A different kind of TIFF

19 August, 2020

This year’s edition of Transilvania International Film Festival in Cluj-Napoca was quite strange. Postponed from May-June to the beginning of August, with exclusively outdoors screenings (over 230, compared to 400 in 2019), kept out of the rain, and with special safety and protection measures in place, TIFF 2020 meant not only a smaller selection of films (around 150, compared to over 200 in general), but also far fewer guests coming from abroad.

One could also feel the absence of the foreign celebrity who usually brought the necessary dose of glamor and attracted the attention of the media – that famous filmmaker who received the award for their entire career. Instead, there was the scandal triggered by the intervention of Cristi Puiu before the premiere of Malmkrog, the only incident that made people talk about TIFF outside the cinema connoisseur circle, and quite in an exaggerated way.

So, I will start with the pink elephant in the room, which I have avoided commenting on so far, also because Facebook is not the ideal place for this kind of thing. I went to that screening, and it happened that, at the entrance to where the film was shown, the beautiful and spacious courtyard in the complex of the University of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine of Cluj-Napoca, I saw Cristi Puiu talking to festival volunteers or the location manager.

Obviously, they were talking about the facial mask rule: the director asked if he really needed to wear it at the brief introduction he was to make. I caught only that, but it’s clear that the discussion had been longer and quite tense, because the screening was delayed. Finally, Cristi Puiu came in front of the screen, with the mask in his hand (in front of hundreds of people who were respecting the measures and were wearing a mask) and apparently irritated by what had happened, and then followed those statements commented by everyone, and to which I assisted from the first rows.

In my opinion, he put out an emphatic and disgraceful show (starting with the way he asked the guy in the technical team to lower the microphone and ending with some hateful words thrown to the moderator, assuming that he would do anything the authorities would ask of him, and that just because the moderator asked him in the beginning to put on his mask). And the comparison between an alleged insubordination to the current measures installed by the authorities with the Revolution was completely out of place and offensive to the memory of the victims of December 1989.

Added to all this was the incoherence and ambiguity of his speech (including the sharp pronunciation of “pandemic”, implying that it was an exaggeration), so it’s not surprising that the subsequent avalanche of pros and cons, extended for a few days. Old fans or supporters of the situation (including people who wouldn’t understand one thing of his films, but who now deny the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis) fiercely defended him, without the slightest critical sense and without taking into account the difficult situation the society goes through. On the other hand, some detractors even made use of this occasion to make fun of his films (including the fact that they’re too long) or to demand their boycott, which is really nonsense.

I honestly believe that the whole situation could have been avoided if from the beginning Puiu had been accompanied at the screening by someone from the festival management – it was an organizational mishap which the TIFF team tried to fix in the end, when both Mihai Chirilov and Oana Giurgiu joined the discussion.

h

As for Malmkrog, now, before a review that I want to write but only after I watch it again, I would just say that the screening conditions didn’t help at all the film – happening outdoors, on plastic chairs inevitably uncomfortable and late at night. It is certainly an ambitious and extremely demanding offer. But for a film that, indirectly, places itself on the shelf of cinematic works with abysmal themes, and which analyzes, no more nor less, the human spirituality and the general state of humanity (using as a pretext a text from more than a century ago ), is unexpectedly self-contained and self-sufficient. I would be inclined to see it more as a demonstration of strength and authority. It’s true, often exciting and stimulating, but also conceited – a fact that seems to be in contradiction with the believing artist’s speech that Puiu adopts and which is supposed to be generous, not intimidating.

Malmkrog was certainly one of the attractions of TIFF. Unlike other years, the 2020 edition only allowed one screening per night (or two for those willing to stay long after midnight, a category which I join only from time to time). That’s why I didn’t get to watch all the Romanian films presented in premiere. The Romanian Days selection was dominated by documentaries, and I found the very personal approaches in The Delta of Bucharest, by Eva Pervolovici, and House of Dolls, by Tudor Platon, to be the most stimulating. I especially appreciated their formal freedom.

I should mention other two documentaries, a bit more imposing, shown for the first time in Romania at TIFF: Acasa, My Home, by Radu Ciorniciuc, that won the Romanian Days Award for Best Feature Film, and Wood, by Monica Lazurean-Gorgan, Michaela Kirst and Ebba Sinzinger. I didn’t get to watch Everything Will Not Be Fine, by Adrian Parvu and Helena Maksyom, winner of the FIPRESCI Award, and Please Hold the Line, by Pavel Cuzuioc. As for the fiction films, I missed out And They May Still Be Alive Today, by Tudor Cristian Jurgiu, and Beginning, by Razvan Savescu. So, What’s Freedom?, by Andrei Zinca, and 5 Minutes Too Late, by Dan Chisu, are average films.

Of the films I watched only at TIFF (i.e. excluding the few that I caught before the festival and which have now been also part of the program), I liked the incisiveness and the mixture of light narrative and hard-to-digest topics in There Is No Evil, a film by the Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof, an extremely uncomfortable filmmaker for his country’s regime, who won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year. Another memorable screening was the one in Union Square, of La Dolce Vita in a restored version, the only film I watched from the Close-up Federico Fellini, a section dedicated by TIFF to the great Italian director as a centennial celebration.

Accustomed to running to four or five films a day, it has now been difficult to choose just one film per night (sometimes two) out of more than ten parallel screenings in various open-air locations. I confess that I also took into consideration the proximity of the screening place to the city center – fortunately, most of the spaces were in the central area. So, in the first days, I got to watch a few movies in the No Limit section (traditionally dedicated to shocking titles), probably more than I would have usually gone to at a normal edition. The 20th Century (2019), the debut of Canadian director Matthew Rankin, stayed with me in particular – I appreciated his stylistic eccentricity and his bizarre narrative.

Although visually impressive and exploring important themes (war and crime), Atlantis (2019), by Ukrainian filmmaker Valentin Vasianovici, and The Painted Bird, by Czech director Václav Marhoul, both also in the No Limit section, are part of a type of cinema that wants first of all to shock and whose formalism leaves no room for great revelations.

Of the 12 titles in the competition, in Cluj-Napoca I only got to Patrick (by Tim Mielants), a quite dull Belgian film that attracts attention only by the fact that the story takes place in a nudist camp, which won the Directing Award though (shared with The Cloud in Her Room by Chinese director Zheng Lu Xinyuan). A little more promising was the Russian film Fidelity, by Nigina Saifullaeva, which I had seen before at the Rotterdam Festival, and now at TIFF it won the Best Performance Award for the role played by actress Evgenia Gromova (the jury consisted of producer Ada Solomon, director Adina Pintilie, actor András Hatházi, playwright Csaba Székely and writer Philip O Ceallaigh). I didn’t catch the winner of the Transilvania Trophy, Babyteeth, by Australian director Shannon Murphy, but I hope to watch it at some point at the cinema, because it’s distributed in Romania by Bad Unicorn.

From the Hungarian Day section, Eden (2020), by Ágnes Kocsis, promised a lot (I already knew the script, because I was on the CNC committee when it got funding in 2016, and it seemed unique to me), but I was slightly disappointed. The story of a woman who has to live in isolation because she is mysteriously allergic to pollution, chemicals or radio waves, the film focuses too much on the protagonist’s relationship with her therapist, and too little on what could have been her contact with the outside world or on the scientific aspects of her disease.

The screening location (the sports ground of the “Apáczai Csere János” High School) was one of the few spaces where there was no DCP equipment, which means that the quality of the screening was also poorer. The impossibility of using the already-equipped movie theaters and the need to find as many outdoor spaces as possible for the film screenings, which could allow placing hundreds of chairs at the requested distance and wouldn’t disturb any nearby residents, has made it all the more difficult for the festival to constantly offer the best screening conditions, as it did so far.

Awards Ceremony
Awards Ceremony

The Closing Gala, organized in Unirii Square, was inevitably less spectacular. However, it was marked by the short musical moment of Marina Voica, an artist over 80 whose energy managed to galvanize the event, by the outside protest of a group of independent actors from Cluj-Napoca, and by offering the Excellence Award to actress Maria Ploae, a moment supported and recorded with the telephone by her husband, director Nicolae Margineanu, sitting in the audience.

I left the 19th edition of TIFF with the regret that I couldn’t watch more films or interview foreign guests, still there was the joy of seeing many friends and acquaintances in the industry. I noticed the efficiency of the organizing team and I was amazed, once again, by how many film enthusiasts there are in Cluj-Napoca – at every screening I attended there were tens or hundreds of people, given that every night there were over 10 screenings in parallel. According to the festival, the films attracted 45,000 spectators this year, an impressive number.

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.