TIFF 2020. 5 female-directed shorts

13 August, 2020

In the past couple of years, a steadily increasing number of female-directed films has been launched in Romania: considering that just ten years ago, a single Romanian feature film – Ana Vlad and Adi Voicu’s Metrobranding (2010) – was released in cinemas, it seems that the local industry is slowly, but surely starting to achieve progress. Even though parity in local film production is far from being achieved, it does seem like the intense debates surrounding gender equality that grappled the film industry in the second part of the 2010s is starting to finally pay off – not just in the ever-increasing number of debut films directed by women, but also in initiatives such as the F-Sides film club.

These progressive changes are also starting to be seen at TIFF’s yearly outing of the Romanian Film Days, which brings together most of the year’s major premieres in terms of local cinema – this year, 6 of the 21 feature films were (co-)directed by women (with Otto the Barbarian, Ruxandra Ghitescu’s debut, missing from the line-up as it was awaiting its Sarajevo premiere), as well as 5 of the 16 shorts, making up for almost a third of the selection. I’ll discuss the latter in this text, as it seems that the young directors behind these films seem to have very promising careers ahead of them: two out of the five, Lucia Chicos and Enxhi Rista, were each nominated at this year’s Gopo Awards, and a further two have won an award at the festival – Alina Serban (the short film sidebar’s Special Mention) and Sarra Tsorakidis (Best Short Film Award).

El iubește ochii mei, de Enxhi Rista.
He Loves My Eyes, by Enxhi Rista.

He Loves My Eyes (dir. Enxhi Rista), the only documentary of the lot, was produced during a project elaborated by UNATC Bucharest and the Babelsberg „Konrad Wolf” University (wherein Lucia Chicos’ Our Daily Work was also shot), in which students were given the opportunity to document the lives of the prisoners who are detained at the Botosani Penitentiary. Costel Tican lies at the film’s core, a multiple offender who is, however, extremely charismatic and larger than life – and Risa builds her film along two main threads: the prison and Tican’s home, where his numerous family awaits for his return. Mostly using a talking heads-type technique, the director reconstructs the story of a family that built itself in rare moments of respite (whenever Costel is freed from prison, his wife becomes pregnant with another child), that still manages to remain loving – a jovial, yet fundamentally painful portrait of a couple of people that are rarely visible in society, usually under the shape of numbers in harrowingly depressing statistics.

Bilet de iertare, de Alina Șerban.
Letter of Forgiveness, by Alina Șerban.

Letter of Forgiveness is probably the most ambitious of these films both in terms of production – a period drama which takes on all the rules of historical film – and its historic mission: it’s the first Romanian film directed by a Roma woman, which also openly discusses Roma slavery. Set shortly after the 1848 revolution somewhere in the Moldavian Principality, the film’s plot follows some of the last moments of Roma slavery, which it anticipates: one of the film’s main characters is Prince Grigore Alexandru Ghica, who was instructed by Mihail Kogalniceanu to draft the legislation which would abolish private ownership of slaves (as stately ownership had been already banned by Prince Mihail Sturdza in 1844) and would be  adopted on the 22nd of December 1855. The film’s plot seems adapted from the real story of Dinca, who had galvanized the Prince towards taking action – but the film’s script reimagines the story through the eyes of Maria, his mother, who is desperately trying to free her son from slavery, as he was the illegitimate son of her owner, a noble hailing from the historical Cantacuzino branch of the nobiliary. Serban (also starring as Maria) sets her film in her character’s surroundings, the camera rushing after her, either shaking all around the manor house and down to her modest shanty or standing still, as she freezes in front of her owners.

Contraindicații, de Lucia Chicoș.
Contraindications, by Lucia Chicoș.

Contraindications (which was also selected at this year’s Cannes Cinefondation) spans a couple of minutes in the tumultuous life of an elderly mother (Maria Ploae) and her adult daughter (Nicoleta Lefter). Shot almost in real-time and stuck between the four walls of a seemingly ancient flat, we witness a moment of crisis: the daughter is experiencing the unraveling of her marriage and her mental health also seems to collapse under the pressure. Seen mostly lying on a musty reclining bed, Lefter constructs a character that is in the vein of Mabel Longhetti, but, in contrast to John Cassavetes’ heroine, there is no single trace of playfulness here – the atmosphere is as tense and darkened as the half-light that is shining in the apartment, as her mother tries to navigate the fine line between treating her daughter as an adult and as her own child. Chicoș successfully reaches for the vocabulary of the New Romanian Cinema in her drama – long takes, naturalistic performances and dialogues, a strict diegesis, and so on – without attempting to simply emulate it, but rather reaching for means to remain faithful and sincere in her closeness towards her characters.

Laila, de Raya al Souliman.
Laila, by Raya al Souliman.

Another film centered on a family is Raya al Souliman’s Laila, where the title character (in Ileana Puiu’s promising first adult-age performance) is on a day trip with her estranged father (Mazen Rifai), who is living abroad with a new family. The chasm that lies between the two is both personal and cultural: the father, who is a practicing Muslim, is looking for a place where he and his companion can tend to prayer time – a mission that Laila tries to solve without any fortune. Around this unsuccessful task, al Souliman weaves a series of awkward interactions and superficial chats that don’t go anywhere, shot against the backdrop of Brasov, one of Romania’s tourist hotspots, which appears here as austere and touristic, just as impersonal and inert as the protagonists’ efforts to communicate. In the end, all of these attempts will end up snowballing into a moment of overwhelming sincerity, where the main actress candidly performs the fragility of a young woman who is at the cusp of maturity, caught in the particular moment in which she is starting to understand the reasons behind her childhood traumas.

Kaimos, de Sarra Tsorakidis
Kaimos, by Sarra Tsorakidis

Last, but not least, Kaïmós / Sorrow continues the directions which Sarra Tsorakidis opened up in Ivy (2018): a moment of crisis in the life of a female character, shot in close-ups and a shallow depth of field. Here, the crisis at hand is Emi’s (Maria Popistasu, in a brilliant performance) who returns to the country to attend her mother’s funeral – and, in her state of emotional disarray, she ends up taking a couple of seriously questionable decisions. As in Ivy, the dialogues between the characters are neither predictable nor utilitarian in terms of plot advancement, just like the crisis itself never really explodes – it only has a brief, almost anticlimactic bang, which follows a lengthy and tense smoldering fire. Herein lies the strength of Tsorakidis’ craft: in a cinematic realism that is not as much formalistic, but rather psychological, which doesn’t stray away from containing in itself emotions such as awkwardness or discomfort, emotional disarray or even psychosis.

As a brief conclusion – even in the year of the pandemic, which has almost brought cinema to its knees, Romanian female directors are still going strong. 

Flavia Dima Flavia Dima
Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short fim festival, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. For Films in Frame, she's in charge of interviews, along with Laura Musat. Favorite international film festival: Viennale.