Andrei Tănăsescu: “Curatorial predictability is the death of a film festival”

3 December, 2019

Living in Bucharest for several years now, after coming back from Toronto where he moved with his parents as a child and where he studied and started working for the famous film festival there (TIFF), Andrei Tănăsescu is the artistic director of the American Independent Film Festival ( AIFF) in Romania, as well as the coordinator of the industry department at Les Films de Cannes à Bucarest. Currently, he is in charge of the Romanian film program within the International Art Festival Europalia, where Romania is a guest of honor this year.

Born on September 22, 1983 in Bucharest, Andrei Tănăsescu arrived in Toronto, Canada, with his parents when he was 11 years old. “My uncle on my father’s side went to Turkey for work before 1989 and declared himself a refugee, he requested political asylum. He stayed in a refugee camp for about a year and a half and then went to Canada. He took my aunt and my cousin in 1989, before the Revolution. After the Revolution, my folks saw the elections, what happened with the Mineriad and decided to leave. They submitted the documents to be sponsored by my aunt and uncle, who were already in Toronto. It took a while, but we left in October ’94. I had just started fifth grade. I was 11,” he says.

The thought that he was going to live in Canada was “ecstatic”, only that the first years in Toronto were quite difficult for both himself and his parents. “We moved to a suburb of Toronto, Scarborough, and lived in a building with many other immigrants such as Romanians and Arabs. It was a very cool community. I was already speaking English, so that helped me a lot. If that hadn’t been the case, it would’ve been a handicap. You’re that newcomer, the immigrant. You’re already poked and prodded for that. You don’t even have what to wear. It was a difficult time until I started high school, when I managed to settle and it became OK. But, friends or no friends, I did go every summer to Romania, to my relatives on my mother’s side. My parents had to stay in Canada because they were working. It was a tough time even for them, until they settled, since they had to start from scratch. Typical stories,” remembers Andrei Tănăsescu.

In Toronto, he went straight into sixth grade. Then the seventh and eighth grades were some sort of middle school, where he chose to study advanced French. In high school as well, which at that time it was from the ninth grade to the 13th grade. Then came the moment when he had to decide on a college: “All the children of Romanian immigrants were either doctors, engineers or working in IT. Those were pretty much the professions you could pick up from. I liked computers. So I chose IT at the University of Toronto, which was quite ridiculous. ”

But, before actually entering the chosen specialization, in the Canadian education system you had to do a preparatory year. And he did, but the math was much more advanced than the one he learned in high school, computer science was very complicated, the competition was huge, so after this first preparatory year, he failed the admission exam. He started up again and followed a new preparatory year, with the hope of getting into computer science.

Meanwhile, he started going out with other Eastern European immigrants and got back in touch with the Romanian side after being out of the picture during high school. He joined the Romanian Student Club at the University of Toronto in 2002, and even took over as leader from the other graduates. He reformed the club – he convinced many other Romanian students to join in (“I put a table in front of the student campus, and sat there with a Romanian flag and flyers to bring around the Romanian students”) and he organized poetry and film evenings: “I remember that we screened The Fury from a file I downloaded on DCC++ and Philanthropy from someone’s VHS tape. That was in 2003-2004.”

In the first preparatory year, in parallel with general courses on computer science and mathematics, he took “out of sheer curiosity” an elective class on Intro to Cinema, which he really enjoyed. In the second preparatory year, he chose a course on post-1955 Soviet film, but also a course on Hungarian film, where he got really good grades. That’s how he discovered Andrei Tarkovsky. And even though he admits that it may sound cliché, films like Andrei Rublev and Stalker (the latter he considers a masterpiece) made quite an impression on him.

The second preparatory year was over and, because he didn’t get in computer science that time either, he was expelled from the university. “Then I panicked. Your future is at stake. I made a petition signed by all the colleagues from the student club, and the teachers, and I was readmitted. I told them that I had high grades on the film courses and promised them that I would leave the student club, which I did, because in the meantime a new generation had come, who took over from me,” he remembers.

He dropped out of computer science and pursued film studies, which at the University of Toronto were only theoretical and lasted four years: “The first year was Introduction to Film Studies, which covered everything. For example, you would take Bordwell and Thompson and read them from cover to cover. In the 2nd year you had Film Theory and Film History and you had some other courses besides. And in the 3rd and 4th year you majored in what you were interested in”. This is how he studied experimental film, contemporary world cinema, Italian cinema, Hungarian cinema, Czechoslovak cinema, but also independent American cinema.

During the same period, together with some Romanian and foreign friends, he created ToRo Arts Group, a cultural organization whose members set up the first Romanian film festival in Toronto, which ran for four editions. They were preceded, in the summer of 2007, the year when Cristian Mungiu had just won in Cannes with 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, by a showcase of Romanian short films with The Tube with a Hat by Radu Jude on top, which was very well received. He remembers that during the 4-5 years of the festival, when he and his friends from ToRo did everything, including putting up posters, “I spent about $ 10,000 – 15,000 from my personal income.”

Also during those years, his passion for cinema and the desire to reassure his parents, who were worried about his future after choosing to follow the theoretical film studies, brought him closer to Hart House Film Board, a sort of film club, but also a center that rented film equipment. He worked part-time there, meaning he was going for two hours, from 4 pm to 6 pm, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and was in charge of delivering and receiving the equipment. Hart House Film Board also offered support to its members if they wanted to make movies. So he took the opportunity and made a student short film, along with some friends.

During college, he discovered Gilles Deleuze’s works on film. Because he couldn’t find a master’s program on the topic he was interested in, and because there were no legitimate studies on Romanian film in English, in 2009-2010 he went to pursue a master’s degree at Saint Andrews University in Scotland, whose department was created by Dina Iordanova, for working on a paper on Deleuze and the Romanian cinema.

“I was trying to draw a link between pre-’89, post-’89 and post-2000 through certain filmmakers and certain trends in the Romanian cinema that actually lead to division. A cinema that reflected the deterritorialization of the citizen as an individual. I also addressed the connection of Romanian cinema with time,” says Andrei Tănăsescu.

Returning to Toronto after his master’s degree, he started working for TIFF. He had previously met Cameron Bailey, the artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, through director Andrei Dăscălescu. It was the first time he pitched himself, wishing to collaborate with Canada’s most important film festival and one of the biggest in the world. The past experience of curating and organizing the Romanian film festival did help him.

They contacted him while he was still in Scotland and proposed him to be the “shadow” of the festival director. “I couldn’t go, because I was getting back too late due to my dissertation,” he recalls. He returned to Toronto when that year’s edition of the festival had already begun. And he received a job as PAL – Programming Associate Liaison: “I didn’t know anything about the job. Each screening location needs a person from the programming department, who is a different person than the location manager. You have a pair of headsets and you have to talk to the representatives of each film while they are on location, and make sure that all the needed seats are reserved, that you know who is coming, the time at which they are coming, with whom they are coming.” He only did this one year. Then he was offered to work as curator with Dimitri Eipides. “Although very little known outside the festival circuit, he is one of the most important film programmers in the world,” and over the years he has created numerous film festivals in several countries, says Andrei Tănăsescu, mentioning that Dimitri Eipides is one of the people he appreciates most.

For TIFF, Dimitri Eipides was the programmer of films from Central and Eastern Europe and Iran. And Andrei Tănăsescu was his assistant, from 2011 to 2018, when Dimitri Eipides retired. “I was a pre-screener. A prime filter. There are movies that come through recommendations and go directly to the programmer. And there are movies that have been submitted. For the past 3-4 years, I’ve been in charge of tracking & scouting. Throughout the year I’m going to film festivals in countries from the territories we cover. You go there to watch what the local cinema has to offer,” he says. He is glad that his film recommendations have almost always reached the final selection of TIFF, as happened with ¾, by the Bulgarian director Ilian Metev, Soldiers. Story from Ferentari, by Ivana Mladenovic, or ”I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians”, by Radu Jude.

He was also traveling to Romania, where he permanently moved in 2014, continuing to work in parallel for the Toronto International Film Festival.

The reasons that made him return to Bucharest, 20 years after he left for Canada? “Love and cinema”, he admits. Together with a friend from Canada, Sebastian Cîmpean, a colleague at ToRo Arts Group, he was working on a documentary about Romanian hip-hop, being a music enthusiast since childhood: “We started working on it in 2011-2012. We were obsessed. We were raising money in Canada and coming here to spend them on shootings.”

Both of them eventually returned to Romania – him in Bucharest, his friend in Cluj – and hoped to finish the documentary. They haven’t succeeded by now, due to lack of money and time, but they haven’t abandoned the idea: “I find it necessary. So far no one has done justice to the Romanian hip-hop scene.”

In the meantime, he had met and had begun a relationship with director Adina Pintilie, who had also returned to Romania to start filming Touch Me Not.

After moving to Bucharest, he was contacted at one point by Cristian Mungiu, whom he had known for some time, ever since he was doing the Romanian film festival in Toronto. Cristian Mungiu proposed to be the artistic director of the American Independent Film Festival (AIFF), an event that the well-known director had just created, in 2017, in parallel with the traditional Les Films des Cannes à Bucarest.

“I looked a little at what they had shown before, at the first edition, and I tried to find an identity for the festival. I try to bring independent American films in the traditional sense. It’s quite difficult, I admit. It’s hard with the theater halls and it’s hard with the public. Another problem is piracy. Everything that has been at Sundance and you would like to show is already on the internet. There’s nothing you can do. Only if you bring guests. But being America, not Europe, is not easy. But I’m glad, for example, that I brought Roberto Minervini last year,” says Andrei Tănăsescu.

He thinks that the idea of discovery is extremely important in curating: “That moment when you go to the cinema and watch something that blows your mind. You leave the cinema and the movie stays with you, whether you hate it or you love it. It’s the same discovery feeling I had when I watched Stalker, with that scene with the tracking shot on the water and with Artemiev’s music. When I select something, I have to make compromises from many points of view and for many reasons, but I think you have to be very honest with yourself about what you present.”

“And you have to have a very well thought out relationship with the public. You need to know your audience very clearly. You have to adapt to the public, but at the same time you have to push them forward, to give them something slightly different. Every festival has to move forward with each edition, has to change something, to offer something new, because, at one point, the audience gets tired. Curatorial predictability is the death of a festival, I think,” he points out while acknowledging that a selection also depends on the film production of the year.

Cristian Mungiu also invited him to join Les Films de Cannes à Bucarest, where he is in charge of the Romanian Autumn Preview section and the industry department, with Ilinka Mihăilescu. More specifically, the festival has a program where curators from the biggest festivals in the world are invited to watch the latest Romanian productions, in closed screenings – fiction or documentary -, newly completed or on final stage works in progress, as to set a potential selection. “I think this initiative along with Cristian Mungiu is very important for the Romanian film industry, considering the people we manage to bring here. It’s essential. And we are glad that there are such good projects. It’s gratifying to watch the industry in motion, to see the up-and-coming projects,” he says.

Andrei Tănăsescu has also worked on the extensive film program within the International Art Festival Europalia, where Romania is invited this year as a guest of honor, through the Romanian Cultural Institute. According to ICR, the program is a “selection of films that highlight important moments of the social and cultural transition in Romania over the last eight decades: from propaganda films to subversive films, from national-idyllic socialism to the realism of the New Romanian Cinema”.

Paying tribute to the documentary Videograms of a Revolution (1992), directed by Andrei Ujică and Harun Farocki, for the way it analyzes the representation of history, the program curated by Andrei Tănăsescu, entitled Videograms of a Nation, will run for two months, between December and January, in Belgium (Brussels, Gent and Strombeek) and the Netherlands (Amsterdam), and includes screenings of over 90 Romanian films, discussions with numerous filmmakers from all generations, an educational program for students, but also the launch of a volume of essays on Romanian cinema, coordinated by critic Irina Trocan.

“Europalia invited me and gave me a free hand on the film program. I had already been working for two or three years on a retrospective that I wanted to propose to cinemas and festivals. It is extraordinary to be able to present the Romanian cinema in such a large festival, which actually presents a country through art. And how to present a country through film? By reflecting the country’s reality through cinema,” he explains the main idea behind the whole concept.

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