Andreea Bortun: “For me, cinema is the most complex environment that helps me understand the reality around me”

9 June, 2020

“Blue Banks”, Andreea Bortun’s debut project in feature film, has been selected to take part in this year’s edition of the Sarajevo Film Festival’s development program, CineLink Industry Days.

A graduate in screenwriting and film criticism from UNATC, but also from the University of Bucharest where she recently completed a master’s degree in philosophy, co-founder, at 16, of the “Ideo Ideis” National Festival of Youth Theater in Alexandria, co-initiator of the Pustnik Screenwriters Residency and author of several short films, the first one being selected in Toronto, Andreea Bortun is one of the promising young voices of a new generation in Romanian cinema.

The world she mainly explores and brings to the big screen is the South of Romania, a world characterized by poverty and misconceptions, and at the same time the home of many women with powerful, yet untold stories.

 

Born on July 12, 1990 in Alexandria, Andreea Bortun graduated from the “Alexandru Dimitrie Ghica” National College. She first attended a Mathematics-Computer Science class, but since this field didn’t suit her tastes, she moved to Philology after one year, which felt more like her place.

She was passionate about acting. In 2006, at the age of 16, she was instrumental in creating and organizing the “Ideo Ideis” National Festival of Youth Theater, an event that would become a landmark on the Romanian cultural scene. She still plays a part in the festival, although not that big at the moment.

At the same time, she was beginning to discover art cinema. “I, myself, tried to figure out where this whole interest in film started from. But it’s not easy, because I’m not your typical case. There was no movie theater in my town. I didn’t experience that magic of being in a movie theater until I was 14, when during a visit to Bucharest I went to Cinema Studio and watched a movie with Jennifer Garner, 13 Going on 30. But there was nothing magical about the film in question, truth be told”, she remembers amused.

Although her parents were film enthusiasts and told her about directors like Mihalkov, Tarkovsky or Kubrick, and she was used to watching movies as a child, it wasn’t until high school that she really got in touch with auteur cinema.

Together with a friend who was also into film, she “obsessively” watched movies, which they would download from the DC++, a very trending network at the time.

Theater director Alexandru Tocilescu’s TV show, which presented every Friday night an auteur film, played an important part in her decision to pursue a career in film: “That show really made a change. It’s incredible what it could do for my generation. That’s how I actually had my first contact with art cinema. And Alexandru Tocilescu, himself, was a presence. I thought: Is this how people who like this kind of films really are? Then, that’s how I want to be.”

Andreea Borţun
Photo Credit: Claudiu Popescu

For a while, she thought she could go study acting in college. Especially since in 11th grade she starred in a play after John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, and everyone told her that’s what she has to keep doing. “I am so glad I didn’t go to acting. I think I understood that I would have left things unfinished. I wanted more than just stepping into a character’s shoes. I wanted to create the character, not just play it”, says the filmmaker.

She also flirted with the idea of studying philosophy, especially since many people in her family had graduated in the field. But her father, a philosophy teacher, told her she could do anything but philosophy.

She decided to go to UNATC, but was afraid to apply to directing, although this is what she really wanted: “I was scared. I didn’t have confidence in myself. I was told that a director is someone who must toss around words and show that he’s strong. It was an issue I often associated with the male image. I felt that I wasn’t strong enough to take such a position. I didn’t understand, as I later understood, that strong can mean a lot of things. That it doesn’t relate to that authority figure who comes and bangs his fist on the table and just gives instructions, without leaving room for dialogue.”

She found out from a colleague about the Audiovisual Communication (screenwriting, film studies, copywriting) program at UNATC, so she thought it was cool, especially since she liked writing.

She got in there. Lucian Georgescu was her teacher, and Iulia Rugina, Ana Agopian and Oana Rasuceanu were their assistants then.

She says that it was an extraordinary experience: “Lucian has a spirit and a vitality that you rarely find in a teacher. There were times when I wanted to stand up and start a revolution. You couldn’t find such motivational impulses in college. In general, there was a dull atmosphere.”

When it comes to film history and criticism, she fondly remembers Andrei Gorzo and Andrei Rus. In fact, for a while, she also gave criticism a try. She even wrote for Film Menu magazine, which was published by students and coordinated by Andrei Rus. She says she enjoyed it, and even more, it helped her discover directors “whom I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise and who later came to have an influence on me.”

After college, she didn’t start making films right away, because, once again, she was afraid to: “It had to do with my own perception of myself, the way I saw myself. I had no confidence, whatsoever, that I could actually do that. I didn’t think I had that type of personality. Most probably, fear was related to failure, given that I didn’t have adequate training, meaning that I didn’t study directing. I also had those stupid hang-ups coming from being raised in a small town. So you underestimate yourself, but then there are times when you overestimate yourself in the most inappropriate moments. It’s an imbalance that’s pretty hard to manage if you didn’t grow up with it.”

She applied to a one-year program at Bard College in Berlin, with majors such as ancient philosophy, literature and rhetoric, and modern art. “The first semester was wonderful, the most complex academic experience I’ve had so far. Then I started the second semester, which seemed far below the first. The teachers have changed. We were going to study medieval philosophy, which didn’t interest me much. Meanwhile, the Berlinale was happening, where I went almost every day. Frustration had begun to arise: What am I doing here, instead of going home and making films? I had only one month and a half left in the program, but I mustered up the courage and came back. That’s me, once I make up my mind about something …”, says the director.

It was the beginning of 2013. That’s when she decided to make her first short film, Blue Spring, which she shot a few months later, in the winter.

“I thought I should give it a try, and if it hadn’t worked out, no one would have known that I failed. I shot it in Alexandria, with the smallest team possible. It took 5 days and it cost 500 euros”, remembers Andreea Borţun.

She borrowed a Canon C300. She filmed in her uncle’s empty house, a “fascinating” place where she had “very beautiful” memories. Her friend, Gabi Suciu, with whom she still works, was the producer. Photographer Adi Bulboacă, her former partner, was the DoP. As for the characters, she chose actress Nicoleta Hâncu, also a close friend, and young actor Rares Andrici, whom she had seen in a show where she thought he was playing a role similar to what she would have wanted from the teenager in Blue Spring. Bogdan Theodor Olteanu, another friend, was the 1stAD.

Blue Spring is the story of a single woman from Alexandria who has an illicit affair with a young man. The short film has an elaborate composition, consisting of static shots, no dialogues and a set design that gives a vintage look. The film was selected at the famous Toronto IFF: “It was a very beautiful moment for me, because it was my first validation.”

“I was interested in exposing a very static world. It’s a hyper-aestheticized world, which harbors a slow-burning paralyzed small town, with some special people who could once have been more than what that place could offer them”, explains the filmmaker.

“For me, Blue Spring was my first year exercise. The fact that it achieved something and someone said it was OK and worth showing, is pretty awesome. What I expected of him, it happened. It’s a very honest film from this point of view. It’s honest when it comes to how it was made and my expectations”, she adds.

At that time she was also writing a lot of magical realism, which now feels far away. She wrote a short film in this style and, together with Gabi Suciu, she received funding from Berlinale Talents and Canon for making it. She went so far as to directing it, although that wasn’t the plan. The result was Love Locker, a period short film about two young people in love leaving their community, also located in the South.

In 2014, she decided to go study in America, as to fulfill an older dream. She applied for a Fulbright Scholarship, but didn’t pass the interview. She eventually applied to The New School, a university in New York, extremely prestigious for its human studies. She chose creative writing.

It was rather a compromise, because she would have liked to study at a university like Columbia or NYU, but the school taxes were way too high, around $ 50,000. Whereas for The New School she only needed about half of that.

Even so, she asked for a one-year deferral, in order for her to raise money: “I worked a lot that year, I also had a crowdfunding.”

“But right before leaving, I had this feeling there was no need for me to go to New York anymore. I think it was just an old dream that I kept postponing and then it didn’t make sense to me anymore. I would have studied for two years. But I stayed only for two and a half months and then dropped off. I realized from the first week that it wasn’t something I needed”, remembers Andreea Borţun, adding that she felt that neither the classes, nor the professors weren’t at that level the university was promising.

She returned to Romania and made another short film, Anathema (2017), also set in the South of Romania. It’s the story of a young woman who returns to her home village for her grandfather’s funeral, whose coffin she steals and, together with two other women, buries him in the field. The script had her own frustration that she couldn’t attend her grandfather’s funeral as a starting point. Her family didn’t tell her about her grandfather’s death until after two weeks, during which time she went on a vacation: “I think I needed closure. But I feel like I made the film too soon after the real episode.”

Now she regrets that she used the same style as in the first short film, with a mostly static camera: “It gives an artificial feeling that didn’t fit as well with the narration in Anathema and the anxiety of the main character. If I were to do it now, the camera would move all the time.”

Meanwhile, she had applied for a two-year master’s degree in history and circulation of philosophical ideas at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Bucharest, which she completed in 2019, and will also have to defend her dissertation.

In parallel, she began her research, as well as writing the screenplay for her feature film debut, Blue Banks, which she always wanted to make. “I don’t like the short film format. I don’t like writing it or making it”, confesses the filmmaker, while admitting that short films are extremely important during the preparation for a feature film.

The screenplay for Blue Banks, which has been selected in the development program of this year’s Sarajevo Festival, focuses on a woman from a village in Southern Romania who has to take care of her teenage boy, leads a precarious life and is forced to leave for Marseilles, in France, for work.

All her stories are set in this world in which she grew up, with which she feels strongly connected, although she ran away from it for a while, and which she wants to understand better. ”It has a lot to do with all my running away and all these unfinished things and my constant return. I was raised up until I was six in the Southern countryside, in the village of Piatra, near Alexandria, where I also filmed Anathema. That’s where my foundation was laid, from the morals and the way I relate to the world (my grandparents were the ones who impregnated me with all these values), to what my eyes can see and perceive as beautiful. That’s where my beliefs were created”, confesses the director.

As she grew up and went on studying and going abroad more and more, her perception of this universe changed. “At some point I started going there less and less often. And I began to judge the place very strongly. I no longer looked at it through a child’s eyes. I wanted to get away from it, become a better self and have nothing to do with the “peasants”. So I came back to fix these things”, she says.

“I wanted to talk about that world. Because I didn’t understand it enough. Because I ran away from it. First to college, then to Berlin, then to the States, but then always came back. I never really understood why I came back, apart from the practical, pragmatic reasons. What was I feeling inside? I came back because a lot of things remained unresolved in relation to this world in the South that raised me. A poverty-stricken world, a world that has its promiscuities. It was actually very difficult for me to accept that this world is still the one that built me up”, she admits.

In 2017, she embarked on an adventure alone in three villages in the South to try to understand what the village looks like today, beyond what was already contaminated in her memories. She started this journey to better understand that part of the country and society, but also to understand something about herself.

“I went there already having prejudgements. I thought I needed to face that thing I’m very afraid of and that is part of me, somehow. It was hard. I went alone. I didn’t like going to places where there were a lot of complete strangers at the same time. Not to mention that people there are very straightforward. I knew I wanted to start working on the feature film. I didn’t know what it was going to be about. I just knew I wanted to make it in the countryside. I felt that I had to solve this thing for myself”, details Andreea Bortun.

“I felt the need to record everything – either on paper or on the phone. I sat there and looked around from a rather anthropological point of view, and the feeling was of complete fulfillment and privilege that I was allowed to do so. I think I wrote a whole notebook on this two- or three-week trip. It was good that I was alone, after all. It was getting late and I would sit and write for a few hours, all sorts of things that I had noticed that day and that seemed relevant to me”, she adds.

During this research, she collected stories mainly about women. In 2018, through a foundation that worked in the rural area around Southern Romania, she met Lavinia, who she wants to turn into the protagonist of her feature film debut and whose life has partly inspired the script: “Lavinia is a performer, she’s amazing, she’s very funny, she talks non-stop. She’s only energy.”

The research has continued, so she interviewed on camera, in extremely emotional and honest discussions, about 40 women of different ages, from villages in Teleorman, Dolj or Tulcea, many having the experience of leaving Romania to work abroad.

All this effort even led to writing a play and turning it into a performance, held at unteatru in Bucharest in 2018, with Cosmina Stratan and Alexandru Ion in the cast.

“It’s all about my roots. It’s about belonging to the Southern world. Then there’s my position as a woman. At first I had to understand what was the deal with me, my mother and my grandmother. It’s a whole land of women living in these places, whose stories no one reaches to, no one speaks of, neither in public, nor in cinema. But they are the exponents of a world that needs to start talking. And these stories are complex. The woman there shouldn’t be perceived just as a she-devil, or just as a silent and submissive housewife”, says the filmmaker.

She feels hurt when this world, which in her opinion could change if the level of education in rural areas were to increase and if there were more job opportunities there, is viewed with hatred. And this hatred could be best seen at the PSD rally in June 2018, when tens of thousands of people from such areas gathered in Victoriei Square in Bucharest: “Facebook exploded: The peasants have come! That was a moment that has hurt me a lot. I realized that this is not the way.”

“What really hurts, in fact, is that I have to talk about things that people don’t want to look at, but which they should look at. Now I am at a point where I can say with certainty that they have all come together so I can tell this story – from studies to films, from projects and personal quests to trying to understand what my struggle might be. This is the story of my debut feature film”, explains the director.

Filming “Anathema” / Photo Credit: Adi Bulboaca

She thinks that there is a lack of female perspectives in Romanian cinema, although she considers that there are some strong female characters. “Yes, I think there is a lack of female perspectives. But I don’t think that Romanian characters are really absent in Romanian cinema. For me, Luminita Gheorghiu has a memorable performance in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, although she has a supporting role. It’s very well written and very real. But there are many female characters who aren’t explored into the depths of their personalities”, she emphasizes.

She considers cinema as the most complex means to understand the reality that surrounds her. “I’ve been doing therapy for a few years and, to some extent, it helped me understand how I actually ended up making film. What’s the deal with it? Could I live without doing this? For me, film is the most complex way to let me discover things about the world. I like writing essays. I really liked philosophy. But I couldn’t do that for a living. I couldn’t shut myself up in libraries and do research. I think I have to be among people so that I can understand things”, she explains.

“For me, cinema is the most complex environment that helps me understand the reality that surrounds and interests me. I feel like my sensitivity works in a manner that has a lot to do with what I see. I can look with the observational eye, in order to express the facts. But my sensitive, emotional eye looks beyond facts. I believe we have a sensibility that is beyond everything we say when we try to show ourselves to others. I think we often lie about ourselves. I really believe in the things that reach us without any intermediary. And the image seems to be less of an intermediary. There is less lying in the image”, concludes Andreea Bortun.

 

Photo Credit Banner: Adi Bulboaca

Ionut Mares Ionut Mares
Journalist and film critic. He works as artistic director for several film festivals in Romania. For Films in Frame, he is in charge of the Emerging Voices column, which is published twice a month, on Tuesday.
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