Thursday, November 29, 2012

WSJ: Carrying the Torch for Romanian Cinema

By BRUCE BENNETT

Having endured Nazi occupation, Allied bombing and Communist dictatorships, violent revolutions and post-Soviet liberation, it's little wonder that Romania has produced some of the world's bleakest cinema. Recent milestones like Cristi Puiu's lacerating "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" and Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" have unapologetically depicted life in realistically downbeat dramatic hues, winning over festival juries and audiences along the way.

In fact, Romania cinema has gradually become a central component of international film culture. This year, Mr. Mungiu's "Beyond the Hills" earned screenwriting and acting recognition from the Cannes Film Festival jury, and it's an early favorite for the foreign-film Academy Award.

"When a country is emerging from some period of great political or social tumult, there's often a sudden explosion of new voices in the arts," said Scott Foundas, the associate program director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

On Thursday, FSLC will open Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema, the annual weeklong survey that has helped define and establish the southeastern European country as a stronghold of socially incisive, independently minded personal cinema. And true to form, this year's survey has itself emerged from tumult.

Until 2012, the festival's existence was due almost entirely to the efforts of the Romanian Cultural Institute—a state-sponsored cultural exchange agency with branches in 18 international cities—and its local director, Corina Suteu, and deputy director, Oana Radu. "The Romanian Cultural Institute has been the single most important agent for bringing attention to these films internationally," Mr. Foundas said. "In terms of traveling with these films and filmmakers, it has done an enormous amount of work."

But this summer, the new coalition government of Prime Minister Victor Ponta sought to redirect the RCI's nonpolitical promotional efforts down more partisan avenues. A June "emergency decree" halted the institute's focus on international appreciation and exchange. Support for independent work that was seen by some as offering an unflattering national image was withdrawn in favor of what Mr. Foundas described as work "promoting traditional folkloric culture to the Romanian diaspora and not to a broader international audience."

The prime minister's decree also made the Romanian institute and its activities accountable to the country's increasingly divisive senate in the midst of an election year, rather than to the country's president. "The mandate of the institute changed," said Ms. Suteu, who, along with Ms. Radu, resigned from her post as director of the institute's New York bureau in September. "A president has the obligation of neutrality. By moving it to the senate, you politicize it."

Said Mr. Mungiu, the nation's most decorated contemporary filmmaker, "This decision was not taken following any kind of analysis regarding the activity and results of the institute. It was taken out of the blue and it was followed by an abrupt cut of funding, even for projects in development."

One line item that vanished overnight was the institute's considerable financial obligation to the Making Waves festival. "They cut all the funds for the autumn," Ms. Suteu said.

Representatives for the Romanian Cultural Institute in Bucharest could not be reached for comment.

While some, including the Museum of Modern Art and Film Forum, lodged protests, Ms. Suteu went back to work. "I believed that someone has to do something positive in this kind of disastrous situation," she said. "So I started to fund-raise for the festival."

In partnership with Ms. Radu and Mihai Chirilov, a critic, film programmer and the longtime artistic director of the annual Romanian film survey, Ms. Suteu established the Romanian Film Initiative. The organization is designed to retain what she described as "the playful, experimental spirit" of the festival, outside of the politics and purse strings of her own country.

The RFI swiftly courted individual financial support and grants from the Trust for Mutual Understanding and others. Visual artist Adrian Ghenie contributed a canvas to the RFI's war chest in advance of his anticipated Pace Gallery show in the spring. A crowd-sourcing campaign netted $22,341. "They really were able to put this together quite quickly and miraculously, when you consider that it all happened less than six months before the scheduled start of the festival," Mr. Foundas said.

The resulting, fully funded edition of Making Waves comprises 17 new fiction and nonfiction films, shorts, and a three-film revival of director Alexandru Tatos's seminal work, along with panel discussions and a high concentration of filmmaker attendance. The diversity of expression on hand resists critical and political naysayers who have dismissed Romanian film as minimalist, miserablist kitchen-sink cinema.

"I think someone in Variety said it was 'bathroom sink drama'," Mr. Chirilov deadpanned. "Whenever you have a trend, you always have people that will attack it."

Both he and Mr. Foundas pointed to the festival's opening-night film, "Of Snails and Men," a bittersweet comedy that set domestic box-office records at home in September, as an example of, in Mr. Foundas's words, "the breadth of what's getting made over there."

As to the future of the fledgling Romanian Film Initiative, Ms. Suteu said that whatever comes next will be handled in a spirit of freedom and conviction that isn't always readily available in public service. "When you are no longer a government official," she said, "you are not obliged to make compromises."

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