Dragoş Hanciu: “What I like about documentary film is that things happen anyway and it’s up to you to capture and shape them”
Born on March 3, 1993, in Orăştie, Hunedoara, Dragoş Hanciu is a photographer and film director. He attended UNATC state film school in Bucharest from 2012 to 2015.
His first feature-length documentary, “The Man And His Shadow” (2021), had its premiere last year at the Transilvania International Film Festival (TIFF) in Cluj-Napoca.
The hybrid observational-participatory film is a portrait of Gheorghe Blondă (Mr. Georges), the late analogue photography lab technician from the Film Department at UNATC. Alleged modernization plans determine the school management to replace him, ending his lifelong career.
The film will have a preview on April 6 at the Elvire Popesco Cinema in Bucharest, followed by a premiere on April 15 and two more screenings on April 16 and 17 at Cinema Union.
Dragoş Hanciu also made the short documentaries “The Floating Bridge / Brudina” (2014) and “Ionaş Dreams of Rain / Ionaş visează că plouă” (2017), selected at several local and international festivals. The former, a student film, follows two men who are operating a floating bridge over the Mureş River, used as an alternative crossing between two villages. The latter, selected at the prestigious documentary festival Visions du Réel and written and produced during the Aristoteles Workshop, tells the story of an old man from an isolated village in Maramureş, who spends his nights watching out for the boars that could ravage his cornfield.
“Mr. Georges” (Gheorghe Blondă) was a legendary figure at UNATC. Many people knew him, including people outside the school. As the film shows, he was a charismatic character. It’s only at the end of his career that someone made a film about him, which is quite surprising given that he was surrounded by film students all his life. How did you persuade him to make the documentary? Did you have a special relationship with him?
I met him in my first year of college when a colleague from the Cinematography Department I was working with at the time took me to the lab. I had gotten a film camera and went there to develop the first film. It came out empty, but that’s because there was a problem with the camera. The first impression Mr. Georges would often leave was of an alpha male. But we quickly became friends, because I was spending a lot of time at the lab. That was both during school, as well as after I graduated; I would sometimes come to the lab to develop a film, and so, I would also spend time with him.
I’ve always been afraid that with his departure the whole place would change. No one could have replaced him, only he knew this craft. He had been fired once before when he retired. But he came back and worked for a month, without pay, without a contract, and then the school had a contest for his job position in order to rehire him. They extended his contract, which only allowed a limit of three extensions. This is the starting point of the film – he was retired but had an extended collaboration contract with the school.
One day I was at school, I had already graduated, and I was developing some films and hanging out with him. Suddenly, he says, “Here’s some news, I’ll have a new colleague starting tomorrow, someone is coming to replace me.” At that moment, I froze in my chair and had a visceral reaction caused by the same triggers: this man is leaving, the lab won’t be the same without him, this safe place we all had this time will no longer exist. Something that had been built for generations is now changing. Almost the entire New Wave went through his hands. Not that he had the same influence as Sorin Botoşeneanu, but they were a team.
At that moment, I said, “Mr. Georges, should we make a film together?”. He replied, “Yes, let’s do it.” The next day I brought my camera. I didn’t know if it would work. He wasn’t used to seeing me with the camera, to me following him. We hadn’t discussed the terms of this film. I didn’t know exactly what it would be like either. I knew he had six more months at school. We started in November 2016 and I knew he had to leave in April 2017. Then he got another extension, until the summer.
How did the shooting go?
I think it was hard for him to have a shadow, to have someone watching him all the time. It was hard for me too. I was always thinking about how much I should get involved in his life, about how long I should follow him, even if he was at work. I felt he sometimes needed to talk to his colleagues without me being present. I let him sneak out. At the same time, he had his microphone on and I was listening to him when I would pick up a signal, and I often thought it would’ve been great to get some of those moments on the camera.
I was lucky he only acted as himself. Everything he was doing, even though he was extroverted and flamboyant, it didn’t feel like it was staged or meant for the camera. It was very easy to work with him, precisely because of the nature of his character.
We got along very well, we would always joke around. We were like brothers who became friends or like a grandfather and his grandson, but we’ve had this complicity since I was in school. When I started shooting, I looked for another student who would spend as much time with him and could become such a character. There were some students who appeared more often in the picture, but it wasn’t enough to have a character and it didn’t take me where I wanted to get. So I decided that since it’s just me and him, and it all starts from my experience with him, I should put the camera on the tripod and step in front of it.
I played a bit in terms of framing and camera movement, on a more conceptual level. At first, the camera was like his shadow, watching him very close, from a back view. Then there were moments when I put the camera on the tripod and let it capture things happening on their own because George would often cause certain situations or reveal himself. There are times when he opens up, which caught me by surprise too. I came to realize that he trusts me and that there’s some connection between us. Then again, there were times when he would avoid me and I would feel like a nuisance. There was always a mixture of these things. Is it okay that I’m here? Is it ethical? What is allowed and what is not? What will the film look like? Can you even call it a film? Besides shooting, I was also recording sound and thinking about the subtitles, because I was wondering if a foreign viewer might understand what was happening, if everything is clear enough.
What is it like to shoot a film just by yourself?
Honestly, it’s not very pleasant because it’s a lot of work, and I didn’t have time to pay as much attention to directing. But at the same time, the setup didn’t allow me to have a sound recorder or a camera operator. There was no room for three people. Fortunately, I had the skills to play these roles as well. Unfortunately, I had no budget. Therefore, I had to take care of everything, including now, with the distribution of the film.
I had a photography gig scheduled for the next day when Mr. Georges told me that he would have a new colleague. I thought to myself: If I find the equipment, I’ll stay and shoot the film. If I can’t find the equipment, I’ll continue with the photography gig. I knew that if I missed the day his new colleague came, I’m out. So I started calling people. Adina Pintilie, with whom I had worked on Touch Me Not, gave me a camera. Ciprian Cimpoi, who also edited the film, lent me a boom mic. Iulian Cristian Nunu and Vlad Voinescu helped me with lavaliers, and Andrei Tănăsescu with a sound recorder. While shooting the film, I also got some memory cards from Dragoş Apetri, and one of the students, Vladimir Cazacu, who also appears in the film, helped me with some lenses. Everyone had something that wasn’t going to be used for a long time, and that’s how I solved the equipment problem. I’m very grateful for their help.
You felt the urgency of the moment, the change that was happening then and there, so you seized the opportunity to make an independent, no-budget film. Your initiative is to be applauded.
I’d just finished making Ionaş Dreams of Rain at the Aristoteles Workshop. I had the energy, the urge to start something new, and this opportunity came my way. So I jumped right into it.
One thing I do regret is that I don’t have more moments with him sharing his craft with the students. Where you can see that he is teaching them something and that the students are learning from him. But I tried to squeeze as much as I could. I tried to capture everything. It also depends on the students, on how interested and present they are. It’s true that I also had a bit of a late start. School starts on October 1, I arrived there a month and a half later. They had already learned how to work and moved to lab practice. In a way, I missed that moment. But I still catch moments when he was teaching or explaining things, although some of the present students were from departments other than Cinematography and were rather passive. I don’t have a lot of footage of him as a teacher, where you can feel that connection between him and the students.
How did you come up with the idea that the whole film should take place only inside the school?
I first wanted it to take place solely in the photo lab. To be confined in this world, in a maze that feels rather Kafkaesque, with long, white hallways and voices that are heard but you don’t know where they come from. Since it’s a film school, anything can happen, all sorts of sounds can be heard. It’s all in the open. The idea was to remain inside the school because the school was his life. Even before starting shooting, I felt that if you take a person out of their safe zone, to which they’re so attached, it will be very difficult for them.
On the one hand, the film is about the difficulty of leaving a place where you’ve spent much of your life. But at the same time, it is a metaphor for the inevitable parting with life that awaits all of us and how we manage to cope with such a moment.
For me, the oneiric world, the non-being, is a recurring theme. Even before making the film or maybe even as a student, I felt that school was a matter of life and death for him. From the very beginning, I knew the film would end once his contract had ended. I was interested in the way a man leaves a place where he had worked for 25 years, a place that had become his identity and his life. His farewell process, which was very dignified.
From your photography work and previous films, one can see your concern for composition, your desire to have beautiful shots that carry a certain weight. You couldn’t do that here, not as much. On the one hand, you too were a character. On the other hand, the space you had to work in didn’t allow it either. Did you feel frustrated about that?
I wish it was more eye candy. I did have such shots, but they were cut out in editing. It’s also been a process of me understanding what type of film I was making. I realized that it can’t be a film shot entirely with a still camera given the nature of Mr. Georges. It was the first time I was shooting handheld. For me, this film has also been a challenge, that is, getting out of the convention in which I had worked in the few films I had made before: still camera, focus on aesthetics, thought through to the smallest detail, observational.
I wanted to try something new, move everything in front of the camera, put myself on the same level as the character. Push all the boundaries I had at the time. I started the film in a similar key to Ionaș Dreams of Rain, and five years later, when it was finished, it was completely different. I had a different search. After accepting the film’s style, the next challenge was the editing process because the person I am now wanted to bring out the best in who I was when I shot the film. Here I was helped a lot by Ciprian Cimpoi, who has more experience with feature films and who has never given up on me, especially when I was low and didn’t feel like looking for and trying new versions.
The debut film is very important because it’s the filmmaker’s card as they step into the world of cinema. The Man And His Shadow is an independent film, made with no budget and with borrowed equipment, and that’s because you were attached to the character and felt the urgency of the matter. Now you also handle its distribution. How do you see the position of a young documentary filmmaker who wants to make their voice heard? Is there an ideal way to achieve what you want?
There is an ideal way – being able to work on your project without having to think about what other job you can find that allows you to continue with the project you’re working on. Ideally, you should be able to make a living from the projects you are doing. In documentary film, sometimes you don’t know how long the production will take, and often the post-production takes up to a year or two. It’s hard to find financing, especially when in Romania there is only one state film fund, which finances a small number of documentaries and with little money. Ideally, you make a film on which you are paid at least for a period of time and you manage to pay all your collaborators, not by relying on the money you earn from the jobs you do when you are not working on your own project. It’s the story of my life – I would take other jobs so I could pay my friends to help me. It’s nice to work on something of your own and not have any pressure, but at the same time, it’s very hard and can be frustrating. When it comes to documentary film, apart from the poor resources, when you want to pitch your project to a producer, they expect you to present a teaser, so you still have to dip into your own pockets until you manage to attract financiers in the project.
When making your debut, there is a lot of pressure to be selected at a big festival, which would confirm your work and help you with your next film and make connections, put you on a map. When is the best time, the best context? That’s hard to predict. I didn’t want an online premiere for my film. I wanted a theatrical release. I managed to release it now, although there are other issues involved.
Documentary films are generally put at a disadvantage, they don’t get that much visibility.
Ideally, you have the necessary budget, you make the film as soon as possible and in a short amount of time so it’s still relevant in the current climate, so that afterwards it can find a place in the festival agenda and then be widely released. That goes if you’re an emerging filmmaker. If you’re an established filmmaker, you can do whatever you want, because you already have a solid network to support you. I’m kidding, I think you’re under a lot of pressure even when you’re well-known.
Either you choose your own moment or the moment chooses you. In my case, it was the latter. I shot for a year. Then, for a year, I couldn’t even get near the footage because I was still too attached and I couldn’t watch myself on the screen. But I didn’t waste time, I launched a photobook, Hometown, went to festivals with my short Ionaș Dreams of Rain, worked on other projects, saved some money.
Watching your films, I couldn’t help but notice that you are interested in single, marginal male characters, whom you capture in their own environment. Where is this interest coming from?
It’s true. And it’s personal, I’m sure. It may come from a need or something that was left without closure. Films can be a way of dealing with that; in Mr. Georges’ case, that was quite clear and I even told him he was like a grandfather to me. Maybe I didn’t have this kind of connection when growing up. Perhaps I’ve fulfilled this need this way, but let’s see what happens on the next projects.
But besides the personal factor, I’m really interested in remote places and remote people. Meaning people on the margins of society, who have been forgotten or do something that seems forgotten. I like to explore this area. I don’t know what else I have left to explore or if there is a next level, but I know this: I was astounded by the fact that Mr. Georges was marginalized while being surrounded by people. Although he was surrounded by students, who were his source of energy, he was still alone, and that was because he hid behind this thick wall of comedy, which was really difficult to penetrate. He was a bit more open with me but still kept it safe. And I think the institution adopted a similar position towards him. I was curious about that, about why the institution doesn’t show a more firm position and stronger communication when it comes to its employees, the people it relies on.
Regarding my protagonists, I’m rather interested in how they perceive the world and their surroundings. Given the nature of their job, they inevitably have a lot of time to think. And even if they’re no big intellectuals, they’re gifted with a life perception that is authentic and direct. I admire that.
But your films are not just observational exercises focused on one individual. They also approach an area that transcends reality, turning them into a sort of meditation about loneliness, the passage of time and even death.
I find it interesting when the reality we all see goes to a completely different sphere if you look at it in more depth or approach it from a certain angle. Then you start wondering if it’s reality or a dream that you’re living. I like this area of magic realism, of oneiric. I wish I could have exploited it more in The Man And His Shadow, but Mr. Georges steals the show with his personality so I felt that for this film, at least, that was enough.
Besides filmmaking, you are also a photographer, you’re both into artistic, auteur photography, as well as press photography. How did you become passionate about cinema?
When I was little, I wanted to be an architect or an actor. Later, I started drawing mood boards and comics and wanted to become a commercial director, because I had some cool ideas for fictional products. By the time I got to high school, I forgot about all that. I got a camera and I started shooting videos of my friends doing skateboard tricks, also making commercials for fictional products. Later I bought a better camera, which also took pictures, and I started hanging out with some friends who were also passionate about photography. Now, if I look back, I think one thing I learned at the time is that I shouldn’t stop looking for the perfect shot and that it’s okay to return to the same place for a do-over or that sometimes you may have bad days but the effort of trying is far more important.
When did you decide to apply to Film Directing?
I was a senior in high school when I decided that I wanted to go to film school, but it was too late. My parents were reluctant about the idea because they didn’t exactly understand the admission process, that you had to prepare a portfolio, and what sort of prospects art school would offer you. So I decided to go to Cluj and apply to Psychology. But I didn’t graduate high school, didn’t pass the final exams. They kicked me out. I was caught cheating on the Math exam. It was the first year they put cameras in classrooms (laughs). So I was pretty carefree that summer. I went places and had fun and relaxed, but I also felt very guilty. All of a sudden, I realized I had an entire year to prepare for the film school admission exam.
Were you a cinephile?
Not so much, but I got lucky with Lucian Maier (i.e. film critic), whom I had as a teacher for a year in high school and who preferred showing us good movies instead of sticking to the school curriculum. I would also watch movies on torrents, but I was rather in the Lynch and Tarantino area. I was quite far from the filmography required at UNATC.
What was college like?
Personally, it wasn’t that great. I felt the teachers were not that much in tune with our searches; they rather gave some feedback, which applied or not, depending on the case. They would listen to some suggestions and explain some stuff, but they weren’t putting much effort into working with you. They rather wanted you to see and do things their own way. Which seems a bit unnatural for a vocational school, where they are supposed to help you to find your own voice. But I realized that later, after I finished school.
I didn’t feel encouraged, except for the short documentary I made, The Floating Bridge. I felt I learned something here, even though having only one semester dedicated to documentary film is not enough. I had started working on the project earlier, so by the time we started this semester I’d already had an editing plan. Therefore, it was a back and forth between me and the teachers: they understood what the film was about, what I wanted, they showed interest, they gave me ideas and helped me.
I can’t say I received the same support with my first fiction project, where I had a script and had to work with actors and with the production department. As future directors, we have to learn to work with actors. Therefore, shouldn’t there be some serious classes on that in school? Shouldn’t the teacher come and see how you work with the actors, how you manage on the set? So there’s no gap between the moment you come up with a script and the moment you show them the final edit of the film.
I didn’t feel encouraged with my graduation film. I wanted to make a light, easygoing film, I didn’t want to bother with layers and subtleties and make something too elaborate. It was also about school. But everyone told me it was stupid. After finishing it, I was teased about it: Why did you make this film? Why this way? I’m not saying they’re not right, but why do you have to put me in the corner for experimenting with something new and accomplishing what I set out to do?
Did that make you pursue documentary filmmaking?
Working on this fiction film was definitely traumatic. Maybe “traumatic” is too strong a word, but it wasn’t the most comfortable situation, that’s for sure. It’s hard to imagine myself working on a fiction film and not to think that it’s just like in college, that everything is happening as it did then. It’s hard not to feel like I’m alone again and that I have to insist on everybody all the time to do their jobs. It’s very odd.
It’s not easy when you have your first experience with fiction film and you’re not encouraged, or even worse, you’re constantly criticized, you’re asked to re-edit or re-shoot it, and that in a mocking tone. Honestly, I don’t recommend it. When I hear someone wants to go to Film Directing at UNATC, I ask them why. I do hope though that since I graduated, things have changed for the better.
What do you like about filmmaking? What does directing offer you?
I don’t separate genres that much anymore, I don’t see them as just fiction or just documentary, as real or make-believe. I want to go into a more hybrid area, which is what I’m looking for now, with the new project I’m working on.
I have this drive to make films, which is quite visceral. I haven’t been able to define it very well yet. What I like about documentary film is that things happen anyway and it’s up to you to see them in a certain way, to capture and shape them. That’s what I’m interested in. And I also like this area of magic realism. I saw something and I’d like to tell you about it. How? Let’s start with a film.
Banner Photo: Vlad Mat