By Isabelle Wesselingh (AFP)
BUCHAREST — When Romanian director Cristian Mungiu won the top award at the Cannes film festival in 2007, the same year Romania joined the European Union, the country's film future looked rosy.
The then 39-year-old Mungiu was part of a "New Wave" of Romanian moviemakers emerging forcefully on the internatonal stage. It was hoped their success would stir interest back home in viewing quality European and Asian films.
Yet three years after his Palme d'Or for "4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days" -- hailed at the time as a "fairy tale" that could have real fall-out -- Mungiu feels "very disappointed and very tired".
As Romania battles a severe economic crisis, numerous arthouse cinemas have been shut down, transformed into police stations, concert halls, even shops.
And last year, American blockbusters drew more than 90 percent of Romanian moviegoers -- even though Romanian directors like Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristi Puiu, Florin Serban or Marian Crisan keep scooping up awards at festivals from Berlin to Locarno.
"I am very disappointed when I see no change in the way films are distributed and shown in Romania," Mungiu told AFP this week.
He spoke at the "Cannes Movies in Bucharest", a festival he organized with Thierry Fremaux, the artistic director at the Cannes fest, to promote European and Asian art cinema -- as well as films by Romanian directors whom Fremaux called "extraordinarily talented" but have to fight to have their films shown at home.
"We need a network of movie theatres dedicated to European movies or more generally to art films," Mungiu insisted.
"The lack of such a network is a big problem," said Antoine Bagnaninchi, who distributes films by French director Jacques Audiard and Turkish-German director Fatih Akin, both award winners at Cannes and elsewhere.
Romania counts one of the smallest numbers of cinemas in all of Europe: 74 for 21.5 million inhabitants, or 182 screens. By comparison, France, with three times the residents, has 30 times the number of film screens.
Even neighboring Hungary, with half of Romania's population, has 415 screens, according to figures released by Europa Cinemas, the first film theatre network focusing on European films.
Multiplex cinemas have opened in the huge shoppping malls cropping up outside Romania's main cities but they mainly screen high-profile American productions.
Though industry insiders welcome the multiplex cinemas, they deplore the lack of diversity in film offerings, notably European talent .
"It's a pity since we feel there is an audience for European movies. But there is hardly any place to screen them," said Claude-Eric Poiroux, general director of a Romanian chain called Europa Cinemas.
With virtually no state support for art cinema, cinephile Daniela Bacanu manages to program domestic art films and documentaries from around the world at a center called the "New Cinema of the Romanian Director".
She said the center gets great feedback but conceded it's not easy ; she sometimes works as both programmer and technician. "You have to do a bit of everything because of the lack of funds," she said.
Some 25,000 people attended her screenings in the first nine months of 2010, a good performance in a country where only 5,28 million entries were registered in movie theatres in 2009 -- as compared, for example, to 200 million in France.
In the northern city of Cluj, a similar effort, the Transylvanian Film Festival set up from scratch by director Tudor Giurgiu, attracted 55,000 people to see art films.
Industry workers, including Mungiu, notably say Romania lacks organized support for the film industry. "To achieve something sustainable and progressive in Romania seems almost impossible. It is very sad," he charged.
State grants for film production and festivals are criticized for alleged lack of transparency. In addition, the state has transferred authority for dozens of movie theatres to local councils. But "almost none of the mayors took an interest in that," said Elena Incrostanu, director of RomaniaFilm, the structure once in charge of these theatres.
Earlier this year, the Culture Ministry offered to resume control of the remaining 26 art cinemas but the government has not yet ruled on the issue, said Incrostanu.
Mungiu, for one, wants such theatres to be required to show -- and promote -- a set number of European films .
"If you design a global support policy for the cinema, the results are strong in terms of creativity but also in terms of economic success," Fremaux stressed citing France's example.
The drawbacks, however, have not deterred Romanian directors, who for the third year running have taken part in a program in Bucharest secondary schools. The aim? To encourage a new generation of movie goers and directors to keep the future rosy.