Valentina Iusuphodjaev, the director of Moldova Film Center: “There is need for a film community”

11 May, 2021

Since the end of March, the National Film Center (CNC) of the Republic of Moldova has had a new director, the former film producer Valentina Iusuphodjaev. She was appointed to office after several months of dithering from the government, without any official explanation, although she had won the contest for the position since last fall. During this period, CNC operated under an interim management, after the former director, director Valeriu Jereghi, completed his mandate.

Moldova Film Center was created in 2016, and in 2017 they launched their financing program. Since then, about 40 films have been funded, mostly short films. Three projects in particular have had a good international run in recent years, ie they have been present in important festivals: the feature-length documentary “The Soviet Garden” (2019), by Dragos Turea, selected at Sarajevo and other festivals and the winner of the Best Film Award at the first edition of the Filmmakers’ Gala, organized by the Moldovan Film Union, the short animation “Sigh” (2019), by Vlad Bolgarin, and the fiction short film “Salix Caprea” (2018), by Valeriu Andriuta.

I talked to Valentina Iusuphodjaev about the problems the Moldova Film Center and the Moldovan cinema are facing today, about the objectives of her mandate, but also about the potential of Moldovan filmmakers.

What do you think is the main problem of the National Film Center at the moment?

The fact that there is no film fund. I did some research and I saw that there are other countries as well that run on the annual state allowance scheme, but unlike Moldova, there’s a derogation in the Public Finance Act and in the State Budget Law that allows rescheduling the finances for subsequent years. In our country, according to the budget law, producers must spend the money in the year in which they are granted by the state. And that’s an issue for the producers, who cannot work under appropriate conditions, as well as for the state, in this case the National Film Center, which manages this money and needs to capitalize on it, otherwise loses it.

But it’s well-known that in film things do not happen that fast. Production takes time. All over Europe, things work differently: the producer receives some financing from the state, but they won’t access the funds until they’re ready, until they have the green light to go into production with the film. Even so, the National Film Center doesn’t cover the whole budget for a film, so the producer needs to get additional financing from somewhere else.

Our field is a specific one, hopefully our issue will be understood and we’ll manage to change the legal framework. But Moldova is currently going through a major political crisis. It has a temporary, dysfunctional government. We are waiting for the early elections, in order to have a parliament and a government, and to be able to bring the issue to their attention, to lobby and explain why change is necessary. It won’t be easy, I know. We are a small country, we have no solid market. For many years, after independence, film production has been on and off. So there is skepticism about this sector, about the idea that it can provide significant results. I think the hardest part is to convince the decision-makers that the film industry is not to be ignored and that it’s necessary to create legislative, financial, fiscal conditions to stimulate it.

But when the Cinema Law was drafted, which is inspired by the one in Romania, why wasn’t a provision relating to the existence of a fund also introduced?

There was, but it didn’t pass. The fund wasn’t approved by several ministries. First, the Ministry of Finance does not accept this. I have had discussions with representatives of the Ministry of Finance and with former ministers to see what’s the issue. There seems to be an arrangement with the World Bank, which has restricted in general the existence of funds in Moldova, because there have been various situations in the past when money was stolen. So they had this requirement. But we need to check if this restriction still exists or if it’s just a matter of bureaucratic reluctance. We shall see. The existence of a fund allows you to gather resources and it wouldn’t depend anymore on the people who plan the state budget or the party that is in power in that year. Maybe we could continue to work on this state allowance, but we need the derogation I mentioned before.

But what is the National Film Center’s annual budget?

We have 8 million Moldovan lei (ie – 1.82 million Romanian lei). Of the 8 million Moldovan lei, 6 million, meaning almost 300,000 euros, are for the actual film production and other types of activities. The rest is for the operational budget of the National Film Center, which was reduced this year by half a million Moldovan lei, a sum that also went to financing. For a field like cinema, it’s an extremely small amount.

What would be another major and urgent issue?

There is another issue that also has to do with the legal framework. I found that the law on the cash rebate scheme has been lagging. A few years ago it passed parliament very quickly, but then it remained just as regulation and nothing else happened. It didn’t work at all. The scheme is at the Investment Agency, but the regulation was sent to the National Film Center, because the language used is specific. Me and the legal advisor partially drafted this regulation. We have a few more chapters to work on. No matter who manages it, the scheme must exist and needs to be put into service, even though I’m not sure it will be such a stimulus for the field. We seem to be the last ones anyway. All countries have long introduced the cash rebate system and it works. But besides that, we should also offer something else, like tax incentives, to attract foreign producers.

In Romania there’s still some dysfunction regarding the financing contests organized by the Romanian Film Center and almost every time there are controversies and complaints. They also exist in Moldova, as we have seen, as happened at the last session, at the beginning of the year, when the former director of the National Film Center, director Valeriu Jereghi, participated in the contest with a production house and received the biggest grant. A major difference from Romania is that the names of the selection committee members are kept secret throughout the process of organizing the contest, but also afterwards, although I would guess that the guild knows, unofficially, who they are. In your opinion, what should these contests look like? Do you think that concealing their names is something to carry on with?

I have thought about this and I think we should change the rules. But that entails a whole bureaucratic process. Every change, including one of this kind, must be approved by each ministry. Personally, I have never understood why this committee cannot be revealed after the selection process. Moreover, its members may even be asked to justify their decisions. I believe that jurors must take responsibility for their job. We all know there is a degree of subjectivity in judging the scripts, but beyond that, the person who is part of the jury must assume their position.

The process of drawing up this regulation was very quick, it all happened in just a few weeks. In fact, it was taken over from Romania. But then there was the question of filters. We are a small country, everybody knows everybody here. So we tried to set some filters, so that the results would be as impartial as possible. Unfortunately, practice has shown that things do not necessarily work that way. From where I stand, the quality of the committee, the members’ good intent and backbone are more important. And a transparent process might make them more responsible.

Then, I think we should have a policy that includes pitching sessions, with the participation of all those who submitted projects. And these pitching sessions should be recorded, because in the end it’s about the taxpayers’ money, and they should be able to see what decisions were made and why the jury made them, but also what kind of projects participated in the contest. Maybe feedback from society, that is, the viewer, would be useful.

Apart from the National Film Center and the financial difficulties, what would be a major issue for the Moldovan cinema, personally?

I would say the lack of a film community. This is where I would start. The existence of a community would actually stimulate many things: the community spirit, the level of film culture, healthy ambitions, competitiveness.

The lack of this community is reflected not only in the industry, but in society in general. For example, there are many people who don’t even know that there are films being produced here.

Fortunately, we have a couple of festivals in Chisinau that have managed to build an audience and they are a breath of fresh air for moviegoers.

However, you have a Department for Film at the Academy of Music, Theater and Fine Arts (AMTAP), you have the National Film Center, the Moldovan Film Union, the Moldova-Film Studio.

There are some entities, but it does not yet imply the existence of a community, from my point of view. When I talk about community, I also mean having film critics, for example. I think there are more elements that should be taken into consideration. There should also be a greater interest from the media. Then maybe there would be an interest from economic agents. Still,I think we’ll break the ice eventually. I mean, it’s time.

We only talked about obstacles. But what is the potential of Moldovan filmmakers? Recently, a young Moldovan director, Olga Lucovnicova, won the Golden Bear for Best Short Film at this year’s Berlinale with her documentary My Uncle Tudor, which is actually a co-production between Belgium, the country where she settled, Portugal and Hungary. Then, there are many Moldovan filmmakers who are well-known in Romania – actors, directors, DoPs, and some of them have made or would like to make films in Moldova as well.

I think there is potential. We have some people who have left the country and who achieved a status and won important awards. But these people need a favorable context, and I don’t just mean the National Film Center and its financial potential. There are many other things. There has to be a context that encourages you to stay here.

I often try to talk with students and recent graduates. Recently I had a meeting with a boy who is doing his master’s degree and who at one point asked me: Does it make sense for me to stay here or do I better go somewhere else and start from scratch? It put me in a tight spot.

It’s very difficult to answer this question, because it’s as if you have to take responsibility for the outcome. I told him that nowhere is easy when it comes to film. And that the decision to stay in this field is a personal one. So is leaving the country.

Perhaps, an objective assessment of the National Film Center’s former leadership would be necessary, an impartial analysis of the good and the bad, still it seems that the guild has been quite divided in recent years and that there has been some tension. It’s clear that now there’s a chance for a restart. How do you see your role in this context and in relation to filmmakers?

I think I’m in normal relations with everybody. How do I see things? I have to be fair in everything I do and with all filmmakers. Obviously, I alone cannot build a community, through my way of being or my approach. I think other things need to happen, such as events and projects that can make this world communicate, both inside and outside.

I see there’s a slight apathy, which I understand, because it comes from this general state and as if from a lack of perspective. I expect a greater involvement from the community. But I understand that it can’t happen immediately. There needs to be several meetings that can stimulate the desire for expression. As director of the National Film Center, I need various standpoints and advice. I’m open to all of this.

Then, I think there is a need for international communication as well, because now we’re kind of isolated. When such a communication will be in bloom, we will be able to see different models, the way things work in other places, and that could change the situation here as well. Obviously, that also takes time.

Then again, I as well must prove something. I accept that things can change over time. In fact, I set some deadlines for myself. At least, I’ll try to change something at the legislative level, to create the necessary conditions for filmmakers to be able to work as they do in other European countries. I think it’s doable.

In terms of policy, and I have already announced this, I would focus on minority productions, I would focus on minority productions, which could lead to international interaction, visibility abroad, and consolidation of resources. Obviously, the national film remains a priority, but in my opinion, we should go with “less is better”. We need to grow in terms of quality. In that regard, I’m optimistic. I’m sure we’ll make it.

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