Ruxandra Ghitescu: “I’m interested in that kind of film which makes me discover something about myself”

8 September, 2020

Screenwriter and director Ruxandra Ghitescu made her debut in feature film this year with „Otto the Barbarian”, a promising film about a teenager who deals with the loss of his girlfriend, which had its premiere in the competition at the Sarajevo International Festival. I talked to the filmmaker about her studies in Germany, about her journey so far – from being a script supervisor to being the author of several short films and now of a feature film – but also about the areas that interest her.

Born on July 21, 1981 in Constanta, Ruxandra Ghitescu first graduated in “Marketing Policy” at the Faculty of Commerce, the Bucharest University of Economic Studies (ASE) (2000-2004).

“I wasn’t interested in the visual area in high school. I had no inclination towards it. I don’t come from a family with a history in this field. I studied Mathematics and Physics at the “Mircea cel Batran” National College in Constanta. I was an Olympian in Physics. After high school, I was admitted to the Faculty of Naval Architecture in Galati and to ASE Bucharest”, the director remembers.

In college, she felt no connection with what she studied at ASE. She was more into artistic expression. “I was into drawing, taking pictures, and had art sketches. Then I tried to do cultural management for some artist friends. I think my graduating diploma was on underground artist vs. mainstream artist and target marketing. I was very interested in this area, and especially in music”, she also recalls.

During those years, her best friend worked as an assistant for the German director Didi Danquart, who was shooting the feature film Offset in Romania (released in 2006), after a screenplay by Cristi Puiu and Razvan Radulescu. She met Didi Danquart, who liked her artistic interests and suggested that she go to the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design in Germany, where he was a professor. She studied there between 2005 and 2012, obtaining in 2008 what is called a pre-diploma (equivalent to a bachelor’s degree) and, finally, a diploma (equivalent to a master’s degree).

“That school is atypical. It was created as a platform for artists to meet other artists. It wasn’t a school for 18-year-olds who were just finishing high school. They had a very particular admission system. They weren’t required to enroll a certain number of students, so they would take up students only if there were any enticing prospects. That’s how it was then, things changed in the meantime. It’s a school made in collaboration with a contemporary art center, ZKM, and was only partially funded by the state. So it had a great deal of freedom. It’s not a school with departments, with repetitive courses”, explains the filmmaker.

At first she liked doing video installations: “I stayed in that school for about six years without making film. I did multimedia, some group exhibitions, and installation.”

Ruxandra Ghitescu

She got into film after attending a screenwriting seminar held by Razvan Radulescu, a guest professor there. “For me, film became interesting when I started perceiving it as a means of visual expression. Before that moment, I wasn’t that interested in it. I only saw it as an entertainment tool, and that’s it. The moment I discovered a more engaging, complex cinema while going to this school, then it became interesting. When I saw that it can mean more than a narrative, a hero and a recipe”, details Ruxandra Ghitescu.

During the workshop with Razvan Radulescu, she wrote the screenplay for Nina (2008), which would become her first short film as a director, and which she made in parallel with the short film for her pre-diploma, The Genealogy of a Kiss (2008).

In those early years, she was very interested in the shape of a film and the way it was presented to the audience. First of all, she looked at film as a means of expression, “like the gallery is for experimental film or a video installation”. “All my short films were exercises, as part of my training, they helped me see if I could also add a story to the shape I was already looking to achieve”, says the director.

In the meantime, she had already made her first steps to get in the Romanian film industry, by being a video assistant operator on Offset. And since the school in Germany wasn’t strict on the studying part, she only had to get a few grades in the first four years, she was able to start working in parallel as a script supervisor, which also helped her earn some money on the side. This way she ended up on collaborating with Adrian Sitaru, especially on Hooked (2008), with Radu Gabrea on The Beheaded Rooster (2007), Gruber’s Journey (2008) and Red Gloves (2010), or with Nae Caranfil on The Rest is Silence (2007 ) and, more recently, Closer to the Moon (2014), plus on several other foreign films that were shot in Romania.

The experience she gained as a script supervisor, she considers it very important: “It’s a job very close to everything that is done on the set, working with the actors and the decisions you make afterwards as a director. You work very closely with all the department heads. Although it’s a very rational job, it also leaves space for some creativity, some decision making. You gain a lot by having a proxy experience, by working alongside others. Then, it helped me a lot to make my short films here. That’s why I made them in Romania, and not at school, because I had much easier access to actors and equipment.”

At that time, she also wrote and directed the short films Urban Groove (2010), a difficult school exercise, which discusses the way we perceive violence (which can be seen here), Perfusion (2012) and Family Issues (2012), her graduation film (available here).

She says that the decision to make films came naturally, without necessarily having intended this to happen: “It was an opportunity. I didn’t necessarily see them as real films. Most of them were school exercises. They ended up being films, but I didn’t make them so I can turn to filmmaking.”

She considers that she really started making films only after finishing school, with the short film Ana is Coming Back (2016), followed by another short film, About Us (2020), still unreleased.

Ana is Coming Back
„Ana is Coming Back”

“My short films are so different from each other, because each time I was going through different inner searches. Obviously, they’re all part of me. But I think it’s obvious that the first shorts were made before I had my daughter. Before, I was more interested in a viewer’s endurance to different exposures. After I had Matilda, I turned towards a more personal area. I started to want something that would be easier to translate, something that would be more accessible. But these things came naturally. Only later I came to some conclusions”, says Ruxandra Ghitescu.

“In general, I watched films showing some extraordinary events. There were characters in extraordinary circumstances, who made extraordinary choices that changed their lives. The moment I discovered that the film could be about me, that I could dig inside and not have to look outside for things, it became interesting. But I understand the need for a certain structure. I understand why a viewer has certain expectations and that you have to deliver these inner quests under some accessible shapes, because otherwise that’s not a film, but something else. It is also true that “accessible” is a term that comes with many options”, she adds.

“If the film structure can envelop a narrative, then it is more accessible. I’m interested in that kind of film which makes me discover something about myself or delve into areas that I wouldn’t get so deep into otherwise. Creating a narrative gives you the comfort letting things out”, the filmmaker explains her vision.

In 2014, she stopped working as a script supervisor and decided it was time to fully embrace the profession of screenwriter and director, but also make commercials in parallel (which she also stopped making in the meantime).

“I had finished school. My daughter was already in kindergarten. And I started applying to talent programs. I started with Transilvania Talents, then Sarajevo, Berlin and others. I took them one by one. They were very important, because they came as a kind of encouragement from the outside. Since I didn’t go to film school in Romania and I was returning after a long break from being on the set, it was quite difficult to find myself a team I could work with. So getting into these programs was quite liberating, because that meant I didn’t have to stay all the time in Romania. I found a door opening to the European film industry, which was becoming more and more accessible”, says Ruxandra Ghitescu.

She’s not bummed out about not going to film school, but she admits to feeling a sort of “constructive envy” for some colleagues in the industry she knows, who have graduated from expensive and famous film schools, such as those in London and New York, where they had everything they needed and wanted at their disposal. “People that I know who studied there have the know-how of the technical part. I understand all the cinematic techniques, I have gone through all of them and have become quite confident on this part. I feel lucky that I worked on all these film productions at Buftea and Castel, that at least I got to see the things you could work with. But I never worked as a director on such productions. I feel a constructive envy for the people who get to make films in school with everything they want or need. People who choose afterwards to make minimalist films, because that’s what they want to make, not because they can’t afford or don’t know how to use more expensive technical methods”, says the filmmaker.

Ruxandra Ghitescu
With the real Otto

About the teenager she chose as the main character in her debut feature, Otto the Barbarian, she says that he is inspired by a boy who actually exists, whose name is also Otto and whom she met when she was pregnant. But she admits that the protagonist of the film is, in fact, mostly inspired by herself.

“These are very personal things that I wanted to understand and make peace with. Then, the fact that I was going to have a daughter also mattered. I found some comfort in exploring the age of adolescence, which I went through so fast and grew up into being myself without even wrapping my mind around the process. I feel like we all do that. We boldly step into the adult role, but in fact you get stuck with many unresolved things, soul-related stuff”, she confesses.

The film “was a return to what I left behind as an individual when I became a grown up”, and is also about “what I was going to leave behind as a parent”, she adds.

She admits that the film is far from pure realism, which was a decision she made in full awareness, and that she gave the subject a metaphorical touch, that of “surviving adolescence”. When it comes to stylistics, Otto the Barbarian has a retro look, like a timeless story, and there’s a significant work on image and editing. “I didn’t look for realistic situations, I didn’t want to create realism. I hoped for the extraordinary in the situations in the film”, explains the director.

“This feature film has been my best experience with film so far. You shoot for several more days, the story allows you many more things. I made short films to see if I could make a feature film. I didn’t intend for the short film structure to be part of a short film recipe. There have always been openings to broader narratives. I felt very comfortable working on this film”, says Ruxandra Ghitescu.

She also confesses that her cinema also features an aggressive side, which is visible in some of the films. “Now I’m doing a master’s degree at CESI about horror film – The Female Gaze in Horror Films. I’m OK with aggression in film. I am an aggressive person who day-to-day doesn’t live in an aggressive way, because it wouldn’t make it OK. But I have a dose of aggression that I like to experience in the films I watch. And maybe it also slips in the films I make. I think there are other people who want and look for this kind of more visceral experience, too. I really like this darker side of things”, admits the director, without excluding the possibility of making a horror film at some point, but rather “a more conceptual one”.

At the same time, she is also interested in relationships in her films: “I really like talking about relationships, because I think I see them differently than the way they are generally presented in movies. I usually notice things around me – and I really like to put them on paper – small cracks, some negligence, small ruptures that happen in relationships due to lack of communication. Or, on the contrary, a strong relationship, but which is non-communicative. I like directing them in the film. And I really enjoy working with the actors on this.”

When asked if she felt discriminated against for being a woman in the film industry, Ruxandra Ghitescu says that she experienced unfairness “in many circumstances”, but not as a female director.

Ruxandra Ghitescu
On the set for „Otto the Barbarian”, with director of photography Ana Draghici

“The truth is that we live in a society that is still very patriarchal and discriminatory against women in everyday life. And I feel discriminated against in many circumstances, but not as a director. Power games are so different when it comes to filmmaking. When you’re a director and you need to step up and show you’re in control, it’s a different world. It’s no longer about being a woman or a man. You’re a director, and that’s the end of it. But it’s up to everyone how they manage to do that. On the other hand, I remember how awful it was as a video assist operator and how much angst I went through as a woman in a technical department on the set”, she confesses.

Ruxandra Ghitescu states that the most discriminating thing she experienced as a director, which unpleasantly surprised her, was to be told that her films don’t look like films directed by women, just because some of them have more violent moments or sex scenes.

“There’s this assumption that there’s a certain film genre only made by women. When you hear that, you realize there’s a lack of knowledge on cinema. Making general statements like that is just shitty. I don’t know what kind of films women make. Now I’m glad I got to make a film, Otto the Barbarian, with a team in which most department heads were women. We took each other by the hand and made a brave film, just as we wanted”, concludes Ruxandra Ghitescu.

 

Photo Credit: Norbert Fodor

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.