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.