Alina Manolache: “I like to believe that my work could stand as some kind of archive in the future”
The year 2020 brought to our attention a young and promising documentary filmmaker, Alina Manolache. Her debut in feature-length documentary, “Lost Kids on the Beach” (2020), was selected at the prestigious IDFA (International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam) and this year we expect its theatrical release. Filmmaker magazine included her in the top five best female directors at IDFA.
In her film, Alina Manolache sets off in the search for young people of her age who got lost on the beach when they were children during the ‘90s. And she uses this point as a pretext to outline the portrait of her generation, that is, people in their early 30s.
Also in 2020, the director released the short film “I Am Here”, made at the initiative of the European Film Festival and artistic director Andrei Tanasescu, who invited several Romanian filmmakers to make films during the isolation period last spring. Six of these short films, including Alina Manolache’s project, were then collected in an omnibus, “Journey Around the Home in 60 days”, which was selected afterwards at Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival. “I am Here” is an experimental film made exclusively from live security camera footage from various parts of the world while people were all in quarantine.
Late last year, the British daily The Guardian posted online a short and impressive documentary, “2020: A Covid Space Odyssey”. The film was made during the pandemic by Alina Manolache and Vladimir Potop. The documentary is a montage of images from the astronaut Jessica Meir’s International Space Station Expedition (September 2019 – April 2020).
Born on March 13, 1990 in Piatra Neamt, Alina Manolache was in the Social Sciences class at high school. As a teenager, after participating in the Let’s Go Digital! workshop organized by Transilvania IFF, she realized that she likes filmmaking and that she wants to become a director. However, she failed the admission to UNATC (ie. National University of Theatre and Film “I.L. Caragiale” in Bucharest). Between 2010 and 2013, she studied Photography and Video Art at the National University of Arts in Bucharest (UNArte). In her final year, she went with an Erasmus scholarship to the “École Supérieure d’Art et Design” in Grenoble, France.
After Grenoble, she moved to Paris for a while to attend a residency. That’s when she made her first documentary, the short film “Your Visit Starts Here” (2015) – the portrait of three security officers working at the Centre Pompidou. Returning to Romania, she continued her studies with a master’s degree in Media Studies at CESI (Center of Excellence in Image Studies) in Bucharest.
She also made the short documentaries “End of Summer” (2016), produced within the Aristoteles Workshop program, and “Disco is Dead” (2017), produced by VICE. “End of Summer”, which had its world premiere at Visions du Réel and then was presented at several other festivals, is the portrait of a group of boys from Bucovina at the end of their last summer as high school students. In “Disco is Dead”, Alina Manolache captures the demise of the disco clubs phenomenon in rural areas, amid the departure of the youth abroad.
Alina Manolache can be found also on her website, alinamanolache.com.
While watching Lost Kids on the Beach, I thought you chose a risky topic, because there seems to be nothing spectacular about it. But in the end, the idea of the film becomes quite clear and it feels like an important one, that is, the desire to make a short portrait of your generation, which is people in their early 30s. Although you mention in the documentary that you yourself were not among the children who got lost on the beach in the ’90s and then searched for through radio announcements, you are part of that generation. What was the trigger for this film?
In general, I start from a sky full of dark clouds and try to get to a clear one by the end of the process. I see films as research projects that are often developed starting from an abstract, small, perhaps bizarre idea. In this case, there was simply a curiosity, a very rough idea: What happened to people my age who got lost on the beach when they were little?
Why was I hung up on this very question? I kept trying to find some explanations for it. Maybe this fear of getting lost as a child stuck with me. On the other hand, I think it’s also the idea that once we lose something – an object or a relationship -, that particular something becomes much more valuable. For me, these people became much more valuable for the very fact that they got lost at that time. I thought there was something out there that could be explored, but I didn’t know exactly what.
At first, I tried to spread the word, to find a couple of people who went through this and simply to talk to them, to see where the journey leads me. But then I realized that the “getting lost on the beach” story was coming to a sudden end in our discussions. And I found it much more interesting to talk about these people and their lives at the present moment. What kind of problems do they have? What are they like as a person? Are they thinking of moving abroad? How is the situation in their family? I was really curious about these things. That turned to be of much more interest to me.
Then I thought that, rather than meeting some former children who got lost on the beach, I actually want to meet people my age who feel lost in life one way or another. It seemed that it could be a trigger for something more consistent.
Was that when you thought a feature film might come out?
Yes. I realized that, in fact, the film is not about the past, about the children from back then, but about the present, about us at the age of 30. I realized that I’m at a time in my life when I’m probably searching for myself and I want to meet people who are the same age and in a similar or different situation, whatever that is. But the “lost children” metaphor worked out well, in terms of connecting it to a lost generation.
Not to mention the symbolism of the year of birth, 1990.
There were all these layers that kept adding to the story. After that, I realized that we are born with the installment of democracy, right at the crisscross of two very different eras, and that under this sign of uncertainty a generation that I find interesting is born. The film is about this 30-year span, but presented at a micro level. About us as the “product” of these 30 years, if you will.
In fact, this is exactly what the film turns out to be, a study of this generation. The journey is not looking for anything spectacular or dramatic, but wants to see how these people have settled in their adult lives. How did you design the structure of the film, one in which all these short moments with the characters that you find while traveling around the country are edited together?
For me, it’s very important for a film to emerge from a real search. Not necessarily from a topic I can articulate, but from a curiosity. In this case, it was the desire to discover these people.
Some important questions have arisen during this search: How do I find them? What will the film be like? I realized that it’s not enough to find them on Facebook, set a meeting and film an interview with each of them, then edit all these interviews together and that’s the whole film.
I also have some aesthetic interests that haunt me quite a lot. I feel the need to find a certain working methodology for each subject, a concept that will take me from point A to point B in a logical way, even if at first it doesn’t seem logical. It’s like a math problem that needs to be solved. At first, I went with the classic interviews, but then I felt that it won’t work out, that it’s not me, not my style, that it’s not the film I want to make, that I wouldn’t go to this film either (laughs). I mean, since I’m going with this research and I want to make a film that is atypical and which should feel like a personal quest, then there has to be something original about the methodology as well.
And I came up with the idea of a road trip around the country. I went on several routes. I think there were about 15 cities that I went to, mostly small, because there’s easier access to them and the megaphone announcements can be heard better. I pretty much took a map and said that I have to physically look for these people and film the whole process. Of course, the whole team found it really funny at the beginning, but in the end it worked out very well. Still there was a risk to the whole process, that of not being able to estimate the result. Okay, we’re on this way, but we don’t know how it will end and what we’ll encounter along. We accepted that we will be led by whatever the trip has to offer us.
There was also the risk of not finding people with such stories.
Yes. Then the risk of people bailing on us. Lots of risks, in fact. It may not be the kind of film that keeps you on the edge of your seat, breathless, but it’s our very honest process. Maybe uneven and fragmented, but honest.
After all, such a process is what can attract a documentary filmmaker.
Yes, it’s this very unpredictable side of it. I think it was Agnès Varda who said that the documentary is a permanent balance between conceptualizing the present and accepting it as it is. On the one hand, you juggle accepting what comes along the way and working with it, and on the other, trying to challenge, to get more out of it, to upgrade reality, in a way.
How did you make the decision to sometimes stand in front of the camera, with a boom in your hand, listening with intent to what the person you are filming is saying? Was there also the desire to mark the fact that it’s a film about you too?
I didn’t really want to be in front of the camera. Honestly, it felt a bit scary, because it’s out of my comfort zone. I’m not necessarily an extrovert. But it didn’t seem fair to the people I was talking to for me to ask them about life and the hardships they face while I stay relaxed behind the camera. Then, it became more and more clear that I couldn’t exclude myself from this position.
I think it helps to put yourself at the same level and not give the impression that you are somewhere above and that you are manipulating everything. It’s important to also expose yourself, to be vulnerable in front of the camera. Sure, you have more control and you can cut the shots you don’t want in the editing stage. But it was the least I could do.
The film is a portrait of the 30-year-old generation, but at the same time it talks about the ‘90s, without falling into nostalgia and insisting in this direction. After all, you only included a few archive images. How do you see the ‘90s now? How do you remember them? What did it mean to be a child in the ’90s?
As we advanced with the film and it emerged as a final product, it became quite the blur, this image of the ’90s (laughs). I actually think that our experience has been massively influenced by what our parents and grandparents told us and by what we read or saw on different media channels. It wasn’t a firsthand experience. Honestly, I don’t know if I’m in a position to talk about those years. I can’t tell if it was dreadful. I’m aware of the darkness of those years through the stories of others, in fact. And that’s what I came to find in everyone I talked to. It’s like a post-traumatic experience, passed down from generation to generation.
But what I can say about my generation after four years of meeting and talking to contemporaries is that we are very undecided in all aspects of our lives. I think it has to do with the fact that we lived our childhood during the transition period. Taking absolute responsibility for our lives makes us very anxious and I think it’s related to the fact that we lived our first years during that time.
I was glad to be able to give this film to my parents; now, they could see themselves as they were then. I’ve included an archive sequence showing a little girl’s birthday. It’s my birthday. By showing the film to my parents and having a very long discussion about that period, about everything that happened to them, I somehow solved the “sky full of dark clouds” of the ’90s in terms of personal history. I think every film is about the director’s relationship with their parents. For me, the memory of those years is strongly connected to my folks’ youth.
Your films don’t focus on a single character. It seems that you are very interested in the idea of a collective and even generation, as is the case of your debut. Does it come by instinct or is it a conscious choice?
Instinctively, I think I lay my eyes on choirs rather than a single performer, because I feel that when you work with polyphony, you have more layers, more perspectives. The composition is more consistent, as in music. And I do like choirs, music-wise. I always liked the groups, the communities, the idea of collective, gang, guild, age group.
I don’t know why I never went with only one person. Maybe because it’s more challenging to work with more people. It’s harder, in this case, to find a concept and a working methodology, and I like that. The idea of putting the camera on a character and waiting to see what happens doesn’t appeal to me, at least for now. I like to challenge, to conceptualize, to involve the characters as well. To build a meaning. It’s much more than a product. It’s a real search, where I am interested in other people and other places and there is a desire to discover, to find out more.
What was the moment in your adolescence when you started to be interested in images, the visual area? And when did you realize you wanted to make films?
In middle school, I loved writing. But then in high school something happened, a very sudden change, and I started paying attention to images. I was no longer interested in writing, which I left on the side for a long time.
In ninth grade, in 2004, I applied for a workshop, Let’s Go Digital!, organized by TIFF. It was the only edition that took place at the seaside, in winter. Everything worked out perfectly. There was a click inside me. I left the workshop feeling that this is what I want to do in life, films.
After that, I was wrapped up with the idea that I would go to UNATC and be a director. Of course, I had no idea what that actually meant. After the workshop I was convinced that I had discovered the center of it all. I went on doing all kinds of experiments, started taking pictures. Throughout high school, I spent my time doing photography, video essays, and so on. I would edit in a voice-over, play with all sorts of stuff. Still, I wouldn’t show them to anyone now.
When I was 18, I applied to UNATC, the Directing section, but didn’t get in. It was a very important moment to me, because I realized that I need some time to reflect. It was a huge blow to me at the time.
Have you been to their training courses?
Yes, every week. I watched all the required films. In my opinion, I was very well prepared.
But I wasn’t going to stop there. Still, I didn’t want to give it another try, because I didn’t like some things that had happened at the exam. I didn’t like what I saw. So I took a gap year and afterwards, in 2010, I applied to UNArte. It was a good decision, because I had more freedom to experiment, and I wasn’t tied to some predetermined models, some references, a figure that I should try to copy. I think I developed more freely and it turned out to be good for me.
There, you studied photography and video art.
Yeah, but I pretty much did my own thing. Photography, not so much, as for video, I only did some experiments. I tried all sorts of things on my own.
For my final year, I went to Grenoble, France through the Erasmus Program. Afterwards, I wanted to stay in France for a little more while, so I went to Paris for a residency. I got a scholarship from ICR Paris. I submitted a proposal for a documentary film project, although I had never made a documentary before. In this case, too, I started from a curiosity that emerged out of nowhere: I wanted to see what the security officers guarding artworks in museums do all day. It was really cool. I did research in all the art museums in Paris. I felt like I was living my dream. Working on that film, Your Visit Starts Here, I realized it was time to put a stop to my inner quests and make documentaries. I made a firm decision then.
After that workshop at the beginning of high school, which made you want to make films, came the disappointment of failing the admission to UNATC, and now, a few years later, you were getting a new boost.
I think it was a confirmation that I had the right feeling in high school. It came as a validation. The moment in Paris was almost divine. I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Even the meetings I had seemed providential (laughs). I know, it sounds a bit like a fairy tale, a bit far-fetched. But the moment you experience them, they overwhelm you. The residency lasted two months, then I returned home and edited the film.
But what did you really like about that experience?
I liked that I felt brave, I felt at home, like truly being myself. It didn’t feel like anything else I had done before, in regards to the process. I went to some strangers at a museum in another country and said, “Sorry to bother but I’d like to make a film about you.” I approached dozens of people this way and felt that nothing could stop me. In the end, three of them agreed to be part of the film. It was a very nice complicity, because we didn’t have the right to shoot inside the museum. So they were keeping watch. In the meantime, I had sent a request for approval, but the official permission came in after I returned home to Romania.
You returned and did a master’s degree in Media Studies at CESI. A theoretical area.
I wanted to read more (laughs). I felt that my development should include several stages, and I think it was a good choice, because during my studies at CESI I realized that maybe I would do well in the education area, as well. It did me good to reflect on what I was doing and to try to explore a more theoretical area before starting to teach myself.
The first short documentary you made in Romania was End of Summer (2016), at the Aristoteles Workshop. What was it like working under the conditions of such a workshop – you are in an unknown place, where you have to find a topic and make a film in a limited period of time and with colleagues you haven’t met before?
At first, you feel like you can’t do it and that overwhelms you. You feel like an outsider, the place is completely unfamiliar – the workshop was held in Vama, in Bucovina. The constant pressure of having to deliver something can suffocate you. Especially since I like to spend a lot of time on a topic, and it’s completely different there. But I think that I could do with being pushed a little. Limitations can stimulate you in various directions. And the conversations with the mentors there stuck with me and guided me for a long time after the workshop. I only felt as professionally “fed” after Archidoc, where I developed Lost Kids on the Beach between Paris, Lisbon and Nyon – schools that proved to be very intense and more valuable than any university education I attended.
What about the film for VICE? What was it like? Was it your concept?
It was the first documentary that VICE released in Romania. Mihai Mincan, the editor-in-chief at the time, saw in me a suitable collaborator and, since my short End of Summer had just come out, we thought of a Romanian story, maybe with teenagers and the rural life. We came with the idea of making something about the disco clubs in the countryside. I had some pictures by Rob Hornstra in mind. There were some beautiful photos of young people in discotheques in Russia, dressed in the ’90s style. They depicted a very trashy atmosphere. That’s what I imagined I would find and that the whole film would look like that. But when I started doing the research, I discovered that there were no more disco clubs and cultural centers in the villages. They didn’t organize disco nights anymore, because everyone had left for other countries. I deflated, but at the same time I had to tell the story. That’s how I found out about a place that still organized some theme parties every once in a while, like for Halloween, and I wanted to see what this story had to offer.
The two short films you made last year – I Am Here and 2020: A Covid Space Odyssey – are related by the fact that they were made during the pandemic and portray this very period of time. You couldn’t travel or meet people anymore, so you had to adapt to a different way of making films. How did you perceive the unknown of the early phase of the pandemic?
Initially, I felt panic, disappointment. What was I to do now? I was supposed to go scouting for locations, but that was out of the window now. I felt like the sky was falling and that I couldn’t go on with my plans anymore. But I couldn’t let go of this idea of traveling. Through these two films, I escaped as far as possible from the limited space of my flat.
It’s a different kind of journey, of escaping reality.
Yes, but I found it to be necessary. And it really worked as a getaway, because in both cases I looked at images that happened at a great distance from my reality. That was my biggest need, to be away, out of my house for a change. To see the world as it was somewhere else, including in Space.
I used to look at such images even before making these two films. I never really thought before that I was going to make a film out of stills taken from surveillance footage. I would spend my time looking at such pictures to see, for example, what was going on in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican City while all of Italy was in quarantine. I felt this very acute need to travel. Even when I’m not able to travel physically, I still manage to do it somehow, at least with my eyes.
When Andrei Tanasescu and the European Film Festival launched the invitation to make a short film about isolation, you thought you could do something with images like that.
I thought I could use these images in some form, but I didn’t know exactly how. At first I thought it was going to be something with my voice-over on it. I had started recording myself, like an audio diary. And I was saying exactly that, that I’m like an observer from a distance, who cannot touch the world. After that, I realized that a surveillance camera would say the same thing, if it were to comment. I slowly realized that this was the concept of the film.
These are live images, we’re not talking about archives existing somewhere on the Internet. There are cameras that run live non-stop, and if you don’t capture them, these images are not recorded.
So, a way of archiving the present.
Looking around, I found that each place has some more interesting moments of the day. At different times I was in different places in the world. For example, I would wake up at night to be at a pharmacy in Mongolia during opening hours. I had to sync with other time zones, and that was cool, because it was close to the film shooting experience. I had to wake up in the morning and press the REC button, otherwise I would have lost the moment. The whole thing helped me a lot.
The idea of the film was to capture the moment when everyone was staying indoors and to convey the feeling of a deserted planet, of a post-apocalyptic landscape.
At first, I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. I just started building. It’s a film I made on my own from beginning to end, without any feedback on editing or sound. Indeed, it was a complete score. I wrote down in the timeline the things I liked the most, to see how the whole thing comes together, without having in mind that I want to convey the feeling you are talking about. This emerges from the materials I used, from the way I edited the pieces together, from the temporality I created, from the rhythm.
I think it was like a musical composition to which notes were gradually added and, in the end, this thing came out. Which is not to say that the result was by chance. Everything was done with intent: the voice that can’t be heard, but only comes as written, the associations, the languages, the fact that I made the soundtrack from sounds found on YouTube. It became clear that I needed to talk about a Big Brother who sees this whole global situation. While making the film, I was a Big Brother as well, and somehow I felt entitled to speak from that position.
How did you end up making a film for The Guardian?
Vlad (ie. Vladimir Potop, co-director of “2020: A Covid Space Odyssey”) and I are childhood friends. He is also from Piatra-Neamt. He is a fashion photographer, but with some artistic searches very close to what interests me too. We were always a good match, but there was never an opportunity to work on a project together.
Then the pandemic came. We were talking. And I started telling him that I was watching all kinds of NASA footage. And these materials are in the public domain, they can be used by anyone for artistic, non-commercial purposes. And I asked him if he didn’t want us to try to make a film by using those images. Vlad was in.
We didn’t have a clear direction. We knew we wanted to make an association between the astronauts’ isolation in Space and our isolation on Earth. It was fascinating, because the astronauts were on a space mission while there was a pandemic on Earth, so an alien phenomenon was happening. The experience of making this film was therapeutic.
When I went to IDFA, with Lost Kids on the Beach, I went to several industry gatherings and I also had a meeting with an editor from The Guardian. He asked me what I was working on, I told him about our project without any kind of expectation, he liked the idea and asked me to send him a rough cut. I did, and when he told me that they wanted to be our co-producers on the project, I came to realize that the year of 2020 offered me much more than I could have asked for. It was an opportunity.
To what extent did these two films help you get through last year’s isolation period?
There was an urgent feeling to making these films. I don’t know, I felt I had a mission to talk about what was happening. My duty as a documentary filmmaker was to encapsulate this present with the means at my disposal. Okay, I can’t go out and roll the camera, but maybe I don’t even have to. I think these two films helped me accomplish this mission. I couldn’t just sit around and spend my time reading when I knew what was going on in the world. I had to find something to work with. I needed to find a material that I could use and play with and that would depict the present that we all lived.
What do you like about making documentary films?
What I like most is that I can discover and learn from people completely different from me, from totally foreign places. I like the balance I mentioned before, between the unpredictable and the conceptualization of the present. I like to believe that my work could stand as some kind of archive in the future.
I also like to think that the documentary is not only the front page news or the burning reality that needs to be translated into film, but also the way I, as an artist, look at the world. The way in which small, subjective truths can, in fact, reveal much larger, universal things.