Time’s up: on the recent protests of Romanian students and filmmakers | The State of Cinema

20 October, 2022

Two simultaneous seismic movements are shifting the tectonic plates of Romanian cinema, in movements that change its territory in the years to come: two waves of simultaneous protests, one led by (but not limited to) documentary film professionals, the other led by the students of UNATC, the country’s biggest and most prestigious film and theater university. These two movements are, in parts, confluent and mutually supportive – even though the two causes have yet to undergo a formal union, what’s certain is that they are indicating a greater climate of discontent in the film industry.

Both protest movements were triggered by the publication of interviews on “Cultura la Duba”, a cultural news website, which scandalized public opinion – thus also establishing the publication as an (even more) important player and opinion leader in the local cultural market. First, there was the interview with Anca Mitran, acting director of the National Cinematography Centre (CNC) for almost a decade, who made a series of inflammatory statements about arthouse cinema, documentary cinema in particular (among other things, that it would not lend itself to theatrical distribution) and some that seemed to lament the disappearance of a certain segment of mainstream films from the communist-era cinema (and, by implication, their production model), pointing to outdated tastes that are disconnected from the cinematic present; to top it all off, Mitran used an extremely unhappy expression to describe CNC’s role in the local film industry, which doubles as a flat-out fake statement (see student or independent films): “we are doing all the film production [in the country]”.

Then came the series of articles (part of the publication’s wider effort to expose the structural abuse plaguing UNATC, as well as of the larger confrontation of sexual abuse in the post-Viorica Voda landscape) dedicated to the shocking affirmations of actor and university professor Șerban Puiu. They were published after a collective of students circulated a clip of him on Instagram, where he spoke as a guest on Cătălin Măruță’s podcast, normalizing (through humor and trivialization) the idea of intimate relationships between professors and students, revealing the crude, locker room discussions that professors had behind closed doors — and that also implicated the current rector of UNATC, Liviu Lucaci, thus casting complete doubt over the institution’s previous promises to address the problem of systemic abuse within the institution. I have to say that I’m beyond puzzled — I simply cannot understand how Puiu could say these things on the show of one of the most watched TV presenters in the country, showing not only absolute impunity by doing so, but also the complete absence of any minimal sort of social survival instinct. (In German, they call it Handarbeit.) With each new article that was published, Puiu said something even more inflammatory: such as “The theatre department doesn’t exist in order to bestow diplomas, it exists as a psychological experience”.

In the first case, the filmmakers organized daily on-site protests for almost two weeks (which were, on one occasion, interrupted by the arrival of gendarmes) in front of the CNC headquarters in the center of Bucharest. The list of participants in the protests over the two weeks is impressive – among them Andrei Ujică, Dana Bunescu, Alexandru Solomon, Biana Oana, Andrei Dăscălescu, Ruxandra Ghițescu, Dragoș Hanciu, Andreea Borțun, and Mihai Dragolea, along with students and teenagers who also joined the protests, plus letters of support signed by Radu Jude and Alexander Nanau. During the first week of protests, they also launched a petition calling for Anca Mitran’s resignation, which was signed by dozens of directors, actors, professionals, critics, and curators/cultural managers. So far, Ms. Mitran’s resignation has not yet arrived, but what has materialized instead is a list of proposals for new members for the CNC’s Board of Directors and a meeting at the Parliament’s culture committee, convened by its chairman, MEP Iulian Bulai. On the other side, the students attracted unprecedented support from the public sphere, circulating petitions, boycotting university activities, calling for wide-ranging structural reforms, and protesting widely online – including both current students, graduates, industry professionals, and, crucially, teenagers who would like to study at UNATC after graduating from high school.

A graphic made by the student protesters, quoting UNATC’s namesake, Ion Luca Caragiale.

However, something seems different this time. On the one hand, as far as UNATC is concerned, the solidarity of students – some of whom, including first-year students, also joined the protests in front of the CNC – in the face of misogyny and harassment in the school seems unprecedented, just as it is unprecedented that their protest is animated by a feminist impulse. Among other things, there was a massive boycott of the opening ceremony of the 2022-2023 academic year, where the leading voices were Tudor Licu, one of the student representatives in the University Senate, and the editorial staff of FILM MENU, who published an ample open letter urging students to not attend the event. At the same time, this time, there is also much more support from the university’s faculty (see the posts of professors Andrei Rus and Mihaela Michailov), which has culminated with the convening of a meeting on this issue, that will take place on the 20th of October, which all students are invited to attend. Last but not least, a few days before today’s meeting, two important developments took place: first, a petition to the university management, asking for the implementation of a “Teacher’s Code” (proportional, the initiators say, to the University’s “Student Code”) and, secondly, the announcement of an external audit which was commissioned by the university management, to be carried out by the National Agency for Equal Opportunities, with rector Liviu Lucaci promising to draft a new Code of Ethics that would govern the University. It remains to be seen what the results and long-term effects of this meeting will be.

On the other front, we are dealing with unprecedented international support for the film guild’s demands: from the publication of the protest letter in the prestigious Variety, to open letters signed by the heads of some of the biggest documentary film festivals on the continent (IDFA, Ji.hlava), all of which indicates that this time around, the international film industry is keeping an eye on events happening in the country. At the same time, if the filmmakers’ demands (and their proposals for the CNC Board) will succeed, it would practically mean a revolution, at least in terms of the institution’s human resources, and that could bring about profound changes in film production in Romania in the coming years.

At the risk of saying something self-evident, the stakes of these two protest movements are very high and, put together, they could constitute a moment of profound reform within Romanian cinema, from the root (UNATC, but also FTF Cluj) to the very end of the production chain. It is absolutely necessary to show solidarity with these two apparently separate, but deeply linked causes – not only because both are on the side of progress and institutional reform, and (in particular, in the case of UNATC) for the abolition of abusive practices in the industry, but because any gesture of support, of bringing these causes to the forefront and popularising them, means another chance that they might succeed.

Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short film festival - BIEFF, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. At Films in Frame, she writes the monthly editorial - The State of Cinema and is the magazine's main festival reporter.