A festival of Romanian film wrestles with political instability back home, and emerges anew

A still from Silviu Purcarete's 'Somewhere in Palilula.' ()
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When Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema opens this Thursday at Lincoln Center, its organizers will be peering over the balustrade, more anxious than ever before to see a full house.

It wasn't certain that this year's festival, now in its seventh incarnation, was going to run at all. Its former sole funding and organizational body—the Romanian Cultural Institute of New York—cut its funding months before the festival was scheduled to take place. The RCINY's former director, Corina Suteu, her deputy Oana Radu, and their long-time colleague Mihai Chirilov, are now independently running the festival. In collaboration with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, they're pulling together a showcase of the latest films from what’s become a cinematic powerhouse.

"The best news we had in months was that the festival was going to take place," Radu said in the foyer of the Walter Reade Theater when we spoke recently.

She and Suteu had just clocked their last day at the RCINY the previous day. The women resigned after six years because they didn't agree with the decisions being made by the central RCI in Bucharest about the future of the New York outpost of the institute.

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"I took the decision to resign along with Oana," Suteu said. "We had a discussion and decided to try and pursue what we believed in. We followed our values and took a huge risk rather than staying to try and save our jobs."

Back in Romania, the political situation is at the boiling point. A tussle between the country’s president, Traian Băsescu, and prime minister Victor Ponta, came to involve the central RCI in Bucharest: it was restructured, its funding was slashed, and its president resigned.

"It's a wreck, the whole institute is a wreck," one source working at the RCI in Bucharest, who asked not to be named, told Capital. He described the new president of the RCI in Bucharest, Andrei Marga, as "the butt of all jokes in intellectual circles."

For the New York RCI outpost, the effect of the shakeup was a huge policy shift. The RCINY's mission, which used to be to promote Romanian culture to American audiences, was redefined as seeking to serve the Romanian diaspora stateside.

"The discourse about the institute is like what I heard when I was in school," Suteu said, referring to her upbringing in Romania under communism.

The underlining theme of this year's festival is reality.

"People will be shocked when they see the disclaimer on so many of the films that they're based on real stories," Mihai Chirilov, the festival's artistic director, said.

Over the past decade, Romanian directors have focused much of their work on raw, dark tragicomedies packed in a gritty, unpolished aesthetic; in film circles, a Romanian New Wave cinema has been declared.

Of these, the two most well known directors in the west are Christi Puiu and Cristain Mungiu.

Puiu’s 2005 masterpiece The Death of Mr. Lazarescu received worldwide critical acclaim, and marked the beginning of the Wave. Mungiu’s Palme d'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days came along in 2007, solidifying the movement's public profile.

This year’s festival opens with Of Snails and Men (pictured below left), a ludicrous story about a group of workers who try to save their factory from financial ruin; director Tudor Giurgiu and actors Monica Birladeanu and Andi Vasuianu will be leading a Q&A after the screening. On Friday, producer Ada Solomon will be in attendance for the U.S. debut of director Adrian Sitaru's film Best Intentions (pictured at right). Reminiscent of The Death of Mr Lazarescu in its theme, the story follows a young man navigating the Romanian hospital system following his mother's stroke. Also on Friday, Giurgiu's Another Christmas will be screened along with a host of other shorts, an expanding subgenre of Romanian cinema.

The standout piece of this year's bill is another film by Mungiu, Beyond the Hills (pictured above left), which will close the festival on Wednesday Dec. 5. Winner of best screenplay and best actress at this year's Cannes Film Festival, the disturbing tale about two women in a secluded monastery (based on a real case of exorcism) explores religious hypocrisy, human fallibility, and morality. When the festival first began in 2006, Mungiu was barely known, even within Romania; this year Beyond the Hills is Romania's entry for the Oscars.

Romanian cinema, however, wasn't born with the release of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. In his programming, Chirilov wants to include classic Romanian films as well. This year, three films by the late Alexandru Tatos will be shown. Chirilov said that Tatos isn't a particularly well-known director in the states apart from a single title released here in the '80s, Sequences (pictured below right), later acquired by MoMA for its film archive; the film will be screened at the festival.

One high-profile and long-serving fan of Romanian cinema is Richard Peña, the program director of Film Society of Lincoln Center. Peña discovered Romanian cinema in the 1980s when he was still working at the Chicago Institute.

"There's something very vital about Romanian cinema," Peña said, during an interview in his office at Lincoln Center. "I still think about 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days every day."

When the RCINY cut much of the funding for this year’s festival, Suteu quickly sought alternate means of supporting it.

"We asked the Film Society of Lincoln Center, 'Do you want to work with us if we raise the money?' They took the risk with us, which was proof of what we've achieved and also of their own vision."

The Film Society had already worked closely with Suteu last year when, after five years of being hosted at Tribeca Cinemas, Lincoln Center hosted the festival for the first time. For Peña, the partnership was natural.

"Our job is to help write film history," he said, "This is what we're supposed to do."

The festival is being funded by a small group of supporters. Among them is the Trust for Mutual Understanding, a nonprofit that gives grants to cultural exchange projects between the United States and eastern Europe, as well as the Blue Heron Foundation, a charity for orphaned Romanian children.

Further funding came from Romanian artists. Adrian Ghenie, the visual artist, sold one of his artworks to support the festival.

"There was an amazing reaction on the part of the artistic and cultural community," Suteu said. "It showed that they care and they think that what's happening in Romania isn't OK."

Radu, Suteu, and Chirilov together also launched a Kickstarter campaign, asking for $20,000, a target they exceeded. The campaign not only bolstered the financially viability of the festival, it showed the organizers the extent of their audiences' support for the festival.

"It gave the audience a sense of ownership," Radu said.

Elena Saftoiu, a Romanian who’s lived in America since 1992, went to last year's festival and saw Medal of Honor.

"I was very impressed," she said. "Romanian films are special. They're on the same level as the independent films I see here."

For Saftoiu, the festival is important not only because of the quality of the films, but because of the image is creates of Romania in America.

"Most of the news here is about the unusual, but not the representative," she said. "It's always about the orphanages and HIV. This changes the opinion of Romania held abroad."

Whether this week is a success will determine the fate of future festivals. But Suteu and Radu have more than just that reason to hope the festival continues.

"You can't politically dismiss the arts," Suteu said.

‘Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema’ runs Nov. 29 through Dec. 5 at Film Society of Lincoln Center. For more information visit FilmLinc.com or call 212-875-5600.

All images courtesy Film Society of Lincoln Center.