Ioana Grigore: “The documentary film writes itself in editing”
Few Romanian student films have become noticeable in recent years as did “Creativ” in 2019, Ioana Grigore’s graduation film made for her master’s degree in documentary film from UNATC, on which she worked for several years.
Selected in several local festivals, as well as abroad, the 53-minute documentary “Creativ” brings to attention the story of the most avant-garde jazz group in ’80s Romania, consisting of the late percussionist Corneliu Stroe, one of the protagonists of the film, and pianist Harry Tavitian, who refused to participate. It’s an ambitious film that includes interviews with spectacular characters, musical moments, archive footage, and even animation elements, all combined in a skillful way.
With “Creativ”, Ioana Grigore became one of the most promising and worth watching young voices in Romanian documentary. Her latest film, the short documentary “Take them into the light”, also made during her master’s, had its world premiere in the fall of 2020 in the student film competition of the Ji.hlava festival. It’s a film about life in the mountains, from the perspective of the rescue squad.
Ioana Grigore is currently working on her debut feature film, a film about Leo Feigin, the fascinating founder of Leo Records in the UK. He saved and marketed in the West a significant part of the underground music, especially jazz, created in Eastern European countries with totalitarian regimes. She met him while working on “Creativ”, in which Leo Feigin stars as one of the characters.
I talked to Ioana Grigore about her passion for cinema and how it all started, about her film studies, about being a documentary filmmaker and the satisfaction that comes with it, and about the personal things that inspire and serve her.
Born on April 14, 1994 in Pitesti, Ioana Grigore grew up in a family of intellectuals – her mother is a writer and her father is a journalist. And that’s how she developed an artistic sense as a child: “I started painting when I was very young, and in high school I discovered photography.”
Then, together with a friend, she started making some short videos she now considers “stupid”. In the meantime, she entered high school, the Philology-Intensive English class. She became more and more interested in photography and film, so between the 10th and 11th grades, she attended the ManiFest Festival in Timisoara, where, together with other participants, she made a 10-minute short film. And that was a decisive experience.
“I really liked the work process, which seemed to be much more professional than what I had done before. We wrote the script, we shot it, we directed and edited the film. Then, there was also the festival atmosphere”, recalls Ioana Grigore.
After this moment, she decided that she wanted to study film at UNATC. “I was somewhere between cinematography and directing, although I was never really keen on cinematography, but I was thinking about it because I had more experience with photography. At the same time, I really enjoyed writing. At that time, obviously, I only knew about fiction, because I had not yet discovered the documentary”, says the young filmmaker.
“I was a movie buff, but I don’t think I watched much more movies than other kids my age. I went to photo exhibitions, but I was more familiar with literature. My mother was a poet, my father a journalist, so I grew up in an environment similar to a literary club. I consumed a lot of literature”, she also explains, adding that in the end she chose directing.
In the 11th grade, she started attending the training classes, both directing and cinematography, held by UNATC in Bucharest, in her preparation for the admission exam, which she says that it was a true adrenaline rush.
“I was excited about it, because I really wanted a career in film. Therefore, I wasn’t even thinking about the risks: Am I going to get in or not? What does making a film really entail? What happens after you finish college? That period was all about making friends, feeling things that I can’t even describe, enjoying the process of making that video that is required for the admission. It was a great experience”, remembers the director.
She confesses that she really enjoyed her student years at UNATC (2013-2016), although she admits, smiling, that this is not a popular opinion among graduates. “At UNATC I had the opportunity to experience a scene that I don’t think I would have had elsewhere. I went there without knowing what UNATC means as an institution and without understanding exactly what it means to make a film. But I really wanted to work in this field. I entered school with this pure, innocent, childish, silly thought. So I was just fascinated by everything that happened there. For the first two years, I was at school all the time, I even slept there. It was like a momentum you didn’t want to come to an end”, says Ioana Grigore.
“At the end of the third year, I realized that UNATC had offered me the setting where I could gather a team and meet very cool people. Two teachers became my mentors: Doru Nitescu and Laurentiu Damian”, she adds.
At the same time, she knows that one cannot speak of UNATC only in great terms: “Realistically speaking, I understand why liking UNATC is not a popular opinion. One can agree that it’s not the happiest place in the world. But for me, it was an experience I wouldn’t replace with anything else. Even the production issues that appeared along and which hurt the most helped with my development, they were part of my training.”
She says that she didn’t feel any discrimination or pressure for being a girl in what is considered to be a “manly” field: “After all, we were children. All my colleagues, with one or two exceptions, were between 19 and 23 years old. Until the final year, we all continued to be children.”
She doesn’t think there’s a problem with starting a college of this kind immediately after graduating from high school, but points out that a certain life experience can be important, especially in directing. “I didn’t feel like I got in too early. I was so excited about it that it seemed like being at the right time, in the right place. But after graduating, I felt like I was leaving school too soon. Three years, that’s a short time. It wasn’t the time to leave yet”, says Ioana Grigore.
Therefore, applying to a master’s degree at UNATC only came natural. Although many students felt the need for a documentary section, at that time there was no such major. So she even thought of going to Cluj, but quickly gave up the idea – she didn’t want to leave Bucharest, after all. She eventually applied to a master’s degree in fiction film directing at UNATC, but didn’t get in. So, she took a gap year, during which she made a short documentary on ecology, Always on the run, but not today (2017). “Actually, not getting in was for my own good. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to apply to the master’s degree in documentary film, which appeared the following year. I wanted to pursue a master’s degree in documentary film ever since I was in my final year in college”, she says.
In the same year, she returned to Creativ, which she had started in the second year of college and which she wanted to develop into a larger film: “I came back to UNATC thinking that the master’s degree in documentary film will actually be the period in which I could resume my work on Creativ. And so it was. That’s when I also met Ana Vlad (ie, documentary film director), who was my teacher and who saw in Creativ and in me more than I could see before. Over time, Ana became an example and an inspiration for me, and also a good friend. It was a fortunate encounter.”
But the decision to make documentary films, not fiction, came sooner, in the first years of college. “I can’t say exactly when. I think it just came naturally. In the first year, we had to do a portrait. A self-portrait or a portrait of someone else, which is rather close to the documentary filmmaking style. That year, on December 31, I went to an orphanage. I filmed how the kids there spend New Year’s Eve. Ten days later, I went to a penitentiary, to profile one of the convicts. I think these two exercises were the starting point in my relationship with the documentary. It also mattered a lot that the teachers felt, even before me, how much I liked it, and that they encouraged me in this direction”, she also recalls.
In the fall of the second year, she went to Serbia in an exchange of experience, where she made the short documentary 10:34 to Belgrade (2016): “It was the first experience abroad, working on a film with a foreign team. I was 20 years old. It was amazing. When Doru Nitescu came to me with the proposal, I said yes immediately, without thinking twice.”
Around the same time, she started working on Creativ, as a school exercise; a project that was born after meeting the percussionist Corneliu Stroe, who together with the pianist Harry Tavitian was part of the legendary jazz group Creativ. Harry Tavitian, unfortunately, refused to appear in the documentary.
“I met Corneliu Stroe at a poetry and jazz festival. There he told me the story of this jazz group that secretly sent magnetic tapes to the West in the ‘80s. It sounded very exotic to me. How do you do that? How is that possible? It all started with the simple fact that my mind could not conceive, could not imagine how this whole process would happen physically. Initially, I started documenting how they managed to send the tapes. After that, once I met other characters and learned the whole story, I realized over the years that the film is actually about something else; it’s about a friendship and about music first and foremost, and then about a generation”, points out Ioana Grigore.
She says that feeling the potential of such a topic is instinctual, but it also depends on the things you had contact with up to that point: “It matters what you have seen, what you have read throughout your life, what experiences you’ve had, what are the things that interest you and that you have heard on a frequent basis. In this story, for example, probably someone else would have seen something else or nothing at all. Thanks to my mother, I grew up with many stories about communism, about the Pitesti prison, I had read journals. Having such a connection with that period, which was strange in many ways, you inevitably end up in the cultural area as well. I’m sure that was also why I was drawn to the story. My visual and literary knowledge was somehow from this area.”
She states that she wasn’t afraid to approach a period she did not live through and a completely different generation. “I think that was good fortune, the fact that it was made by people who didn’t live through that period. We didn’t come out of nostalgia, frustration, or pain. We entered as novices, without any baggage, all the stories that these people were telling us. Perhaps, even the questions we asked in the interviews came as unexpected to them, different from what someone who had lived through the period might have asked. We became friends with everyone who was in the film, including foreigners. They probably thought of us as very naive at first, but I think that was what attracted them in the first place. After that, we became friends, precisely because we didn’t have a statement to make – it wasn’t a film that needed to prove something. We were simply looking for stories and we were enjoying every interview. I think that’s what kept both of us there”, explains Ioana Grigore.
She was passionate about music before starting making Creativ, but she admits that this type of jazz wasn’t in her area of interest: “It’s a very strange type of avant-garde jazz. It’s unusual music, which is very difficult to understand. But before even attempting to understand it, you first have to accept it. And in order to accept it, a lot of time has to pass, at least until you’re able to listen to it without bothering you. It’s very interesting music, but you get to that pretty late in the process. I wasn’t attracted by this music in the beginning. I was drawn to the stories, the people, their homes. I went into their house and I wanted to film everything there. But since I was interested in the people, their stories and their spaces, I started listening to this music as well. After a long time of listening, I began to accept it, and later, thanks to the film, I came to understand it.”
She says that she needed a musical direction for the film: “Their songs feature 20-minute pieces of music, that is, very long moments. To get into the atmosphere of their music, you need to listen to the whole piece. Like in the case of a film – you have to watch the whole thing to let it grow on you. So it is with this music. But how do you make the viewer understand it, without having 20 minutes of concert, because you can’t do that in a film? So we had to make “new” music out of their music. We didn’t tear it apart, but we intertwined various little musical moments. Cristi Georgescu, who was the editor, but with whom I actually wrote the film, helped me a lot here. That’s why he appears as a script consultant in the credits. I was very lucky, because he’s also a musician and he’s passionate about strange quirks in music, so he entered the project with the same enthusiasm that I had. Hence the freedom of the film. For the most part, the music in the film is his creation. It’s very hard to edit music. And I hadn’t done that before. So then, based on what I was building in terms of story and image, he edited the music. The editing stage lasted for 12 months, during which time we worked every day.”
“I don’t think I will ever get to experience something like this again. It was fantastic. Being able to work for a year, every day. No sleep, just editing. The whole process was like a second film school”, adds the director.
In that second year of college, she only had a 20-minute version of the film, mainly focused on Corneliu Stroe. Then she put it on hold for a year so she could take care of her other school projects: “But I was keen on finishing the film. I knew it was still a work-in-progress, that it wasn’t the final story yet. In the spring of 2017, I started going through the material, which was huge. Most of it consisted of interviews and footage shot at Corneliu’s home, but it was a lot in volume.”
“Strangely, the film stayed with me. I think it was also because Corneliu wanted it very much. The fact that I was interested in his story and that the shooting days with him were so great, the whole experience revived him, awakened him. It was very important to him, so it became even more important to me. It was fantastic that he was giving me access to this story. Two or three months after I started reviewing the material, Corneliu died. His passing made it even clear to me that I have to finish the film. His dedication to our project mattered a great deal, both creatively and personally, for my motivation”, says Ioana Grigore.
She thinks that the success of a documentary film doesn’t require becoming such good friends with the characters, as she did with the protagonists of Creativ, and that this closeness is different depending on the project: “What’s important is that the friendship between the director and the character doesn’t influence the film, meaning that the character shouldn’t have a say in the creative process. I don’t share pieces of the material with the protagonists. We talk about the film, but I don’t give them the footage that we shot or ask them what they think. I don’t make them authors in the film. I think it’s important to respect that. This friendship can be tricky. First, by letting them get involved in the film you’re making. And secondly, by being so engaged that you don’t see the film anymore, but only them. I don’t think that happened in my case. I stayed true to my intentions and my vision until the very end. I was touched and fascinated by the fact that they let us in, and that’s how the friendship was built, but I don’t think it blinded me in any way. I think Creativ confirms that. I didn’t try to protect them, as might have happened if I had made a film about someone in the family.”
She admits that although she really likes diary- and personal films, she doesn’t feel ready to make a documentary about her or anyone close. “Making a documentary about someone in the family is perhaps the hardest thing to do. I think there are stories in my family that are worth talking about. I’d like to do it, but I’m not up for it at the moment. I need more time. For now, I really enjoy exploring other people. Still, I would go with fiction, not documentary. If you make a documentary, you may tend to protect the protagonists, if they are part of the family. Not to mention that the stories I found in my family also seem very difficult to convey. I don’t know exactly how to do it, so I’m both subjective and distant enough. You need to have an emotional maturity that you can’t have at 20 or so”, she also explains.
The work on Creativ took most of her time during her master’s degree (2017-2019). At the same time, she made a short documentary, Take them into the light, about mountain rescuers and avalanche rescue dogs.
“Filming in the mountains, with mountain people, wasn’t something new for me. I like being in the mountains, I’m at ease when I’m up there. I like to say that – and not in a romantic sense, because it’s actually true – I grew up in the mountains and in the church, two places that coexisted in my life forever. So, without even having the intention, this union between mountain and divinity came very naturally in the film. But I discovered these things along the way. I started the project with the idea of making a film about avalanche dogs. And now, the film is clearly not about that. It’s a film in which man and nature meet in the mountains, at the border between life and death”, notes the filmmaker.
She says that Take them into the light came at a time when she was “very settled and messed up at the same time”: “In December 2018, on Christmas Eve, two months before the first shooting day on Take them into the light, my spiritual advisor died. He’s been my confessor all my life. For me, it has been the most shocking loss so far. It affected me a lot, but not necessarily in a negative way. It kept me grounded all that time, but also in the following year. So this connection to divinity, to God, in the film came naturally. It was very much how I felt at the time.”
She’s pretty open about her faith, because it’s part of her: “I think that all the things in my life, and maybe especially those related to film, have been interconnected somehow. I met a character who led me to another character. One project led to another. I know I didn’t plan all this, but it was meant to happen. I really feel – and I’m not afraid to say that publicly – that it was all related to a divine intervention. There is a journey that I do not control just by myself. There’s a presence with me all the time. No matter what happens to me, good or bad, I’m not alone. Without a doubt, I managed to get over the loss of my confessor, who was a very close and good friend of mine, because I had this presence of God.”
She considers that faith also plays a role in her activity as a filmmaker: “It helps me a lot throughout the process. And it’s not because I expect good things to happen if I keep thinking about it. God has always been with me. My mother has taken me to church since I was born. I was never forced to go, it just felt natural. I went, I felt like I belonged and I chose to stay.”
Almost two years after graduating and after a year of pandemic, she says she feels very lucky, despite everything that has been going on. She has been working on her feature film debut for some time, a film about the interesting life of Leo Feigin, the founder of the British record label Leo Records. She met him while working on Creativ, in which he makes an appearance as well. Leo Feigin released in the ‘80s, on the western music market, the tapes sent by Creativ. In fact, he saved much of the underground music created in countries with totalitarian regimes.
“We managed to shoot some footage before the pandemic started, so now we can work with what we have. But it’s not enough, we need more. Last year we had many trips on our schedule, but we obviously couldn’t go anywhere anymore”, explains the director.
At the same time, says Ioana Grigore, “I plan to conduct research for a new documentary feature project this summer. I have two topics in mind, but I’m not going to talk about any of them yet. I miss writing, scouting and researching. I also want to apply for a PhD in the fall. So in the short term, I do have some plans, some ideas. Hopefully, I’ll even see them happen.”
She’s interested in documentaries because it’s an unpredictable process and a continuous search: “It’s very unexpected, that’s what I like about documentary films. Most of the topics I chose, I didn’t look for them. I met some people, then I discovered a story. I started digging into it and filming.”
“My films write or rewrite themselves in editing. That’s where it all happens. Otherwise, it’s just a search. It’s a search you conduct with the camera at your side; on all the exercises and documentaries I made, I also operated the camera – either the A camera or the B camera. After the initial searches, I come to see the story I’m researching and later want to tell. That story expands along the way. Many times, it’s possible to turn into a different story in editing, even if it keeps the same message. Creativ started from something, and in the end, it was a film about something else, about a lot more things than I thought it would be. It’s screenwriting you do in editing. And I like that very much”, concludes Ioana Grigore.