Transilvania International Film Festival 2017 Part 4

10/11 June

Saturday is the day of the Awards Ceremony here. Winner of the Romanian Days Best Feature Film was Radu Jude’s INIMI CICATRIZATE (SCARRED HEARTS), which I’d already seen at the London Film Festival last October. Jude’s previous film, Aferim! was one of the best films of 2015, a totally original black and white, expansive take on C19th life in Romania, full of life and melancholy and meditation on society. Here he restricts rather than opening up his world. Scarred Hearts is set almost entirely inside a sanatorium on the Black Sea Coast in the late thirties, where we follow a young Jewish student, Emanuel (Lucian Teodor Rus), for treatment of tuberculosis of the spine.

Based on the semi-autobiographical writings of Max Blecher, it creates a claustrophobic world by using a starkly containing 1.37:1 format, with a mostly static camera, closing in the perspective rather in the way that being in a hospital bed limits one’s vision of life around. Many of the patients are totally encased in plaster, as was the procedure then, and are therefore mostly seen at angles only in lying-down positions, the consequence being an uneasy inability to relate to them as people in the way we usually do in films. An exception is the beautiful, successfully cured Solange (Ivana Mladenovic), who revisits the wards like a fresh breeze from real life, and becomes an object of yearning for Emanuel. With echoes of the enclosed febrile world of The Magic Mountain, conversations are a mixture of erudition, romance and silliness, lively young minds, though Emanuel can be somewhat irritating in the way of a brash sixth former who has just discovered philosophy. But it gradually dawns on us, however breezily the procedures are explained by the ever-optimistic doctor, that recovery is rare, and slow decline is the norm.

The film follows Aferim! in its meticulous recreation of a historic way of life, the medical procedures, the surroundings, the attitudes, but also uses its audience’s knowledge of what was to come, always subtly aware of scarcely mentioned anti-semitic feeling, and its resonance for the future of the country. And the jokey visits of Emanuel’s wealthy parents bear the burden of what we know will soon come to those families in the outside world just as death might come to the young residents. At 140 minutes it’s detrimentally too long, but hangs around in your mind afterwards to a surprising degree.

One of the admirable things about Jude as a director is that he’s always surprising from one film to another, particularly in form, but always very much grounded in analysis of his country. His latest is a documentary, illuminating to see here alongside Scarred Hearts. The Romanian Holocaust, at its worst in the north east of the country, is still very much an unknown, both inside and outside the country, but it was responsible for the deaths of more than half of the Jewish population by the end of World War II, when a xenophobia fed by rising nationalism was encouraged and harnessed by the Fascists in command. TARA MOARTA (THE DEAD NATION) is an essay using a collection of still photographs by Costica Axinte of the people of one small Romanian town in the 30s and 40s. Family groups, young people larking around, children, contented spouses, and increasingly soldiers, mostly at leisure, fooling about with guns or posing on equipment, and funerals. It all looks so innocent and ordinary. But over this lies a soundtrack of readings from the journal of a Jewish doctor over the same period telling of his personal experience of the creeping rise of anti-semitism and its effect on his life and the life of his town, from casual incivilities to looting, starvation, deportation and murder. A hard watch, that deserves to be seen both internally and elsewhere.

Other winners included Icelander Gudmundur Arnar Gudmunsson’s HEARTSTONE as Best Director; THE LAST KALDERASH for Romanian Days debut Award; GODS’ OWN COUNTRY won Special Jury Award; AFTERLOVE (Stergios Paschos), the Fipresci Prize; and from Georgia’s young female director Nana Ekvtimisvili and Simon Gross’s CHEMI BEDINIERI OJAKHI (MY HAPPY FAMILY), won both the Transilvanian Trophy as well as Best Performance prize for Ia Shugliashvili (reviewed below). Special guest for the Lifetime Achievement Award was Alain Delon, whose presence at the festival was clearly a source of utter bliss for so many Romanians, and who revealed his charm is undiminished. His remarkably ecstatic reception to and from engagements and on the evening itself was explained to me by a young Clujean as being that for his parents’ generation he, along with so many of the western European stars, was a symbol of so much that they were missing in the restricted world of arts and entertainment. And the fondness remains.

The day after the Awards is a quiet day in the city, the omnipresent traffic diminished, folk in their best clothes having a wander after church and families sitting at leisurely lunches at pavement restaurants or tasting the Cabbage a la Cluj or Tripe Soup at the Varzaria, an old Cluj institution from Communist days. The Central Park a pleasant place to stroll and relax, sitting around in the grass, lolling in hammocks or pedalo-ing on the lake.

It’s also a day to try to mop up any film you haven’t seen, so there was time to catch CHEMI BEDINIERI OJAKHI (MY HAPPY FAMILY), Transilvania Prize winner. It’s a slow-burn, deep look at an apparently simple situation. In Tbilisi, Manana (Ia Shugliashvili), a woman in her 50s, announces to her family that she is moving out to live alone. In the cramped flat live her husband, ageing parents and two grown-up children, with the almost perpetual presence of one or other of their current partners, as well as other relatives dropping in, but that’s only a small aspect of her desire to get away. Manana can’t explain her reasons, cannot even, maybe, define them herself, but never budges from her determination, even though it means moving into a dodgy area and a flat that’s a little short on creature comforts. Selfish, petty and just plain baffled, relations bombard her from all sides – it’s her duty to live with them and share their lives and problems; has she found someone else; is she having a breakdown; how can she prefer anything to living with them; can she manage alone? One family member even asks the older neighbours at her new apartment to keep an eye on her welfare. Even friends make assumptions about her marriage falling apart in a more conventional way.

It seems initially like an old-fashioned feminist fable, but has the sense not to bludgeon with a message or overstate its case. The possibility of being alone, operating independently, just for its own sake, is something even now society is still reluctant to give, especially to women, and particularly those who have already given so much of their own lives to others. The ‘room of one’s own’ is needed not just for creativity but for freedom itself. It’s not just the family who need to be set aside – an old school reunion begins to pall with its embroiling memories and gossip. And do Georgians, particularly men, feel the need to break into harmonised singing every time they have a few drinks? (It’s charming to witness though.) Performances all round, and in particular Shugliashvili’s, are simply brilliant, naturalistic and non-demonising, as is the hand-held camera work in such confined settings giving a feeling of Manana’s oppression. These directors, and new Georgian film, seem like ones to watch.

Postscript

Being at a film festival sometimes seems like being in a happy, privileged, bubble. I returned to the UK on the evening of Tuesday 13th June. It was a lovely mellow late evening as I crossed the canal at Paddington to the friend’s place where I was staying the night. About a mile away in a 24-storey tower block called Grenfell kids were worrying about their exams tomorrow, parents putting their babies to bed and hoping for an undisturbed night, ordinary people finishing their meals, drinking tea, texting, noticing the streaky summer’s night through the window, leaving the washing-up till the morning, ironing, working or playing games on their computers, dozing in front of the 10 o’clock news, setting their alarms. Tomorrow will be different.

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Transilvania International Film Festival 2017 Part 3

June 09

Probably the most enjoyable film I saw at TIFF was EL REI BORNI (THE ONE-EYED KING), by Spanish director Marc Crehuet. Based on his own play, it preserves the claustrophobic single set of its stage original, and with its four (and bit)-character cast (the original actors from the play) feeds on the tension between the naturalism of the domestic setting and the high theatrical farce of its black, black comedy. The flat belongs to David (Alain Hernandez), a pumped-up policeman who considers himself an expert on crowd control, in fact is proud of the fact he’s shot out the eye of a pesky demonstrator with a rubber bullet. His timid wife Lidia (Betsy Turnez), though eager to please her man, is worrying it may be becoming a habit as that’s the second time this year. Her latest of many enthusiasms is gourmet cooking (she put me in mind of detective Alec McCowen’s wife in Frenzy), and running into her old school friend Sandra (Ruth Llopis), now an actress, she’s invited her and her husband Ignasi (Miki Esparbe) to dinner. Arriving on their bicycles, they already seem rather bohemian for David’s taste ,and when we see that Ignasi has a dressing on one eye…

What follows is an extremely funny and lively satire on a political & economic situation which could apply to almost any country just now. It’s all the stronger because it doesn’t spare either side, as David becomes more not less paranoid and dangerous after a hilarious attempt at political education from Ignasi, and the lefty pair, confronted by direct action, turn all law abiding. There’s a crackling , dashing script and farcical action that’s reminiscent of Carnage, as the flat, so commonplace, seems to shrink in and menace its rudderless characters. Yet, as the four of them confront their powerlessness in the confusion of the world it manages to end on a note that is not just funny but genuinely moving.

My next film, part of the Jean-Pierre Melville retrospective, is BOB LE FLAMBEUR, the classic French film noir. And it’s showing in a building I’ve wanted to get into for years, the Urania Palace Cinema, a Secessionist-style building with its high decoration of fig-leaved youths in typically flattened style, built in 1910, the first cinema in Cluj. Years ago I peered into its locked up empty foyer, dusty and left as if it had just closed after its final screening (then as the Favorit) more than 20 years ago, but as if breaking the seal might crumble it all away. Now it’s been partly brought back to life as a space for music, exhibitions and films, and a black-walled subterranean room (still no sight of the potential decayed grandeur of the original cinema, sadly) holds an assortment of chairs and sofas of various levels of comfort. I’ve been walking around in the baking sun and exploring the architectural wonders of the Strada Horea on which it stands, a glorious mix of robust Venetian palazzo style , art nouveau, deco, and crumbly modernist concrete, with notes of exoticism from the domed synagogue and the brightly painted deco Chamber of Commerce building across the way. Even the manhole covers are stately. So I gratefully choose the warm leathery embrace of the softest ever armchair, and sink into a dream of 50s Paris with gambler Bob.

It’s the Paris of your dreams, the Paris Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel dreams of in A bout de souffle, men in trench coats, je-m’en-fou women who’ve been around a bit and bright-eyed gamines, night-time streets and grimy bars and glittery casinos, huge shiny cars and guns and doomed looks through the gitane smoke. And all on delicious, lustrous 35mm. Real film, a film with a history that bears the flecks and scars of the countless times it’s been round the reels, packed away, opened up, in so many grand and humble picturehouses. You know how it will end: cars screeching, guns, bodies falling. And in that wonderful atmosphere, instead of fighting the drowsiness I surrender to it, only half following the plot, but immersed in the abstraction of it, fully experiencing cinema.

Turning out into the still bright, warm sun, brushing off feelings of guilt at my slumberousness because the feel of the film is still so strongly with me, I head off, via a stroll across the park and a quick look in at a party for sustenance of canapés and a small glass of pink Prosecco (mustn’t doze again!) in the renovated Casino, an elegant bright white building by the lake where swans real and of the pedalo kind lounge on the water. Then back past the row of noble and eccentric old buildings looking out onto the leafy park which include the British Council (shades of Graham Greene, whose autobiography I’m reading) to the largest cinema, the Florin Piersic, for the Romanian Days film ANNIVERSAREA (THE ANNIVERSARY), by Dan Chişu.

Eerily akin in theme to Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada of last year, it’s a portrait of a family get together. This time rather than a funeral it’s the 94th birthday of head of the family Radu. As family members and friends arrive their various problems and hang-ups are teased out – the unhappy marriage, the put-upon daughter-in-law, the sibling strife, the avaricious son and wife already clocking up the worth of the considerable household treasures – with Radu, a physically diminished figure, a silent and reluctant attender. But as old work colleagues turn up, the picture focuses on the wider world, and we begin to see just how in his prime Radu accumulated this wealth, working for the state. The shadow of the past hangs heavy over the family, and some members have tried to arrange for Radu to make his confession, while others argue he should not do so unless he actively wants to. Radu’s own feelings remain opaque.

As a metaphor for the dead weight of the questionable past activities of many of the wealthy in Romanian society it’s deadly serious, but has a good deal of humour too. Confused about which church Radu belonged to, different family members have separately brought two different priests to hear his confession, and they sit ill at ease with each other in a side room waiting for the call. A grandson is given a video camera to record the ‘happy’ proceedings, and manages to record things that don’t go down too well too. The pompous politician son is both slimily sinister and funny. It’s a clever and original take on the still-present burden of the dirty or at least questionable past of many comfortable members of society, of the state itself.. Should it come out? Or is it better to let lie and focus on the future?

Transilvania International Film Festival 2017 Part 2

June 08

My first film of Thursday, the beginning of the Romanian Days screenings, is ULTIMUL CALDARAR (THE LAST KALDERASH), by Cosmin Bumbuț and Elena Stancu, a documentary about the disappearance of the Roma skill of metalwork, making buckets, cauldrons, farm implements and every kind of useful, basic tool and container that countryfolk use. Now plastic and cheap ready-made gear mean these skills, passed on through the generations, are waning and unable to provide a living. The film centres on Gio, a huge, amiable young man, very skilled at the old craft, but now forced to travel to France and Belgium each year working at scrap metal and fruit-picking to make ends meet. This year he is preparing to take his wife Marina and young son Ionuț with him – it’s a choice between breaking up the larger family like this, or his close family unit. We watch as they pack their small van in which the three of them will live for months, and drive off leaving Marina’s mother mourning the loss of her little grandson. Family is everything, even though some aspects of Roma life may be less admirable – we listen in a mixture of amusement but mostly shock as Gio with wry humour describes his wedding night, aged 12, with obligatory consummation within earshot of the families. He’s a strong presence onscreen and here later at the Q&A when he stands colossus-like onstage in person, articulate, funny and modest. There’s a lot of talent and ability being wasted, and you hope that Ionuț will have more opportunities to develop a life he chooses. The filmmakers, who lived in the community for over a year, have a wonderful rapport that lets them into the life of the village, and as well as the human story the film’s a fine record of a dying art. The film won the Romanian Days Award for Best Debut Film.

Next up is a British film, with a Romanian connection, which was to win the Special Jury Prize, GOD’S OWN COUNTRY (Francis Lee). Let’s be honest, this tale of two men falling in love as they tend sheep on a hilltop can’t escape comparison with Brokeback Mountain. But this is Yorkshire, and a whole lot different. The film is graced by four splendid performances. Josh O’Connor plays Johnny, a skinny depressive young man whose work on the run-down family farm is unremitting, tedious, mucky toil, holding it all together since his father’s stroke. Time off is spent getting plastered each night in the local pub and finding swift casual sex with pretty young men in trailers and toilets. The weight of his life is physically conveyed by his shut-in, self-protectively bent stance, all hoodied-up as he peers suspiciously out into a hostile world. Ian Hart plays his similarly unhappy father, bitter at being unable to work now, whose only rapport with his son is as a critical, hard taskmaster. Gemma Jones pulls off another marvellous vignette as Johnny’s buttoned up grandmother whose function seems only to keep the house, and Johnny, going. There is no love in evidence, anywhere. The countryside is bleak, muddy and wuthering. Into this austere land comes Gheorghe (Alec Secǎreanu), a Romanian seasonal worker here for the lambing, moody-eyed and beautiful, and soon there’s one of those antagonism/attraction relationships. A little bit too soon, perhaps, a little bit too signalled? A petulant wrestle turns to something else, as buttocks flail in the mud. But what Gheorghe teaches Johnny is tenderness and love, simultaneously bringing him, and us, to really look at the surroundings, still bleak but now awe-inspiring, so that another kind of life seems possible, and you find yourself taken up and so much wanting a happy ending. The graphic same-sex scenes may cause problems for screening in Romania, and indeed not go down very well in the more genteel parts of Yorkshire, nor will it gain approval from the Yorkshire Tourist Board, either for its distinctly unpretty view of the county or the xenophobia depicted in its closed communities, but sitting there in a warm cinema at the other end of Europe it felt like an accurate and powerful dose of home.

The rest of the day is devoted to two sessions of shorts in competition for the Romanian Short Film Award, 13 in all. The winner was to be SCRIS/NESCRIS (WRITTEN/UNWRITTEN) by Adrian Silişteanu (20 mins). Based on actual observations when the director’s wife was in maternity hospital, it’s another look at the problems at the interface of Roma and mainstream Romanian life, when family members who have brought up the underage girl who has just given birth come up against a bureaucracy that refuses to let them discharge her with the baby because they do not have the correct next of kin papers. Understandable safeguards do not have the same need or meaning in a different society, where wider families take on the upbringing of children. It’s a treatment of a tricky issue that’s also an appealing portrait of a frustrating individual situation. Special Mention went to my personal favourite, OFFSTAGE (25 mins), by Andrei Huțuleac, a black comedy about an obsessive ‘stage’ mother and the farcical and the scary lengths to which she will go. Comedy was strong and sharp in many of these films this year, including CAND AFARA NINGE (When It Snows), by Conrad Mericoffer, (11 mins) where a group of tenants meet to discuss apartment issues with the owner’s representative, the formidable Mrs Grecu; Ionuț Gaga’s FARUL (THE HEADLIGHT, 15 mins), where an a encounter with a traffic cop takes on a metaphysical struggle; and the Fast-Show-like 11 manic minutes of Tudor Botezatu, SECHESTRATI FARA VOIE (Humans in Frame, 11 mins). More incomprehensible bureaucracy is revealed in the fact-based Marius Olteanu’s NO MAN’S LAND (20mins), where a woman trying to drive her terminally ill father home is trapped for several days with his corpse in no man’s land between Romania and Hungary. CHERS AMIS by Valeriu Andriuța is a comically observed but bitter 20 minutes of a staff meeting in a grim little school, and FRAGMENT 22 (Sandra Rad, 17 mins) a nicely observed portrayal of the hours in December 22 1989 during which Ceauşescu was overthrown seen through the eyes of a country policeman, based by on the director’s father’s own experiences. The magic of these films is in their ability to convey so much so economically, and so quickly place the audience in the many different worlds they present.

Transilvania International Film Festival 2017 Part 1

June 06/07

My arrival in Cluj often coincides with exciting weather – this year I just missed a huge downpour that caused gridlock in the town, so my driver took evasive action from the airport up and around the hilly southern suburbs – a new cathedral here, the top of the cemetery there, then a Lidl – till I half-thought I might be on my way to Oradea, where in 1974 I drank martini out of the thinnest glasses I ever, then or now, experienced, with sugar rubbed around the rim, served by a stooping, aged waiter in a faded, deserted grand hotel. Fortunately we homed in to my usual Capitolina Hotel on steep Victor Babes Street where the water was still coursing down the gutters like fury. Unpack, shower, a quick check of the programme, and where else could I go on my first night than out to the Arkhai Outdoor Sculpture Park about half an hour out of the city for an outdoor screening of the tantalisingly named VARZI, CARTOFI SI ALTI DEMONI (Cabbages, Potatoes and other Demons) by Serban Georgescu.

This documentary uses quirkiness and humour to make a serious point about what is a huge problem in Romanian agriculture. Small-scale farmers intent on their independence are losing money each year on overproduction of cabbages and potatoes, which they grow in succession each year, with many hours of back-breaking work and expenditure on fuel, electricity for irrigation, and vehicle maintenance. One small area of fields owned by several small farmers, for example, can, some days, sport over 10 tractors at once. It’s Georgescu’s contention that the communists’ insistence on communal work with no individual gain was so hated that farmers are still reluctant to take up any form of co-operative action or co-ownership of equipment at all, which would make their enterprises more economically viable. The likeable director documents how he spent a year farming potatoes and cabbage the way these small farmers do, talking along the way to groups of the farming families themselves, a land owner who grows on a bigger scale, the buyers, and a labourer who each year hires himself out to work for anyone who’ll pay him. He seems to be the most sensible chap of them all, with a vision of the future and a strong grasp of reality – what he wants above all is for his son to get a decent education and not have to work with the uncertainty he does. The rest seem trapped in a bind from which they cannot see their way out. Considerable humour doesn’t mask the increasingly desperate situation as each year the farmers must borrow yet more to keep going. It’s a buyers’ market, and the bags of potatoes and truckfuls of cabbages with hopeful growers standing for hours alongside at the market make a sad sight. There are lyrical moments in the farming year, but mostly it’s hard, mucky graft. The eternal cabbages, great brutes that they are, begin to take on a look of Ionescu’s avant garde absurdism. And seeing how sauerkraut is produced may put you off eating it any time soon. The atmosphere and reality of the film are enhanced at this screening by the damp country smells, and the buttery gibbous moon hardening into silver as the night gathers make this first TIFF film of the festival for me a wonderfully immersive experience.

Next morning it’s time for serious sessions in real cinemas, and I’m attracted to Sven Taddicken’s GLEISSEDES GLUCK (ORIGINAL BLISS) by the fact that it stars the great cinema actress Martina Gedeck. She plays the ordinary, middle class Helene, whose loss of faith and consequent insomnia coincides with desperate problems in her marriage. Randomly hearing about the ideas of famous self-help academic Eduard Gluck she, quite out of character, goes to meet him and ask advice. Somewhat foreseeably, a relationship develops between these two opposites, he knowing and apparently full of confidence, she submissive and wary. But it isn’t straightforward, as Eduard’s psychological difficulties, bred, perhaps, by his work, come to the fore, and their world takes a different shape. Gedeck makes a real believable character out of Helene, a seemingly compliant, you might say dull, woman, able to convey so much in an apparently inexpressive face, but at the same time as she becomes more of a rounded and intriguing character, Eduard, for me, grows into a caricature of a screwed up academic, not helped by languid erotic fantasy sequences. I didn’t believe in their relationship, in the end, and I’m afraid I found myself not caring too much about them. But I did believe in the shocking ability of Helene’s disastrous marriage to swither between apparent affection and dreadful violence, stunningly portrayed.

Today is Hungarian day, and my next stop is at the Cercul Militar, formerly a small theatre and meeting hall in the Cluj military centre. It’s a pleasant if not slightly sinister space, up a wide, elegant marble spiral staircase, but once inside you have to sit up like a good soldier on the individual chairs. In a double bill the 25-minute SING (MINDENKI, which actually means ‘Together’) is a charming film about schoolchildren defeating a martinet of a teacher (a splendidly viperish Zsofia Szamosi) in a triumph of community over elitism, winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. Shot in only 6 days, Impeccable naturalistic acting from all concerned and a lucid and economic way with character and story development makes it a real pleasure. It’s followed by IT’S NOT THE TIME OF MY LIFE (ERNELLAEK FARKASEKNAL), a tale of family discomfort when Ernella, her husband Albert and daughter Laura unexpectedly return from an unsuccessful attempt on a new life abroad to lodge with her sister Eszter’s family. Director Szabol Hadju plays Ezster’s husband Farkas, and his children Lujza and Szigmond play the younger members of the families. The odds are stacked against harmony for several reasons. For one, the newcomers arrive during one of Eszter and her husband Farkas’s ongoing, increasingly bitter arguments about how to bring up their very hyperactive son Bruno. Appease or confront? For another, Eszter and Ernella’s relationship is not the most sisterly. There’s also discontented adolescent Laura. The flat itself, in which all the action takes place, is a character in itself. Beautifully furnished, it’s small and has a claustrophobic air, even before the visitors arrive. It is in fact the director’s own home, and busy many-angled filming in as such a small area is quite a feat in itself. Many secrets, recriminations and twists in relationships are teased out and the prospects don’t look good for either family, despite a maybe over-symbolic play put on by the children which at least gets everyone sitting down together.

Last film of the night is THE TEACHER (UCITELKA), directed by Jan Hrebejk. Another bad teacher tale, this one set in 1980s Czechoslavakia, and equally gripping, it’s a bitter comedy, in which kindly looking Mrs Drazdechova proves to be not what she seems. Alarm bells start ringing when she goes through the list of her class members asking what their parents’ occupations are. Is it going to be for political reasons, is the first thought. But something far less ominous but equally sinister comes to light, when she begins to use the parents’ skills – an electrician, a hairdresser, a personal shopper, etc – as a tacit bargaining tool to get the children good grades. Any not complying, their kids go to the bottom of the class. It’s very funny, and Zuzana Maurery as the dreadful teacher has fine comedic skills, so she appears both ridiculous and terrifying at once. But it’s still a disquieting look at a system which can easily take to corruption and get away with it. Like traditional Czech film comedies of the Prague Spring it combines humanistic comedy with a real political anger.