Marian Țuțui: Bulgarian and Romanian film directors do not interact enough with each other

Marian Țuțui (source: Marian Țuțui)

Interview with an important Romanian film critic about the strengths and weaknesses of the Romanian New Wave and Romanian documentary cinema, Bulgarian documentaries, Bulgarian-Romanian co-productions, the history of Romanian cinema, the financial aspects of the Romanian film industry and the closeness between Bulgarian and Romanian realities

Vladimir Mitev

Marian Țuțui is a Romanian film critic and researcher at the Institute of Art History of the Romanian Academy. He is currently working on a book about the history of Romanian cinema. In January 2022, he presented his latest book on Balkan cinema in Romanian. Among other things, Marian Țuțui holds a degree in Bulgarian language and Romanian language from the University of Bucharest.

Hello. We have a special guest today on the Bridge of Friendship blog, with whom we will discuss Bulgarian and Romanian cinema, as well as cooperation between filmmakers from the two countries. Our guest is a well-known film critic, specialist in Balkan and Romanian cinema. He is currently preparing a history of Romanian cinema for the Romanian Academy, where he is currently working at the Institute of Art History. And another remarkable thing about him is that he speaks Bulgarian. And the interview we will do will be in Bulgarian. I greet Marian Țuțui!

Hello. Nice to hear you and maybe see you too.

I think we will hear and see each other many times, including our viewers, listeners and readers will have the opportunity to do so. Since we have a lot of topics, I suggest we start with the news. A few weeks ago, Sofia Film Fest took place in Sofia and we saw successes of Romanian cinema, which is not surprising. Romanian cinema has had a significant presence for a long time. Even in Bulgaria, it has a reputation. But let’s start with what happened in Sofia and to what extent these award-winning films or these filmmakers are significant and deserve to be known by Bulgarians and all our listeners and readers.

As far as I know, there was only one film by Mihai Sofronea in Sofia – his first feature film – The Wind Seeker. It received the critics’ award. I’ve known Sofronea for several years. So far, he hasn’t managed to get any money from the National Film Fund. I’ve known about his idea for this film for a long time. I’m happy for him. And it seems that the film was successful and appreciated by the Bulgarian audience and critics.

But this film is not what some experts might be used to. It is not part of the new Romanian wave. In this film, reality has less influence on the plot. The film is more an emotional projection of the director. For example, unlike the films of the Romanian New Wave, which intentionally do not show beautiful images, in Mihai Sofronea’s film we can see perhaps not a tourist Romania, but a Romania of the villages along the Danube, with quite beautiful landscapes. This time we are not shown banal communist city blocks, but something more, nature and a village somewhere in the south of Romania, on the banks of the Danube.

You mentioned the Romanian New Wave, which I think is known in Bulgaria. In fact, to what do you owe the success of this Romanian New Wave? Because these films by well-known directors have been awarded prizes at the most prestigious European festivals and, in fact, Romanian cinema has acquired an image that I think has been the envy of Bulgaria for years. And what is the secret of the new Romanian wave?

For a long time, around the year 2000, Romanian and Bulgarian cinema were sort of the Cinderellas of Eastern European cinema. The Yugoslavs, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, Russians were very successful, but this was less the case with Romanian and Bulgarian artists. Through documentaries, the Bulgarians sometimes found a recipe for success. And the Romanians have achieved this through the so-called New Romanian Wave or New Romanian Cinema. It’s about dramas with contemporary themes and less money. It’s a kind of minimalism and realism, not only when it comes to money, but minimalism and the way these films are made. I mean, for example, it’s quite often shot by hand. The sound is recorded directly. And often there is no music. That’s minimalism.

I said it’s also realism. They are an adaptation to the state of contemporary Romania. Communism has fallen and Romania has adapted to the market economy. Maybe sometimes the films are not to the taste of the average viewer, used to watching post-1990 American films with happy endings. These films are very similar to reality, which is still quite sad today. And this is probably the reason why these films have not been successful in Romania. Success in our home country is also difficult because we don’t have many cinemas. But the films were a great success with audiences and critics in the West. Western audiences and critics saw an original point of view on reality. On the other hand, you could see that directors were making their own films based on their scripts.

There are also some new actors who make a good impression. So, when there are more successes at Cannes, Berlin and Venice or even at the Oscars last year, you can say that Romanians have really found a recipe for success. I think the most important thing is to find a formula that fits the budget and the reality. But there is something else. The Western public now knows more about Eastern Europe, about Romania. Romanian directors and producers have learned to use tools like co-productions and the EU funding system.

Good. I have a small question here. How do Romanian directors and filmmakers manage to make Romania’s recent past, be it socialism or transition, interesting to watch. I ask because Bulgarian cinema also has realistic films. But the picture we see in these films is so depressing that we just don’t want to watch it. And yet, it seems to me that despite the fact that Romanian films also talk about serious issues: the ban on abortion under Ceaușescu, the 1989 revolution, about which some people in retrospect claim to be revolutionaries and fighters against communism, and other acute and serious social problems. And yet, these films seem to be able to present reality in an interesting way that draws you in, makes you think, and doesn’t stop you all at once. What’s the secret here?

In the beginning there were these kinds of films about the recent past, about communism, made by filmmakers of older generations. For example, Dan Pița, who won a prize at Venice, the Silver Lion, with his film Hotel de Luxe. It’s an allegory of communism. A film about a luxury hotel manager. Communism was presented as a huge hotel and everything was filmed in this House of the People, which is now the Romanian Parliament. I mean the huge white concrete building, the second largest in the world after the Pentagon. These kinds of films about communism, with an allegorical or rather pessimistic approach, were not successful, and younger directors, born in the 70s and 80s, managed to show something fresher. They didn’t just show communism, but how to get out of it. And the way was sometimes not so tragic. Maybe sometimes it was optimistic and maybe sometimes it was laughed at. They say we say goodbye to something by laughing.

In the United States, the early Vietnam films were worse. It wasn’t until 20-30 years later that better films about the Vietnam War came out. Maybe that’s what the Romanians needed – to have some distance, to see things from a greater distance.

What about Bulgarian films? I remember a film called “Victoria”. Very ambitious. But he uses allegory again. And it’s so ambitious that it tries to show everything: Todor Zhivkov, the whole Bulgarian reality in the 80s.

This film won an award at the Transylvania Film Festival. I was at its press conference. I spoke to the director. I think the film has good moments and bad moments. That’s typical for a director’s first film. It tries to show too much and that’s not good. Because of that, there are too many details. There is more decoration than there should be. It’s too ambitious.

The story the director described was good. But when it tried to show so many things mistakes were made. This is Maya Vitkova’s film. Maya Vitkova has something to say in cinema and I think she can do even better things in other films.

I told you that Bulgarians have found their place or found a recipe in documentary cinema. There are many good Bulgarian documentaries.

I was thinking of asking you about Romanian documentaries, because Romania has been successful there too. For example, the film “Colectiv”. Or the film Planet Petrila. These are again films that are perhaps middle class films, showing resourceful people fighting for change. At least that’s how I see these two films. I don’t engage others with my opinion. So I thought it was a powerful idea that the middle class in Romania is making a change. But speaking of the documentary film, what parallels can be drawn? What do you think about the comparison between Romanian and Bulgarian documentary cinema shows? Aren’t both countries successful in some way? But maybe the formula is different?

I think Bulgarians are better at documentary films. I’m thinking in particular of the Agitprop studio. I think Martichka Bozhilova and her colleagues have done some great things. There are young filmmakers. And not only young. There are older filmmakers. For example. Adela Peeva. Or Kostadin Bonev who made a documentary about a strange town in Romania: Sulina, the town in the Danube Delta.Young documentary filmmakers have managed to make some documentaries that show something new. There is irony in them. Some are full of humour. I’m thinking of Corridor 8. I’m talking about Jordan Todorov’s “Concrete Pharaohs”. “Dad Makes Dirty Movies” is about a Bulgarian in America who was among the first to make soft porn in America in the 1970s. 

What’s interesting about Adela Peeva is that she manages to find international subjects for her films. For example, “Whose os this Song?” Something typically Balkan – a song that Bulgarians, Serbs, Romanians, Greeks, Turks think is their song. But there are things we can’t definitely tell if they are national and international. It is difficult to say that Balkan cuisine is Bulgarian, Romanian or Bosnian. 

I think the Bulgarians are better at documentaries. ‘Colectiv’ made it to the shortlist for an Oscar for a documentary or a film made in a language other than English. Alexander Nanau’s “Colectiv” about the 2015 incident in a Bucharest nightclub where dozens of people died. The film shows that Romanian hospitals are not what we thought they were. They are seen as being in a deplorable state and failing to recover burned people. But in Alexander Nanau’s film “Colectiv”, there is a lot of manipulation. Both Alexander Nanau and the audience were pretty much lied to about the guy who talks a lot and helps the film. He then became Minister of Health and was even worse than the ministers before him. On the other hand, we just got lucky with this story, which is more interesting to international audiences – and talks about the Colectiv disco. So when it comes to documentaries, the Bulgarians are better. We have to accept that.

It is well known that in recent years Bulgarian and Romanian cultural activists have collaborated intensively. There are many joint films that have even won awards. Romanian films that are actually co-productions with Bulgarian co-producers or the teams making the films are often mixed – there is Bulgarian participation and Romanian participation. What can you tell us about these collaborations? What are the most important films? What drives artists from both countries to seek interaction with each other?

There have been some co-productions, there are some collaborations. But on a minimal level for now. If we take a few examples, we can say that there are Bulgarian directors who had the courage and a certain modesty to use a Romanian script. I am referring to Dragomir Sholev, who used Răzvan Radulescu’s script in his short film Shelter. Maya Vitkova also has two short films, My Tired Father (2011) and Stanka Returns Home (2010). Their screenplays were written by Radu Jude.

On the other hand, there are co-productions that were made under pressure from the European Union. The film The Wind Seeker ends with an episode filmed in Bulgaria, at sea, where the film’s hero meets a Bulgarian fisherman. This is not an important element, but rather a symbolic one. I know that this film was also a co-production with Serbia. This way, Romanian producers could make the sound in Serbia. 

Even in Aferim, Radu Jude’s famous 2015 film, winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale, the story of a gypsy in the late 18th century – the costumes were made by Bulgarian women. If I remember correctly the reaction at the premiere, someone said “The costumes were wonderful – typically Romanian”. This time it was typical Balkan costumes from the 18th century, with an oriental look. The proof was that they were made by Bulgarian women. This is a start.

It is interesting that during communism Romania had co-productions with France, West Germany, East Germany, Hungary, Yugoslavia, but not with Bulgaria. Perhaps, little by little, there will be more opportunities for “our people” to learn from “your people” and vice versa. The international press is always talking about Romania and Bulgaria together. So we are in the same boat, as they say in Romanian. I don’t know if this is understood in Bulgarian. Our situation is similar. We have much more cultural and historical phenomena in common that can make films easy to understand in Sofia and Bucharest. For example, we can make films about outlaws. We have them here and you have them here. Your films about the haiduts (the medieval robber and semi-freedom fighters – note of the translator) are a bit more historical and serious. Ours are a bit more adventurous. There are many things that are common. To be successful, to be able to make a good film, you need to have more audience, more money, and co-productions seem to be the easiest way to make a film that you can sell abroad.

How are Romanian films actually distributed and how do Romanian artists manage to finance their projects? I suppose there is a problem here with cinemas, many of which closed during the transition. On the other hand, I think there is an avalanche of a different kind of cinema, more Hollywood-esque, in shopping centres (malls). On the other hand, there are programs like HBO and Netflix. And maybe they also have a role in the distribution of Romanian cinema. How does this industry actually become a business, become an industry in the economic sense in Romania?

There are two problems. Firstly, production. In Romania there is an institution called the National Film Centre, which existed before the Second World War and was modelled on the French Film Centre. This centre gets its budget not from the government but from its own resources. It takes money from cinemas, from DVDs. American films bring in more revenue than European and Romanian films. The fact that more American films are shown in shopping malls leads to taxes that help the production of Romanian companies. In the last two years, because of the corona virus, it was worse because cinemas were closed. But, on the other hand, when production and this amount of money are not dependent on governments, it is better for cinema. Filmmakers – directors and producers – are freer and can count on more money. 

Theoretically, there should be 2.5 times more money in Romania than in Bulgaria, if you look at the size of the population. In fact, it’s more than 4-5 times. And that is good. It’s also good for young artists. There is a special competition for young people. And in this competition, representatives of many associations and networks give evaluations in the competition. A film may or may not get a bad grade from one, but a better grade from another. And in the end things are normalised by averaging them.

The law is better than in other eastern countries, but some things can be done better here too. For example, even now, directors and producers with more films and awards have an advantage. Harder for young people who have not yet received awards. Maybe that should be fixed. For example, if you’ve been successful and won an award in documentary films, you can more easily get money for a feature film or animation project. I don’t think that’s so normal.

And if we talk about film distribution, it is very bad in Romania. Even good films, even comedies, cannot make enough money in Romania because there are not enough cinemas. There are still big cities like Stara Zagora – for example Braila, where there is no mall and no cinema or only one cinema. A city with around 80-100 thousand inhabitants – Braila has 150,000 inhabitants – has no cinema. There are many more cities like that. In our country, the representatives of the new Romanian wave make dramas. Let’s say that there are some comedies that, theoretically, have a chance to have more audience. But you can’t get your money back right now from ticket sales in Romania or because some TV stations show your film. There were some good ideas. There were some in Bulgaria. I think there was an Italian investor who was making cheap DVDs and selling them together with newspapers at newsstands.

This was before the financial crisis.

Yes. So many Romanians or Bulgarians got DVDs made in a studio, not pirated copies of old films, historical films and new films. No, that’s not enough. It’s just a drop in the ocean.

When we will have more cinemas, when shopping malls will start showing more Romanian films, then we will be able to say that Romanian cinema has a chance. But Romanian filmmakers can make their money back by selling abroad. They get awards. Romanian films are now also selling in America, France, Germany. But what we invest in production is a bigger investment than the money we can get from selling tickets and DVDs.

In fact, what percentage of Romanian filmmakers can support themselves just by directing?

It’s hard to say. It was the same in the 1980s in Romania. Back then there were 5-6 filmmakers who lived only on the money their films brought in – just like today. I’m talking about Mircea Daneliuc, Dan Piță. Back then, directors were not producers, but they were also scriptwriters. Sometimes they had roles in their films, and to make more money, sometimes they even had small roles in their films to make more money. And now we can see that our directors became producers with their wives. There is a case with a brother, with a father. It becomes a kind of family business. It’s hard to say how much they can. There are 4-5 who live from their films, but now they have become producers as well. I’m thinking of directors like Cătălin Mitulescu, Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu. They are also producers. They are also producers. As producers they also make money from the films of younger directors. But, unlike in Bulgaria, in Romania almost all films are made with the help of the National Film Centre. And in Bulgaria we have seen that there are also films made with private money. Here there are almost no such films. It’s very rare that this happens.

You are currently writing a history of Romanian cinema. This is, of course, a very big project commissioned by the Romanian Academy. An in-depth analysis of it takes a long time, including for public presentation. But I would like to ask you, if possible, to briefly present to us the significant things, such as synthesis in Romanian cinema. Maybe there are different periods when different trends or themes are important. But I think you have a scalability that can be summed up. What do we need to know about Romanian cinema in the 20th century and today?

Well. Bucharest was maybe one of the first 15 cities in the world where cinema was shown – there was a cinema screening. The first feature film was made in 1911. In 1912, the first feature film had already been made, “The Independence of Romania”, which was about the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. It was a film by Aristide Demetriades and Grigore Brezeanu. As in other countries, the first films were made with the help of actors from the National Theatre. Then followed the first sound films co-produced with Germany, while in Bulgaria they were co-produced with Hungary. In Romania, as in Bulgaria, there are also films of the haiduts. There are films showing something of the Middle Ages in both countries. The other parts are quite typical. They are kind of adventure films. In in Romania and Bulgaria there were no pirates…

There was no Wild West, but there was a Wild East.

Yeah, but we had these outlaws – the haiduts. Romania has always counted on success at Cannes. You could talk about a certain tradition of aid and links with France and Paris. Many important Romanians studied in Paris and for this reason, for us, for Romanians, it was an important moment in 1957 when Ion Popescu-Gopo received the Palme d’Or at Cannes for an animated short film, Short Story. After that, we had a prize for documentary, for feature film, for Liviu Ciulei’s film The Forest of the Hanged. And during communism we had two more awards in the 80s. Dan Pița’s “Pas de deux” at the Berlin Film Festival and Lucian Pintilie’s “Terminus Paradis”.

But in general, we can say that awards during communism were quite rare. There were also 3 awards at Venice during the Second World War, so before communism. But Venice was not such a big festival then. At that time, not many countries participated. Only countries that were friends of the Rome-Berlin axis participated.

It was only after 2000 that we started to have constant success. In the 90s there was also a Dan Pița Award and a Lucian Pintilie Award. But it was only after the year 2000 that the awards started to come, that there was talk of a new generation and a new Romanian cinema. This happened after Cristi Puiu’s film “Stuff and doughi”. Another important film of his was “The Death of Mr Lăzărescu”. Other important directors are Cătălin Mitulescu, Corneliu Porumboiu. Cristian Mungiu, has twice won the Cannes prize. There are other directors. Marian Crișan recently won the Palme d’Or for a short film. Not to mention Radu Jude, who received awards in Berlin – for example for “Aferim”, where there was also a Bulgarian entry. That’s the short story of Romanian cinema. Some of the Bulgarians who go to the cinema could see many of the new Romanian films in regular cinemas or at least at festivals.

You have presented a history of awards. But in fact, cinema is not only made for awards. It has a social function. Maybe even more social functions, because on the one hand it speaks to Romanians themselves about their reality. There are messages – especially these social and realistic films that have been made in recent years – they have messages, they tell Romanians things about their reality. On the other hand, it also has the function of representing the country abroad. Maybe it makes a certain communication because it creates its image. We have seen, for example, how Iranian cinema seems to have a strong impact on the idea of what Iranians are today. What social functions does Romanian cinema perform? And how well does it fulfil them?

OK. It’s quite complicated to say. For example, If we take into account the fact that Bahman Ghobadi also makes films in Kurdish in Iran, we might think that someone is watching Kurdish films in Iran. But this is not true. These films are made for awards, but they are not shown in Iran. Many important Iranian films are not seen in Iran because there are local propaganda issues. If we talk about the image, it seems to me something similar to what happened when politicians used to talk about Italian neorealism, for example Aldo Moro used to say that Italian neorealist films show dirty laundry and bad things abroad. When I was working at the Romanian Cinemateca and I was making Romanian film programmes, diplomats and employees of the Romanian Cultural Institute told me: “Come on, show some films from Romania, but with big prizes, but, don’t show things that are bad, about old people dying”. They didn’t want to show young people going to the West – they were talking about Cristian Mungiu’s film Occident. You show films with love, with beautiful landscapes. I said – there is no Romanian film with love and landscapes advertised. There are not even weak Romanian films of this kind. There is a big difference between the image of Romania and good films. Good Romanian films show a lot of bad things in Romania that are not to the liking of propagandists and politicians. On the other hand, good Romanian films show that there are smart Romanians, that Romanians are talented, but they hardly make foreigners come to Romania as tourists. There is still a lot to do here. Maybe films like Mihai Sofronea’s and others will attract foreigners.

Excuse me for interrupting, but perhaps the function of the new Romanian wave is to provoke change, not to present a watered-down image of reality. The function is to press a wound so that something gets moving.

Yes, of course. I would add one more thing. I say this to my students. It is good that something is known about us. It’s better than nothing being known about us. For a long time we Romanians have complained that foreigners only know about Ceaușescu, about Nadia Comăneci, about Dracula. It is good that something is known about us. It’s good that now we know about Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu. It’s good that they know about Dracula. It’s better than not knowing anything about us. Let’s not complain about it. A bad image is still an image. If they know something bad about Romania, as in the film “Colectiv”, again, they have heard about Romania, about Romanian culture, about Romanian cinema.

Well, let’s end our very interesting conversation with such a question. You mentioned that Bulgaria and Romania, or Bulgarians and Romanians, seem to have some similarities in the reality in which they live: in terms of issues, in terms of position, in terms of thinking, maybe to some extent. To what extent is it possible not only a Bulgarian-Romanian cooperation in cinema, but, for example, a film with a Bulgarian-Romanian plot. That is to say that the plot of the film would take place in Bulgaria and Romania, that there would be Bulgarians and Romanians in this film and thus in the so-called “imaginary” of the two nations there would be a kind of cinematic presence that would be mixed.

Yes, for example, when I saw Mission London, where there are Romanians and somewhere at the end somebody said: “Let’s do something similar with the Romanian embassy!”, I thought that this is really true, that our former minister, Elena Udrea, arrested two days ago in Bulgaria, resembles the heroine of Mission London. Some of the politicians in Romania and Bulgaria look so much alike that, when I watched Mission London at one point, I thought that what was presented was typical of Romania.

On the other hand, there is Lucian Pintilie’s film, “A Summer to Remember”, which is about southern Dobrogea. It’s quite a complicated subject for both Romanians and Bulgarians. Pintilie and now Radu Jude have this talent for using uncomfortable themes. And I’m thinking that maybe someone could make a film based on Jordan Iovkov’s stories and so it could be a film set in Bulgaria and Romania. Now Romanians know Bulgaria only as tourists. In the future we will be able to get to know our neighbour’s culture. Films. We see how similar we are.

When I studied Bulgarian at university and tried to translate a Romanian proverb word for word, I saw that there was a 90% chance that Bulgarians would understand me. For example, it was a big surprise for me when I saw that Bulgarians understood the expression “Neither in wedge, nor in sleeve”. Romanians and Bulgarians have a lot of similar things – not just martenitsas (the red and white-coloured talismans they give among themselves for the beginning of the month of March – note of the translator) and haiduts. They have many things in common. Of course directors and producers can use these things to get more audiences in both countries.

I think this is an optimistic ending. And thank you for your time. Thank you for coming as a guest on this Bulgarian-Romanian press showcase that I’m trying to build. We both look forward to new developments in Bulgarian and Romanian cinema and their cooperation.

Thank you. Let us hope.

Photo: (source: Pixabay, CC0)

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