With cinematographer Ana Drăghici, about how hard it is to make it as a woman in an industry dominated by men

4 November, 2019

Born on October 25th, 1982 in Bucharest, Ana Drăghici is one of the very few female cinematographers in the Romanian film industry. She is best known for “Two Lottery Tickets” (2016) and “The Story of a Summer Lover” (2018), directed by Paul Negoescu, but has also worked on several short films and has been an operator for a short time on “Aurora” (2010) by Cristi Puiu.

She recently finished the shootings for two new feature films, by Ruxandra Ghiţescu (“Otto the Barbarian”) and Bogdan Theodor Olteanu (“Mia Misses Her Revenge”), which will be released next year.

Only the second woman to sign the image of a Romanian fiction film, after Anca Damian, who made her debut in the early ’90s.

After graduating the Iulia Haşdeu High School, she entered the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures – University of Bucharest, which she finished in 2005. But her mind was on cinema and, especially, cinematography.

Finally, she got up the nerve and applied to UNATC, the Cinematography department, while still being at Applied Modern Languages, in 2003. After studying for a year at two schools in parallel, she deferred her studies at UNATC, but she resumed them in 2005, in Florin Mihăilescu’s class, and she graduated in 2008.

Then followed a masters degree in Cinematography also at UNATC, between 2009 and 2011, with Dan Alexandru, and since 2010 a doctorate, interrupted in the meantime on personal and professional reasons, but which she wants to resume at Philosophy.

In 2015 Ana Draghici participated in the Sarajevo Talents program of the Sarajevo Film Festival.

She is the founder of the Graphis 122 association, which runs more projects, including the FILM+ support program for young filmmakers, which also includes director Paul Negoescu, producer Anamaria Antoci and film consultant Alex Trăilă.

Why did you switch from Foreign Languages to film studies?

The cinema thing has haunted me since high school. But at first I didn’t have the courage to apply to film school. Not even my folks supported me on this decision. In high school I had two or three colleagues, including Iulia Rugina, who later entered the Directing department, with whom I was often going to the cinema. I was watching films on a regular basis and something kept stirring inside. At one point I told myself I should try, too. Cinema was a passion. I didn’t see it as a profession at that age. My father died when I was a freshman in Foreign Languages. I was adrift for a few years, until the shock passed, until I decided to give it a try. I had no money for private lessons, not even for the weekend classes at school. My mom used to tell me there’s nothing for me to do there. But I applied anyway and got in.

And what did that passion mean in high school?

I was watching movies and taking pictures. At that age I couldn’t define it as a passion for cinematography, but rather a visual one. It was a visual consumption of films, photography, plastic arts.

Did you know from the beginning, after deciding to apply to UNATC, that you want to enter the Cinematography department ?

Yes. No doubts there. It worked on a subconscious level and other certain factors also helped. My friends saw me obsessing on it. My colleagues – Iulia Rugina, Monica Istrate, Roxana Ardelean – were applying to Film. I got close to this group and felt that this was what I wanted to do.

How many students at Cinematography? What was the structure of the department?

I think there were nine slots when I applied. And some other slots have opened: someone else has deferred for a year or other people came from another country. By the end, we were more, 11-12. On tax-free. There were also some who got in on tax.

How was school like? How much did it help you? What did it mean to you?

The admission exam was quite traumatic. I found the commission quite aggressive, especially since I hadn’t been to the training classes, they didn’t know me. But it wasn’t only me to whom they’ve been hostile. I took the exam with George Chiper, and he failed then, maybe because he was intimidated. They were quite aggressive: “But what’s your plan? You are a woman, this is not a woman’s job ”. They used some sort of intimidation. The men were also bullied, but on other issues. I don’t understand this tactic at UNATC. It’s just stupid. But that’s what they do. It was hard, but I really wanted to get in so I prepared as best as I could.

Were you the only girl at Cinematography that year?

I think we were three or four girls. It was the first year with several girls. It was the first step towards diversity.

How useful was school?

Professionally, it was good that I went through the biggest difficulties.

What do you mean by that?

First of all, we only worked with film rolls. We didn’t catch the digital age. The first digital camera came out when I graduated. It was a wonder. There were physical difficulties, as well as with the production part, just as in the other sections. We, the ones at Florin Mihăilescu, were in the class parallel to the directing class of Elizabeta Bostan. They were very into shooting on film. And since Bostan was the dean, she gave her class a lot of film rolls. So we were shooting on film. From this point of view, we have benefited from many resources. It was great, because you could practice a lot.

Mihăilescu, beyond his questionable behavior, was the teacher I learned the most from, looking back now. I really learned a lot. I still have my notebooks. He would find ways to encourage you. For example, he would make you listen to classical music or go to the theater, read poetry or philosophy, and write about these things. He gave certain topics and a course support, and besides the films we had to make, we also had an oral exam, but also these reports that were graded. He had this idea that you must also learn to express yourself in writing. Which I think is very important.

In those years, I wrote a lot about the image in old Romanian films. We got in in 2005, so the New Wave was at the beginning and it was very condemned: “What’s that you are doing now,  you no longer know how to hold a camera in your hand …” We caught that time of tensions between the professors and the New Wave.

Was there a tension?

There was. The coordinating teachers, until they got used to the New Cinema, had this thing: “Don’t worry, the director will make sure you’ll shake the camera more.” They were frustrated, because they were trained in this reliable, calophile system, in which every single thing in the shot had to express something.

Apart from the cinematography course, I would say that I also learned something at Viorica Bucur, in History of film. Other than that, a lot of practice. That helped. And I’m sorry I didn’t shoot more. It could have been a lot more help if I were smarter. But since I wasn’t very sociable, I didn’t make many friends, I didn’t go to parties so I didn’t make friends with the directors to work with them. I wasn’t thinking about that. I saw it as a school and I took it as a school. I didn’t understand how important networking is.

What about the masters?

The professional issue was that I finished in 2008 with the onset of the crisis. One way or another, while being a student I was getting some work. Most of them were on photography, but I also got some presentation films.

I went through a very bad depression, because I couldn’t find work. I had some two-cents proposals on TV, to work 12 hours a day at one of the Antena channels. And they were very nasty: “What’s that, you want more, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” Also on television, a guy told me that if I sleep with him, I would get a job as a cameraman. And I was like, “Are you tripping?”

It was very difficult during the crisis. The first budgets were cut on clips and in advertising. There was no work to be done. That’s when I set up an NGO, Graphis 122, which is about ten years old now and is doing all kinds of projects, including FILM+. I had to find something, because I couldn’t do my job. It was very, very frustrating.

I went to the masters to make a film with Iulia Rugina, the medium film Captivi de Craciun, which we also shot on film.

Also during that time I received a proposal to be a camera operator on Aurora, by Cristi Puiu. So I worked on it, but only for a while, because we didn’t get along. Viorel Sergovici was the DoP. They started the film with Sergovici as the DoP and a French camera operator, then the Frenchman was replaced by Sergovici, who was also an operator for almost half of the film. In the second part of the shootings, he started looking for young, inexperienced operators. He had a casting, and I was picked from several participants, including some colleagues.

After I left, it was hard. I felt very bad for not finishing the movie, there were another three weeks of shootings left. I’ve worked for seven-nine days. I don’t know exactly. Had training with Cristi Puiu for a month and a half. Went on scouting. Been rehearsing. Had many discussions.

For the moment, I was glad I got out of the project. Emotionally speaking, it was very challenging for me because there was a lot I didn’t understand at that time. At one point, I even told Cristi that I didn’t think it was a good idea, because I had no experience and it was a very big project. It was overwhelming. His personality, too. I didn’t know how to handle these things, even though I wasn’t 22-23. But I was still just out of school, inexperienced. I was sorry I didn’t finish it. On the other hand, I don’t think I could finish it. It was very intense. And he was very stressed out because he was also playing in the film. The energy was overwhelming.

Have you thought during all these years what actually attracts you at cinematography? Why do you enjoy doing this?

Still thinking. It’s very organic. You set your eye on the camera and you start to see, you start to cut, you start to feel. What really attracts me is spontaneity. Of course, preparation and other things are important. But what happens between me and the actor on that moment, that’s amazing and very challenging. It’s a relationship where he builds something, and I have to capture it, in a visual way that is consistent. You need to connect the dots.

Also, I like the process of working with the director, because you get to know a man … Good camera work is the one that subscribes to the directorial approach, the concept, the screenplay, and it’s not that great. I don’t like and don’t necessarily take as a guideline those aesthetically beautiful films, but those where the image is so well intertwined with the narrative, that you don’t feel the construction behind the shots.

How do you see the relationship with the director?

It’s a complicated relationship. I feel like I’m a sponge and I have to absorb everything he can’t express in words, text or concept. I find it fascinating. Getting to know one another on such an intimate level. I cannot say it’s a process, that we have to watch and like the same movies, to take references. Of course, this is a starting point in any project. But beyond that, it’s an organic, chemical thing. I noticed this thing at the directors I worked with – small or big, on short or feature films – that they have a text, a visual concept, but somewhere on the way they feel like they’re lost. And they need a very close partner. Especially beginners, those with less experience. And since the producer is usually busy, and doesn’t have the time or the necessary mood, a kind of marriage with the operator is installed for a limited time.

Ana Drăghici
Ana Drăghici, during the shooting of „Otto the Barbarian”

Is there room for that spontaneity you talk about in the relationship with the director?

Yes, there are moments, and that’s the beauty of it, when the shooting goes beyond the limits of preparation, it becomes a little something else. This always happens. In that moment you have to be very present, beyond the technical aspect. It’s the symbiosis you actually facilitate. You are between the director and the actor, and your eyes and ears have to be on both of them at the same time. You have to be there and come with suggestions: “You need to know that visually what you want is not transmitted.” If you are very present, very valuable spontaneous things can happen. In indie films it happens more often and that’s why I think I have a soft spot for them.

Why do you think there are so few female camera operators in our industry?

I do think about reasons, then I change my mind, and so on, and I can’t decide on just one thing. There’s a vicious circle. It’s a male-dominated area, has been quite a lot until recently. I guess, until this digital part came up, there was this preconceived idea that it’s a heavy job, that the operator has to carry heavy stuff. Let’s be honest now, not all male operators do that.

It seems to me there’s a sort of lack of confidence. It’s a land that’s still not enough explored, which is only now beginning to be discovered. There’s also this thing: “Come when you have a portfolio. You are cool, but I cannot take you, because you have no experience ”. But how do I gain experience if you don’t give me any short film, or independent film, or a smaller project? Of course, no producer will take a newbie and give him a big budget. Or, if he is a first-time director, he won’t take a first-time operator as well. And the well-known directors already have their operators. It’s a hard-to-break circle. And I’m not just talking about male directors and producers. It also applies to female directors and producers.

I just think this isn’t fully taken into account. I don’t think it’s done intentionally. I don’t believe anyone thinks, “Oh, it’s a woman, I don’t want to.” But outside the cinema area, I had such rejections: “You’re a woman, you’re not in.” I had such an experience on a political campaign a few years ago. Someone called me. I don’t even know what party it was from. They were doing some ads. He got my number through an acquaintance and he called me and we started talking, and at one point he told me he wanted to talk to the operator. He thought I was a secretary. After we talked a little, he told me he was sorry, but they didn’t work with women. And he hung up. That was the only direct rejection I got. Other than that, I wasn’t declined on such reasons.

I don’t like networking, I never knew how to meet other directors at festivals. I worked with whom I knew: Iulia, Paul, Raya al Souliman. I had worked with Paul even before we got together.

Probably a combination of that lack of confidence you talk about and prejudice.

It is a lack of confidence. It’s a whole new story with this women’s rights movement. Society is not used to paying attention to the real needs of women. It was and still is a rather powerful patriarchy. There’s also fear, being afraid of the unknown.

Coming from men?

From both men and women. For example, now I have filmed Otto the Barbarian, by Ruxandra Ghiţescu. There were only women in the project: Ruxi, myself, Dana Bunescu on editing, Mălina Ionescu on production design, producer Anda Ionescu, the first AD, producer Iuliana Tarnoveţki. At one point, there was talk of what it will be like on the set, since there were many women. I found it outrageous. How is it going to be? How’s a shooting with only men involved? There was nothing out of the ordinary or anything spectacular. It was my first time, too, working on such a project. Most were dominated by men. But I personally didn’t feel any difference. It’s the fear of the unknown.

How did you design the image of Two Lottery Tickets and The Story of a Summer Lover? How did you talk to Paul?

The advantage was that, being together, I was near him while he was writing it, while he was building it. Maybe we didn’t talk all the time. But I did have contact with what he was doing, what he was working on. Sometimes we would seek each other’s advice. The concept was born along the way.

The concept of Two Lottery Tickets was quite simple. We have no money. But we don’t have to make it look like we have money. Usually, when you have little resources, you try to show that you are more powerful than you are. Then everything turns into a fake. It was quite difficult, because it had to look good, but at the same time keep the idea of a small, low-budget movie. The second thing was the static shots. Then the comedy. And these things come together in a kind of package, you see what limitations each of them brings, and you start to build on that: let’s go a bit in the BD area, old comedies, a bit of nostalgia. Let’s keep the music on the same line.

In The Story of a Summer Lover, you partially keep the same concept, but at the same time you bring new things.

Woody Allen’s films were a reference to The Story of a Summer Lover. And Bucharest, as a city, was very important in the movie. But the center of Buchrest.

Which in reality doesn’t look like you shot it.

No, it doesn’t. We had to bring some romance here. We wanted it to be a romantic city, in a movie that is not romantic at all. That was the brief. Paul said he is making a movie that is not romantic, but the rest, the packaging (image and music), should be romantic. The music and locations helped a lot. I especially looked for sunsets or times when the sun was lower. We scheduled every shot according to the position of the sun.

It is, however, a colorful Bucharest.

There are tricks to do that. But it was difficult because there were shots where, if I moved the camera one centimeter further to the right or to the left, I would get cables, advertisements, air conditioners. We actually had to delete some of these things. Clean it up a bit.

And amplify the colors.

Shooting on film did help because it has more vivid colors than digital. Moreover, the film also brings a nostalgic look, because the viewer’s eye has now gotten used to the digital, which has a sharper image.

Do you find it difficult to be a director of photography? Is it harder to find projects given that you are a woman?

I feel it’s difficult to find my projects, but I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman or not. I can’t say that people won’t take me because I’m a woman. I don’t know that. Watching the careers of talented operators, who are doing very well, I’ve noticed that the first or second film is very important, if it’s selected at festivals and if it’s seen. After that you also benefit from the director’s glory. By association, your portfolio becomes more relevant. Which is very important.

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