Interview with Monica Lăzurean-Gorgan, about Wood
For those of you who don’t know Monica Lăzurean-Gorgan, she is one of the most active documentary filmmakers in Romania. A producer and a film director, Monica follows the subjects that speak to her and that she finds important to tell – not just for her, but also for us – as an audience and as human beings. In this crazy 2020, Monica launches two feature films – Home (directed by Radu Ciorniciuc) and WOOD (co-directed by Monica, alongside Michaela Kirst and Ebba Sinzinger). I spoke with Monica mainly about WOOD, a documentary that follows Alexander von Bismarck (president of Environmental International Agency) throughout his investigation on the international illegal timber trading, happening in Romania, Peru, China, and Russia. WOOD makes you confront an ugly truth, that’s been thrown under the carpet for years now, by all the careless authorities in the four states mentioned above. These lawmakers don’t understand the effect their decisions are having over our planet, and also over ourselves, the ones who are inhabiting it. As the subject matters to me as well, and I loved the film and the way it portrays this international big environment issue, I called Monica and invited her for an interview.
Monica, we’ve known each other for a few years now, but I haven’t had the chance to get to know you well enough. How do you choose the subjects for the documentaries you produce or direct?
For me, every story I work on has to mean something, especially since I’m working on a subject for several years and it’s important I don’t get in an exhausting point because of that subject; even if there are times when you feel you can’t do it anymore. As a director, I choose topics that make sense to me, and as a producer, I follow the potential of the story, how close it is to my fundamental structure, and how much chemistry there is between me and the director.
And what is your fundamental structure?
That’s a question I haven’t been asked before (laughs). I don’t know really, I think it’s a combination of insecurity and drive, courage, activism; I think there’s courage in many people, combined with shyness, doubts, but once you harmonize them inside you, things come naturally. Social involvement and determination are also with me and I could not be without them.
Do you think you need courage in order to make documentary films?
Yes, you need a lot of courage. At the same time, my adrenaline rises to a peak during shootings – that doesn’t mean someone chases me or that my life becomes like a rollercoaster, but there’s a certain kind of high when filming, which I’m sure you’ve experienced.
Yes, many times. This year, although it’s a difficult year on so many levels, you manage to release two new films through event screenings – Acasa, My Home, which you produced, and Wood, which you co-directed. How was it for you to work on both, in parallel?
Ironic, yes. There couldn’t be a better year for me to release two films, but the year of the pandemic. And you know how it is – there are years when a producer can’t even distribute one film, and sometimes you end up releasing more than one film in the same year – for me both films are important and it’s a difficult year, especially for distribution. But the two of them intersected this year only in the end. While Wood was in the post-production stage, Acasa, My Home was in production, so I didn’t do more for a film, and less for the other, it didn’t come to that; this year, though, they have also been in the same competitions – at TIFF, where Acasa, My Home received an award, and at Sarajevo IFF, where it also received an award.
Tell me a bit about Wood. I know this movie was your idea and initiative.
Yes, I really wanted to make a documentary about the illegal timber trade, because it’s a problem in Romania – which we all now know. When I got this idea, I wanted to expose a broader, international perspective; televisions, although they do some great reportage, most of them are seen only at a national level. I approached the co-producers in Austria, who knew Michaela (i.e. co-director), who in turn knew Alexander Von Bismarck (i.e. Director of the non-governmental organization Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and the one who led the investigations in the documentary) – this is how the team came up.
But, before it all started, how did you get to this topic?
I could see what was happening in our country. An environmental NGO had a competition, it wanted to make three documentaries on environmental issues, and I won, and one of the three topics was on illegal logging. So I documented the subject a lot, I was in Neamt, where there was massive deforestation – and it wasn’t happening somewhere near an open area, obviously, but way higher in the mountains, and I was overwhelmed by the whole phenomenon, by the locals’ stories; some of them actively contributed to this act, while others realized that something was starting to go wrong – that’s how I got deeper into the subject, but this whole illegal logging thing was gnawing at me for quite some time. When I completed the short film, I felt that it’s not enough and that a larger project is in need.
I know that the film has already been shown in some international festivals, as well as in our country – at Transilvania IFF, where it had its national premiere, and today it will be screened at One World Romania, in Bucharest. How has it been received by the public so far? Were there any differences between the international and local audience?
I was lucky enough to meet the local audience at TIFF, where we had two screenings followed by Q&As, but I couldn’t be present for the international screenings, because all the festivals where the film has been selected took place online. Each time we had a Q&A, it was pre-recorded, so I can’t say much about the international audience.
At Hot Docs, which is a very large documentary film festival in Canada, we had a limit of 400 views, which was sold out in the first three days. That’s how we found a distributor in North America, so I think that people are interested in this subject, especially since the documentary doesn’t cover only Romania, but other countries too.
Then tell me, how was the interaction with the audience here?
I would have liked to be somewhat more prepared for the Q&As; I would have liked to be one more environment expert there with me, besides Bogdan Micu, who is an important character in the film, because the question that has been asked most of the time, quite persistently I could say, was “What can we do, how can we get involved?”. From one point on, I felt that I was giving general answers, but nothing precise.
I’m curious if the authorities from the 4 countries featured in the film – Russia, Romania, China and Peru, saw the film, and if there had been any reactions.
No, not yet. We want to organize such screenings, including in the Parliament and the European Parliament – that’s something we thought of before, to have a screening of the documentary followed by a speech or a debate held by Alexander. It did happen in 2015, when we showed in the Parliament, to the Environment Committee, a 5-minute film which presented Alexander’s investigations and reports; we showed it earlier than he and the EIA really wanted, but we had to because several changes were in plan for the Forest Code at that time, so some sort of intervention was needed. We went to the press and to the Parliament’s Environment Committee, and nine days later 4,000 people took to the streets.
A large part of the film is about what happens in Romania. Could we jump to the conclusion that we have the most corrupt system of all the states presented in the film?
From Bogdan Micu’s experience, because I haven’t been to Peru – and from Michaela’s stories, in Peru there seems to be a worse situation. The problems are about the same, it is intended for the law to be as permissive as possible so that one can find loopholes that allow for shady actions, but in Peru it’s more dangerous.
How would you describe a functional, correct system where forests are protected?
From a legal perspective, the Law must be drafted in a very coherent way – things must be set out very clearly and in detail, and obviously, the penalties must be higher. And by the way, in the past few days there have been some good changes to the New Forest Code – for example, trucks that are loaded with wood can now be confiscated, and before the theft of timber wasn’t treated as a criminal act, there was just this symbolic fine – so it is possible to change things.
Does this mean that the current Government is open to change?
You know how it is, the current Government and the Minister are more open to change, but the problem is the officials with permanent employment contracts, who, I believe, can be found in all Ministries, not just the Ministry of Environment, and who serve certain economic interests and don’t allow for a healthy transparent Law to advance quicker. Bogdan Micu volunteered in the Ministry and was accepted twice, and explained how he went to the Minister, received approval to make changes, after which he was stalled by the Environment Committee, by the Legal Commission, he was stalled on commas, on single words, and his course of action came to a halt that could go for up to six months – and he said he had noticed this happening countless times, so those behind the Ministers are the actual problem.
Last but not least, tell me what’s next on the film’s agenda? It’s important for people to watch this documentary, and the current situation of the movie theaters in our country is sad and not at all optimistic.
As long as the weather allows, it will screen at several more festivals: Astra, Farad and Iasi, and maybe a few outdoor screenings. Then we will have to think of a strategy for the cold season. I am skeptical when it comes to opening cinemas, which is why we are thinking of an online distribution, which would also include Q&As.