Alexandru Belc: “I get my ideas when I sit down at my desk and start digging”
Selected at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, in the Un Certain Regard section, “Metronom” (2022) is Romanian director Alexandru Belc’s debut feature.
While Țiriac and Năstase are playing the Davis Cup Final against the United States in 1972, two high-school students are in love and write letters to the Metronom radio show on Radio Free Europe. When the boy receives approval to definitively leave the country together with his family, the two teenagers know they have to break up, but they weren’t expecting their last days together to become decisive for their entire life.
“Metronom” stars newcomer Mara Bugarin, marking her debut in feature film. The cast is rounded out by Şerban Lazarovici, Mara Vicol, Vlad Ivanov, Mihai Călin and Andreea Bibiri. Cinematography is signed by Tudor Vladimir Panduru.
Born on July 26, 1980, in Brașov, Alexandru Belc studied Film Directing at UNATC (i.e. National University of Theatre and Film “I.L. Caragiale” in Bucharest) and attended a master’s program in Political Science at the University of Bucharest. He directed several short films, both fiction and documentary, and made his debut in feature-length documentary with “8th of March” (2012), which speaks about women who lived their youth in communism and who work in various sectors of a fallen industry.
In his second feature-length documentary, “Cinema, mon amour” (2015), made as part of the “Save the Big Screen” campaign, Alexandru Belc follows Victor Purice, manager and former projectionist, in his struggle to preserve the Dacia Cinema in Piatra-Neamţ, one of the last surviving movie theaters in the former network of cinemas owned by the State.
For this Emerging Voices material, I talked to Alexandru Belc about “Metronom”, his interest in the past, his journey in cinema and his passion for film.
You’ve been known as a documentary filmmaker. Your debut in fiction comes seven years after your documentary Cinema, mon amour. You said in an interview that, as regards Metronom, you first thought about making a documentary about Cornel Chiriac and the impact of his program on Radio Free Europe, you did a lot of research on the subject, but then you decided to make a fiction film. How did the transition go?
It was both difficult and easy. The idea of making a fiction film came naturally because I realized that I would never be able to make a documentary about Cornel Chiriac and, in fact, about what I wanted to say. I wanted to make a film about the ’70s, our parents’ generation, the music that was playing in their homes. But there is no footage from that time.
Going through and reading all sorts of files held by Securitate (i.e. the secret police agency of the Socialist Republic of Romania), I thought I should tell the story of those who make up their subjects: high school and college youth who dream of living freely, living in a country like the US, but who find themselves arrested, exposed to public opprobrium and humiliated. I started talking to people who lived through such things as the cases in the Securitate files. Talking to them, I thought about making a documentary in the style of Errol Morris, with talking heads, which can be very powerful and very cool.
At the same time, it was the ’70s, which meant music, freedom, youth, love. That’s when I decided to turn the research I made into a screenplay for a fiction film. I thought about a girl as the main character, it was an older idea of mine. I had a story with a girl who falls in love with a guy who has to leave the country. But I didn’t really have a historical context in which to place it. And I wanted to make a coming-of-age film for a long time. So, I said there is an opportunity: to start from our history and get to a smaller, specific story.
The idea came naturally, but the journey was difficult because, as a documentary filmmaker, I was used to a different flow. I would let the stories come to me. I wouldn’t tell the characters what to say. And now, all of a sudden, I had to fill pages with lines, situations, create characters, tension, emotion. It was the first time I was doing that. Until then, I would do all these things in editing. Although I had written screenplays before, now I was playing at something else.
You were born in 1980, but in the film, you recreate the ’70s, a period pretty much untouched by the post-2000 films about communism, which rather reflected the ’80s. What was the hardest part about recreating this period?
Everything was hard. First of all, I didn’t live in the ’70s. It was hard for me to find the language of the time, I had to do a lot of reading. I recreated the atmosphere of that era from testimony and research. I also felt this lack, the fact that the ’70s haven’t been represented in our cinema. They had a bohemian air, a false sense of liberty. After the July Theses from 1971, the intellectuals kind of figured out where we were heading. So they started to leave the country en masse. But the rest of the people didn’t catch on to that so quickly.
The early 1970s were relatively better than what was about to come because the July Theses had not yet taken full effect, and you could still feel the spirit of the 1960s, the most permissive years in the communist era.
It was a lingering wave from the late ’60s. That’s why, for example, when I did the research on the dance style of the time and talked to a choreographer, we took the late ’60s as a benchmark, because we thought that Western trends arrived later in Romania. So then, what did those young people, our parents, see? They still saw the ’60s. It was a transition period.
This transition is also reflected in the film, because in the first part there is a certain freedom that young people enjoy, through their get-togethers and the music they listen to, and then everything takes a massive turn towards repression and terror.
Young people cling to this moment. When you’re young, you’re more unaware. You don’t realize the dangers, you don’t realize what’s going on. Instead, parents already feel the change, they know a bit more about what’s happening, so maybe that’s why they’re more cautious. They know what is going on with their children. And when they’re in trouble, they know who to call.
The film offers a unique and remarkable depiction of the period also in terms of cinematography, at least for Romanian cinema. How did you decide with director of photography Tudor Panduru on what the film should look like?
I worked with Tudor before on Cinema, mon amour. And I told him I wanted to explore the same style, but for a fiction film. To imagine we’re in the ’70s and that we’re making a documentary about a party in an apartment, some girls and boys are listening to music, and we’re moving with the camera among them. Without being constrained by anything. The camera should reflect their energy. That’s what we decided. And in terms of atmosphere, we created it as we imagined it but we took into account the historical references. Since none of us lived in that period, we could do things our own way. It just had to correspond to history.
The film depicts the Old Town of Bucharest, with the old architecture, not that part of the city with the communist, impersonal-looking apartment buildings. What was the process of recreating the period in terms of set design?
First of all, I was financially constrained, so I was influenced by all these financial limitations but also by the fact that Bucharest doesn’t look like it did then. Even the neighborhoods look differently. The buildings have suffered changes, there are cars everywhere, electrical cables, graffiti on the walls. The city has a completely different vibe. We searched everywhere for locations, but in the end, we stuck to the Old Town, because you can still reproduce the old look. Even though we have altered them through graphics and visual effects, the houses existed before communism. That’s what influenced the decision to shoot the film in the Old Town.
Then, the lead character is a girl who lives in an old house, with a massive wood bookcase, with icons on the walls. A house that has preserved much of its pre-communist history. That was the starting point. An elite world, with access to better education, music, and books. That’s the environment I wanted to go for.
It’s a film that talks about freedom and the importance of Radio Free Europe, a major symbol in Romanian recent history. Have you found anything new in your research on Radio Free Europe?
My story with Radio Free Europe begins long before making this film. Liviu Tofan and I did a campaign many years ago to bring the Radio Free Europe archives to Romania, from the Hoover Institution. I was the director of that campaign, within which I interviewed several well-known figures. That’s where it all started. I couldn’t have done the campaign if I hadn’t listened to the recorded broadcasts, if I hadn’t really known what Radio Free Europe meant. Before the campaign, I knew about it just like everyone else, but I didn’t have the insights.
Little by little, the topic of Radio Free Europe was planted in my mind. I was deep in my searches, and in the end, Liviu Tofan suggested I should make a documentary about Cornel Chiriac. He was the symbol of a generation, there were enough materials to work with, we know the people who knew him or wrote about him. We met with Mircea Udrescu, who published two books about Cornel Chiriac. We talked to all the people who knew him. We joined the Cornel Chiriac fan club at Club A. We went to meetings there, we exchanged ideas. I was getting information from all over. I delved into the subject of Radio Free Europe focusing on his program. I listened to all his broadcasts. I have all the interviews with him, I’ve even recovered some that were in a very bad condition. I searched and had a really hard time finding the letters he was sent. There were bags, but most of them were lost. So did a big number of broadcasts.
You have quite a consistent soundtrack in the film, from Mircea Florian and Dorin Liviu Zaharia to The Doors and Janis Joplin. What’s your relationship with music?
I’m very musical. I listen to music all the time: on the computer, on the phone, on vinyl. I make electronic music. I have a very strong connection to music. I think and write while listening to music. All the scenes with a soundtrack, I wrote them while listening to those particular tunes. Music helped me find the emotion when I was writing the script. Music in film, if it happens naturally, has a great impact, both on me, the author, and the viewer. It lifts you up from your chair and immerses you in the film.
Metronom is a film about the past. But you also investigate remnants of the past in your documentaries – 8th of March was about the former communist industry, and Cinema, mon amour, about the former cinemas, which were left in disrepair. How would you explain your fascination with this area?
I really like research. I don’t take my ideas off the street. I get my ideas when I sit down at my desk and start digging. So naturally, I dive into the past. Working with Liviu Tofan for many years in research also had a great influence and it stuck with me. It also might be because I like documentary films and the two go well together.
I know I have nostalgia for the past. I think it has to do with my passion for reading – I sit at my desk in the morning and get up many hours later, I just lose track of time. That’s the best part about filmmaking anyway. The research, investigating and digging until you find the pieces of the puzzle. You don’t know much but everything seems interesting. And I like the element of novelty, to discover things I didn’t know about, which I had never seen before.
I see myself as someone who lives in the present, I feel very grounded, but even so, I have a fascination with the past, with the archives. I’m interested in preserving historical memory. I think it’s also because, during my research, I realized that we, Romanian people, have not preserved our past, we hardly have any photographs or video footage from back then. It’s true, we didn’t have any technical conditions or cameras either. Personally, I don’t think I have more than ten pictures with me as a kid.
Were you afraid to take the leap from documentary to fiction?
No, I wasn’t, because I’m not fearful in general. I’m quite venturesome and I only realize the danger after it’s over. In December, I had this moment of reflection: I made a fiction film, moreover, a period film, which was built up from zero, and it even had a casting call. But I didn’t realize that while working on it. I just went with the flow. And I’m never alone on the journey, I always take other people in the boat with me, like it was with Cătălin Mitulescu, who believed in the film right away. Therefore, I never felt that it could fail one way or another. I wasn’t scared at all. We encountered difficulties along the way, but they all turned out to be good for the film. I’m always looking for the positive side of things. I didn’t see it as such a big deal, because making a fiction film was never on my agenda. I never had that ambition.
The fact that so far I have chosen to make documentary films is because I was attracted by those stories. And they came to me, I didn’t seek them out. For example, the evolution of the Romanian industry was a topic I was researching, but I wasn’t thinking of making a film about it. The idea for 8th of March came from Tudor Giurgiu, who wanted to make a documentary about the Flamingo Boys, a well-known group of male strippers that used to put on shows on the 8th of March, the International Women’s Day. He sent me to do some research. I went on tour with them. But from the Flamingo Boys, I only kept the title, 8th of March, and ended up making a film about women laborers in the former pillars of the socialist industrial Golden Era. The idea of looking into the former state cinemas, which eventually led to making Cinema, mon amour, also came from Tudor Giurgiu, who wanted us to do some campaigns, some interviews. While working on that, I realized that there are actually some stories that I, myself, find interesting.
When did you decide to pursue documentary filmmaking?
In the fourth year at UNATC, I worked on Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (i.e. as a script supervisor). After that, I worked on Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, and Alex Nanau’s The World According to Ion B. Then I went to the Aristoteles Workshop, where it hit me. There I met Jennifer Fox, Thierry Garrel and Rafi Pitts. It was during those three weeks that my passion for documentary film came to life. Something happened there. That’s when I set out on this journey. They showed us some very powerful films, such as Love and Diane or Beirut, which were different from the documentaries we studied in college and which made me realize how important documentary is and how much you can do in documentary, maybe even more than in fiction.
And I started making baby steps, setting small, achievable goals with every film. On 8th of March, I worked with a collective character. I didn’t want to do the same thing, that is, a story puzzle, on Cinema, mon amour, so a character-driven film came out instead. Maybe on the next documentary, I will work with archives. I wanted to try something different with each film. Once I feel I can handle it, I go try something new. I didn’t jump straight into a project I couldn’t handle. I acted within reason.
You also attended a master’s program in Political Science. Why did you go for this area?
Once again, it happened after Aristoteles. It seemed to me that documentary film and political science go hand in hand. UNATC teaches you to be creative, to be free, to listen to your instinct, whereas in studying Political Science, you learn how to conduct a research, how to write an essay, how to make a summary. I went there because I was curious to discover new things, to broaden my horizons, I didn’t want to stick only to this area of writing a screenplay, which I didn’t feel ready to do anyway.
My dissertation paper, which I didn’t defend, after all, was called Managing Historical Memory through Film. That’s what I applied with for the master’s program. The teachers there gave me some guidelines, some reference points, book recommendations, some important figures in political philosophy to follow. I knew that these things could be of great help in documentary filmmaking, even if you make observational documentaries. It helps you understand a historical context, it helps you detach from it. You can see how things are approached on a theoretical level as well.
You studied Film Directing at UNATC in the early 2000s, when the Romanian New Wave was just taking shape. What do you remember about that time?
Hard to say. I think I deleted that period from my mind. It was like a frenzy. Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu and Radu Muntean were like icons, they were the stars of the generation. We had our start in their shadow. Everyone wanted to make realistic, naturalistic films. But no one went to study Bresson or the Dardenne brothers, who are pioneers in realistic cinema. We went straight to Cristi Puiu and the others. It seemed very simple: you set up the camera and shoot long takes. All our films were practically long takes, nothing exciting was happening within the frame. I think this current threw us off somehow. It was very convenient because you didn’t have to think up a shot list.
Luckily, we had Corneliu Porumboiu as a teacher in the second year. We held the classes at the school pub, where we talked about scripts, stories, and movies. There was a great vibe. He was already somebody. He was very demanding, but at the same time, he was trying to get the best out of us, which other teachers didn’t seem able to do. It was something the school was lacking at that point. His classes were a valuable addition to the other courses, which weren’t that constructive. Directing classes were rather focused on screenwriting. We were never taught how to think up a shot list. When we finished college, we didn’t even know how to develop a director’s notebook. I’m not ashamed to say that. With Porumboiu, the approach was different. He was trying to speak our own language. He himself had graduated only a few years ago. He was also very curious about people. That’s pretty much what I remember from college. In the fourth year, I started working and seeing things differently. I basically learned the craft on the set.
In fact, you felt that something was happening and that these people, who were starting to gain recognition, were important.
We saw that the New Wave was receiving wide praise. We felt that things were going in the right direction and that going to school was not for nothing. In the beginning, we didn’t know why we were there, why we chose this profession. But, seeing these New Wave directors and their achievements, we all got caught up in the current. We were easily influenced.
You went to high school in the late ’90s in Braşov. How did you come to apply to Film Directing at UNATC? How passionate about film were you?
I was passionate in the sense that I was watching all the movies that were showing on TV at night. That’s where it all started. I had a very good friend, and I remember that after seeing Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, we were talking on the way to school about what it would be like to make it in the style of Pulp Fiction. To have the same story but told from different perspectives. My friend even put our ideas on paper. We had two other friends who were also movie buffs and had VHS tapes, so we would have these movie nights together. They used to keep diaries with all the music they listened to and all the movies they watched, and for each film they would also add a short synopsis. And they would tell us to watch certain movies so then we could talk about them. They were like older brothers, and it was as if they were checking if we did our homework.
When I was little, I used to go to the cinema with my father, which was before 1989. We were standing in line to get tickets. He would take me from school and we would go to Cinema Patria, mainly to Romanian films. After 1990, the last movie I saw at the cinema in Braşov was Fight Club; I remember that the poster remained in the window for a long time. Then the cinema closed and was turned into a philharmonic. I used to go to the cinema a lot in the ’90s. Then I moved to Bucharest and started going to the Cinematheque, where I pretty much saw everything there was to see.
Did you know what a director does?
Yes, and I liked the idea. I knew what directing was about, but I was also familiar with the concept of editing. I was interested in both of them. In the end, I chose directing; that’s also because editing requires some knowledge about physics.
It’s been 20 years since you started college and now here you are – your film has been selected at Cannes. How do you see your journey in cinema?
I didn’t stick to a certain agenda. I went to college, I discovered the world at the Aristoteles Workshop, but before Aristoteles, I had a short hiatus, when I focused on making music. I was not consistent. I wasn’t that bent on being a director. I did have this aspiration in the beginning, when I got into UNATC, but it slowly faded away. I felt it again when I worked on the documentaries I made. But it was on and off. I haven’t had such an ambitious path. That’s why I think it took 20 years to get to this point.
And it’s been a few years since Cinema, mon amour.
Indeed. I started another documentary. I wanted to make a film about The Mono Jacks, a rockumentary. I also started the DokStation Festival, which was my idea. I went to Claudiu Mitcu and proposed to him to organize this festival together. I do have the tendency to be all over the place.
I can’t even grasp that it’s been 20 years since I started this journey, between the moment I decided to pursue a career in filmmaking and the present moment, when I have a film at Cannes. I don’t know how time passed. I will probably continue in this direction.
Have you ever wondered why you like filmmaking?
To be honest, I don’t like watching my own films. I don’t like the final stage of this process. I mean, I’m glad that it’s over, that we managed to finish the film, but I’m not that eager to watch it on the big screen afterwards. I rather like the process itself. I like to start from nothing and play, create, do research. To turn the research into something that conveys emotion. To discover things. To sit down and wait for the stories to come to me: be it from a Securitate file, from literature, or from memoirs. Then to bring my own contribution to these stories, to build them up, and at some point to see that they’ve all turned into films. I especially like the journey up to the point the film is finished.