Radu Igazsag: “Too bad all this was happening in the ’80s” (part I)

10 November, 2020

“Footnotes” is a monthly column that aims to deconstruct the standard approach of the film history narrative, which is usually looked upon from only one direction, either straight forward or straight back. And it’s because there are many other things to notice around, careers, names, institutions, but also details omitted so far, some additions that still need to be made. The protagonists of these interviews are filmmakers who, for one reason or another, have not been active in the film industry for some time now, people whose memory I dig into to revive the dead time around chronologies. “Footnotes” is a column written by Calin Boto, the new member of the Films in Frame editorial board, which will come out on Tuesday, once a month.

It’s only the second interview, and the column has already partially betrayed its mission. It’s true that Radu Igazsag hasn’t directed anything else since his 2007 film (A Short Story), but his work is far from over. Not only does he have some works in-progress, but his activity has taken and continues to take many other forms. His pedagogical career, for example, which started in the ’90s and went through several institutions, including UNARTE (the Photo-Video Department), “Sapientia University” in Cluj-Napoca (Cinematography, Photography, Media), and UNATC (Multimedia and Animation). Or his involvement in the festival scene, since Mr. Igazsag has been collaborating with Animest, Super and Alter-Native for several years now. Moreover, it wouldn’t make sense to isolate his film work from his interests in visual arts, new media and photography, a subject I will address only in the second part of the interview. This first part follows the local ’70s scene of amateur film clubs, which Igazsag was part of during his studies, and his first years at the Animafilm studio.

My decision of ​​contacting Mr. Igazsag was also influenced by this year’s edition of Animest, which dedicates a retrospective to Romanian animated film, marking its 100-year history. At the core of this retrospective is the film A Short Story, along with the latest book by film critic Dana Duma, The History of Romanian Animated Film. 1920-2020.

Born on November 21, 1953, in Diosig (Bihor), Radu Igazsag graduated from the High School of Arts in Oradea, and later moved to Cluj for his undergraduate studies, which he completed in 1980 at the “Ion Andreescu” Institute of Fine Arts. During all this time, the filmmaker was no stranger to the photographers’ and filmmakers’ movement in Oradea and Cluj.

Radu Igazsag
Radu Igazsag

“The photo clubs or film clubs trend, or rather a combination of the two, was a very interesting scene. You had the student clubs, for example the “Universitatea” film club in Cluj, set by the Babes-Bolyai University, as its name suggests, but all students could participate, really. You had the film clubs linked to the big companies, such as “August 23” in Bucharest. In fact, every sector in Bucharest had a film club. A very interesting movement was “Podul”, a theater club linked to the “Grigore Preoteasa” Student Culture House, behind the Opera. Many of those who attended the club then applied to acting at IATC. They also had a photo club and a film club. The photo club was very good, can’t say the same about the latter. All the houses of pioneers in Romania had at least one small photo lab. The House of Pioneers in Oradea had a very good photo and film club. I used to work there and even kept in touch with that place when I was a student in Cluj, because a friend of my older brother’s took care of the photo club. Anyone who wanted could enter that network, there were no rules to abide by, no one was watching your work, you didn’t have to follow certain themes like in Animafilm. The pioneer, student, labor photo clubs offered you some sort of freedom. Yes, you couldn’t work by the highest standards, but the university was supporting us quite a bit. We had access to film stock, we used to work on 16mm, to photographic film, paper, we had the basics. As a student, you only needed passion, everything else was covered. For example, I made my first animated film as a student, but I made it at home in Oradea, at the pioneer film club, because they offered better conditions, technical-wise. There are people who went from film clubs directly to Animafilm, to Sahia … We had a colleague in Cluj, Tudor Andronic, who was a student at the Polytechnic at that time, but later entered the Cinematography Department at UNATC and became one of the best camera operators of the Romanian Television Corporation. But that’s where he started, in this informal school attended by enthusiasts. Sometimes, great films were made in these clubs. Perhaps the best film club was the one set by the Romanian Optical Enterprise (IOR), and there was this gentleman, Dimitru or Dumitriu, who made some extraordinary films. Unfortunately, he didn’t return to Romania in the 1980s and his works got lost. But, first and foremost, we must mention the film club in Arad, kinema ikon. Now that was an extraordinary group, built around Mr. Gheorghe Sabau. There were mostly plastic artists, graphic artists, set designers, but some other people joined as well. Just like the other clubs, kinema ikon worked under the patronage of the Art School in Arad. It was their shelter, offered them everything they needed, they had a place to meet and work. Compared to the other film clubs, this one also offered a theoretical foundation, thanks to Mr. Sabau, so they were up to date with the cinematic language. This was an avant-garde film club, and even today their films have great experimental nuances. It wasn’t just fun and games, as in most cases. They had projects, developed scripts, had an entire process to follow, they wouldn’t go for only two shots which they would edit together right after, just so they had something to show. One of the club members, Emanuel Tet, even went to Animafilm, and made another version of the Dynamic Poem (v.1 – 1978; v.2 – 1982), a drawn-on-film. In Arad he made it on 16mm, at Animafilm on 35.”

Since I already did some research on Atelier16 / kinema ikon, I asked Mr. Igazsag about the commissioned films made by the club members.

“In Oradea there was a film club, working under the patronage of the printing house. It still works today, but obviously not in the same way. From time to time, they would make something like a fresco of Bihor – they would film the park, the surrounding landscapes, the falling leaves in autumn. That’s how they would justify their work to the printing house, which provided them with film stock. That was their security blanket – “Sir, we’ve already done something for the city, for the enterprise.” If there was a local event going on, like Floarea Bihorului or whatever, the club members would make a short film, a couple of minutes long, for the authorities. That’s just how it worked then, they made their quota for the officials, but also worked on their personal projects.

Another interesting phenomenon specific to the photo clubs was the slideshow. Those static slides were synchronized with a soundtrack, so you would get something between photo series and film. Suceava used to host a slideshow festival, people from all over the country attended it, and Resita had the best production. They would also screen films, Calin Caliman was a regular in the jury.”

Continuing the discussion about film clubs, we get to the film club associated with the Azomures plant and the local production of film stock.

“Azomures didn’t produce 8 mm, only 16, which reached the market, and 35, which didn’t. That wasn’t a problem, if you needed film, you could ask the operators at Sahia, they used a lot on a daily basis. And besides the state owned studios, you could get as much film as you wanted.

Călin Boto: You could also find it on the market, right?

Radu Igazsag: You could find photographic film, yes.

C.B .: What about film stock for the camera?

R.I .: Bringing film stock in stores, it wasn’t profitable, there weren’t a lot of buyers, few had a personal camera.

C.B .: But it wasn’t illegal to sell it, was it? As part of the anti-xerox policy.

R.I .: No, it wasn’t. There was rather an issue with the Xerox machine and the typewriter, because they were afraid of manifestos. I remember that in Bucharest there was only one place where you could make photocopies legally, right at the entrance to the Hilton Hotel, the former Athénée Palace. You would hand them your ID card, they would register your name, and it would cost 1 leu per sheet.”

We went back to his graduation, in 1980.

“At that time, we would be assigned to different places. I went on with the master’s degree along with a friend, a guy from Sibiu, I was in Painting, and he was in Graphics. After we graduated, we were assigned to different places, we didn’t even have a choice, as others did. I stayed there for two years, in 1980 and 1981. Around that time, Animafilm had different job openings – graphic designers, animators, set designers -, their number of employees was constantly growing. And this is how I came to Animafilm. All of a sudden, I had different conditions to make my films. First of all, technically speaking, what the studio offered was incomparable to the methods I used before for making films. Not to mention that in Bucharest you had access to materials, as well as people. Of course, even when I was in Oradea or Cluj there were advantages, for example the photographic paper, which I could get from Hungary. You could get things off the books.”

Inevitably, I asked him if he was familiar with the Hungarian neo-avant-garde produced at the Béla Balázs Studio.

“I went to Hungary for the first time in ’78, I was still a student. In Oradea we would get two Hungarian TV channels, but that was the only way you could see what they were producing, there were no covert affairs involving film traffic. In Targu Jiu you would get Belgrade. And in Bucharest, we would watch more Bulgarian television than Romanian. People in Iasi were getting the USSR, via Chisinau, in Satu Mare you were getting Bratislava, so all people living in different cities on the edge of the country would take advantage of this extra information coming through TV and radio. Bulgaria had a one-hour show on the latest news in cinema. For example, if the Venice Film Festival had just taken place, the show host, a Bulgarian film critic, would have brought film teasers or information from the festival, since he was travelling a lot. We learned a bit of Bulgarian, just enough to understand what was said on the show. And, of course, on local television we had Telecinemateca on Wednesday nights; I watched the four or five historians on the show ever since high school – D.I. Suchianu, Tudor Caranfil, Ecaterina Oproiu, Calin Caliman, Florian Potra; they would host the show in turns. For many Romanians, it was like their first school of film.”

In his employment interview for Animafilm, Radu Igazsag was evaluated by Ion Popescu-Gopo.

“They said they would set a day, we were four candidates – a colleague from Targu Mures, one from Brasov, and one from Bucharest. They set a date, but the director soon called me to tell me that she could spare me the inconvenience of traveling to Bucharest and carrying all the necessary things like my drawings and my portfolio, because a committee would come to Craiova on Children’s Day and we could meet there. The surprise was that one of the committee members was none other than Gopo. The others stepped aside and let Gopo lead the interview, since he was more qualified, so I only talked to him. We talked for about three or four hours in an office at the Romanian State Film Company, and that was my exam.

It happened on June 1, 1981, and I arrived in Bucharest only at the end of November. It was complicated, I was assigned to Targu Jiu, so I needed a transfer document, but luckily I didn’t meet any oppositions on my departure. I met with my three colleagues (Lajos Nagy, Olimpiu Bandalac, Zeno Bogdanescu – n.r.), but think again, we were actually six applicants for the four positions. Anyway, I met with them, we all settled in, a month or two we worked in creative teams, to get used to animation and cartoons, and poet Lucia Olteanu, the director at the time, pushed us forward – “you know what, I want to see the four of you making a film together.” I knew Lajos from college, and Zeno Bogdanescu, who unfortunately passed away at the beginning of this year, I met in the army. We had a brainstorming session and decided to make an animation with several characters, and each of us was going to draw one. Lajos’ son was a preschooler at the time, he was in that phase where he scribbled on everything. And so came the idea of a boy who doesn’t feel like doing his homework, so he escapes it through fantasy. I created a parrot, Olimpiu Bandalac a crocodile, Zeno a plane, and that’s how we made our little story. We worked for half a year on that film, we decided on being in charge of everything, the sketches, transferring each drawing to a cel, the colors, the setting, everything but the sound. We got lucky with Calligraphy (1982), it won a lot of awards locally and abroad, in ’83 we went to the Animation Film Festival in Varna. We made a good impression, so each of us was asked to make a film of his own. We started right, the four of us were very hardworking and thorough, all we did was work in the studio. At least me, there wasn’t much else to do, I was new here and I didn’t have many other interests.

Caligrafie (1982)
Caligrafie (1982)

I didn’t live through that period when someone ordered you to make a certain film. We were only asked to come with some ideas at the end of each year, on what we would like to do in the next one. That’s how they would make a theme plan. Some suggestions were approved, others were not. Of course, the series were renewed, Mihaela, Miaunel and Balanel, there was no point for debate there, they were going forward with it, since it was the main part of production. When it came to films, the “one of a kind” ones, they would analyze the proposals in detail, and if you were told that it can’t be done or that it wasn’t the right moment for it, then it was quite clear, no need for other discussions. The Romanian Television and Sahia had the same protocol. If we look at Sahia, for example, they had years when they made 300-400 films. They had a lot of commissions, commercial films and of other kinds, but they also took on proposals that later led to auteur films. The Romanian Television as well. I know many films that were never shown until the ’90s, but the important thing was that you could make them, and at least your film was put in a box that could be opened at some point later. Because making film involves expenses, traveling places, it’s not like a drawing you do at home. Of course, unfortunately there were also many cases in which the films started were never finished; ever since January 1990 we tried to recover such projects, but sometimes it was impossible, we ran into all sorts of situations, many directors had left the country, others were no longer alive, either the negatives or the original sound negatives or the soundtracks were missing, the master copies of the film could no longer be made. That was true for us, for Sahia, and for Buftea.

Too bad all this was happening in the ’80s, the decade of the studio’s decline. I remember that, when I arrived at Animafilm, I spent about a month in the studio with Olimp Varasteanu and other people who were highly praised and received awards at Mamaia and abroad – Mamaia was then the second animation festival in the world -, we realized that we are somewhere below the level, going into decline. Of course, they still made films, and Bucharest was still fascinating, full of theaters, exhibitions, the Romanian Cinematheque was our house of prayer. Even though we caught the last wave, we made the most of it. Just when I arrived in Targu Jiu, so when I graduated, the food cards were reintroduced, something that existed only when I was a child. And things only got worse from there. But at least you weren’t left high and dry after graduation, something I keep telling my students. From the moment I arrived at Animafilm and was hired as a director, I had the obligation to make 2.75 films per year, so three films, and got paid for them. Today there’s no such thing.”

It’s a well-known fact that the short documentaries made at Sahia were shown together with feature films in cinemas. But I got no confirmation that the same thing happened with the animations. On the contrary, my intuition led me to believe that television was the main way to distribute animation, but I didn’t really understand how this would have been possible, since color television was a luxury in the 1980s.

Just the other day I went to a newsstand, and a DVD in the window caught my eyes. It was Eldar Ryazanov’s Station for Two (1982). With my first film after Calligraphy, Family Snapshots (1983), I got extremely lucky. Films were generally screened in sets of two – a documentary or animated short film and a feature film. I remember going to see my film at the cinema one Monday, that’s when the new entries were in. It was screening at the Scala Cinema, and it was a full house, of course. I mean, it was an extraordinary film, and Nikita Mikhalkov (a famous Russian director, also starring in Station for Two) was quite the star back then. My film ran for years along with Ryazanov’s film. Every film made at Animafilm was running in cinemas, no exception. The television wasn’t very consistent on showing them, they rather aired series. Anyway, we didn’t receive percentages, we were employees, only those with a contract received something extra for the copyrights, like screenwriters, directors or composers. I didn’t work on a contract, I was an employee of Animafilm. Very few directors were on contract – Gopo, Sabin Balasa, who was working on his last film when I arrived at Animafilm, Nell Cobar who was working on Mihaela, Matty Aslan who had a cartoon section in Romania libera. So those with a more special status.”

One of the films that were put in a box and saw the light only in the ’90s is an animation by Radu Igazsag, Wearing Off (1985), an adaptation of Nichita Stanescu’s poem.

“Irina Horea (Chirita, at that time ) asked me if I would be interested in making a film after Wearing Off, by Nichita Stanescu. I hesitated, and I even asked her if she really thought anyone would approve of such a project. What do we really want to say with it, with this soldier who just walks and gradually wears off? I could see myself getting this question, it was always the same. I thought for a few months, maybe even half a year, I immersed myself in Nichita’s books, his poetry and essays, because he was also a brilliant essayist. I didn’t want to go to him and tell him that I just want to make a film, I wanted to come up with something solid. I told Irina my idea, that we should see the soldier from a low angle. We prepared a découpage to make it a little clearer, and only then we agreed on going to Nichita and pitch the idea to him, because if we didn’t get his consent, then … And that’s then Irina told me that there was another attempt to make an animation after Wearing Off, which Nichita disapproved of. She hadn’t told me earlier so as not to discourage me. Anyway, I did go to him to present my vision. At that time I imagined that it would be like putting sand on a window glass that we do not see, and when the soldier wears off, so does the sand. I laid everything in detail and Nichita said to me, «Okay, old man, let’s do it!».”

Călin Boto Călin Boto
Editor-in-chief of the cinema magazine Film Menu and the coordinator of its weekly film club. As a freelancer, he collaborates with several publications and film festivals. His articles have been published by magazines such as Geomovies, IONCINEMA, Film Menu, Films in Frame, Desistfilm, Dilema veche and Film. He’s strangely fond of John Ford’s films.