Dana Bunescu: “You make films out of need, because you feel this ache inside you, not because it’s cool”

22 November, 2022

The important role Dana Bunescu played in the revival of Romanian cinema after 2000 was and is probably not credited enough. Sure, there were the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution (for her editing work on Ana, mon amour) at the Berlinale in 2017 and several nominations and wins at both the Gopo and Romanian Union of Filmmakers Awards.

But even a simple overview of the most important fiction or documentary films, out of a total of over 40 projects, which Dana Bunescu worked on as an editor (sometimes as a sound editor or designer as well), shows the influence her talent and creativity have had on recent Romanian cinema: The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (2005, dir. Cristi Puiu), 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days (2007, dir. Cristian Mungiu), First of All, Felicia (2009, dir. Melissa de Raaf, Răzvan Rădulescu), the omnibus Tales from the Golden Age, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010, documentary, dir. Andrei Ujică), Child’s Pose (2013) and Ana, mon amour (2017) – both directed by Călin Peter Netzer, When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (2013, dir. Corneliu Porumboiu), Moromete Family: On the Edge of Time (2018, dir. Stere Gulea), Collective (2019, documentary, dir. Alexander Nanau).

On top of that, there is also her work as a sound designer or sound editor, which comprises over 40 titles, including California Dreamin’ (2007, dir. Cristian Nemescu), Beyond the Hills (2012, dir. Cristian Mungiu), and Radu Jude’s films – Everybody in Our Family (2012), Aferim! (2015), Scarred Hearts (2016), I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians (2018), Uppercase Print (2020), Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2020).

Born on September 11, 1969, in Craiova, Dana Bunescu first studied Optotechnics and Laser Technologies at the Faculty of Physics, University of Bucharest (1988-1993), after which she attended UNATC, the Multimedia section (Editing, Sound and Computer graphics), between 1996 and 2000.

The Chalice. Of Sons and Daughters (2022), an observational documentary exploring the marriage rituals within a Roma community, made by Cătălina Tesar together with Dana Bunescu, had its world premiere at the Sarajevo Film Festival in August, and in October, was crowned Best Documentary in the Romanian Competition at the Astra Film Festival in Sibiu. With the film enjoying a great start in the festival run, I took the opportunity to invite Dana Bunescu to a discussion (which I had in mind for a long time) for our monthly column of in-depth interviews with established filmmakers, to learn more about her view on cinema and about her journey (spoiler alert: not an easy one).

Photo: Sabina Costinel

The Chalice. Of Sons and Daughters, made together with Cătălina Tesar, is the second documentary you co-authored, after The Distance Between Me and Me (about Romanian writer Nina Cassian), co-made with Mona Nicoară. How do you become a co-author starting from the position as an editor?

There is a certain involvement, a certain search that is primarily about language, which ultimately makes me part of the project, a lot more than in other situations. If you ask me, I think that in cinema, we cannot talk about a sole author. That’s why I often find the expression “a film by” annoying. There are few films that can be credited to one person only. And when it comes to documentary films, I can’t really understand why only one name is mentioned. In general, I think that the editor builds a partnership with the director, the camera operator and the sound technician, in order to structure a discourse. The editor is part of this collective. So it’s not crazy for them to be considered a co-author of the film. The fact that the idea is not generally accepted rather has to do with rights, financial and fiscal matters. That is the explanation I got. It’s nonsense, in my opinion, because, at the end of the day, I think we should think of the film as a collective work, especially when we’re talking about a documentary. In fiction, things are a little different.

Do you think that documentary films are actually made in the editing room?

Absolutely. Obviously, almost every director starts the project with a plan in their mind. I know documentary directors who say early on that they know what the film will look like. It’s something I agree with only partially. Obviously, documentary film is very varied in its nature. For example, Alecu Solomon’s films before Tarzan’s Testicles are carefully planned and thought through, they are thoroughly made, because he builds his universe around the theme and starts to fictionalize certain things and stage them in a certain way. If the result is not completely what he envisioned in the beginning, that’s a different story.

As far as observational documentaries are concerned, like The Chalice, you never know what’s going to happen. It was the same with Laura Căpățănă’s film, Here… I Mean There, which was shot in the same impromptu style, with the team going from time to time to a certain place and staying there, shooting whatever came into frame. Without a plan or even an aesthetic direction cinematography-wise. It’s only by chance that things look in a certain way, better or worse. First, you have the selection process, where you see what shots you can use and what goes to junk. But, working on The Chalice and another documentary I have just finished and which has not yet been released, about Romanian painter Ion Grigorescu, I had a hard time learning one thing, that is, to find virtues in what is classified as bad bit or bad take, i.e. a piece of footage that is technically flawed, and to start building something with those things that maybe five or ten years ago I would have thrown away.

It’s a great achievement, but I had to educate myself to get there. The whole experience was intense, agonizing, convulsive, because I couldn’t reach what my intuition was telling me. In the end, I managed to find a way and cultivate patience and a certain focus that allowed me to see beyond the flaw, find potential and explore these things as well. I’m very happy to have had this experience because I wanted to have the opportunity to learn something like this for a very long time.

Most people take me on their projects for what I already know to do, not for what I want to discover. That’s very frustrating because, without this drive to learn something new, reach a new dimension of myself, it wouldn’t make sense to keep doing what I do. I can learn, but I have to be given the opportunity, as well as the time, because sometimes there are deadlines that are absolutely impossible and won’t allow you to experiment, make mistakes, take it somewhere else, and see why it doesn’t work. You’re expected to deliver, always be prompt and say what needs to be done, and eventually perform.

How do you feel to be in such demand and asked to help on all kinds of projects?

Obviously, I try to cope, because there are things that I want to do, there are curiosities that I need to satisfy with different projects, but it’s also annoying when I have to do things that I’ve already done. That actually discourages me and made me take a year off because I could no longer find any motivation in my work. I was on hiatus from last spring until this summer. I did work on some stuff and helped some peers, but not because I felt the urge, rather I had promised them we would work on something together. I needed the break to regather my resources and regain my curiosity. No big deal. Every human in this world takes a break after finishing something. It was my fault because I always kept working. Projects came one after another – big, small, medium – and at some point, they even overlapped, so I had become a prisoner of my own promises.

Is there a fundamental difference between how you work with archive images and the way you handle footage shot for a present-day observational documentary?

I never thought about it in such a conscious manner. Obviously, archive images are much more political. By archive images, I mean pre-1990 footage, if we are to place them in a timeframe. They all served a political purpose, so you automatically take on a huge responsibility. They must be viewed with a critical eye and they have to be well thought out and understood before being used in a certain way. Which requires a greater effort because it forces you to call on everything you know, on additional reading, on thorough historical research. Whereas in the other case, although it’s just as challenging – because you have to get close to the universe you research with the same dedication and with the same curiosities and perhaps in the same ways –, the political aspect is less present. It shouldn’t be overlooked, but it’s not that problematic.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

You got involved in the recent protests against the Romanian Film Center (CNC) and the controversial statements made by the director of the institution, Anca Mitran, with regard to documentary film. Why? What bothered you the most?

For years, I have been bothered by the way the authorities regard the strategies for Romanian cinema in general. It seems that the CNC is an institution whose only job is to allocate some funds, and once that is done, its role ends. There is no involvement on their part, for example in promoting local productions, but if you check their website, there is a list of far-reaching and generous objectives, which should support a film from the project phase to its completion. Then it’s the international representation and other such things, which are always done in half-measure or maybe even less.

And when we talk about documentary films, given that only 10% of the budget is allocated to this genre, it’s funny or simply sad, depending on how you look at the situation. There is no interest in this type of film. It’s true that documentary film was largely a tool of propaganda during communism and that is why it was despised and discarded into the garbage heap of cultural history right after the Revolution. One can understand that. But 30 years have passed since then. In the meantime, documentary film found new life. Even that film that we discarded can be re-evaluated and we can gain a different perspective and a more profound meaning than we could have had then, when we were all fired up what with the Revolution and all. Not to mention that it has gained its own audience due to two important festivals, One World, in Bucharest, and Astra, in Sibiu. Still, they think it doesn’t belong in cinemas, that it’s a second-rate product, which shouldn’t necessarily be financed and helped, but rather left to be made at the filmmakers’ expense. It rather seems like a crazy and risky mission. However, I don’t think that’s the case, because a lot of Romanian documentary films were of interest to the ticket-paying viewer and I’m convinced that many more will follow. Then why is it treated like a second-class citizen?

For some years now, there has been a growing interest in the film archive. Several initiatives focused on the recovery and screening of archive films appeared, such as Sahia Vintage, coordinated by Adina Brădeanu, or the Arhiva Activă film club, a project managed by Andrei Rus. There are also more and more documentaries that use archive images, with The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu as a key reference. How do you explain this phenomenon?

I can only make an assumption. We live in a time of crisis and it’s in such times that we begin to reorganize ourselves and try to understand what the source of our troubles might be. We begin to feel this need to reflect on the things we can still control. The past can be one of these tools. Moreover, the film that recorded and captured fragments of this past, in one form or another, for completely different purposes, can become a key to a better understanding of some issues. First and foremost, it’s a research tool. Only afterwards it can become a source to convey a new theory. But I think there is mostly a need to revisit and find answers to questions that are more and more complicated and pressing. Hence this enthusiasm for exploring the archives. Obviously, there is also the need to dig deeper into the personal archives. The pandemic has also given us the opportunity to clean out our closets. We organized our socks and got to the videotapes and the photo albums, and suddenly we got this urge for an exploration of a palpable intimacy, which is available to us.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

We’ve established that documentary films are made, to a very large extent, in editing. But can a fiction film be saved in editing?

I would avoid using the word “save” when talking about teams and collective work. Why discuss the clinical form of a cultural product or an art object that needs to be saved by someone? It’s something that is built. If the director started out with a different thing in their mind and couldn’t reach that vision on the set, that is another story. But it doesn’t mean that anyone is saving anything. Out of the question. On the contrary, at this stage, you test your theories, which may or may not work. Many times it doesn’t work, and you need to find alternative solutions, which are often reached in editing. The film is made in the editing room. As an editor, that’s how I see things.

Apart from the two people involved in the editing process, i.e. the director and the editor, no one else knows what it’s about, what the process entails and how special it is. The fact that you try to resonate with each other and start looking for the same things, after perhaps being at odds at first, is amazing because that implies communication and understanding. That’s what I value most about this process – let’s talk till we wear out.

So you think there is enough room for your creativity as well.

Absolutely. I think it’s absurd to work with someone and not use their potential, not allow them to give their best. Unfortunately, I’ve met this type of inflexible author. That is not how things are done. I had this kind of experience only once, and since then I have avoided it. I think it’s important to be open to teamwork. I strongly support that. It’s not something that was taught in film school. No one ever talked to us about being a team player. I just had an instinct for it. This whole business of giving awards is nonsense. It’s only a way to prove to ourselves that the product we worked on has some value. But it’s everyone’s voice in that product. The director cannot make the film without actors, if we are talking about a fiction film. And vice-versa. Without an editor and a cinematographer, again, it’s not possible. This whole thing is actually an exchange of energies that must find its peak, eventually. This is where that tuning with each other comes into play so that we achieve maximum gain. That’s what we’re aiming for. Whether we succeed or not, we never know. That’s why finishing the film is the saddest moment, because you know that from there on there’s nothing more you can do, it’s up to the audience. You never know if you have reached your maximum potential. The sound mixing, which is the final stage and it’s also something I do in my work, is the most distressing. Not because there is something terrible about the job itself, but because I know that if any ideas come to me after that, it’s useless. That is the finish line. I have a wonderful mixing partner, Cristinel Şirli. We get along great and it’s always a pleasure to work with him. But I can’t stop feeling this way when I do the sound mixing because I know that is the finality and that after that the film is dead for me.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

How do you enjoy editing films mainly featuring long takes?

It depends on the film. There were projects where we had to decide on the best moments for ellipses. Then, we had to establish the pace of the film. In my case, because I’m also a sound editor, I find it very satisfying when I get to work on the sound during the montage, and I can focus on the dialogue, nuances and intensities, which improves the scene. It’s an entire work process and it’s very challenging. We all know the dinner scene in 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days. It was difficult to shoot, and the whole scene is articulated from syllables and word fragments and everything that was recorded in the three days of shooting and some separate foley sounds. We thought out the whole thing in editing. Without this scene, we didn’t know if we had the film or not. When doing the montage, you have to have everything under control, so the sound editor gets the best version to work on. It’s very important that you do your job properly and things are clear so that no one else is forced to look for solutions.

You also worked on Ana, mon amour, which was shot with two cameras, so you had a wide range of editing options. How would you describe working in such a stylistic register?

It’s just as challenging, but it’s obviously a different mechanism. Ana, mon amour, as well as the other two films by Călin Peter Netzer that I worked on – Child’s Pose and his most recent one, which has just been completed –, was shot with two cameras, from all angles, so the whole space was covered. There is an infinity of options and obviously, it’s very satisfying to look for the best one and not go for the easy solution: there are two cameras, we go with shot/countershot, and that’s it. I’ve never done that and never will do, precisely because it is so accessible. Whether we succeed or not, that’s another question. Who can say if we did the best job we could do? When I re-watch some films after several years, I can safely say, like Nina Cassian, that I wasn’t an idiot. This summer, I watched Child’s Pose again, after almost ten years, and I cried. Yes, I cried because I saw Luminiţa Gheorghiu and was sad about her passing, but I was also proud of how the film turned out – I really think we made the best of the material we had at hand.

How do you see now your time as a film student at the end of the ‘90s, when the prospects for Romanian cinema were quite poor?

I was lucky to be part of a very cool generation, we were very good colleagues and friends, despite the age difference. I was 27 when I got in and my colleagues were 18-19. We bonded as a team and stuck together in all situations. We learned together and from each other. But I don’t want to idealize that time. Those colleagues were the reason why I finished school. There were times when I would feel really low, like I didn’t belong. I felt like the physicist in me was screaming, as if I wasn’t in the right place, but for reasons rather related to the education system.

What was it like?

They were all teaching the same thing, it was mind-boggling. There was a standard recipe for a shot list: she looks, he looks and then a wider shot. So naturally, you were starting to wonder what you were doing there because you weren’t exploring anything new, you were applying that one recipe for every story. That set me on fire and made me wonder if I had come to the right place, especially since I had tried three times to get into film school, I had really struggled to get there. And, most of the time, the answer we were getting was “no”. But fortunately, friends and colleagues would come up with new ideas. We were trying all sorts of stuff, some of them worked out, others didn’t, but we were experimenting. Now, with all the technology that exists, it’s much easier. At that time we didn’t even have a VHS that would allow us to practice more. I finished school around the time new equipment appeared. We only had film stock to work with, so it was just good old-fashioned analog editing for us. It was only in the third year that we were introduced to digital editing, but we barely had any projects, it was just to get a bit of training. Things were different in the sound department, in the third year we started working exclusively on Digigram. Given the conditions, it wasn’t easy to find the resources to make something together when an idea crossed our minds.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

Were you also concerned about the fact that Romanian cinema was going under? In fact, it collapsed the very year you graduated.

We had no contact whatsoever with what was happening in the world of big production. It was something so distant. We couldn’t even afford those small exercises, which was what we needed, to practice as much as possible. School is the place where people have to practice, fail, and understand why they failed. Failure must be part of the process. Or, on the contrary, where they discover something cool and create something original. The moment you finish school, everyone thinks you’re set, you have to deliver, to be what I hate, i.e. someone who is expected to do what they know best and nothing more; the opportunity to look for miracles is gone.

We didn’t think we were going to get to the point of actually making films. I was lucky that one of my colleagues was a set photographer on Beowulf (1999, dir. Graham Baker), which was shot in Romania, and he took me and another colleague on the set. We were horrified by how much film stock was wasted, we could have made 20 films from those scraps (laughs). In any case, it was phenomenal to be on a set.

Then, in my fourth year, I worked as an assistant director on a Romanian feature, Exam (dir. Titus Muntean), which was shot in 1999 but was stalled for financial reasons, and it was eventually finished in 2004. It was completely by chance that I got on the project, because I had no experience whatsoever in being an assistant. I think the producer had fired the initial AD and they needed someone else, with the shooting being in progress. Melania Oproiu, the editor of the film, asked me if I want the job. I still don’t understand why she asked me and not a student from Directing. I said yes, although I had no idea what I was supposed to do. So here I am, trying to understand what my purpose is and doing all kinds of stuff, a habit I learned in school: everybody does everything. We finished the shootings and I still didn’t know what my job was.But I saw how it’s done; blocking the scene, setting up the camera in terms of position, movement and shooting angle, and so on. We weren’t taught these things in school, we rather worked with abstract notions: an abstract space, abstract characters, who have an abstract movement, and the only concrete thing was the camera. And we only had the school’s sets to practice on, which were below standard. And out there, things were completely different. Working as an assistant director made it clear to me that I want to pursue a career in filmmaking. I was lucky, from this point of view. Given that not much was happening at the time, I still had the chance to meet some people with whom I would later develop long-term collaborations and even friendships.

What was the first feature you edited?

The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (2005, dir. Cristi Puiu). I had worked on features before but in the sound department. I first collaborated with Cristi Puiu on Cigarettes and Coffee (2004, short film). We met and it seemed like we were getting along. And it was like that, to a point. I learned a lot from him. First of all, the dedication and energy you invest in anything you do when working on a film. I thought he was on another level so I felt I should rise to his level. Basically, he made me push my limits – you have to be all there, otherwise, that object is useless and your work is non-existent. He himself has no limits. I learned that making a film needs total commitment. If you can’t offer it better don’t do it. You make films out of need, because you feel this ache inside you, not because it’s cool. There are no other perks to it. Fame is fleeting, if you ever get there, and I find it completely unsatisfying. Money? God forbid, we work for nothing. The drive comes only from this need, which comes from pain, not from pleasure. The moment I felt that I was losing this drive and this curiosity, I said I better stop.

How would you explain the emergence of the historic revival of Romanian cinema after 2000, in which you also played a major role, in my opinion?

I think there was an aversion towards the way cinema had been done before, a refusal to continue on that path, which implied a superficial approach to the cinematic act, rather seen as a historical tool and nothing more. I think that’s why things started to gain meaning and magnitude, the transition had a massive influence on the situation. Although it was probably over, that’s when frustrations and unrest started to pile up.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

Were you a movie buff as a teenager? If so, how did you explore this passion in the ‘80s Craiova?

I used to go to the cinema, but not that often, because there were a lot of bad movies. Still, I think I’ve seen them all. There were four or five movie theaters in Craiova, where I would spend part of my time. Then, every year there was this movie marathon on TV, Filmski Marathon, which started on Friday and ended on Sunday. Film after film, including American movies that weren’t shown in Romanian cinemas. It was a big thing in our town, all institutions and all activity were paralyzed. Even the schools were closed. On Monday, people arrived at school or work with red eyes; three days and three nights, that was all we did, watch films on television. Then we would talk about them.

I started to become a more fervent moviegoer viewer the moment I arrived in Bucharest and found out about the Cinemateque. We are talking about the late ‘80s, when cinema passes were contraband and we had to share them. Although the screenings were terrible quality-wise and the films were often dubbed live by someone in the projection booth, it didn’t matter. It was something I hadn’t had access to before, except for that Filmski Marathon.

And I have another fond memory of that time. They would sometimes screen films at the Student House. I remember seeing Come and See, by Elem Klimov, there. We would discuss the films afterwards, approach them in a way we were not familiar with, which was very refreshing and made us see things from new angles.

Did you remain passionate about cinema even after the Revolution?

Yes. But this desire to pursue a career in cinema started from a friend, a colleague I had in physics school, who also went to film school, to Screenwriting, so I was the first one to read his scripts. I was drawn to it and thought I could give it a try as well, see how it is. It wasn’t a great time for research in physics either. With the regime change, the research platforms started to dissolve and I realized that there was no future there anymore. That didn’t stop us from continuing our studies and graduating, but things were looking grimmer and grimmer and all of us started to think about a plan B – either go to another University or another country. That was my case, too.

I applied to film school. It was the same year I graduated from the Faculty of Physics. I thought about applying to Screenwriting but then saw that a new section had appeared – Multimedia: Editing, Sound and Computer graphics. I had this feeling it would suit me better, even though I didn’t know exactly what it was about. Maybe it just sounded better. But I think I got it right.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

Didn’t the first two failed attempts to enter film school discourage you? How difficult was it for you to make the transition from physics to film?

I was naive enough to believe that I would get in on the first try. I didn’t know that many of the spots were “reserved” for others. That was the first time I failed at something. I always achieved the things I set out to do, but maybe, it was because I only set out to do things I could do (laughs).

However, the first field you choose, physics, was not easy.

It was difficult, but I knew I could do it. And I did it with passion and interest. I wanted to become the next Marie Curie. I didn’t. My first failed attempt to enter film school was a tragedy. I felt for the first time what failure tastes like. After that, I had to get a job, I couldn’t stay like that anymore. I started working as a microscopist at the Institute for Research in Electrical Engineering, but I hoped it was only a temporary job. For the following year’s admission, I didn’t prepare in any special way. I didn’t know what more I could do, other than watch films. Still, I couldn’t watch as many as I used to because I didn’t have as much free time. I applied again. On the last exam, I got the same subject I had the year before. I was given the option to change it with another subject, but I was stubborn and stuck with it. Obviously, I started improvising again and going with the same nonsense, so I failed again. At that moment, I said to myself: It’s clear, I’m not cut out for this field. I don’t have the necessary strength, I can’t focus enough, and maybe I don’t even have the talent. It was the last try. And I started thinking about a plan B, that is, to leave the country. With my job at the research institute, I couldn’t even cover rent. The situation was bad, and it was for most college graduates at the time. No wonder everyone chose to leave. It was impossible to make a decent living.

The following year, I remember it was the end of summer, I ran into a friend, who is a film editor, and she asked me if I intended to apply again. I said no. It didn’t make any sense to try again since it was clear that I had no calling for this profession. Then I received my paycheck, money with which I could either pay the admission fee or buy 10 kg of potatoes. I decided to apply the third time even though I had no hope I would get in, but I didn’t have any plans for the rest of the summer and I was set on leaving the country anyway, so I might as well give it another try. I think going into that mindset helped me a lot because I went calm and relaxed to the exam. Getting nervous has often played tricks on me. I think this is why I got in the third time, and not the first two times.

So if you had failed this time again, you would have left the country. Where would you have gone?

Canada. All the physicists were going there. And I would have continued to work as a physicist. It was clear that that was what I was made for. That’s what I studied, that’s what I was trained to do. Could things have gone in a different direction in Canada, I had no way of knowing. I never thought long-term because the odds were limited given the world I was living in. I couldn’t afford to dream big when I had nowhere to sleep. I often slept at the lab. The ’90s are a blur to me because I repressed a lot of things. And now I would like to discover them, to understand what I experienced. There are things I forgot or rather forced myself to forget.

Like trauma.

A trauma that I should now let out and deal with because it’s still locked inside me. It was a hard time for me. No one is responsible for that, apart from history and the way we made it, participated in it. But it’s clear that that generation was not given many chances, unless you were privileged – good family, money, connections, etc. Otherwise, for the vast majority, it was extremely difficult.

Getting in on the third attempt was a great opportunity for you.

I was lucky. I got in because I was relaxed. And I managed to finish it, which seemed unlikely at times, and even find a voice and an approach that is meaningful and leads to some artistic products that may not be that important, but at least are relevant.

What motivates you now?

Any kind of discovery, any new dimension I find in what I do. If I have the chance to build something, I’m happy about that finding. What I really want and stimulates me is to find the time to experiment.

Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.