Alina Serban: “I’m looking for a chance to receive the microphone and an equal place at the table”

22 September, 2020

Born on October 29, 1987 in Bucharest, Alina Serban attended high school at the “Media” Technical College, where she started in the Mathematics-Informatics class, then transferred to Philology.

In 2006 she entered the Acting section at the National University of Theater and Film “I.L. Caragiale” (UNATC) in Bucharest. In her third and final year, she studied for five months at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York. Between 2011 and 2012 she did a master’s degree at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where she lived and worked until 2015, before returning to Romania.

She became known for her political and feminist theater plays in which she spoke either about her childhood and adolescence spent in a poor Roma community in Bucharest (I Declare at My Own Risk, which was performed in several countries), or about Roma slavery (The Great Shame, staged at the Excelsior Theater in Bucharest).

Roma slavery is the subject of her first short film as a screenwriter and director (in which she also plays one of the main roles), Letter of Forgiveness (2020), presented this year at the Transilvania International Film Festival and at the Anonimul Festival.

She got her first role as a film actress in her first year of college, in a BBC series, The Last Enemy (2008), where she starred alongside Benedict Cumberbatch and Anamaria Marinca.

She also starred in the highly successful short film Written/Unwritten (2016), by Adrian Silisteanu. But she became known in cinema for her roles in Alone at My Wedding (2018), by Marta Bergman, a Belgian production that was in the ACID program at the Cannes Film Festival, and Gipsy Queen (2019), a Germany-Austria co-production by Hüseyin Tabak – for her performance, Alina Serban was awarded last year at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival and this year at the German Film Awards.

In Alone at My Wedding, she plays the role of a young mother (Pamela) from a Roma community in Romania, who must reconcile the needs of her little girl and her own dream of freedom. So she embarks on a journey into the unknown – she starts a relationship with a man from Belgium, whom she meets through a marriage agency, hoping that this will change her life.

In Gipsy Queen, she also plays a single mother (Ali), this time of two children, settled in Germany, where she cleans hotels or bars and ends up boxing to support her family.

She has already started working on a new short film, which was selected at the FemArt 2020 Residency and which is scheduled for shooting this fall. And she hopes to develop the subject, which is personal, later in a feature film.

You talked in many interviews about your past, about your childhood as a Roma girl raised in poverty and then going into foster care, about the difficulties you encountered. I don’t want to go through all of this once again, but I think it would be important for our discussion if you could remember when did you feel that the artistic area is the one that interests you? When did you realize that you could and would like to do this?

I don’t know if I became aware, on a rational leve, that I would be an artist. Given the context I lived in, that sounded like a joke. It was impossible to finish high school, let alone do what I do. I don’t think I allowed myself to verbalize it either: “I will be an artist and I will make a living this way and people will come to see my plays and films!”

It was something you couldn’t even imagine.

Definitely. Even I would have laughed at that sentence. But, what I noticed in me was that I express myself, that I have an artistic side, even though I hadn’t had the opportunity to go to the theater. And I watched movies at my Aunt Veta’s, at the neighbors, and I was watching PRO TV. I used to read the subtitles to the others.

At school I was inclined towards this artistic thing. I had that playful, naughty personality. I put on various little shows. There was something in me. I don’t know how to explain it. Plus, I loved writing. I noticed things. In fifth grade we had to write small essays and I remember wanting to talk – although I got emotional, I continued – about how rough my mother’s hands looked. I got a high grade. Not because my language was so fine. But they saw a potential there. On the artistic side, I had the initiative. Then, in high school, for example, I used to do short commercials with my classmate. I was writing the text, and she was drawing them.

People didn’t know what my living conditions were. It was as if I lived in parallel worlds. But children seem to be much stronger than adults anyway. They can lead these lives. They think that is what it is. Perhaps it was later when I started to feel bad about my condition. But then I said, “OK, we must go through with life.” Imagination always remained my tool of survival in those contexts.

In fact, I used to live my inner world by writing in a diary. It was one of the things that might have saved my life. That and sports, which was also a way of expression for me. In my diary, besides expressing my thoughts, I would draw various things. I couldn’t make a contribution to the world. I didn’t feel like someone could listen to me. But that was a place where I could express myself.

For how long did you write?

All these years, more or less, but unfortunately I haven’t been so consistent with it anymore recently. But I wrote a lot during the hardest period of my life. For example, in high school and college, the diary kept me going. The point was that since nothing around me belonged to me and nothing was certain and I didn’t have my own space, the diary became just that. I wrote my first play based on the diary, and it had parts just like I wrote them when I was eight.

And the importance of the diary also comes up in my next short film, which I am currently working on and hope to make it soon. It’s inspired by my experience in the child protection system and tries to answer a few questions: What does it mean to be a girl? What does it mean to be a Roma girl? And what does it mean to be a Roma girl taken into foster care? There are several hang-ups that one can get in one’s experience. I really want to tell this story. But I’m also very afraid of it, because it’s so important to me. I don’t want to fail it. I’m glad the script has been read before and at least I got the energy to tell this story.

You mentioned that in high school you got in touch with the theater.

There were some courses, which were free for a month and then you had to pay. Somewhere at the “Ion Creanga” Theater.

It was then when you realized that you might like it?

Honestly, it wasn’t like a boom for me, because we would do some small sketches. I wouldn’t say that I had a revelation. Anyway, I had this nature who played a lot with the imagination. I wasn’t the class clown, but I had this “artistic” nature. I was writing gossip notebooks with my classmate, we gave nicknames to everyone in the class, to all the teachers. I was making up things, outside the real world. I always had my getaways towards something else that probably helped me come to terms with the reality. So I can’t say there was something special about that course. But the idea that I wanted something artistic seemed to grow in mind.

And I got to the Podul Theater, at Mr. Catalin Naum, who saw something in me. He was insisting with this thing. He said that I have potential. For anyone this sounds like a huge compliment, especially since it came from him. But I didn’t understand. I had my ignorance, which saved me many times. I had the nerve to tell him that I would also apply to other faculties, not just acting, because it seemed impossible to get in anyway. No one would have had the nerve to say that in that space. It’s like being in church and saying “I love Satan!”

It was close to the final exams. Mr. Naum lived in Stefan cel Mare, close to the herbal shop I was working at on weekends, and he would come to my boss and say: “This gypsy must go to acting!” I found it funny. I was used to proving to myself that I was able to, so it was less common for people to come and shout that they believed in me. I’m not used to that. I was also working at the nearby cafeteria, and he would also come there, almost annoyed, to insist on me going to acting. He was very vehement. After entering two other faculties and being at peace with that, I went to apply to acting, without having trained with anyone. I couldn’t build the courage to ask him to train me. After getting into Acting at UNATC, I dropped out of the faculties of Political Science and Communication and Public Relations.

How was your admission exam to UNATC, which you took in 2006, when you were 18, about to turn 19?

Long live “Papi”! If it wasn’t for Mihaela Sirbu, I wouldn’t be at this table today. She was on the admissions committee. I was not well prepared, since I did it all by myself, after some God-forgotten materials. I used to recite poems to my colleagues at the cafeteria. I was even more nervous, because we didn’t take the admission exam in a normal classroom at UNATC, but at the Casandra Studio. So on top of being nervous, you also had to go on stage. That’s a traumatic experience for someone who has never been on stage in their life.

Part of the exam was singing something. I started singing a song very badly. And “Papi” said: “Okay, thank you!” I didn’t realize at that moment, but after that she explained to me that when she asked me to sing something from my childhood, she was expecting something in Roma. But I was very deep in my own issues. And I thought: “What the hell should I sing, some stupid kindergarten song?” Then I remembered a song that my father used to sing to me, but after two verses I broke down, because my father had just died about two months ago. I was still mourning. It was a big surprise that I remembered it, because it was a very old memory. As they say in the theater when you have a good moment: “an angel came down”.

I felt really bad that I started crying, that’s not something you do in such a situation. I went to their table to get a tissue to wipe my nose. After that I noticed that the UNATC logo was printed on it and I felt even worse: How can I wipe my nose on UNATC? I wanted to vanish. I remember “Papi” saying, “You don’t have to apologize, that’s what we’re working with here.” I didn’t understand anything. I was too busy to feel bad. I passed the first exam. And it’s as if something divine happened at every exam I took.

I was in the top ten to get in. When the results were shown, many came with their parents. I had no one to go with, just some high school mates. I was so scared that I didn’t even want to look on the list. A friend went to look and told me the result, that I got a high grade. I couldn’t believe it. That was such a thrilling experience.

And encouraging, I assume.

I had been discriminated against before. Not so much in school and high school. I have been called demeaning words, I got into fights. But ever since college, I have seen different kinds of behaviour. Maybe now the stakes were higher. When the results were shown, there were some students from the Podul Theater – who either wanted to apply the next year, or they applied then and didn’t pass – who couldn’t understand how that girl who came only one time to their theater actually got it. I remember them trying to come with explanations for my success, and that hurt. I heard them say, “Surely she went for the place designated for Roma people.” And that was not true.

You did two and a half years at UNATC before you left for New York for six months. How was UNATC?

It was very hard for me. In fact, my next short film will also be about that. The shock of what it means to come from my world and suddenly meet the elite, which I still can’t stand today.

It felt unbelievable that I got in. I used to touch the handrail, the walls, I even loved the building. But then I realized more and more that I didn’t believe in the same things as my teachers and some of my colleagues. Everyone seemed to care too much about what you did before (ballet, violin, etc.), about how you dressed, about material stuff that I couldn’t deliver. Coming from this disfavored place, as a Roma girl who has been into foster care, I felt that too much value was placed on this false elitism. And nepotism, and flattery. I couldn’t find myself there. I was a mouse. On the one hand, there were my hang-ups, very difficult to carry on, but on the other hand there was that environment. The contrast was too great for me. At least in the class I was in. I’m not saying the entire year was like that or that was the case everywhere.

“Papi” was the one to save me, changed my life completely, not to mention that thanks to her I entered this world. “Papi” brought professors from abroad to college and you could go to summer workshops. She would let me pay much less or in installments. She gave me the opportunity to see other kinds of techniques. To see how other professors treat the acting scenes, especially in the theater. With her I discovered the Meisner technique or the Viewpoints method. Unfortunately, I didn’t have her as a teacher, but somehow she guided my steps during college, thanks to these courses which highlighted the importance of something else. I was thinking that this might work for me, that maybe I would succeed in another system, that maybe other techniques, a different environment, would fit my persona.

Even so, UNATC helped me. Without UNATC, I wouldn’t have been here anyway. And it helped me in the sense that today I realize that I do not believe in elitist art. And that this kind of school should not only admit children coming from rich or so-called artistic families.

I must have come as weird, because I didn’t know it was okay to be poor. A Roma. To have my story. I was really thinking of dropping out of UNATC in the first semester, because the other students looked much more beautiful in my eyes. They deserve to be there. They are more artistic. Myself… maybe I fooled someone, maybe I fooled them at the exam, but in fact I can’t do it. I felt like an impostor. A hang-up that I still have today. I couldn’t get rid of it. But at least over the years, I’ve been told what it means, and that I also have the “right” to be in many situations.

With her award at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival

How were your six-month acting studies in New York?

It was incredible. It was exactly what I needed. Suddenly I was facing a different kind of competition. Related to work, to hunger. And that’s a place I know I can work with. If it’s about the ego and how to show yourself, I’m gone, I can’t handle it. I don’t have that kind of skill. I had to pass a test, with two monologues in English. In New York I had the best grades ever. I took the hardest courses.

I absorbed everything, like a sponge. I also made five short films as an actress. One of the classes was really cool, because they made you do your own five-minute mini-shows every hour. They gave you some very broad topics and you could be extremely generous. You could bring your fridge from home, you could bring your friends, which I did – I brought a Chinese friend with nunchucks.

And there I started writing about myself. At one point, one of the mini-shows was about me. That was my first step – to start writing, as well. Before that, I only had a few small attempts.

Was that the moment when you realized that you could talk about yourself and that your experience could actually be used in what you do?

Yes, it happened in New York, because in New York we were told we could deliver a message. That we can have a contribution. Those five minutes of the show every Thursday made you create something in front of people. It was very interesting to me. I realized I wanted to talk about my life. Then, of course, my voice became clearer and more “polished around the edges”, in the sense that at the Royal Academy we were told: “You are not just talking heads. What type of artist do you want to be?”

How did you get to the Royal Academy of Arts in London?

I had no doubt that acting is the path I love and want to further follow. But after I graduated from UNATC in 2009, there was no work to be found. What does the graduating student do? You look to the left, look to the right, and go to unemployment, as I, myself, did. But I happened to write my play I Declare at My Own Risk, in several versions, and one of them was better known and I played it at Green Hours (ie – a jazz-cafe in Bucharest staging theatrical performances). At the same time, I was thinking of applying to the Royal Academy. The play helped me raise a part of the money. And in 2011, I moved to London.

I was a student at the Royal Academy, but at the same time I had my play being staged in other countries, too – in France, in Paris, or in Kosovo. Which now I find very cool. I was already a working artist.

There were other things I learned at the Royal Academy, including the idea of devising. A kind of method where the group doesn’t necessarily expect a written text. The group writes something together. And together we wrote a play that became our performance for the year finale. It was about the Bosnia-Serbia conflict. Because it turned out very badly, I was very ashamed of this show. I didn’t agree with some of the messages in it, how we portrayed people. I rebelled a little. I felt we had a responsibility to the message of the play. It was really serious. I had Serbian friends. I read a lot on the subject and I realized that we can’t portray everyone as rapists or victims. The other colleagues were more interested in the fact that agents were coming to see the play. I realized at that moment that I wasn’t that interested in being into the spotlight, but rather concerned with the message and what I was getting myself into. This is what I wrote my thesis on: Legitimacy and artistic responsibility.

After finishing in 2012 your year of study at the Royal Academy, you said that you stayed in London until 2015. In all those years did you think about film, cinema?

Yes, I did, because I remembered the experience with The Last Enemy, how it came into my life and how beautiful it was. Worth telling. It was 2006. My first year of acting at UNATC. It was quite hard. A colleague of mine pushed me to go to a casting for extras for Silent Wedding (2008, dir. Horatiu Malaele). And my colleague found me in the library, that was my hiding spot. I didn’t go to the bar, because I didn’t have money, I wasn’t cool at all. So where can one find me? At the library. I didn’t feel like going to the casting. But my friend literally pushed me. And I’m so glad she did. She also gave me her blouse, when she saw what I was wearing. I went to Castel Film, just across the road. They took two pictures of me, but I was so not in the mood for it. And with these two pictures I got the role, which also had lines, in the BBC series, where I was playing an Afghan. It was incredible. I didn’t even know what it meant to play in a scene, I hadn’t done that at school yet. My very first acting scene was with Anamaria Marinca, whom I met again a few years later, in London. That’s when I earned my first acting money, and I got my first computer with them.

The funny thing was that when I got to London to study, Benedict Cumberbatch’s picture was on every bus. I would tell my colleagues: “I know this man. I played with him.” They didn’t believe me.

I wanted to keep starring in films, but I didn’t think it was possible. But I wrote another play when I was in London, Home, with which I won a drama contest called Stories of London. A director friend told me: “Alina, I think you should be in the show, because you spread energy around, but also outside the stage, be a director.” And I did.

Then I won a small grant to study the subject of slavery. I was thinking about writing about slavery as early as 2013, and I went to a conference at Les Films de Cannes a Bucarest (ie – a well-known film festival in Bucharest). Radu Jude’s Aferim! wasn’t made yet. I stood up and asked Mr. Cristian Mungiu a question at the conference, where I was the only non-professional filmmaker in the room: “I know it doesn’t check the commercial box, but how would you like the idea of a historical film about Roma slavery?” And I remember that he told me that the legacy left by Kusturica is not easy to digest or to follow, but if I want to tell a story and that’s what spurs me on, I better go for it. But to find the story, not to make a historical plea. I had the subject of slavery in my mind for many years. From the age of 20 I kept asking myself: “Why didn’t I learn about it, why don’t I know more?”

The interest in the Roma history seems to have come hand in hand with the full acceptance, through your plays, of your own identity.

Yes, for me it was a coherent step. I started from my own identity and from my own and my family’s story. And I wanted to ask myself how we got into this situation of animosity between us, the Romanians and the Roma. To understand why us, Roma people, are so hated by the others. Are these people right? I should find out at least, to know if I better keep my mouth shut.

Everything is interlinked. I am related to the context in which I was born. And I realized that the context which a minority lives in has to do a lot with its history, that there’s no way we could draw a line between them. It bothers me that every time we talk about the Roma, we don’t put them in context at all. I never see that. We don’t try to find explanations for the early marriages. We’re just accusing them. We don’t talk about how the discrepancy between us came about. Do they really want to be on the fringes of society? Do they really want to put out their hand in begging? It was a coherent step for me to learn about slavery. The idea had been bugging me for a long time. If an idea moves around in my head for a long time, it eventually becomes a need. And if it becomes a need inside me, then I give my all to find a way to  say it loud and clear. I was already applying for small research grants. And this subject was a reason for me to return to Romania.
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In 2015 I was still in the UK, I had a life as an artist, because I was in several shows, but also as a normal person, who had to work to pay its rent and make a living in London. I managed to combine them. While I was still in London, I was invited by Hüseyin Tabak to come to Vienna and audition for what would later become Gipsy Queen. So my first role was in Gipsy Queen, not Alone at My Wedding. But the funny thing is that the first of them to come out was Alone at My Wedding.

You starred in these two feature films, where you play the leading roles, but you also starred in Adrian Silisteanu’s short film, Written/Unwritten. How did you perceive the invitations to play Roma characters? Did you have a problem with that? Or did it come as self-evident, because you could find another form of expression, through film?

It depended on whether I liked the text or not. In the case of Written/Unwritten, I told them that if they don’t change some things, I won’t get involved in the project. I had already returned to the country. I had directed my play The Great Shame. Now I knew I had a voice and that I wanted to decide on the projects I was to be part of. So all these films that I played in, I didn’t just do the acting thing. I also had a creative input, the potential to make decisions regarding the screenplays.

Regarding the way your characters were built?

Yes.

But what did that mean for the two feature films? In what way did you work on the characters?

If I were now to start making a film about Somalis, I would like to have Somalis in the creative team who have the capability to tell me when I’m derailing. I had already taken on this part, due to my activist and artistic background, I’m an artivist. If there were details I didn’t understand, I would refuse to play them. I understood my artistic responsibility. It wasn’t easy to be the person who is difficult in certain situations, in any of these three projects. But I felt that afterwards we would have to meet with the public and come with explanations. And it wasn’t about the artistic concept. But I didn’t want for us to do more harm either.

What do you mean by “doing harm”? To perpetuate some stereotypes?

Yes. I really liked that Pamela in Alone at My Wedding started as an antihero. That’s exactly what I needed. A person in the flesh. With qualities and flaws. I’m not interested in portraying angels. But, when it came to an argument between her and other Roma, it seemed hilarious, pathetic, racist, to have extras come out and hit me in the head with some wooden spoons, as if they were some tribe people. So I made it clear I wouldn’t accept that. Why can’t you see us as you see yourself?

It was very difficult to do that, as an actress in her first major role. Very dangerous, because you have a contract. Very few actors would do that. But I wouldn’t have forgiven myself if I kept quiet and knowingly left things being presented in the wrong way, living with the feeling that I could do harm. Of course, I can make mistakes without being aware of it, because I’m human. But my conscience wouldn’t let me do it knowingly.

Do you think there is a risk in this regard, about films with Roma characters made by non-Roma filmmakers?

Everyone can talk about things that feel close to them, as well as things that are not so familiar. How you do that depends on many contexts. But I will only say this: at the end of the day, let’s not pretend that people don’t watch stories and that they don’t have a direct impact on people’s lives. We have never seen a Roma playing in a simple ad. We don’t have a human image of these people. Let’s not pretend that this doesn’t have a direct result in our lack of empathy for them. Let’s not pretend we don’t have a responsibility. Everything is political, including the entertainment. We laugh, we joke, but at the end we pay. If you don’t want to deal with it, then don’t deal with it, that’s OK. But for people who are watching and for society as well, what we say means something. When we watch the news and the ethnicity of a criminal is mentioned again, that means something.

I think your characters come as believable not just because you’ve worked on them with the film directors. It’s also about your technique. It depends a lot on the way you are as a person and what you bring to each character. I am referring here to a certain type of energy and strength, which mixes at the same time with a fragility. How did you work on the two roles? How did you prepare them? I’m interested in the process.

It depends a lot on who inspires me. I’m generally inspired by some people I observe. But, of course, there are some personal things that can be found in the experiences I present. For example, for Gipsy Queen, my mom was a great inspiration. I played her on almost every page. Her fragility. But, for example, when the coach tells Ali, my character, that she can come to train there, at the gym, when in fact she really wanted a job, that is very similar to my experience. Even now, as an independent artist, when it’s still very difficult to show my work and find a place where I can feel welcome and not have to struggle for every hour of rehearsal, for every piece, for getting the microphone.

You use your emotional memory.

It also depends a lot on the scenes. For example, in Letter of Forgiveness I didn’t expect to also have to play. At the casting, I wanted to see if someone could reach the intensity I was looking for, the one where you would go and beg someone with a ticket and say, “I’m giving my freedom for someone else’s freedom.” But this is already a difficult scene for anyone to play. Seeing that we don’t have an actress, everyone turned to me. To them it was self-evident, but not to me. In the end, I took on the role. The fact that it was such a close topic, maybe that helped, too. But I couldn’t say exactly. There are different techniques that can help you.

How hard was the role for Gipsy Queen?

Extremely difficult. I filmed Alone at My Wedding and Gipsy Queen in the same year. For Gipsy Queen, the fact that I already had the experience of a feature film helped me a lot, and I understood what it means to have the energy to carry it from beginning to end. I understood the responsibility I had, that the film rises and falls with me as the lead actress. You carry the film on your shoulders. I’m glad I learned that before, because then came something even harder, when I really had to transform physically and mentally.

Moreover, the expectations of me doing it right were so high that it seemed absolutely impossible to succeed. That’s what I was told from people with some experience, for example stuntmen. I had to learn to box and lead a boxing scene in one shot. That meant you couldn’t make use of the editing tools. Then you couldn’t fake the punches very much. And I was in the ring with a real female boxer, and not just any woman, but a world champion, Maria Lindberg, who weighed a lot more than me. People thought I was going to die. Seriously. I was told to be very careful about what might happen to me in that scene. The role was very demanding. But the joy of telling this story was far greater than my fear. The fear came out after we finished.

If I were to go back in time, I would say “yes” repeatedly, no doubt about that. To both this project and the project in which I played Pamela. I was glad that I could play characters that I would have needed to see when I was little or over the years. We don’t have the opportunity to feel represented. Not through angelic images. I’m not looking for that. Nor through victims. But real characters.

Do you believe that art has the power of offering examples, models?

No matter how idealistic it sounds, that’s what I’m here for. I wholeheartedly believe that, otherwise I wouldn’t have done all these things. It’s like I’m doing my part and planting a good seed in the world. If I hadn’t found this purpose in this area, I don’t think I would have put that much effort into it. I’m not interested in exposing myself. My goal here is not to show off. If it’s about that, then I’m going home, that’s not my strong point. If it’s about a story that will make you, the common man, empathize with someone you wouldn’t don’t know about otherwise, I feel like I’ve done my bit in the big wheel of life.

In your case it is all the more important, because you approach some things that are not talked about. I guess you feel a responsibility.

It is a responsibility. I don’t allow myself to easily approach the things I do, because they have a message related to them. And I feel that all I can do is to serve the story in the best way possible, so that I don’t go on doing harm, as well. The moment I start something, I try to bring people closer, not to put a gap between us. Even if the things I say are uncomfortable, my goal is for us to get closer. That is why I appeal to our humanity, regardless of the differences between us.

My goal is not just to entertain you, to perform another belly dance. Yes, I want us to have an experience together, to get angry, to laugh, but I also want you to feel with me what that thing is like. We don’t know how to empathize with the Roma and we don’t get to see them as whole people. With their aspirations, passions, qualities and flaws. They are often shown as one-dimensional.

Your desire to direct films seems a natural thing, because you have already done that in the theater, and you have also been involved as an actress in the projects you have taken part in. Do you feel that film could reach more people and could convey some things more easily than through independent theater? How did the desire to make film come about?

Ever since I found out about slavery, I’ve been thinking about making a film on that. I’ve been talking about filmmaking since 2013, when I asked that very shy question at the conference at Les Films de Cannes a Bucarest. Then, in order to have the courage to undertake what I said, it took me many steps to feel prepared. Later, I worked on these projects, in which I wasn’t just an actress. I was interested to see everything that happened on the set. So it felt natural to make this step.

When I finished writing my play The Great Shame and when I found an article about the story of Dinca, the slave who brought the abolition of slavery in the Romanian /lands earlier, I told myself that this would be my first film. I wrote it as a feature film, but because I saw how difficult it is to get funding, I turned it into a short film. I knew no one would believe in me, a beginner who wants to make a historical film. Anyway, starting with a historical film is a bit funny. I made Letter of Forgiveness, in which I also acted, out of necessity. And if it needs to be done, you get over many things.

How disfavored have you felt as a woman and as a Roma in recent years?

I think everything I’ve done so far doesn’t matter to the people who have the power of decision, to the people who have the resources. The Facebook activity, the awards and recognition from abroad do not matter in Romania. The fact that I went to the Royal Academy and Cannes does not matter for the casting directors in Romania, who only call me if it is a role for a Roma. And that’s my truth. People are not bad, they are well-intentioned, but they don’t notice my humanity in all its complexity. They only see me as a Roma, although I can look like a hundred Romanian women on the subway. Correct? Well, I haven’t got to being perceived as a 100% person in Romania yet, unfortunately. From this perspective, I can’t lie to myself. What I do means nothing to people in power.

But it’s not the case with ordinary people, because they keep me alive and give me hope. To them, it matters. The messages I receive from them, whether they are Roma or not, make me understand that, even if I haven’t crossed the bridge yet, there’s still a chance. And that makes me feel optimistic. That makes me keep trying. I’m not cynical in what I’m saying, it’s the pure truth. I haven’t been able to open doors yet. I’m not taken seriously, neither as an actress, nor as a director. It’s just that I’m stubborn enough to step on some toes and make myself heard.

But it’s okay, because I do take myself seriously. If you don’t believe in me, I do believe in myself. What I want is the opportunity to create more. I don’t need the establishment to validate me, I’m not looking for that. I’m looking for a chance to receive the microphone. What I was looking for in the theater, and now in cinema, is an equal place at the table. Not on the corner, not to make it pretty and then leave. I want the same thing as any other artist. No more, no less. I find it funny that this is taken as an insult. I am referring to cultural institutions, which have this idea of themselves as a living room that you cannot enter just anyway. I find it hilarious when they talk about art as resistance.

As for film, I know I still have a lot to learn. But I want the same thing, to tell my stories. I don’t lack energy or stories to tell.

 

Photo Credit: Cornel Brad

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.