Anim’est International Film Festival is happening as you read this cool interview, so we sat down one morning with Mihai Mitrica, one of the founders, who told us the whole “backstage” story of the only “Oscar-qualified” film festival in Romania.
Twelve years ago, the only film festival in Romania dedicated to animation was born. How did the story of the Anim’est begin?
If I remember well, it all started completely unplanned. In 2005 I attended my first animation film festival together with some very good friends. Among them there was the director of that time of the Czech Institute. She knew about my ideas and suggested checking out this animation festival in Czech Republic. I got there and was fascinated by what was happening. I didn’t know many people, however I met by chance some friends I knew from other film festivals. I realised I had to materialise my ideas and make this festival I had in mind happen. I came back to Bucharest and applied for funds with the project. Unfortunately, nothing happened in 2005 because we couldn’t get any money. However, we didn’t stop there.
And it happened in 2006. How was the first edition and what problems did you encounter?
Yes. We managed to get some funding, not so much but it was enough for a first festival edition. In the beginning we were only three organisers. The volunteers were our friends, brothers and sisters. We didn’t have a call for volunteers, we did everything. I remember me and Laurentiu writing press releases, putting up posters using scotch on the streets and on bus stations. It was the only edition with four movie theatres, and the movie “Cars” was just released in one of them. I knew the film distributor so we agreed to include “Cars” in our schedule. Back then, in the cinemas’ programmes there was just a single film playing for whole day. Our biggest advantage was that we were the only animation film festival; that made us feel skeptical about the audience, we had no idea if people would come or not but we thought we should try, make a first test edition and see what happens. We were astonished to see how many people came to see the films. At that time the film festivals had a lot of trouble with the movies because they were made on 35mm film; which meant some of them weren’t always on time because of the transport, customs and other difficulties. However, thanks to our three-year experience at TIFF, we managed to stick to the schedule. We did not change it at all and did not cancel any screening. The programme was followed precisely.
I think every one of us wishes to continue after a successful first edition and inevitably, you start dreaming of how your product could develop in time. What were your dreams when you started this “adventure”? Is Anim’est today what you wished for?
Indeed, you imagine where you want to take it, but things change and not necessarily in the direction you wanted. Everything can transform along the way. I don’t think a festival can develop as you initially planned it.
Were there any milestones to achieve?
Yes. We wanted to have two main components: the audience and the professionals, which did happen. However, the public was the most important since day one.
How has the public evolved in these twelve beautiful years?
We were fortunate enough to get a call one day from an advertising agency. They told us they like our project very much, that it was a brand new thing and they were also fans of animation so they wanted to join forces. We told them we don’t have a budget for this kind of things but they volunteered. Starting with the third edition, when the collaboration began, the audience exploded. I remember that in 2008 the festival was taking place at Scala Cinema, Patria Cinema and Elvire Popescu Cinema. Scala had 800 seats and Patria 1.200 seats and all the evening screenings were sold out. There were 2.000 people in the audience every single night. Also, that was the year when we launched the special event “Creepy Animation Night”, which was always sold out until Patria Cinema was closed.
I read somewhere you had only two Romanian animations at the first edition. Nowadays, the number increases with every year. What do you think are the main reasons for this local growth?
The answer is quite simple: today everyone can afford a computer and a software. There are countless examples of animations made by a single person at home. It happened before too, but the process was harder because the software programmes weren’t so accessible. Anim’est has also contributed to this growth. We work a lot for the Romanian competition, every year and the number of submissions is definitely much bigger. For the first editions of Anim’est we had to call people that we knew and ask for films. We hardly managed to put together one hour of Romanian animation only. Sadly, with few exceptions, the quality of the animations is quite bad in recent years. Only the level increased.
Logistically speaking, how long does it take to organize an edition? And which stage is the toughest every year?
Finalizing the guest list takes the longest because you need their confirmations. It ‘s also tricky because it is never the best moment to inform them – It’s either too early or too late. Practically, the organization for the new edition starts when the current one ends or before it ends. For example, I have a guest that could not attend this year’s edition but already confirmed for the next one.
12 editions of a film festival must raise hundreds of volunteers, co-workers and guests with whom you have many memories. Can you share with us a moment that was really special for you?
The separation of the generations of volunteers is really though. Once every three or four years, when they graduate, they get a job and become part of the audience, rather than part of the team again. It is quite sad when they inform us that they can’t be part of the next one. But we expect this to happen. Some of them take some days off work to participate but they can’t do it every year. It is an emotional moment.
I went through all the stages: volunteer, spectator, guest. I can say I am emotionally attached to this festival.
Another moment which comes to my mind is from 2010 when the director and animator Bill Plympton came here. He was promoting his latest film – “Idiots & Angels”. Five volunteers and I went to pick him up from the airport. We had welcome signs: the girls where angels and the boys were idiots. Since then, he tells this story to every festival he attends.
Which is awesome. This is also a pretty cool way of advertising 🙂
Speaking of wonderful things… In 2016, Anim’est became the only Romanian film festival which achieved the “Oscar qualified” status. This means that the awarded films of this year will be automatically selected on the long list of nominees for the Oscars. Has anything in particular changed since then?
The responsibility is bigger especially when it comes to film selection; there is some pressure. But the feeling is the same. We will never be a red-carpet film festival.
I know that you are in charge with the film selection since the beginning. What is the selection process and how much does it change with each edition?
We have some colleagues that have a pre selection because we receive approximately 1.200 – 1.300 films every year. Out of these, I end up with a maximum of 600 short films. Each edition has specific themes and if the films don’t pass the pre selection, they can be included in other off-competition sections. I cannot say that there are any specific rules of selection.
Are you the type of film selectioner that stops the film after the first three minutes if he doesn’t like it?
No, I watch it until the end. Just in case I have to watch a 30-minute-length film and I realise in the first five minutes that is not good, I stop it. But I am lucky those films don’t get to me.
This year’s theme revolves around comics. Every year the schedule is full of films, workshops and concerts. What does Anim’est 2017 brings compared with last years?
For two years now, we have been trying to develop the master class section, while also targeting our workshops based on age range. Starting with this year the “making off” section is better defined, there are four or five film making offs. Also, we have a series called “12 o’clock” that is specific only to this edition because of its theme. We brought together several comic book artists and animators, both Romanian and foreign.
I saw the country invited this year is Finland. Do you have a favourite film from the Finish programme?
I think I have two favourites, both made by Katariina Lillqvist, a member of the Anim’est jury. The first film is called “Country Doctor” and was awarded at Berlin Film Festival; it’s an old film based on a story signed by Kafka. The second one is her latest film called “Radio Dolores”. Both films are shot on 35mm.
How do you see Anim’est ten years from now?
Someone asked me if we will become as “Annecy” (e.n. film festival in Annecy, France). The answer is no. We will never be as Annecy, I don’t think we can. I don’t think we will have a market section and that the animation film will grow so much in ten years. For certain, the films will get better, but one swallow doesn’t make a summer. I hope that we will keep up the good work and that we will further expand the master class and “making off” sections.