Carmen Tofeni: The eye of the camera operator must be the eye of the whole film

13 April, 2020

When I watched “Ivana the Terrible” (2019), the latest film by Ivana Mladenovic, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the cinematography was signed by a woman, Carmen Tofeni. It’s her first feature. I must confess that I didn’t know her, although, during my research for the interview, I discovered her name in the credits of several Romanian films made in the last years which I knew well, but as the 1st or the 2nd camera assistant: “The Treasure “,” Eastern Business” or “La Gomera”.

Since I really liked the free camera movement and the seemingly raw picture of “Ivana the Terrible”, and the whole film in fact, I felt that I should meet Carmen Tofeni and that she would be a great choice for a portrait-feature in the Emerging Voices series. Due to the isolation measures imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, we couldn’t meet face to face, but we had a long and honest discussion by phone, and the result can be found below.

I discovered an extremely ambitious and motivated person, who realized in high school that working with the camera is her great passion and has struggled a lot to get to this point. She wanted to apply to UNATC, but eventually went to ASE. Still, she didn’t think twice and resigned from her first job as a “marketing analyst”. She then moved to Italy, without any safety net, and returned to Romania after a few years of working, studying and adding films to her portfolio.

She studied at the oldest and most prestigious film school in Italy, being the first Romanian to arrive there: Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, where she had the legendary DoP (director of photography) Giuseppe Rotunno as a teacher and mentor. Her graduation film, “Non sono nessuno”, was nominated in 2014 in the best short film category at David di Donatello, the most important awards ceremony in the Italian film industry. She has participated in professional development programs for young filmmakers at the Berlin (2017) and Sarajevo (2016) festivals, and the most recent international short film she has worked on, “Route-3” (2019, by Thanasis Neofotistos), has been selected at Toronto and Clermont-Ferrand. At the same time, she is preparing, this time as a director, a feature-length documentary on a personal topic.

Born on November 16, 1983 in Năsăud, Carmen Tofeni realized during high school that she liked photography and motion picture, so she decided, together with a colleague and friend, to apply to UNATC, in Bucharest, although she admits that she hasn’t been “very exposed to cinema, apart from what could be watched on VHS tapes at the time”. “I knew I wanted to do something which involved holding the camera, since I had a camera myself. I was already taking pictures, but not on a professional level, rather amateur-like. I liked watching things through the lens, setting a frame and deciding what should be or not be in the shot”, says Carmen Tofeni.

After reading about admission in a flyer and having several discussions, she realized that training classes were necessary to enter UNATC. And that would have implied frequent trips to Bucharest, in other words money from her parents, and she didn’t want to put them through such costs, all the more since they didn’t seem to support her much in this artistic direction, telling her “you can’t have a living by working in film”.

To reassure them, she applied to Polytechnic University in Cluj-Napoca and ASE in Bucharest: “I got in at both of them, but decided to go with ASE, because it’s easier and I thought I could drop out after the first year or also go to UNATC in parallel. That was actually my strategy: to leave Năsăud and to get closer to Bucharest. You couldn’t get out of such a small town without having a degree and take a sabbatical year, for example, because everyone would have talked about you. And I didn’t want to put my parents in this situation. Otherwise, I really didn’t care if people in Năsăud said things about me.”

She eventually graduated from ASE, and she even went for a year with the Erasmus program in Toulouse, France, where she attended several extracurricular activities in photography centers – a “very enlightening” experience, as she describes it. She gave up on the idea of applying to UNATC, because, as a second school, it would have been very expensive.

“I saw how important a degree in economics was for my parents, because it offered more credibility in my future. Then four years didn’t seem like a huge loss to me. And even though the studies were not stimulating, because of the education system, I embraced them as if they were leaving me a lot of time for myself. I could orient myself and figure out if film school was really what I wanted to do. It was that sabbatical year that I wanted, but of my own design. Indeed, it wasn’t a year, there were four”, she recalls, now slightly amused.

“I got my degree in economics. I was hired as a marketing analyst and I had that three month probationary period. At the end of this period, they were going to extend my contract, because it was clear that they liked me. But I wouldn’t have seen myself with an indefinite contract. So I resigned, I packed my bags and left with the three month salary”, recalls the filmmaker, now realizing the great courage she had at that moment. Going back home to her parents would have been hard, so she went to Budapest to some friends, where she stayed for a month, “until I figure out which country to go to for studying film”. She thought of France, UK or the Czech Republic, but it was very expensive everywhere, so she chose Italy, where the film school wasn’t so expensive: “I couldn’t go to Bucharest, because I knew I needed a certain distance from my personal environment, and it was easier for me to manage it from remote, rather than in Romania where there would have been constant phone calls.”

She first went to Florence, where she took a three-month course in Italian. In parallel, she started working in restaurants, because “after three weeks in Italy, I only had left 50 cents in my pocket, and, moreover, I realized that I could learn the language even faster at work.”

Then she enrolled in a six-month filmmaking course at Scuola di Cinema di Roma, a school that no longer exists and turned out to be a ‘big scam’: “I spent all my savings on that school, but it wasn’t good at all. I realized that sometime in the third month, but I finished it because at the end I could make a short film and it allowed me to have a part-time job.”

“It wasn’t of any help, but at least I understood the department structure in the film industry and the work behind the camera. I was able to do a little networking, because I got on shooting sets as a trainee. I was asking everyone to put me in the camera department. And, so, I worked on various short films and a medium film. And it was then when I got my confirmation that camerawork and cinematography is what I want to do”, continues Carmen Tofeni.

This experience didn’t discourage her. On the contrary, she became even more ambitious. She began to prepare for the most prestigious institution of film studies in Italy – Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, and, to support herself, she worked as a waitress in parallel, but was also helped by her family.

It was a very elaborate admission, consisting of three stages. “The first one was presenting a portfolio, and I had a lot of pictures. Then there was an interview with three important figures in the film world, the most important of which was Giuseppe Rotunno, the head of the Cinematography Department. Then there was a third stage in November, a month of full immersive. It’s like going to school, but something like Big Brother. Out of 16, eight of us should have remained at the end. It really sucks for those who don’t get in”, says Carmen Tofeni, recalling that she received the news that she got in just before Christmas. It was December 2009, and she studied at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia for three years, 2010-2012.

There were eight students at Cinematography – six Italians (five boys and a girl), a guy from Colombia and her, the first Romanian at this school, as she would find out soon. “I think I got to the best school. It was the best choice for me, because they prepare you for a profession. We had a lot of practical courses. From the first to the third year, I was only on the set. All the theoretical studies were done standing up. We weren’t sitting at a desk taking notes. Everything came as a result of our curiosities and questions. All the time we were near a camera in the studio. We set the lights, we changed the lens, we set the shots. In the first year, they took us to Cinecitta for exterior shootings. For the interior, we had a studio behind the school. The fact that they were focusing on the practical part was extremely important”, recalls with pleasure Carmen Tofeni.

At Cinecitta

Then, a unique and equally important thing was the lack of exams: “There are no exams, because they believe there shouldn’t be any competition between students. The point is that on the film set you have to work within departments and under collaborations, which means helping each other. It’s not about showing which one is better. Of course, everyone had an academic record, but they never made it public. You didn’t have a report card. The only reasons you could be kicked out of Centro Sperimentale were the lack of punctuality and not being present on courses.”

“We had the so-called ambiances. They were picture exercises, and Giuseppe Rotunno encouraged us to come up with a paragraph from a book we read and turn it into a picture. For him it was very important this transition from screenplay to picture, translating words into images. I think that’s why I’m so passionate about reading the screenplays. I ask all the directors I work with to get involved from the very beginning, the writing or working on the script stage. For Rotunno, that was the foundation of the course. For books or any other kind of discussion, we were always free to go to his office. As head of department, he was always there. He rarely came on the set, because he was of a certain age, but you could go to him, and the discussions with him were the most valuable”, she explains, while also remembering the “valuable” group of colleagues.

At the end of each year, they would make a short film “for which you got a nice budget”. The short film she worked on as DoP in her third year, Non sono nessuno (2014), directed by Francesco Segrè, was nominated in the best short film category at David di Donatello, the most important awards ceremony in the Italian film industry.

However, during school she came to Romania on vacation. In the first summer, she attended the courses on documentary film of Aristoteles Workshop. That’s because she was working only on fiction at school, and she realized she liked the documentary film as well. Another summer, she was a camera trainee on The Zero Theorem (2013), by Terry Gilliam, which was filmed in Romania. The DoP was Nicola Pecorini, who was an inspiration according to Carmen Tofeni.

After finishing Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, she spent another year in Italy, where she made documentaries with her colleagues or worked as a camera assistant. But she realized that she could have the same opportunities in Romania as in Italy, so in 2014 she returned home, where a camera assistant she worked with on Terry Gilliam’s film asked her to be his camera assistant on another film, an American production. “I listen to my gut a lot and I believe in chemistry between people. Since they called me, and somehow I also had this need to speak Romanian, and, besides, Romanian cinema was flourishing, I thought that maybe I belong here”, says Carmen Tofeni.

The first Romanian film she worked on was The Treasure (2015), by Corneliu Porumboiu, and Tudor Mircea was the DoP. She was a camera assistant, and she would work later with the same crew on La Gomera (2019). “The camera assistant is in charge of setting up the camera, keeping the records and paperwork for the camera, maintaining and organizing the camera equipment between scenes, and taking down the camera at the end of the shooting day”, details Carmen Tofeni.

She did that in Romania for 2-3 years, after returning from Italy. But in parallel, she worked as a camera operator or DoP on five international short films, with directors from different countries: “Why abroad? Those were the people I knew. I returned to Romania without knowing people in the local industry. I didn’t have that group of fellow professionals who came out of school together, where they met in the first place. But, then, I have found my generation of peers in Romania. First, you have the curiosity to search for them. Then you meet them on the set. Our film industry is not very big, not when it comes to the technical department.”

What she most likes about camerawork is “handling the camera”. “The picture is the interpretation of something written. When I say interpretation, it’s clear that I’m not just thinking about my interpretation. First and foremost, it’s the director’s interpretation. Together with the director, you find the best formula for that story. The picture also means lightning and camera movement. I like them both. But handling the camera, the camera movement, I find it very important. I feel it carries the audience in certain areas. It’s true that I didn’t have projects which allowed me to reconstruct lightning sets from scratch. I rather had projects where I had to listen to the existing light and find the best negotiation between what exists and what is needed for the project. For now, I feel like the best contribution I can have as a DoP is through camera movement and by understanding the existing light and working with it, rather than create an ambiance by setting the lights from scratch. I haven’t had the project to offer me that so far, so I’ll save that for later”, she explains.

At the same time, she admits that it’s very stimulating to work on a documentary film: “On a documentary film you have to adapt at all times. It’s possible that the event you are filming now may not have the most flattering light, but you have to film it, because it’s important, it’s necessary. So you look for the angle, what stylistics you could use to show it. According to a DoP, this negotiation is beautiful: what is the reality and what is the stylistic interpretation of the reality.”

“The camera also intervenes, with two aspects. One aspect is given by the type of shot and composition: what you show, how you show or what you avoid showing. Another aspect is the camera movement. How do you get the audience from point A to point B. Or, if it’s static, in what way and why it’s static”, she says.

She believes in instinct, but experience is also important: “In documentary film, it’s true that you work a lot by instinct, apart from experience. Experience can help you make decisions very quickly. But the instinct is the one that will guide you towards the right choice. Or at least the one you think is good at that moment.”

As for the relationship with the director, she learned an essential thing from Giuseppe Rotunno: the DoP must be the director’s “shadow” on the set.

“The eye of the camera operator is a subjective interpretation. But it’s very important that your eye is the eye of the project. It must be a collective eye. That’s why you must have certain discussions before. First of all, you talk to the director, of course, because you start with the interpretation of the screenplay. But you also talk to the costume and production design departments, as well as the sound guys. Whether you want to or not, your interpretation is influenced. On the one hand, subconsciously, by all the discussions you have on the script. On the other hand, consciously, because as a DoP you must listen to the director’s interpretation of the script. You don’t tell your own story. You tell his story. Rotunno told us a very cool thing at school: Don’t expect the director to put into words his own interpretation of the script. He won’t be able to, no matter how good a communicator he is. You have to be a shadow of him, everywhere he goes. You can learn useful information when he’s talking to the set designer or the costume designer, not to mention when he’s talking to the actors. You have to be there when the director talks to the actors.”

Filming ”Ivana the Terrible”

About Ivana the Terrible, the film with which Ivana Mladenovic won last year’s Special Jury Prize in the Cineasti del Presente section at the Locarno Festival, she says that she joined the project only a few weeks before the shootings started. “After Ivana asked me if I wanted to work with her, I immediately received the screenplay. I liked it very much, the way it was written, as well as her directorial notes, from which I drew several conclusions. I liked the freshness of the script and the comic elements and the self-irony”, says Carmen Tofeni.

“When I discussed with Ivana about the camera movement, we decided not to look for perfection in handling the camera. We had to keep it raw. To let it scratch a little. To give the feeling that I was there by accident, pressed the REC button and was a little surprised by the events”, she adds.

“But we didn’t try to set a certain camera language. We discovered it on the set, in the first days. It was an ongoing search and the protagonists, who weren’t professional actors, were part of it. It’s another way of approaching a film compared to the way we were taught in school, when you spend hours and days with the director, reading and talking on the script, taking a scene and breaking it down into shots”, says Carmen Tofeni.

She is grateful for making her debut in feature film with such a film: “On its first feature, someone might tend to overdo it, to overdo things. I’m very happy that I had this movie as my debut experience, because I wasn’t given the space to exaggerate, given that I had to dedicate so much time to these protagonists. One more thing that I learned at the film school in Rome, was to not take over the project with the picture or the camera. Those who tell the story have the priority. And in film, the story is transmitted through actors. If you don’t give the actors time and space, and you confine them with lights or tape signs, you may wreck some of their performance and need for freedom. Sure, it’s done in films, but with actors who know how this is going and have rehearsed before, went to a school and then gained experience on film sets. But that was not the case with us.”

Further on, she wants to continue working as a DoP and has several projects in development, including a documentary feature film, Folk!, with Gabriela Forfotă, and a short film with Lara Ionescu, with whom she has also made Cupa Regelui, in 2017. At the same time, she is working on a feature-length documentary, which she will also direct, because it’s an autobiographical topic. In fact, it’s not the first experience of this kind: in 2012 she made a short documentary, Există gânduri, whose protagonist was her own grandmother. For the moment, “directing attracts me only as a necessity, because these are very personal subjects”, concludes Carmen Tofeni.



Banner photo credit: Elias Staiger

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