ANONIMUL 2021. Festival Journal
After this pandemic anemia, the ANONIMUL International Independent Film Festival is slowly but surely getting back on its feet. It was an eventful week during which it felt like cinema and the Danube Delta shook hands again, as in the good old days. So I found myself filling a small notebook with hypotheses, trajectories, various impressions, which I hope will offer an overview, be it blurry, of the times we are living in now.
Here I am, I’ve arrived at the Anonimul Festival; it’s my fourth time in five years. I’m in a decent mood for the big screen. I have a feeling that the exciting bets are played at the Romanian shorts table, a selection signed by my friend and film critic Ionuț Mareș. It’s been some time since I joined the players at this table, so I’m curious what people I’ll find there on my return, what sort of combinations they hide in their sleeves, what tactics they rely on. 13 short films in competition, plus another 6 that are out of competition – a plantation that should offer us some hints about the future harvests. Everything I find on the side – feature and international movies – will be a bonus.
The warm-up comes with a large bonus. 10 ideas about Bogdan Theodor Olteanu’s Mia:
- From the start, I sense a familiar air about it: a girl moves back “to her (step)mother’s” following a breakup. This is the exact premise of L’Amant d’un jour by Philippe Garrel, one of my nightstand classics, created on the principle “what do you do when you’re not so young anymore, but you’re a mess and you suffer from a heartbreak? You go back to your folks.” But the comparisons stop here. In Garrel’s film, the girl shuts down and cries herself to death. BTO’s movie starts with Mia slamming a car with all that she’s got and disturbing the quiet of the night. And it’s just the beginning.
- Mia Misses Her Revenge seems like a film that is way past the belief that between me (the man) and you (the woman) things could still be fixed.
- It’s been a year since I first saw BTO’s film on a small screen. Trapped at the time in one of the darkest abysses of the heart, I found myself unwilling for an indictment, a sentence without appeal, for scrutiny. Watching it again now in a room full of people, more clear headed and with my sense of humor restored, I was struck not so much by the ferocity of the argument, but by the comic that comes with it. BTO is inspired to make everyone go through fire and sword at the cost of turning any universal human experience into a commodity. I like Garrel because he’s obsolete: he still presumes to speak to a daydreaming minority, which I’m part of. BTO, on the other hand, worries me, because he’s very blunt in showing me something I didn’t want to see: that love is a treacherous power play in which everyone makes use of their best assets, without complex; the rest is melodrama and bullshit. Or as Ioana Bugarin (Mia) says in the film: “Sex is whatever.” It’s also very funny, insofar as the progressive spirit of the film is both embraced and questioned, in the vain hope of debunking until its end a genuine emotion that made it out unscathed.
- Sometimes it’s enough for a filmmaker to see an actor. That’s how the Nouvelle Vague came about, for example. BTO’s cast – Ioana Bugarin, Silvana Mihai, Adrian Nicolae, and the others – is one of the best news for Romanian cinema of recent years. First, because a new face comes with new problems, and cinema is always in need of them. And then, because today’s youth, with their attitude and dreams and failures, has become a radical idea among so many middle-class urban men and so many wives forced to stay quiet and know their place, as we’ve all grown tired of seeing on Romanian screens. BTO points the camera at people who are younger, more beautiful, more gay than the average of the New Wave. Is he an impostor? No, he is someone who fills a gap, because (almost) no one else takes on the job. At the moment, I want him to persevere – his films would then become a solid sociological dossier – even if the world he portrays is also hunted by complacency and the threat of one closing in itself.
- Maria Popistașu is perhaps the only Romanian actress, at the moment, who can use “mumble” and “sleazy” in the same sentence and for it to sound right and to the point.
- So what’s the problem then? I have a feeling that BTO is playing cinema against theater in Mia. But he can’t get it right, because the theater in the film isn’t “theatrical” enough – it’s a discussion and that’s it – and the cinema seems trapped in some lazy reflexes. The meta part, with all the footage shot by Mia herself, is a safety switch meant to bring a bit more flicker in a too-stiff film. The other part is poor in ideas, feels tense, is a series of pieces of shots that, just like dough, won’t rise. People sit and talk, but no grace falls upon them. The result is a filler visual soup that makes it feel like a TV movie.
- For the moment, therefore, I show more curiosity for BTO-the film critic, whose Facebook posts are often a real reflection of this world, than for BTO-the director, who doesn’t seem to fully master the job yet. Mia is a visible improvement over his debut feature, but it still remains a rather empty film. No textures, no details, no gestures. Almost no stage work, and not in the good sense of the word.
- A year ago I wrote in a notebook that the characters don’t seem real, in the flesh. Today I tend to think that the slight oscillation between the realistic sphere and the Brechtian orbit with incendiary signs is not that bad actually. Which doesn’t save the film from the didactic tone of its images, simple surfaces left to grow on their own. But it places BTO in the interesting area of political film.
- BTO is a fierce independent. (I hope he doesn’t lose his allure of a filibuster who nonchalantly shakes up the fragile fleet of our film industry.) Maybe that’s why I just want to erase all the shortcomings mentioned above. If there is to be any change for the better, I think it will come out from the fringes. From people like him, who are still fumbling around, testing the waters, but they have every chance of finding it.
- Mia invites to a double discovery: an aesthetic object that is feminist and sociologically concerned with the bohemian (sometimes bright, sometimes pathetic) of precarious young artists in Romania. It’s not much – it doesn’t reimagine the world – but it’s something. For the previous generation (thank you, Dragoș Vasile, for the discussion in the tent!), these things, with all their subtleties – how much gravity lies in an act such as slapping someone? –, they did not exist. It speaks to me. Is it enough for a film to be good, memorable, a must-see, etc.? No, because cinema should offer much broader experiences than the simple act of identifying one-on-one with the story, as a life supplement that it’s yours for 1h30. But all over the scarcity of human figures that we can cling to on local screens, here I found an incentive. Mia is onto something.
I’m set on carrying on with the youth, so I watch again Alma Buhagiar’s student short film that opens the Romanian competition. I watch it again, although I still remember it from the Gopo Awards, just to be sure. And it’s a relief: the emotion is still there, on the screen and crawling up in my throat. (I’m in tune with Alma on this one: when things get tough, emotion is the best way to go to save the day.) The dialogue is flawless – congrats, Bogdan Farcaș, for adding a “honey” and a “buddy” here and there, that subtle extra that injects irresistible tenderness every now and then. The script is multi-layered, with little doors allowing old dramas to sneak in, all set to fire at us. Attention to detail – this is how you write a scene about people driving and looking for an address they don’t really know! – is a delight. All possible conflicts are at the starting line, but the one focused on class gets a head start. I notice the solitary shot where a wind-blown bandanna flutters into the night, and I smile. On its slice (of life), the film is beautiful and masterfully directed; it has the clarity of a final synthesis. The trouble is that the slice is a bit thin and is getting thinner every day since the critics rallied to the general public’s side and started attacking Romanian realism. Together it’s a film that comes out 5, maybe 10 years late. From this point on you can’t go any further, we’ve already made it to the top, with everything that the New Wave had best (equidistance and nuance) and worse (the feeling of being fake, the simple form). Soon there will be a need for something else.
And another fresh film, presented in the same set: Mihail and Achim by Teodor Ioniță. A 2nd-year student film that may not have much to say, but has enough to show. Basically, a Romanian short film determined to gaze long and hard at the landscape, following almost as if on purpose the sensation of absence within the frame until it feels like a hallucinogenic trip. There is a quest here, which is essentially Straub-Huillet’s quest: how do we bring to life the beast that lies asleep in the midst of the landscape? The story of the missing big brother and the little brother looking for him in the snow is too light, the ending feels left high and dry, but the images with the sun setting and the torch burning might be the most beautiful things showing on a screen in the dark heart of the Delta.
Here’s a suggestion, after the (world!) premiere of Lebensdorf by Valentin Hotea: all accounts about this directorial effort should be reunited under the paraphrase of the late Alex. Leo Șerban, “About a film that doesn’t exist”.
I’m not up for another viewing of Radu Muntean’s Întregalde. But I go for a walk on the campsite packed with moviegoers and occasional spectators, going around the tables, catching from time to time an image from the film. On the big screen, in the middle of the night, with those massive cars whose roaring almost sounds nice, the film looks very good, as if that were its place. The discussion on the moral values that the story sets in motion has no effect on me, but the heavy work scenes, with the sweat and the steam coming out of their mouths – yes, I would run them one more time. Plus the bits with Alex Bogdan losing his temper and whining that his car got scratched: pure cinephile pleasure.
No Romanian movies on this day, except for Unidentified (dir. Bogdan George Apetri), which I’ve already seen somewhere else and added to the “uninteresting” file; no reason to dig around it for a while. A puncheur cinema that has little to offer to someone like me, who is not necessarily set on the narrative to “deliver”. And here’s a question: doesn’t the criticism of racism, from one point forward, maybe out of script overkill – the whole police department is all over a poor Roma man – become difficult to differentiate from racism itself?
I miss almost all the screenings held inside due to a bike ride to Sulina. I catch up at night, on those logs that I had sworn not to seal myself to a few years ago, after a binge-watching session under the moonlight that led to me freezing – at Sfântu Gheorghe the nights are cold and the air is crisp – and my whole body getting stiff. But there is a paradox to Anonimul: as much as I tried to avoid open-air screenings in general with all the people moving around and their minds wandering far away from what’s showing on the screen, with all the scenes playing in echoes and running in a questionable image quality, I might have to review my intransigence about it. Anonimul invites you to fresh air, and there is really something special to this large and diverse audience that comes together night after night, while you can see the village bugs dancing through the beams of light. I’m under the impression that here the real stuff – even for a pretentious cinephile – happens at night. I’m therefore glad to fast forward through the 2nd and the 3rd set of the Romanian short film competition. Most of them I know from the Gopo Awards, but there are also newcomers: Alina Șerban, for example, with the short film Eu contez. This film, clumsy as it is in parts, reeks of harsh reality – and stigma, shame, suffocation: things that need to be said (better said: spit in the face of society) and which Alina Șerban has every reason to say. The short’s wound – a story about racism in the academic and artistic environment – is almost tangible, and its ambitions are quite high. But it has some shortcomings when it comes to its “battle cry”, because the levers of the story are too frail, lacking in depth. And behind the idea of “I matter” (conveyed here from the perspective of a Roma person), stands, one would say, a motivational slogan that could apply to anyone, but especially to white people free of real consolation. I feel that it’s too generic politics-wise; too universal, when there is a need for something concrete. But the message is strong enough to reach everyone. As a director, Alina Șerban has a good foundation, but there’s still room for growth.
The second set of the night – when the number of people starts to thin out quickly, leaving a clear path to the screen – I watch it from the last row, as I never do, with my friends Ioan and Luca. It’s cold, but I feel a kind of solidarity between us, the last ones left. The last short in particular, Emilia Hosu has HIV by Ioana Păun, catches my eye because it reminds me of Promising Young Woman, the naughty film that slipped some irreverence and a bit of gender politics at the dusty Oscars a few months ago. Emilia Hosu is a lawyer and gets out of her Lexus, but works on pro bono cases defending the disadvantaged “farmers” (she doesn’t like the term “peasants”). She goes to this guy who is being audited for a trial – but considering that this individual is played by Alexandru Ion, we know that it can’t end well. (Side note: From the recently seen Mia, where I hadn’t initially noticed him, to the recent and failed Toni and his friends and up to this point, Alexandru Ion is a discovery for me. The man always plays the same character – that’s a problem, but at the end of the day, it’s also a strong point: a “fit” man, haloed by a row of muscles, who manages to be a first-class macho and an even bigger loser at the same time, a bully and a schmuck, a big dumbass and a big weirdo. It’s somewhat natural that his whole act always explodes, as Flavia Dima rightly noticed, around a dick joke.) Somehow, the two end up in bed, the man is cocky and finds out that he may have been infected with HIV. In fact, it doesn’t even matter anymore. The scam of a vigilante who sanctions any slip of masculinity towards rape worked flawlessly: the man freaks out, and his overreaction is embarrassing. Emilia can laugh in the solitude of the cabin. It’s not a masterpiece, but the breeze of feminism flowing through its interiors warmed me up late at night.
6 pm: So excited after seeing the last set of Romanian shorts, probably the most excited I’ve been in all the five years since I’ve been coming to Anonimul. Am I exaggerating? Who cares?! At the moment, I can say that I saw four short films that, first and foremost, compared to the countless nonsense that populate the format, actually look like short films – like personal explorations in a concise manner. Andrei Epure strikes a double with Maybe Darkness Will Cover Me, getting even more points than with Intercom 15; Andreea Borțun’s Night Meets Dawn is outstanding from beginning to end; Ruxandra Ghițescu is determined on holding her spot among the favorites with About Us, and Valeriu Andriuță does what he knows best, and does it well: I am Dorin is gripping and concludes in a decent way this intense hour of Romanian cinema, more intense than everything I’ve experienced in a while. To summarize it, cinema as we like it, as we want to see more often, as it should be. Two or three ideas before running to the beach:
Ioana Bugarin is perhaps the most important face emerging in Romanian cinema since Luminița Gheorghiu. Following in her footsteps, I feel that the “mainstream” Romanian cinema is free to turn in a new direction. She took her emotional baggage with her – a huge mountain backpack, on a land where I had too often heard the sound of bourgeois trollers – and set up camp, bringing to the fore another type of woman, much more concerned with the times she lives in. Her characters are almost always consumed by the sudden transitions between moments of strength and terrible arrogance and moments of great vulnerability, which give her a palpable roundness, of a young woman searching for herself. She seems very self-aware, as well as of the escape points that allow her to leave the patriarchal picture and exchange it for a graffiti drawn in anger. So far, she has admirably brought value to somewhat insecure films on their mise-en-scene – but I find it hard to imagine her in an irrevocable auteur project where the actor is one element among many others.
Andrei Epure pulls it off, although he risks a lot going towards a heavy, burdensome cinema that plays with God and fire, in an attempt to squeeze epiphanies from the godless stone of reality. Many tried, few made it out in one piece – Dreyer above all. It remains to be seen whether Epure will be among them.
I sense a great movie coming from Andreea Borțun. But I need a review. Preliminary conclusion: this is what a night that comes to life on the screen should look like. Something at the junction of João Pedro Rodrigues, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Larry Clark, and a topos with buildings, tire repair shops, urban vegetation growing on its own. Superb.
In the middle of the night: I walk away from the screen after a fabulous foray into the hypnotism of the audiovisual landscape. I haven’t used the word masterpiece in a long time, but I feel that When Night Meets Dawn might deserve it. Finally, a local mise-en-scene (set on the Dâmbovița river) truly concerned with textures, colors, and shapes. Andreea Borțun is a filmmaker for whom the surroundings present themselves in the form of an endless reservoir of possible framings, of flashing moments that can be modeled during editing, of glances towards transcendence. A new plot of sensitivity, completely unsown, stretches in front of her only because, plain and simple, she knows how to handle the boogeyman that many Romanian directors run from: the cinema freed from the debilitating need of a story. I don’t remember the last Romanian short film – minus Radu Jude – which had such a passionate relationship with the language of cinema. An idea that might seem dusty, might sound like an unbearable jargon; for some, it boils down to spelling two or three words, but others – Borțun, Epure… – they manage to surprise us with new topics, with unexpected meanings, with their skills in working with metaphors. For even in cinema the limits of language are the limits of the world.
Strange how at the Anonimul Festival the sound is better outside than in the screening room, as well as the quality of the image. I finally come to understand, for the second time, the whole dialogue in About Us, and I can see everything more clearly. I discovered a film with remarkable drive, much more exciting than Otto the Barbarian, which throws in the ring of a cliché situation – the family dinner – the grenade of some destabilizing revelations. I love it when the mother (Ioana Abur) and the daughter (Ioana Bugarin) sort the stuffed toys from her old bedroom and then squash them in pickle jars: it’s an opening scene with an incandescent and unsettling core, and we don’t know how things will evolve from here on, and that’s brilliant. Or when the daughter leaves the family show escalating at the table and walks on an esplanade by the sea, with an off and robotic look in her eyes, then dives into a pool fully clothed. I mean, if we do have a story, at least let’s have a character who acts like a lunatic and is lost in incomprehensible impulses, which carries the film beyond the area of strict necessities, to where one can breathe freely. I declare myself a fan.
Maybe Darkness will Cover Me is a wonderful sample of directorial control, where every decision is weighed 9 or 10 times, and all the conditions are met to make cinema with capital C. But the course of the film is wavy enough for the imponderable and the random to make their way into the picture. It’s amazing how, by choosing a priest as the protagonist, the film reconstructs the world in terms beyond reason: even the headlights from afar end up resembling the flame of a candle. The film is a bit too laborious to let itself be filled with grace, but none of the unseen powers of the world and the night seem strange to it.
A memorable day at Anonimul.
I interrupt the festival bliss only in the evening, for the special set entitled “Stories by women”. It is impossible not to notice the different quality even in terms of light of these short films, compared to the guy-copper-middle-class-muscly-polished films that I’ve grown tired of. At least out of boredom – or the desire to try something different – but one needs to look into the fervent world of these female directors who are only now making their first steps on the big stage: their stories are different, their intuitions are different, their visions as directors are different, and each and one of them is worth discovering immediately. I’m especially interested in Teona Galgoțiu’s film, Hidden Places, which I prefer to the titles for which she was recently nominated at the Gopo Awards: I found here a heartbreaking image, with the same Ioana Abur falling to pieces in the doorway out of a world of pain, then trying with great difficulty to recompose. Teona Galgoțiu’s cinema is crossed by some kind of angelic aura – it’s more than conventional feminism – which transfigures the story until it becomes a clash between very high emotional frequencies. In this sense, it’s a cinema that is all about the person with their sorrows and intensities – depression, mother-daughter relationships, loneliness, and other dramas for which you need a steady hand, otherwise, you might fail. A cinema that needs to constantly temper its incandescence and carefully refine its emotion, because emotion is its raw material. There’s a cinema for my taste.
At night, on the beach, we catch sight of the Perseids in the darkness, and I feel optimistic: it was nice to see, as if by guessing, the future of Romanian cinema at the Anonimul Festival.