The plight of Romanian filmmakers: celebrated abroad, unloved at home?

Coming soon to a screen near us, I hope: the 2013 Golden Bear winner.

Last year, Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (now playing in U.S. arthouses and via On Demand) won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, and the judges also awarded a joint Best Actress prize to the two female leads, Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan. In February, another movie from Romania, Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose won the Golden Bear, the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival.

Is that a new wave I see? Winner of Un Certain Regard at Cannes, among many other awards.

Netzer’s win continued a remarkable streak of award-winning films from Romania, a country which, prior to The Death of Mister Lazarescu (2005) and Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) — winners of Un Certain Regard and the Palme d’Or at Cannes, respectively — had been little known even among international film circles. Cineastes might have been able to cite a few directors from Russia, and Poland has contributed its share of star auteurs, but Romania….?

Ever since The Death of Mister Lazarescu took Cannes by surprise, the consensus of critics and festivals has been that cinema is alive and well in Romania. (Further evidence, if needed: the classic black comedy 12:08 East of Bucharest, from 2006, and the punishingly sardonic Police, Adjective, 2009.) But the international acclaim doesn’t mean that Netzer or Mungiu or any of the other filmmakers who make up the so-called Romanian New Wave are necessarily popular at home.

In a recent video interview with Anne Thompson (of Thompson on Hollywood) to promote Beyond the Hills, Mungiu laments the absence of arthouse cinemas in Romania — all superseded by multiplexes — as well as the absence of audiences for the type of cinema he practices. Young audiences are only interested in commercial movies based around fast cutting, he says.

A Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, 2007 (but no Best Foreign Film nomination).

Romania has remarkably few cinemas for a population of 22 million people: just 68 movie theaters in 2011, according to the country’s National Centre for Cinematography. This means the New Wave filmmakers (and none of them are happy with the “New Wave” tag) are competing to get on too few screens to begin with, against a small number of more crowd-pleasing native productions and, inevitably, a stream of Hollywood blockbusters. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was relatively successful in its native country, but the prize-winning New Wave films have generally found meager box-office returns at home.

Because the film industry in Romania is so small, filmmakers depend on government funding, at least to get their projects off the ground. But this past year, the filmmakers have been presented with another obstacle. Last June, the right-wing nationalist government led by Victor Ponta issued an emergency decree (meaning, there was no vote in Parliament) that cleaned house at the Romanian Cultural Institute, which contributes funds to filmmakers and promotes their work abroad. The new appointees at the Institute have made it clear that they don’t consider the New Wave films that have wowed critics around the world as being “representative” of Romania. (Political hacks are displeased with ironic, downbeat social critiques? I’m shocked, simply shocked.)

A movie all but guaranteed to displease the ruling class.

The first significant fallout came in November, when the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s annual “Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema” festival had to sever its longstanding ties with the Romanian Cultural Institute (which also supports writers, dancers and visual artists), in favor of continuing the festival with a private, Kickstarter-funded initiative. The Film Society understandably didn’t want to lend its imprimatur to the reactionary mindset of the new Cultural Institute.

In response, the Romanian government says that it is merely making the Institute more responsible in its use of public money, and more “democratic” (which I would guess is a kind of code, and perhaps a dig at the supposed “elites” who go see arthouse movies). It remains to be seen what kind of movies will be able to obtain seed money from the Institute in the future.

After Child’s Pose triumphed in Berlin this past February, I came across an English translation of a column from the Adevarul Bucharest newspaper, by sociologist Vasile Dâncu. The unidentified translator appears to have done his or her work well: the column is laced with an irony that evokes a distinct part of Europe. Dâncu notes the numerous awards won by the films of the Romanian New Wave, “films that, had they won no awards, we would ignore, since most of us think they defame Romania.” Of the government’s reluctance to fund movies by the New Wave auteurs, he writes,

“… we should help them [the filmmakers], because they are capitalizing on the global market on the only authentic item that we still have to offer: the suffering and despair of being Romanian. The despair at marching against history and on the side of civilization. In today’s world, though, this sells well, and we could be investing in this self-flagellation.”

“Rare are the darts of sunbeams” in the work of the Romanian New Wave, he comments, with droll understatement. He praises the films for their clear-eyed look at “a Romanian reality drifting on a course that no one can steer away from.” But it’s probably not news to suggest that this Romanian reality may be exactly what the audiences filling the multiplexes that Mungiu decries don’t want to see. To be celebrated at film festivals around the world but ignored at home must be a confusing circumstance for Mungiu, Netzer and their colleagues. Dâncu’s column concludes:

“Unfortunately, they have no supporters in a Romania that cannot bear to look at itself in the mirror. Like millions of other Romanians, they are exiled in a West that celebrates them for a day, to let them fall back into indifference the next and sink into the drama of a Eastern European country that cannot escape this Chekhovian agony that we call transition.”

Romanian cinema for real men: the 184-minute AURORA (2010), from the director of THE DEATH OF MISTER LAZARESCU.

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