Cinemascop or how you can transform an abandoned place through determination and courage

18 August, 2020

I met Sorina in 2017 at One World Romania, when I was a volunteer in her team. Then we met a couple of times for some stuff at Dissolved Magazine, and later I found out that she joined the team of the Czech Center. Other than that, I follow her activity on Instagram religiously (and just a drop of envy there), where she presents her impressive collection of plants. It didn’t take long for me to find out that she got exactly where she most belongs to, as I see it – at a film festival, but this time coordinated by her. I’m talking about Cinemascop, a film festival that is more than a film festival and which takes place, surprisingly, not in Bucharest – but in Eforie Sud. “Bold”, I said to myself when I first heard about the event. I was even more surprised now, in 2020, when I found out that she managed to organize, in these crazy times, the third edition of the event.

So no moment to spare, I had to find out more details. What does it take to organize a film event in a summer garden? Better yet, in one that has been abandoned for 14 years? What challenges do you face when you want to do something that no one has done before you? There’s no way that’s an easy thing to do, I thought. And I was right.

I invited Sorina Neaga, co-founder and co-organizer of Cinemascop, and PR, curator and event manager at the Czech Center in Bucharest, to a virtual discussion on Skype, in which she talked for two hours about her “child” (so as she likes to call it) – Cinemascop, of course.

Photo credits: Didi Elena

The Cinemascop film festival is organized in the Summer Garden in Eforie Sud, which was restored and transformed from a somewhat ruin into an event space for this very purpose. Why the summer garden in Eforie? How did you get to it?

Sorina Neaga: Starting with October 2017, we had a new colleague at the Czech Center – Emil Cristian Ghita, who has a house in Eforie Sud where he spent his childhood and now always spends his summers. He is very attached to that place and when he started working with us at the Czech Center, he told us about the summer garden there, which had closed in 2004.

Let’s see what we can do there”, he told us.

Emil realized that, now at the Czech Center, he might actually have a chance to go a little further with his dream. Together with Frantisek Zachoval, the director of the Czech Center at the time, we started working on this idea.

At first, we had to find out who owned the space; and we found out it belongs to the R.A.D.E.F. RomaniaFilm. We then spoke with the people at the Eforie City Hall and Local Council to see if we could get some support from them, as well. That happened in January 2018.

Organizing the first edition was a bit difficult, we got out of our comfort zone and it took some time to figure out what we want to do and how things are working there.

In the end, we managed just fine. Even if then it wasn’t easy to connect with the local community, now, at the third edition, we feel at home in Eforie Sud.

Did you already wish to have a film festival organized by the Czech Center or did it all start once this space came into your attention?

It all started when we found out about this space.

Photo credits: Didi Elena

Okay, so you found this garden. What were your initial plans for it?

Since it’s a summer garden, our first thought was, of course, to reopen it for the exact purpose it was built for. So we went through different phases. At first, we thought about something more complex, but we didn’t know exactly what we could do there. So we thought of doing something throughout the whole summer, then we thought about a ten-day festival. We even had the idea of having a film festival which included a competitive section. In the process, we realized that it can’t be easy, that there are many obstacles that can appear along the way, and that the support we receive is also limited.

So we became more realistic and realized that for now we can have a five-day festival, with one screening per night. Together with our colleagues from EUNIC Romania and the other cultural institutes in the network, Cinemascop became an EUNIC Romania project, and with the support of the European Commission Representation in Romania we managed to organize the festival. We even received a grant from EUNIC Global for the first edition.

We still didn’t know very well what to expect because we dealt with an atypical situation. When you think of a seaside resort (Eforie is not only a resort, but also a town, which makes things even more interesting), you realize that there isn’t much culture in this kind of place. Actually, you could say there’s very little to no culture at all. And it’s not just about culture – but also education or other alternative leisure activities for tourists and locals.

Therefore, Cinemascop was also born from the desire to offer some education and a high-quality cultural entertainment to people there, and to inspire and engage the community. We started out with this idea in mind. For the first edition, we experimented a bit with some elements which we thought would work well at the time. And they did, so we kept them in the festival program – European film screenings, creative workshops for children in the afternoon, the photo exhibition, the food truck and relaxation area, plus an artistic element.

How long did it take to reopen the garden and how long did it take to actually organize the festival?

We started our negotiations with the authorities and the owner of R.A.D.E.F. RomaniaFilm somewhere in January 2018. The festival started on August 1. During this period, we had a few months on hiatus due to bureaucracy and all sorts of delays and classic problems. However, the last month was the most intense one – from the end of June until the first day of the festival. Only at the end of June, did we receive the OK from the Eforie City Hall, and the confirmation that they will help us with the festival. And we needed their help, of course, when it came to reconditioning the space.

The garden itself was … in a very poor state. It was full of broken old chairs, rubble and all kinds of animals that had made their “home” there in the 14 years of inactivity. Trees had grown in front of the projection screen. But we did keep as much nature as we could around the space, as well as elements from its “old forgotten” time – we wanted to show that the garden didn’t actually look like that from the beginning, that it needed our effort to look like that.

In June, my colleague Emil went to Eforie and worked for a month with the sanitation company at the town hall to bring the space to light. Meanwhile, in Bucharest, Frantisek and I (n.r. Zachoval, former director of the Czech Center) handled the “back end” of the festival – partnerships and planning work, on fast-forward. We weren’t even sure that the festival could be held, so during this whole period, since the first idea came out and until a month before the festival, we tried to outline an ideal plan, but we couldn’t do much about it because there was always the risk to receive a negative response and the festival not to take place.

Photo credits: Vlad Dumitrescu

Is the garden used for anything else besides the festival?

Fortunately, the garden can no longer be described as “abandoned”, and those from the R.A.D.E.F. RomaniaFilm are very open to offering the space for other initiatives, as well. Indeed, it’s a bit complicated with all the bureaucracy you have to go through and all the procedures you have to follow.

We have a contract for the festival period, plus a few days before and after for arranging and clearing the space. For the rest of the year, the garden is not used, but it’s open to anyone who wants to come and do something that could benefit the community and tourists in the area. Now, since it’s a summer garden in a seaside resort, there are some limitations – you can do something there only in summer or late spring – early autumn.

Even if we wanted to do more than this festival, we wouldn’t have the opportunity at the moment, but anyone who is willing and would like to do something there is most welcome. We are open to help – we can offer useful information to an institution, NGO or group of friends that wants to do something there, outside the period of our festival. From what we have noticed in these past three years, both local institutions and tourists are quite open to such events.

Surely, now it’s more complicated with the pandemic, although organizing something outdoors, in open spaces, is the best choice. And we hope that, on this occasion, summer gardens will become more popular and attract a little more attention.

What other similar places would you like to see being brought back to life in the coming years?

The first answer that comes to mind is: all! (laughs) A summer garden that I really liked because it looks very good and is in a state where it could be very well restored from is the one in Venus. It’s a slightly smaller garden than ours, but I think it would have a lot of potential. There are two more summer gardens in Eforie Nord. Eforie Nord is a bit different from Eforie Sud regarding the infrastructure – there are more tourists, it feels more like a spa resort area.

But it also depends a lot on the resort where these gardens are located in. Since we’re talking about seaside resorts, you must take into account how popular they are among tourists. Eforie Sud is quite a hot spot for tourists, and so the festival reaches a fairly large number of visitors. There are summer gardens in most seaside resorts, but not all resorts are so crowded, even during high season.

If there were a possibility for more gardens to open, even if it needed a longer period of time, I think they would become much more popular. Eventually, it would lead to some kind of circuit, and these spaces would come back to life like when they were built, during the ’60s and 70s, when they were frequented like any other tourist attraction on the seaside.

How would you describe Cinemascop in 3-4 words?

(Laughs) I now remember all the moments when I had to write presentations and reports and had to find the right keywords. We certainly focused on a few main elements: culture, education, inspiration and motivating the community.

How did you come up with the name “Cinemascop” for the festival?

Each summer garden has a name, such as “Neon” or “Pearl”, like those in Eforie Nord. The summer garden in Eforie Sud is called “Cinemascop” due to the projection screen it has, which is Cinemascope. It’s a wide screen, the 2.4: 1 format, slightly curved. Above the main entrance is written “Cinemascop” in metal letters, and we took the name and the font and created the festival logo.

Photo credits: Didi Elena

Who is part of the festival team?

The Czech Center team is the founding team of the festival. Me, my colleague Emil Cristian Ghita and, at the moment, the current director of the Czech Center – Robin Ujfalusi. But we also have the extended team of Cinemascop, which is made up of several volunteers and friends of the festival that we have “gathered” in the last two years – the Cinemascop Family. We also have former volunteers at the Czech Center who are involved in Cinemascop. We have volunteers from Eforie Sud. We even have someone from Eforie Sud who, when he found out that the festival will be held there, wrote to us on Facebook that he wants to help us in any way possible. I told him: “Go to the summer garden, my colleague Emil is there. Talk to him”. And so he remained part of our team and helped us achieve our goal of engaging the young people and the community in Eforie Sud. And, since last year, we started to have younger volunteers – teenagers and students of the “Carmen Sylva” High School in Eforie Sud, who helped us with the promotion, with the posters and flyers, and by spreading news on the festival to a segment of the population that we may reach a little harder. I’m talking about teenagers and people who were born when the garden was already abandoned or in the process of being abandoned, so they never got the chance to see it, even if they lived next to it all their lives.

So you also “powered up” the community in Eforie.

Definitely. Now, at the end of the third edition, we had a meeting where we discussed what we want to do for the future, and one of the things we set out to do is to work much harder on our goal of involving the local community in the festival. It’s normal for people to get used in time to the idea that something is happening in their town; moreover, to understand that they, too, can help. Since many of them didn’t go through the experience of volunteering or getting involved in a project for the sole purpose of helping out in any way they can, they need a little time to get accustomed to the idea. But it certainly works out and in the coming years it will get better and better. Even if we aren’t necessarily talking about an actual thing they can help with, it’s about engaging the community even by the simple fact that they come to watch the films in the evening, that they are present at the event and that they’re happy that the summer garden has reopened.

Certainly there is also some feeling of nostalgia among the locals.

Of course. At the first edition, there were many people who came and told us what movies they saw in their youth in the summer garden. At that time, the screenings would be sold out so they would climb up on the fence or in the trees in order to watch a movie. From the very first edition we came into contact with some of the spectators and we have rather become close to each other. Locals and even tourists who usually come to Eforie Sud already know that the festival starts on August 1st.

We also met two of the former employees of the garden from the time when it was open, between ’64 and 2004. Mrs. Marcela, who worked as a cashier throughout that period, so her life-long job was at the summer garden and at the cinema in Eforie Sud, which is still closed and no longer functioning. And Mr. Marian, who was a projectionist for 13 years. I talked to both of them and they were very happy to see “their life-long garden” reopening. On the Cinemascop Facebook page we also have two recorded interviews with them that can be watched here and here.

Photo credits: Didi Elena

I know that you are in charge of the Documentary Mondays series of screenings, an initiative of the Czech Center. What role do you play in Cinemascop?

Documentary Mondays took place online in the spring because of the current situation – and most likely will continue to do so in the fall, along with Fiction Tuesdays. Similar to these two programs, at Cinemascop I’m in charge of the film selection and the program, on which I collaborate with those from the other cultural institutes within the EUNIC network in Romania. Together with my colleagues, we also think of the extra elements in the program; we also want to add varied and interesting daytime activities for the public in the program, apart from screenings, which are the main attraction. I’m also in charge of the Communication department, PR, social media, of the fundraising part, everything that means partnerships in general, but also of the coordination of volunteers to a certain extent.

We briefly mentioned the locals who, once they heard about Cinemascop, remembered when they used to go to the summer garden when they were young. But what was the general feedback from the public at the first edition?

We got very good feedback at all three editions, but the first one received extraordinary feedback; it stayed with us in particular. No one there expected the summer garden to reopen. We started working intensely and promoting the festival shortly before the festival started (i.e. a month), so it was unexpected news for many people, locals and tourists.

Before the festival, I went with Frantisek to stick posters at hotels and restaurants and that’s when we interacted with a lot of people who were asking what the event was about. More than half of the people we interacted with told us at least one story about the summer garden and how happy they are that there will be a festival taking place there. And during the festival there were people who stopped by and congratulated us. There were also people who cried, it was very emotional.

Among the spectators, about how many are locals and how many are tourists or people who come to Eforie especially for the festival?

The highest percentage is definitely made up of tourists who are already in Eforie Sud at the time of the festival. The locals are somewhere around 20% or maybe even 10%. That’s because they work intensely during this period. For them, August is the busiest time of the year and it’s a bit complicated to bring them to the movies when they are either at work or very tired after many days of work.

But there are also people who come from outside Eforie Sud especially for the festival. Right at the first edition we had a couple of tourists who came from Mamaia every night at the festival. There are also people who come from Constanta, from Mangalia or from other sea resorts. It’s not a very high percentage, but their number has visibly increased from the first edition until now. There were also many people who came directly from Bucharest for the festival.

Photo credits: Didi Elena

I noticed that there is a tradition for the festival to start on August 1st. Why is that?

First of all, the seaside in Romania has its high season during this period, so Eforie Sud has the most tourists now as well. Besides the fact that this way we have the possibility to reach a much larger number of people than in another period of the summer, it’s also easy to remember and we wanted to create some sort of tradition.

We’re happy that we insisted on keeping this period, August 1-5, even if sometimes it may take place on unusual days of the week  – as it was this year, when it started on Saturday and ended on Wednesday. The important thing is that people began to remember that August 1 means Cinemascop.

You told me earlier that you are in charge of the film selection. What was your favorite film in this edition and why?

I’m going to answer from my personal point of view, as well as from the audience perspective.

My favorite was the first film, The Brand New Testament / Le tout nouveau testament, which I saw in 2016 at Les Films de Cannes a Bucarest and really liked. This year, when I thought about the films in the program, I realized that this film would go with the atmosphere and the audience in Eforie Sud. But a film that the audience liked in particular was Tales from the Golden Age, the closing film of the festival.

I’d like to get back to the Cinemascop program and talk a bit more about what it includes, besides movies. I know that, last year, three of the garden walls were covered with murals and this year you had exhibitions at E T A J on Wheels with different artists every day. Can you give me more details about the related events in the program?

First of all, the related events bring many benefits. Thanks to them, the festival, since its second edition, has received the motto “more than a film festival”. The garden has a lot of potential and we thought it necessary to bring other elements to help us achieve the goals we have with this project.

At the first edition, the photography exhibition we had with the help of our media partners from Agerpres came somehow out of the blue. At the second edition, we had another photo exhibition, this time with the past and present of Eforie. This year, we couldn’t follow our initial plans, so we had to adapt quickly to the situation and we did an exhibition in which we presented the history of the project, even if it’s a fairly short history. We exhibited photos that showed the evolution of the garden, but also of the festival.

This year, we also had E T A J on Wheels as an artistic element in the program. So, every day, they brought the work of one or two artists in a white cube built in the garden. E T A J on Wheels is a traveling gallery created by E T A J artist run space which aims to get to completely unconventional spaces. It was a new and surprising element for our audience. Last year, the artistic element was the murals made by two artists (Lucian Hrisav and Robert Obert), who painted three walls, including the wall behind the screen that was to collapse; so we repaired it in the process.

Another part of the program are the creative workshops for children that we had in the first two editions and which went great; this way, we gained a bunch of “little fans”. This year, we couldn’t have the workshops due to the physical distance safety measure, but instead we had a new element – a stand for the Czech Center and EUNIC Romania where we offered information material on EUNIC, but also books or albums that the Czech Center published over time.

We also have the bar area where last year and this year we offered M&Ms to those who attended the festival. And, as we always say “if an event is organized by the Czech Center, we clearly must have free Czech beer”, so we also had Czech beer for the public. Every year we offered Budweiser Budvar. This year, with this whole pandemic situation, we offered the beer at the end of the screening. It’s a very expected moment in the program (laughs).

cinemascop etaj on wheels
Photo credits: Didi Elena

What was or maybe still is the biggest challenge for you when it comes to the organizing process?

The fact that we had to bring the garden space “to light”. That was the biggest challenge in the beginning – to open the doors and see that the place was full of everything but chairs and a functional screen. Having to clean the space and bring it to a good and safe condition for hosting events.

The challenges that followed were more about bringing people to the festival, but I wouldn’t want it to be misunderstood. People were interested the minute they heard that the festival was happening, but since it’s an atypical location, by the seaside, people aren’t necessarily thinking about going to the movies in such a context. And that was our goal – to make people understand that you can attend a cultural event even when you’re on vacation.

What’s it like for you to work in a small team? You told me earlier that the founding team consists of only three people. I know that you have worked for other festivals with a much bigger team, such as One World Romania, where the two of us actually met, and the experience was definitely different. I wouldn’t make you choose between the two “ways of working”, but I would like to know your views.

At first, until we got to the extended team of the festival, it was quite difficult. At the moment, there are three of us from the Czech Center, but we also have the Cinemascop team with people “gathered from everywhere”, so we are somewhere around 12-15 people in total. It was a little hard at first to do the whole festival in three people.

Obviously, there are advantages and disadvantages on both sides. With a bigger team, the advantage is that you have the tasks divided between more people, so there’s a better workflow. But the advantage of a small team is that we are much more connected and emotionally involved in the project, even if sometimes having so much work on our shoulders can get really exhausting. But it feels good when you do something with a lot of passion.

Since we were talking about other teams and initiatives, what is the most important thing you learned so far while working on other film festivals, which you were able to apply to Cinemascop?

I have volunteered at several festivals (NeXT, BIFF, BIEFF, Bookfest) and have been a member of the audience at even more. By volunteering in various departments (protocol, PR, etc.), I learned how important this job is, which may seem simple at first glance. Every step, every little job that a volunteer does helps a lot in the overall picture of an event that ends up in a successful manner. That was the most important part I learned in the past. When it comes to people and working with them and gathering a team – I think that’s the most important thing.

Photo credits: Didi Elena

It was inevitable we’d get to the “context of the pandemic”. How and what has changed at the 2020 edition? What measures have you adopted?

Initially we had to have 300 seats available for screenings, only we had the extra elements, i.e. the exhibitions and the information tent. We realized that, unfortunately, we couldn’t keep the necessary distance with 300 seats, so we had to reduce them to 200. I think that was one of the most important changes we had to make in the current situation; normally, the sky was the limit or, more precisely, the walls of the garden :). We always expected as many people as possible, in the past we also had 600 people at the screenings, but now we had to limit ourselves to 200 people. But that wasn’t a drawback, for us it was amazing that we managed to have the festival.

The workshops for children, as I said, were no longer held. That means that we opened the doors of the garden later (at 6pm, not at 4pm as in previous years), we had fewer daytime activities, we gave up on the food truck area. Plus the fact that we had to follow all the necessary rules for the event.

The people attending the festival have been of help as well, because they followed all the rules, they wore facial masks and respected the physical distance.

Speaking of people, what did you think about the audience this year? Were people more skeptical or, on the contrary, happy that something was finally happening?

To be honest, I was a bit afraid of how the public will react, given the current situation. I mean, attending events is not the first thing on your mind right now. But, at the same time, life must go on somehow, and if you have the possibility to make adjustments to certain events or activities that you did in your “normal” life before, then why not try?

Surprisingly enough, although I was prepared to talk to anyone who was more doubtful or skeptical about what we were doing there, I didn’t need to because we had only positive reactions. Everyone was delighted that we had the courage to do the event, that we didn’t give up on it and that we managed to adapt. It seemed like now there was even a higher need to have an alternative as a tourist coming to the seaside.

Do you have a moment from the 2020 edition worth keeping in your mind?

At first, I thought of giving a more sentimental answer. But what stayed with me is the fact that at the last screening, of Tales from the Golden Age, out of 200 people who were in the audience, absolutely no one left. At events with free entry, such as Cinemascop, there are sometimes people who, during the film, realize that they don’t like it and leave. Which is perfectly normal and OK.

But Tales from the Golden Age was a huge success, people were very taken by it. At one point, after the third part, our laptop from which we were playing the movie turned off. The screen went black. Usually, when things like that happen, there are reactions in the public. However, I was extremely surprised that no one said anything, everyone waited quietly for us to resume the film. Better yet, at the end of the screening, after the four short films, people no longer wanted to get up; they hoped for another part to follow. It wasn’t until I turned on the lights that they realized it was over. Of all the editions, I think this screening was the most successful.

Photo credits: Didi Elena

What is the most important thing you have learned in the three years you have been organizing Cinemascop?

That … it’s hard! (laughs) That one thing may seem very difficult from the very beginning, and then you realize that it actually is, but the satisfaction you get in the end after doing something that seemed impossible at first is quite amazing. That was what I felt, at least after the first edition, when I saw that it was possible to do it and that the festival ended successfully. I got a boost from all points of view, personally and professionally.

I’ve learned to understand that hard things are usually OK. It’s OK for things to be hard, because what you feel in the end is many times more precious than what you feel for something which is done easily.

Cinemascop also taught me to talk more to people. I was thinking about that when you asked me about the challenges that arose in organizing the festival and I realized that I learned to talk to people I was not familiar with. At Cinemascop there is a very diverse audience. There are people from all over the country. People who may have never watched a movie outside their home, who may never have been to a festival, who are not used to watching movies, and especially European films. At the same time, there are people who are used to going to film festivals, to the cinema, people who have a certain knowledge on film. And then there are people in-between. That’s why we had to design the festival in such a way as to attract and please all these categories of people. We have children, grandparents and families. We had to adapt and learn how to communicate with them through the program, but also in real life. It’s easy to bring a film that fits the audience perfectly, but at the same time we want to challenge them a bit.

What would you like people to know about Cinemascop, from your perspective?

Even though I can’t call Cinemascop a film festival yet, because it still needs to grow, I started to identify with it in a way and consider it a kind of “child” of mine. What I want people to learn is, again, about the importance of spaces.

I knew next to nothing about summer gardens before I started working on this project, but I was very affected by the moment when the movie theaters in Bucharest, which were few anyway, started to disappear. In my opinion, it’s very important that those who are able to do something, whether it’s institutions and NGOs, or just simple people who want to get involved, to actually do something in this direction.

We believe that Cinemascop can be an example to follow, an inspiration. Something that might give people some hope. When we talked to the locals in Eforie Sud before the first edition, they told us that it’s not possible, that the garden is a ruin, that it looks terrible, that there’s nothing for us to do there. People tend to think that if a place looks bad, it automatically means that it’s a ruin and that nothing can be done there. But with a little work and a little courage, perhaps not in all cases, but often enough good things can happen.

I would like to see a lot more spaces like this one reopen. I would love to get involved as well, and not just through Cinemascop, although I certainly couldn’t do it alone or in a small team. Hopefully, we’ll get to see many more initiatives as such being set out.

Photo credits: Didi Elena

In conclusion, what are your future plans for the festival?

At the moment, the plans for the fourth edition are basically the plans we had for the third edition. And we had a lot of plans at the beginning of the year that were mostly “shattered” in March.

First of all, we would like to return to a seven-day festival, as we had in the second edition and as we wanted to have this year as well. Then, a plan we had for this edition and which we wanted to continue in future editions is to have a short film competition for people who want to make films. We don’t want to limit ourselves to directors or people already working in the industry, but rather have an open call for anyone who wants to submit their project. I think that a competitive section is very important because I believe there’s a closed “circle” in Romanian film. We spin around in a circle. One could see that Romanians don’t go to the movies anymore. Why? One reason is that there are not enough places where they could go and watch a film. Then there are a lot of people who are not used to going to the cinema and tend to say that “Romanian films are crappy, boring, they are long, etc”. Why? Because not many Romanian films are made. Why? Because people who want to make films don’t always have the opportunity to show their films to an audience and receive feedback and have access to funding. We want to offer young people the opportunity to present their films in a movie theater.

We also want to have even more daytime activities. The garden has a lot of potential and we want to take advantage of it. Plus, every year we bring an improvement to the space. In the first edition, we cleaned up the space. Last year, we connected the garden to the electricity network and rebuilt the wall behind the screen. This year, we didn’t have a budget to improve the space, but next year we would like to continue with our efforts of upgrading the garden. The next target is the projection booth.

We want to do a little more research on summer gardens and the seaside. To document the situation a bit more and provide a useful basis from which other people with initiative can start. To present through our work the gardens that still exist and, maybe, someone interested in the subject will take the initiative further.

Romina Banu Romina Banu
Photographer and editor; she co-founded Dissolved Magazine together with Melissa. For Films in Frame she gathers film and TV series recommendations for lazy weekends and she writes about interesting projects from the film industry. Other than that, she likes traveling, chilling with her cats and sleeping.