Cristina Haneș: Documentary film should reflect the experience of knowing people as much as possible

3 February, 2020

Born on March 27, 1991 in Oradea, Cristina Haneș is one of the most talented and promising young documentary film directors in Romania. Her debut feature, “A Rifle and a Bag” (2020), about a former Maoist fighter in the Indian jungle, made with two other young filmmakers, Isabella Rinaldi (Italy) and Arya Rothe (India), had the world premiere in the Bright Future Competition at the 49th edition of the Rotterdam International Film Festival (January 22 – February 2), where it also received a Special Mention, and will be screened at One World Romania in Bucharest (March 20-29). I’ve talked to Cristina Haneș in Rotterdam about her work in India, about her professional pursuit and inclination towards documentary film.

In high school, Cristina Haneș was in the Mathematics-Informatics, English class. She says she was an “introverted” and “confused” teenager who by 17-18 still didn’t know what to do in her life.

“When looking at different universities, I couldn’t find myself in any of their descriptions. Still, I was leaning more towards Humanities schools. But there was something about them that made me very anxious. Then a very good friend of mine applied to Film at Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca (Faculty of Theater and Television, section of Cinema, Photography, Media – n.r.). So I thought I should try, too. Before admission, there were some training courses. I attended them. That’s when I became really interested in this area. For example, at some point during these courses, I had to analyze a painting as part of a conversation. I hadn’t done that in my life. I felt that I had come across something relevant. I hadn’t participated in any workshop until then. I had no connection with the art world. I didn’t use to consume much art,” recalls the director.

However, she liked watching films, but she was more into American ones, those with a twist, such as Fight Club (1999, dir. David Fincher).

“I was a terrible teenager. Very shut-in. There was no way you could talk to me at all. Then, in my first year of college, I opened up a lot. I started with street photography. It was the very first thing I liked. I think that’s when my interest for documentary started,” says Cristina Haneș.

After college (2010-2013), during which she made several short films, including the documentary Veghe (2013), she enrolled, through the Erasmus Mundus program, in an international Master’s in Directing Documentary Film – DocNomads Joint Master’s Degree – held in Portugal, Hungary and Belgium, between 2014 and 2016.

At that time, she made a very special 40-minute documentary in Lisbon, António y Catarina, which was selected in several important festivals and won the Pardino d’Oro award for best short film at the 2017 Locarno Festival. A poetic, transgressive film, with a mysterious man of almost 70 years, captured by the director in his small apartment.

During her Master’s studies, she was colleagues with Isabella Rinaldi from Italy and Arya Rothe from India, with whom she became friends: “The three of us decided, in utopian terms, to set up a group after finishing school. First we thought of directing a film together, and get rid of the role hierarchy, see how such a project would work. Frankly, when you share a director credit, the involvement is different for everyone. So we wanted it to be very liberal, so to speak. Of course, each of us has the possibility to contribute sometimes more than others, but the idea was not to quantify it at every step. The involvement had to be whole on each aspect.”

With the Dogma 95 manifesto in mind, they created NoCut Film Collective, aiming to work exclusively in documentary cinema within this group. “One thing that binds us is that, stylistically, we try to be as less manipulative as possible during editing. So we use the long shot a lot. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t. But we are trying to create the conditions for a long shot to happen. We think a lot about it. And in this way, we collaborate very much with the people we film. We do not work in a rigid, observational style,” explains Cristina Haneș.

“We had to choose the first country where to make a film together, in a collaborative, cross-cultural way. That was the main idea. We decided to go to India for leisure, but also with the idea of making a movie if something comes up, if the three of us together find something relevant. For Arya it was a bit more complicated to come to Europe and stay for a longer period, so we went to India, initially for three months. It was a kind of research, an initiative trip. Then, during the three years we worked on the film (A Rifle and a Bag – n.r.), we spent about seven months in total in India,” says the director.

On their first three-month trip to India, they also reached Maharashtra, a state in the center of the country. There, through a doctor who was a family friend of director Arya Rothe, they discovered a community that lived as a colony on the outskirts of a town near the jungle, and that was made up of people who fought for the Maoist Naxalite guerrilla war, but now they’ve laid down their weapons and surrendered, receiving little land to build a house.

“Emerged in 1967, the Naxalite movement follows Mao’s Little Red Book. They also had the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels translated into tribal languages. We were very surprised at how big this movement was. Of the 29 states of India, they live in 14. That means that they have conquered territories, which they call freed areas. They are very well organized. The Indian government has been very successful in holding this conflict within the country. Therefore, very little is known about it abroad. Not even us knew about it when we arrived in India. The Indian authorities and the official press consider them terrorists. Naxalite members uphold the rights of people belonging to the tribal community. That’s what they’re fighting for. But what they really want to do is overthrow the government and set up a communist government,” details Cristina Haneș.

Inside that colony, whose inhabitants live in a kind of administrative and legal limbo, the three directors discovered Somi, a former guerrilla fighter who is now married (also with a former combatant), has one child and is expecting one more. “She clearly stood out. First of all, she wasn’t as impressed with the white skin as the others, because she had seen it before. Moreover, she knew about the existence of Ceausescu and the communist regime in Romania. A bit surprising for a woman who fought in the Indian jungle. She was tough. We liked this quality of hers. We were very interested in her perspective, because it was the most complex you could find around. The first years of her life she spent in her tribe in the jungle. Then, at age 12, she enrolled in the Naxalite movement. She was with them for ten years. By the time we met her, she had surrendered for about eight years. One third of her life she spent in the tribe, one third in the commando, and now living a civilian life, as a Naxalite who surrendered,” says the filmmaker.

“Even if you get the impression that the film is an observational one, it is quite participatory, but hidden. Hidden in the sense that the protagonist was extremely skilled in enticing others to join her in front of the camera, in setting a mood, in opening a discussion on a certain topic that we had earlier decided on together. But we were inspired by things that happened to them, which we heard of, but had no access to. The film is a mixture of scenes where certain things hat to be retaken and extremely spontaneous scenes where we didn’t intervene at all and there was pure observation. Many of them are like that. Moreover, we worked with a wider lens, with the intention of less need of editing,” she adds.

Cristina Haneș believes that their trip to India and the experience of making such a film there, led to a kind of awakening: “It’s a political, social and racial awareness that I wouldn’t have gotten to, had I not gone to India. I became more aware of  injustices around the world, not just in India.”

Then she learned to pay more attention to the world around her and its codes: “India is a culture so different from ours that it was simply another planet. It was a continuous decoding. It was fascinating. Almost every day there was a thing we had to figure out what it meant. While we were there, we tried to understand the culture. When making a movie, you want to understand every gesture. We were in a constant frenzy to decode everything that was happening around us, not to miss something. That develops your attention. I’m still trying to keep the attitude I had there. I’m more alert.”

She believes that making a documentary, “the gesture of taking a camera and putting it in front of people”, is a very good tool to get into another culture. She sees it as a kind of search and would like to continue that.

“There are more challenges in this kind of situation which stimulate me more than when I understand everything. There’s something there that intrigues me. The fact that it’s much more complicated. You must seek to create obstacles for yourself. The little challenges I personally look for in order to make the experience of making a movie more difficult for me. Every film has to have something complicated, to always have in mind the idea that it is very difficult to make. Otherwise, I can’t get things started. It must have something that I find unattainable at first. To have no idea on how to get started, for example. A thing that keeps me engaged all the time, mentally and energy-wise, and me trying to solve the film in question,” explains the director.

She says she likes the “ethical dilemmas” that a documentary creates. “I only tried fiction once, during school, and I didn’t like it at all. I felt it like a process that didn’t fit my personality at all. Thinking of something and then demanding for it to happen, that’s what it’s all about. Instead, the documentary is about discovering people, whom you treat as mysterious objects. I’m trying to get the movie to convey that, even though I know more on the side. The film should reflect the experience of knowing people as much as possible. Intimate things cannot be revealed from the beginning. Or, if they are revealed, then they must be deconstructed. The documentary is much more unpredictable, which makes it much more fascinating to me,” concludes Cristina Haneș.

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