eastern Europe. Well-meant and noble decisions always look somewhat naïve in retrospect, especially considering the difficulties encountered along the way. Now that the s pecial issue on New Romanian Cinema is a fact, it seems worthwhile to discuss some important background questions. The major one certainly is who gets to write in a special issue on national cinema? Who gets to be its spokespersons? One might say that this should not be such a major problem now, nearly two decades into an open-door cultural policy where curious minds are eagerly waiting to correct discrepancies. Yet the debilitating dimensions of the lack of continuity has become evident in the face of the current major qualitative evolution of Romanian cinema.

To begin with, Romanian cinema, excluding the body of writings devoted mainly to Lucian Pintilie (and most of that in French because of his emigration to France in the 1980s) has completely disappeared from the radar of English-language scholarship for more than twenty long years. The most serious treatment to date of the history of Romanian cinema in English remains The Most Important Art: Soviet and Eastern European Film After 1945 (1977), Mira and Antonin Liehm's diligent history of Eastern European cinema under communism. The revised edition was translated into French by Michel Euvrard (Les cinémas de l'est de 1945 à nos jours, 1989). In spite of the Liehms' critical subjectivity and inherent preference for Central European cinemas (or more specifically, the Czechoslovak one), and apart from their somewhat patronising attitude towards the younger Bulgarian and Romanian cinemas, the three chapters on the history of Romanian cinema—“Starting from Scratch: Romania, 1945-55,” “On its Own Two Feet: Romania, 1956,” and “Film and Reasons of the State: Romania after 1963”—have remained the backbone of English-language Romanian cinema scholarship.

In his laudable, albeit rather inconsistent attempts to create a comparative study of the Balkan cinema(s), Cinema beyond the Danube: The Camera and Politics (1974) and Balkan Cinema: Evolution After the Revolution (1979, 1982), Michael J. Stoil rehabilitates the so-called official film production and, consequently, pays due attention to Romanian cinema from the 1960s and early 1970s. He explains the gradual change of content in films produced by the four Balkan nations [1] over a 30-year period (1945-75). By ignoring formal diversities, however, Stoil reaches some paradoxical conclusions. Thus, profoundly iconoclastic works like the Yugoslav films I Have Even Met Happy Gypsies (Skupljaci perja; dir. Aleksandar Petrovic, 1967) and The Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (Ljubavni slucaj ili tragedija sluzebnice PTT; dir. Dušan Makavejev, 1967) are categorised in the sub-genre of “apolitical crime film,” along with “detective musical comedies” like the obscure Romanian series of films, Brigade Miscellaneous (Brigada Diverse; dir. Mircea Dragan) from the early 1970s, on the grounds that all of them demonstrate the inevitable “triumph of the socialist state over the lawbreaker”:

In effect, the apolitical crime drama, despite its attempt at realism and psychological complexity, is basically ... a parable of the inevitable damnation of the lawbreaker. ... This theme holds validity even in Romania, where the apolitical crime is treated without the realism of the depiction in Yugoslav and Bulgarian cinema. The caricatured cops and robbers in Romanian cinema may sing and dance during their chase scenes, but the triumph of the state over the lawbreaker is equally inevitable. (Stoil, Balkan Cinema 110-111)

He does, however, pay due attention to the Nationalist Epic cycle, referring to films like The Rebel Tudor (Tudor; dir. Lucian Bratu, 1963), The Dacians (Dacii; dir. Sergiu Nicolaescu, 1966), The Seven Outlaw Riders (Haiducii lui Saptecai; dir. Dinu Cocea, 1970 ), Michael the Brave (Mihai Viteazul; dir. Sergiu Nicolaescu, 1971), Stephen the Great (Stefan cel Mare; dir. Mircea Dragan, 1974), and The True Life of Dracula (Vlad Tepes; dir. Doru Nastase, 1979) as reflecting, among other things, the megalomaniac ambitions of the powers that be to see themselves as part of the indigenous monarchic succession.

Romanian cinema failed to make a comeback in the two major anthologies on Eastern European cinema published before the collapse of communism in 1989? Politics, Art and Commitment in the East European Cinema (1983, edited by David W. Paul) and Post New-Wave Cinema in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (1989, edited by Daniel J. Goulding). Neither of these collections contains a reference to Romanian cinema as an entity. [2] To my knowledge, Romanian cinema failed to reappear in English-language works published after 1989, with the notable exception of the special issue on Romanian cinema of the journal Moveast (8, 2002), an international film periodical published by the Hungarian National Film Archive in Budapest, devoted mostly to the current state of Romanian cinema; and the four essays on major Romanian films included in the anthology The Cinema of the Balkans edited by Dina Iordanova—Marian Tutui on Liviu Ciulei's Forest of the Hanged (Padurea spînzuratilor, 1964), Anne Jäckel on Sergiu Nicolaescu's Michael the Brave (Mihai viteazul, 1970) , Lilla Töke on Dan Pita and Mircea Veroiu's Stone Wedding (Nunta de piatra, 1972), and Adina Bradeanu on Mircea Daneliuc's Microphone Test (Proba de microfon, 1980 ).

The reasons are two-fold and intertwined. The first has to do with the extremely harsh dictatorship of Ceausescu (1965-1989), which kept the country sealed to the outside world. The second is that there were no scholars of Romanian origin in the field, so there was no one closely associated with the indigenous cinema that could do for it what Mira and Antonin Liehm had done for the Czechoslovak cinema, for example. In other disciplines, where a well recognised scholar like Mircea Eliade with his remarkable studies on Romanian folklore and religious rites put Romania on the Western academic map, the situation was completely different. The absence of a basic indigenous perspective, with all its originality and controversy, has been a crucial limitation for the study of Romanian cinema in Western academia. As Galina Kopaneva aptly put it:

The importance of the migration of Eastern European intellectuals is rarely taken into consideration when discussing the limits to the openness of the Eastern European cinema. There was a huge exodus of intellectuals from the Polish aristocratic and military elite after the war (for example, Czeslaw Milosz, Witold Gombrowicz), after 1956 from Hungary, and after 1968 from Czechoslovakia. Those people wrote and published in the West and this was extremely supportive for the internal dissidents, helping them retain their courage and continue the struggle. Unfortunately, neither Bulgaria …nor Romania had such a strong dissident lobby in the West. [3]

Neither did there exist serious English-speaking scholars who had devoted years to the study of Romanian cinema and could register with ease the waves of changes onto their already well-structured matrix—comparable, for example, to Peter Hames and his invaluable scholarship on Czech(o)Slovak cinema(s), dating back to the late 1960s.

What was to be done? Obviously, Dana Duma was the person on the ground, so to speak, and she shouldered the heaviest load of having to convince her colleagues how important such an issue would be for the New Romanian cinema: both for affirming its budding reputation in the English-speaking world and for boosting its self-knowledge, which is essential in the absence of an authoritative film forum in Romania itself (both Petre Rado and Dana Duma register the sad fact that there is no serious specialized film publication in the country). Every new wave manifesto emphasises the need for an exclusive access to critical and theoretical journalistic venues, like Cahiers du cinéma, whose members often engage in uncompromising and controversial polemics.

And after real missionary work, after hundreds of phone calls, mails, meetings at festivals, screenings, and cocktails, Dana and I succeeded in bringing under one roof writers from three generations and two continents, including such versatile scholars as Dominique Nasta from the University of Brussels, Belgium. Our youngest contributors include Andrei Cretulescu (film columnist for Re:Publik, Time Out, and HBO), Mihai Chirilov (editor-in-chief of the culture monthly Re:Publik and director of the Transylvania International Film Festival), Mihai Fulger (film critic for Observatorul cultural and author of New Wave Romanian Cinema [“Noul Val” în cinematografia româneasca, 2007]), Iulia Blaga (film critic for the largest Romanian daily, Romania libera ), Elena Dulgheru (film critic and author of two books on Andrei Tarkovskii), to the most established cultural figures like Petre Rado and Calin Caliman (film critic and author, among others, of The Romanian Documentary [1967], Jean Mihail [1996], History of the Romanian Cinema: 1897-2000 [2000]). Certainly, attracting authors like Adina Bradeanu from the University of Westminster and convincing her to publish a part of her invaluable research on the history and present state of affairs of Romanian documentary cinema in the special issue goes entirely to Dana's credit, to her authority as film professor and writer, deputy editor-in-chief of Noul cinema, and author of, among others, books on Ion Popescu Gopo, Woody Allen, etc.

Dana comments further on our work together in her portion of the Editorial Remarks, and especially on the invaluable help of foreign critics and on what she calls the “providential role of the French journals Cahiers du cinéma and Positif ,” which helped the New Romanian cinema coalesce. She also gives some invaluable information about the structure of the Romanian film industry, of its exhibition, some attendance figures, etc. I would only like to add here how important our collegial rapport and mutual trust was in putting together this issue. Thank you, Dana!

Christina Stojanova, University of Regina


In my wrap-up of this current special issue on the spectacular revival of Romanian cinema, I would like briefly to comment on a couple of important questions Christina and I have pondered. The first is the issue of the evaluation and conceptualization of this extraordinary phenomenon or, more specifically, of who are its most influential assessors. In our swiftly globalizing world and media, one can discern at least two major levels of abstraction in writings on national cinemas: the first level is the ground work, laid by the national media, specialized and otherwise, which voices the immediate reaction of domestic audiences no matter how limited. The second level comprises the specialized foreign media and Romanian nationals living abroad, who lend their name and authority to boost the image of a national cinema. Sometimes these two levels display disagreement and tensions, which is quite natural bearing in mind the advantage foreign writers and authors enjoy thanks to the distance?both cultural and geographic?from the phenomenon in question. I personally believe that anyone should be able to write about any national cinema of his/her choice, provided he/she is very well informed about what that national cinema stands for, whether it constitutes a “national film school,” what direction it follows, etc. I would avoid any terminology that "pronounces verdicts," that sets firm limits to the open discussion on Romanian national cinema; I would prefer to have this discussion conducted within the analytical framework of a profound knowledge of history and theory of cinema, instead of the brisk and informative way of writing that is internationally encouraged (and well paid!). This constitutes the first paradox in the evaluation of such a challenging and unique occurrence as the emergence of the new Romanian cinema.

The second important question that I have chosen to reflect upon at the beginning of this article concerns how New Romanian cinema has been received at home?in other words, how it has fared in regard to Romanian distribution, exhibition, and admission. This seems to be the weakest point of Romanian cinema and constitutes yet another, more than obvious paradox: while we are witnessing a stunning revival of this national cinema, film theatres keep disappearing one after the other.

Romanian cinema functions as most other European cinemas?mainly thanks to the financial policy called “ avance sur recettes,” established by the post World War Two French government. These grants are allocated to filmmakers on the basis of competitions held by the National Film Centre (Centrul National al Cinematografiei), structured along the lines of the French Centre National du Cinéma . The Cinema Law (No. 889) came into effect in Romania on 9 December 2002. According to data provided by the 2005 CNC Yearbook, there are 23 film producing and 11 major distribution companies in the country, all of them privately owned. The producers secure the film budget by applying for public funds based on individual projects via the above-mentioned competitions and try to find the rest through private sources or through funds from Euroimages, of which Romania is a part.

Some further statistics are in order here: the admission breakdown ratio for the 178 Romanian, American, and European first time released films in 2005, for example, is as follows: 10% Romanian films, 63.5% American, and 27.5% European. Total admission to film screenings for 2004 was 3,500,000, and in 2005 it fell to 2,500,000 because of the shrinking exhibition network, which now stands at 120 film theatres. Accusations are usually levelled against the bad administration of the state-owned theatres, suggesting that their privatization is the only answer—but if privatization lets new owners change the location of theatres, the situation would deteriorate even further. Currently, multi-theatre cinemas and multiplexes are the only venues functioning well: there are already 12, accounting for 50 out of the 120 screens and for ¾ of the total number of admissions. In my view, one simple amendment to the law of cinema would most likely ameliorate the situation, stimulating investors to build new theatres—a move that would be advantageous since it is impossible to expect Romanian cinema to advance in the absence of viewers.

But let me offer some more statistics: in 2005, the best-attended foreign films were

•  Star Wars, Episode III (116,000 admissions)

•  Alexander (96,000)

•  Meet the Fockers (95,000)

By comparison, the last Romanian film to attract more than 100,000 viewers was Nae Caranfil's Philanthropy (Filantropica, 2002), which sold 114, 000 tickets. The best-attended Romanian films in 2006 were, according to the Champions Agency, Tudor Giurgiu's Love Sick (Legaturi bolnavicioase, 2006) with 21,000 viewers, followed by Catalin Mitulescu's How I Spent the End of the World (Cum mi-am petrecut sfârsitul lumii, 2006) with about 17,000, and by Catalin Mitulescu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost, 2006) with about 15,500. In France alone, the last mentioned film sold more than 40,000 admissions! And here is the major paradox of New Romanian Cinema, which seems to be better known abroad than at home. Urgent measures are obviously necessary if a big hurdle is to be avoided in the future. A long-term strategy is absolutely needed, based on the understanding that reconstruction of the national cinema network of screening facilities is a cultural priority.

The situation with the specialized film press is not much different: it, too, is progressively shrinking. There still can be found general cultural publications and journals willing to publish prudent and analytical articles and discussions on cinema, but they are very few. The best informed professional film critics are usually advised against vexing readers with their “theories,” in favor of trying to be more glamorous, appealing, etc. Certainly, they could limit themselves to writing books if they insist on remaining serious about their job, but it is not easy to finance such an endeavor. On a brighter note, the emergence of what we call “new Romanian cinema” has nonetheless created a certain solidarity among those who write about film, generated by commentaries that fluctuate between professional diligence and sheer enthusiasm. Debates have been organized where the most competent in our midst have emphasised that the historical analogies with the French nouvelle vague are a bit strained and that we are not dealing with a “movement” based on manifest aesthetic similarities. The filmmakers most spoken about—Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, Catalin Mitulescu, Tudor Giurgiu, etc.—have proven clearly in their statements that they do not share common aesthetic ideas, but a certain generational solidarity demonstrated in their unanimous support of legislative measures, etc.

I would have to admit that the role of foreign media and critics has been invaluable, both before and after the emergence of the new Romanian cinema! Especially the French journals Cahiers du cinéma and Positif, the first ever to devote a number of articles on Romanian cinema?and especially Michel Climent, editor-in-chief of Positif , who has manifestly voted Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu, 2005) among his Top Ten best films shown in France in 2006?as well as on films by Lucian Pintilie and Nae Caranfil, and which, since 2005, have often covered films by Puiu, Prorumboiu, Mitulescu, and others. I should mention especially issue 551 of Positif (January 2007), which published a special section or “file,” called “Romanian Cinema News,” flaunting the following statement: “The great Lucian Pintilie (whose new masterpiece Tertium non datur we celebrate here by publishing an original text) feels less lonely now in the company of all his new colleagues, whose active pessimism, healthy irony, black humor, and scathing social criticism are so familiar to him” (6). This last affirmation emphasises a common trait shared by all young filmmakers who have openly declared their admiration for Pintilie and themselves to be his followers. The Positif special section confirms my conviction that sometimes one gets a better view from afar. In bringing together various critical articles and interviews, the editors succeed in offering an explanation of the so-called miraculous apparition of new Romanian cinema. I find exceptionally precious the ideas expressed at the round table discussion organized by Dominique Martinez, and especially the way participants like Radu Mihaileanu—a Romanian filmmaker living in France, the director of such important films, co-produced with France, as Betrayal (A trada, 1992), Train of Life (Trenul vietii, 1998), and Live and Become (Vas, vis et deviens, 2004)—analyze the emergence of the new Romanian cinema. “I believe,” says Mihaileanu,

that I have been expecting this to happen for five years now. There is, I think, a true Romanian new wave that is not at all comparable to the French New Wave since it has sprung to light due to different reasons, but it is a new wave, nonetheless, represented by incredible films that sell, that collect awards abroad, and that are inspiring critics. Above all, it is a larger phenomenon: a lot has been said about Cristi Puiu, Cîtalin Mitulescu, and Corneliu Porumboiu, but they constitute between one tenth and one fifteenth of the filmmakers of great value like Radu Muntean, Peter Calin Netzer, Cristi Mungiu, and the others who have already made their first short fictions, have received their international film festival awards and now are working on their feature films. It is obvious that this phenomenon is here to stay. And, in my view, it is not only a question of filmmakers, scriptwriters, and actors—it is also a question of the structure of film production, which has been undergoing changes over the last few years . And then there are the financial structures, the TV channels, which are transforming, which are opening. Example: the current director of Romanian national television, Tudor Giurgiu, has supported the creation of the film festival in Cluj Napoca [Transylvania International Film Festival], which is the best proof that things are indeed changing fast and for the better… Then there are tangible consequences of the international recognition: the co-productions, the easier flow of money for filmmaking mainly from France and Germany, and a bit from Austria. Along with all of this, Romania is preparing to enter Europe [ it already has—D.D .] and should benefit from the grants and other funding, very important for a country that used to make between 30 and 40 films per year; a figure that, at one point, was reduced to two films a year, and has currently climbed to 10 or 12 films. (qtd. Martinez 16)

This is an excellent observation and provides exhaustive background for the context that has facilitated the emergence of the current generation of filmmakers. Yes, to a great extent it is the result of the normalization of the film producing industry structures, as well as the emergence of important film festivals in Romania (like the Transylvania International festival), which undeniably serve as a great motivation for filmmakers . At that same roundtable in Positif , readers can find—in Corneliu Porumboiu's intervention—other intelligent observations on what the young cineastes have in common and what makes them different:

We are a new generation of filmmakers who have started by making short fiction films. In fact, this represents a new way of cinematic thinking, a modern way. From an artistic point of view, I believe that it reflects the influence of what is happening across Europe and in the rest of the world in terms of narratives, genres, plots… This creates an open cinema of universal importance as proven by the international awards received. Each of us tries to work in his/her own fashion and each individual story aims at a very sincere cinema. But I also think that we all try to make social cinema. We all start at the same point, the fall of Ceausescu, beyond which everyone chooses his own path. And, at the same time, the movement bears some semblance to a collective. We know each other, we talk. For example, I invited Cristi [Puiu] and Catalin [Mitulescu] to see my film during the editing period. We love discussing cinema, but we also keep our distance. (qtd. Martinez 17)

The differences are also well emphasised in Catalin Mitulescu's statement: “I strongly believe that each of us has his/her own path, his/her own star to follow. It is important to speak of Romanian cinema and of what characterizes it as an entity, as an ensemble, since it tends to boost it as well as it boosts our self-confidence, but it is the individuals that I trust” (qtd. Martiznez 18).

The lucidity of these young filmmakers is almost palpable in the interviews collected by Mihai Fulger for his book The New Wave of Romanian Cinema (“Noul Val” în cinematografia româneasca, 2007). The image it constructs of the new Romanian cinema is not that of a miracle, but an invitation to a patient search for its explication and for a separate key to the individual universe of each cineaste. And, I believe, that the texts featured by our special issue on New Romanian Cinema offer a map to investigate this new territory.

Dana Duma, National University of Theatre and Cinema, Bucharest
and Hyperion University, Bucharest

Translated from French by Christina Stojanova


 

Works Cited

Fulger, Mihai. New Wave Romanian Cinema [“Noul Val” în cinematografia româneasca]. Bucharest: editura ART, 2007.

Goulding, Daniel J., ed. Post New-Wave Cinema in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Iordanova, Dina, ed. The Cinema of the Balkans. London and NY: Wallflower P, 2006.

Liehm, Mira and Antonin. The Most Important Art: Soviet and Eastern European Film After 1945 . Berkeley: U of California P, 1977.

Martinez, Dominique. “L'étoile de chacun: Table ronde roumaine.” Positif 551 (January 2007). 16-18.

Paul, David W., ed. Politics, Art and Commitment in the East European Cinema . NY: St. Martin's P, 1983.

Stoil , Michael J. Balkan Cinema: Evolution after the Revolution. Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1982)

—. Cinema beyond the Danube: The Camera and Politics. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow P, 1974.


Notes

1] Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, and Yugoslavia. Constructing a separate subject area for Balkan cinema under Communism was indeed redundant and could be justified only geographically. The Bulgarian, Romanian, Yugoslav, and even Albanian cinemas had more in common with the other Eastern European national cinemas than with Greek or Turkish cinema from that period. At the same time, the adjective “Balkan” is excluding (and burdened with negative connotations), which also tends to diminish the effectiveness of Stoil's findings as a basis for a universally applicable approach to other Eastern European cinemas.

2] David W. Paul's book features two fleeting references to Lucian Pintilie.

3] Prof. Galina Kopaneva teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Charles University, Prague. The quote is from a series of interviews conducted with her by the author (Prague, June-September 1994).

Updated: 29 May 07