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.