Interview: Mihai Chirilov, artistic director of TIFF

27 April, 2018

Mihai Chirilov, co-founder and artistic director of TIFF is the kind of man who finds time for everything. We met on a Saturday for lunch in a central pub from Bucharest, where Mihai arrived after another meeting and a night of film watching for the final selection of TIFF 2018. We spoke about the challenges he faces as the film curator of the biggest Romanian film festival, how it all started and how further can TIFF go from now on.

What serves as inspiration in your activity as a film critic and artistic director?

I am inspired by the places I visit when attending film festivals, and I try to find a new place or (as I would prefer) a new country to visit every year. As in any occupation, I think that routine is the biggest enemy. When you are participating for 20 years at the same festivals, such as Berlin or Venice, you can be stuck in a rut which could transform you in a film-watching-machine, without any chance of encountering surprises or other stimulation.

I am also inspired by the news and articles I read, and by the people I met, not necessarily from the film industry. When I attend a festival, I try to explore the city that hosts it and interact with different people. So, this is how new ideas and possible themes for a film selection come to life.

How was the Romanian film industry when you started your career and how do you think it has developed?

After I graduated from the Faculty of Electronics in the mid-90s, the top Romanian films were signed by Lucian Pintilie, who had returned to Romania and started making films regularly, releasing one film every two years, most of them being present at Cannes. So, the ‘90s industry included only a few important films signed by famous directors, plus Nae Caranfil, who was an exception. There was no sign of a New Wave. That period was marked by the transition from a regime to another, which strongly affected the cinemas and the activity of going to one; this is the moment when the cinema audience has diminished, movies have appeared on TV and movie theatres ran out of business. In 2001, when, together with Tudor Giurgiu, we decided to create a real film festival in Romania, the main question was “how can we make an international film festival in a country which doesn’t have national productions?”. We decided to take the risk and it was worth it, because, coincidentally or not, TIFF had its debut at the same time as the New Wave: in 2001 Cristi Puiu presented Stuff and Dough at Cannes, and in 2002 the first edition of TIFF was opened with the film Occident (dir. Cristian Mungiu). At that moment, we did not realize the great synergy. Two or three years later, together with the release of The death of Mr. Lăzărescu, the New Wave was appearing and the Romanian film industry was reborn. Therefore, I started my career as a film critic when the Romanian film was more than half dead, and I became an artistic director when, miraculously, it was coming back to life. Dumb luck!

Why do you think TIFF is a special film festival, besides its longevity and effervescence?

I think it is special for many reasons and I don’t know if we, as organizers, can answer this kind of question. The most important is the feedback from the festival’s guests, so I will answer using their words: a good and eclectic film selection, for diverse categories of public, plus complementary events, exhibitions, workshops, film screenings in unconventional spaces, which surprise the audience (for example, the screening by the pool which took place a few years ago). For the foreigners, our hospitality and relaxation in organizing the festival are key aspects. Another important feature is that the public has the chance to meet the film authors. I think that it is a great thing for the audience to talk with the director or a member of the team, to better understand the film and the context, and to leave the cinema not only with their own idea about the movie. Besides the parties and the well-known social events from TIFF, probably there are some other secret ingredients which we did not discover yet, but we are glad that they exist.

When it comes to festival organization or film selection, is there any particular international festival that is closer to your heart?

Yes, for several years I really enjoy an important festival from Spain – San Sebastian Film Festival. I attended this festival for the first time twenty years ago, but I did not manage to return until five years ago. It is an A series festival, with many international and worldwide premieres, with a strong presence of the Latin American film, an industry which is also highly appreciated at TIFF. Well organized and fancy, without the endless queues at cinemas that we see at Cannes FF. If you want to see five or six films per day, you can easily change the movie theatres, which is an important thing when you want to cover the entire festival schedule. The city is also very fancy; you can enjoy culinary and drinking delights and the ocean because the festival is set on the shore. The weather is wonderful at the end of September.

What impressed you most about the festival’s in the past 17 years?

Firstly, the large audience. Let’s not forget that TIFF appeared when the Romanian film was not interesting for the public and people had already stopped going to the cinema. Since the first edition, I was surprised by the audience’s openness to a completely different type of cinema compared to what they had been seeing at TVs or in multiplexes; the audience is getting bigger and bigger with every passing year. It is difficult to maintain the same ‘magic of watching films in the cinema’, which is a bit old-fashioned, in a time when there are various other temptations and people are always looking for something new.

I know that you will soon finish the film selection for this year’s edition of TIFF. Could you please share some insights?

The final moment of the selection is always difficult because I am still thinking about the films that were not selected because of time-space reasons when I am finishing the list. If I would have to recommend one single thing of this year’s programme, this would be the section called To be or not to be politically correct? Some may find it controversial and offensive; others will be pleased to see that such bold films are still being produced in a period marked by campaigns like #MeToo or by sensible extremes of the political correctness. This was the exact idea behind this section, which is really essential in the current context where freedom of speech tends to be threatened by politically disguised considerations which have nothing to do with the artistic value. We decided to create this section because we fear that we could witness the emergence of various forms of censorship.

Is intuition important in the process of selecting films in a festival?

Yes, intuition is very important, but also the experience, knowing the context and the endurance that I have, because it implies a large number of films, hours and sleepless nights. Intuition involves also risk: when you watch a film you don’t know anything about and no other festival screened it, the intuition helps you discover a future artist. I am lucky enough to have experienced this feeling. Promoting an unknown filmmaker and discovering the talent behind the film, which will be confirmed after a couple of years through other films and important awards… nothing is more beautiful for a film selector than discovering new talents.

You are attending world-wide festivals since you were in your 20s. You have been a guest, film critic, jury member and also part of the audience. Did you manage to achieve what you desired by now?

Yes. I have been a film critic for more than 20 years and a festival director and film selector for 17 years. I don’t know what I could do more in this area. I constantly ask myself this question. I always wanted to create and develop a film festival, bring it to a certain level so it will be appreciated, and I succeeded. I don’t have any idea what could happen next, to avoid going on autopilot or getting bored.

Was there a moment in your career of film selector and critic when you wanted to quit?

I think that when you make a plan, you have to go all the way. There are inevitable conflicts, especially when you collaborate with a team which is under pressure, but these can be easily resolved. There are also personal crises, when you have to watch 9 or 10 films per day. If you watch a series of bad films from which you can’t pick anything, you would want to give everything up. But if after these 10 bad films you find one good film, that also surprises you in a good way, you will recharge your batteries and feel better.

Last year, the festival’s programme included for the very first time a section dedicated to VR. What do you think about the evolution of technology and how do you imagine TIFF would look like after another 17 years?

Technology evolves faster than we can keep up. The young public, that is addicted to technology evolution, is a type of audience that is difficult to be kept in a cinema. You have to constantly reconfigure the structure of the festival in order to cover all the novelties brought by technology. We have been trying for three years to create a section dedicated to new technologies and cinematographic languages. We managed to create InfiniTIFF section last year. If you ask me, the new technologies are ‘flashy’ without being truly meaningful. I think that the new technologies should find the perfect balance between high performance and cinematographic stories. Maybe I am old-fashioned, but I hope that the magic of going to the cinema would not die. Any new form of technology launched in the past years became very popular rapidly, and then faded, compared to the cinema, which has a tradition of over one hundred years. So, I tend to believe that after another 20 years we will still have people in cinemas at TIFF, all living the same dream at once.

If you liked our interview with Mihai, you can sign up for his masterclass, organized by ADFR within STUDENT HUB, which will be held on the 3rd of May. More details here.

Film producer and founder of ADFR, she dreamed since she was little of having a magazine one day. Alongside her job as editor-in-chief, she writes the interview of the month. She loves animals, jazz music and films festivals.