Time crystals. An interview with Nora Agapi, about Timebox

24 October, 2019

One of the most important Romanian (debut!) films of the past year is Timebox, by Nora Agapi, which was released last year at Ji.hlava IDFF, where it won the grand prize of the „Between the seas” sidebar, which is dedicated to documentary films produced in Central and Eastern Europe. The film is centered around Ioan Matei Agapi, one of the most famous and prolific photographers and documentarists from Iașului – a city whose contemporary history is conserved in his impressively immense personal archive, which is considered to be one of the biggest such archives in Romania. The film weaves together the images of Agapi Sr. with those of his daughter, Nora, who captures a critical moment in the life of their family: their gradual eviction from their apartment in the Braunstein Palace, a landmark historical building in Iași.

Far from using her father’s archive as a curiosity and as a simple vehicle to illustrate certain scenes of the film, Nora Agapi weaves together images of the past into metaphors which relate to the present – poetic associations which play between idyllic and melancholic, along the red line that traverses the entire narrative: the insurmountable passage of time, and man’s (futile) attempts at opposing it, with whatever means are possible. Timebox signals a new singular voice in the millieu of Romanian documentary cinema, as well as a connection to the formal approaches that are now prevalent in documentary filmmaking at a global level – not in the least because of the fact that it extensively employs found footage materials which simultaneously discuss capital-H History and private history.

We sat down with Nora Agapi and discussed about the way she worked during the shooting, about how she edited the found footage fragments in the film and her view on the documentaryțs self-reflexive elements, as well as topics related to the (moral) corruption of the local authorities, in terms of evictions and retrocessions.

Foto: Marius Măldăianu

When did you start shooting Timebox and how long did the production stage last?

The idea for the film first arrived in 2009, when Ilinca Ciobanu from TVR Cultural came to shoot a reportage about my father. That’s when I thought: “Well, if somebody is interested in my father and has some things to say about him, then why shouldn’t I make a film about him?” My initial thought was to do a portrait-film; I slowly began shooting in 2011 and then properly began in 2012. This lasted until 2016, and then I spent two years editing it.

Did you digitize your father’s video archive during this time?

No, that took place during the shooting phase, beginning in 2012. It took a long time – about a year and a half – because we insisted on doing a good job. We weren’t necessarily in a hurry, so the people over at Cinelabs Romania had time to clean up the material, treat it, repair the cuts and transfer it onto new reels. His entire archive was digitized, and this process was aided by Oleg Mutu [director of photography], who was a classmate of mine in university and a good friend, who also gave me his financial support because transferring analog film to digital is quite expensive. We also had a lot of love from the ladies who work in the film laboratory – they fell in love with my father’s reels, they were fascinated by them.

How many hours of footage did the reels contain?

There were about 12 thousand meters of film, so, approximately 35 hours of footage.

How did you construct the sequences which use these kinds of footage? Some fragments are quite clearly related to what is going on in the present plain of the film, others are more playful.

Working with these archives meant entering a long process. Yes, we spent two years editing, yet I had already begun editing these sequences during the shooting, by myself. I played a lot with the archives and I tried using it in the film in two distinctive ways. 

Somehow, I was under the impression that my father had inadvertently foreseen his own future: you can find images of homes being torn down in his archives (and he remains homeless), or of an eye surgery (now he is almost blind), things which seem to have foretold what was going to happen. The associations that I was creating by editing weren’t always that obvious, but I’m okay with the fact that I might be the only one to understand certain scenes. 

Another idea was to use the archive metaphorically, without being pathetic about it, however. That’s why this wasn’t easy – it would have been quite simple to compose purely illustrative scenes, but that’s not what I was aiming for. Of course, there are a couple of such moments in the films, strictly because they were necessary for the given context, to make them reach the spectator more easily.

In a previous interview, you said that you are the archive – that it contains traces of your entire existence. How did you decide to include these recordings of yourself at a young age, tying in with your film’s self-reflexive elements, where you expose yourself at various stages in your life? 

Yes, speaking of the archive – I grew up in that space, amongst all those recordings and photo cameras that belonged to my dad. It was something natural to me: every day, something was being recorded or photographed, films were being screened. It was something that we didn’t even notice anymore because it was so natural. That’s why I say that I am part of the archive because I was always in the middle of things. I was used to being in front of the camera ever since I was a child and the fact that I exposed myself wasn’t difficult, at least in regards to the footage with me as a child. When we were little, our family used to gather for screenings of my father’s films and we would see them at least once or twice a year, so I was familiar with the footage, I was used to it. They were natural to me, so I found no issues in making them public.

As for the rough period that I went through together with my father, I decided to take it upon myself. After I decided to be in front of the camera, I simply didn’t realize I was there anymore, at one point. Of course, I rewatched myself during the editing phase. I might have had some difficulties in expressing things related to my family – however, the moments when I lapsed were quite natural and a part of what was happening, so I had no reason to conceal them. Instead of being indignant with what was going on, I began to weep. At that point, you simply don’t know how to react in the face of such indifference, even outright malice, that comes from certain people in positions of political power.

Foto: Marius Măldăianu

You said that you began with the idea of a portrait-film. When did you choose to be transparent in regards to your presence, to include yourself in the film?

About one year into the shooting, the whole issue surrounding the house came up. So I was in the posture of being physically involved with what was happening – I couldn’t simply stay behind the camera and not intervene in what was happening, to not help my father. That meant everything from talking to him, looking through all sorts of boxes, reorganizing things, rebuilding things inside the house over the course of four very uncertain years. I didn’t know when he was going to move, or where, or whether he would find another place to stay – it was a state of permanent stress.

How do you relate to your father, as a director? There is a very tender scene in the film where you are recording each other simultaneously.

My father and I have always had a very good relationship and he was my very first teacher. Dad taught film and photography for many years, in our own home. In the room that you see with many boxes on shelves, there used to be a studio where students would gather and there would be some fascinating courses there – and that memory sparked the idea of the film. He is a character, he had an extraordinary charisma and was a wonderful teacher. The classes would start at six in the evening and you never really knew when they would end. It wasn’t just pure pedagogical – they discussed technical and artistic things, but also all sorts of personal memories, stories, jokes, screenings.

I learned the most things from my father and we still have very long discussions about films. I started assisting him when I was 12 with the set lights. I didn’t even realize when he was teaching me something.

We would make a lot of impromptu trips: some mornings he would ask me and my sister whether we were in the mood to go to school and he’d take us to the train station, where we would hop onto the first train and go on a field trip, and came back home in the evening. He had many amazing spontaneous ideas, and when he took us on these trips he would tell us things which we would assimilate, without realizing they were lessons.

Regarding the aesthetics that were prevalent in documentary filmmaking when your father was developing his craft – meaning images that are much more dynamic, more aestheticized, carefully composed – they seem to be in a sort of tension with your style as a documentarian, in the parts that you shot.

It’s something that has to do with your economical means of expression in cinema, first of all. Back then, you were shooting documentaries on film reels so you had to be more rigorous: you were forced to conceive your film in terms of editing while you were shooting it, you didn’t have much time to do multiple takes, or to leave the camera rolling and to come back to it five minutes later. That is a reason why these images were more dynamic since they also needed to cover multiple angles, but, there is certainly an aesthetic influence coming in from fiction films, in regards to the seventies and eighties.

In regards to myself, I have a pretty classical background, if we take into account the fact that I studied at UNATC. At least during my time in university, the consensus was that we were supposed to take shots that were as “beautiful” as possible, to look for aesthetic compositions. It’s difficult – I’ve only just begun to educate myself to avoid this type of visual language because it isn’t necessary.

Lately, there’s been a lot of discussions surrounding videographic archives. Do you hope that your film will also contribute to these debates?

I hoped that the film will help me in this direction, from the bottom of my heart. I feel that the film is also helping us save these archives, which are momentarily stored in an… apartment [laughs]. They must be put to good use since we’re talking about an archive that should be relevant for many generations to come. Many people I know have said this, and I believe it too: this archive is practically an object of patrimonial value that is composed of images, and now I am working towards achieving the necessary recognition.

There’s a lot of money at stake. If by now, I have already managed to scan the 16mm films, now I want to work on scanning my father’s photo archive, which is immense as well: with images ranging from 1968 to 2003 on film, and from 2003 onward, digital photographs. His archive also comprises daguerreotypes shot by my grandfather, or objects that my dad has collected from flea markets across the years – photographs, daguerreotypes, postcards and so on. 

 

Foto: Marius Măldăianu

I understand that the Braunstein Palace is set to become a cultural center, as I understand from the local press.

Well, if you ask the Town Hall of Iași, my father has no relationship to the arts, by the way! They kick him out and they make a cultural center in the same building – which is a welcome idea, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, but I cannot comprehend their policies regarding the arts. If this is how you treat an archive that is extremely valuable, not in the least because it contains the history of your city, by throwing it out on the streets and not giving a damn about it… whatever. The building is being renovated with European funds, but the way that the Town Hall acquired it implied buying it from its landowners (who had claimed the building in a lawsuit after the Revolution), meaning, they paid for it with public funds. Which means that even our family implicitly paid for this to happen. These things are so complicated, it’s a massive headache. In regards to the state institutions, they’re not used to having tenants that face them.

In the nineties, the number of citizens paying rent to the state steadily decreased, and among them, the majority of these people were poor, from many points of view. So, people who generally don’t know their rights and who don’t have any financial power, which can thus be easily manipulated.

If you show them a paper that says that they’re supposed to leave or that they’re being evicted, these poor people don’t have the power to oppose, or at most, they try protesting. We, on the other hand, took attitude in front of this and we sued the Town Hall – who knows where we would have ended up if we didn’t, just look at the places featured in the film. They completely lacked scruples. Not to mention the whole irony of the situation. You award this man the title of Honorary Citizen and then you kick him out of his home. They cut off his water and gas supply, in winter. By doing this, you practically force someone to leave, you do anything you can just to make them leave. There have been many situations like these across the country, unfortunately, and all across the country, there are people who have profited from this phenomenon. And it’s the Town Halls that have especially profited on the backs of vulnerable people, only to restore these buildings (which happens rarely anyway), or to tear these buildings down so they can build new ones. They have a financial interest in all of this, a profit that is based on morally abject actions.

How did the people of Iași react to the film?

Reactions? None whatsoever. We only had one single screening of the film there.

Timebox also discusses the complicity of local journalists, in a way.

I don’t know how many journalists were present for the screening; the audience was mostly made up of acquaintances and family members. There was a single person there who was an envoy of the Town Hall, the same man who bestowed the title of citizen of honor upon my father. At the end of the screening, I gave a speech which I believe was logical given the circumstances, in which I criticized the Town Hall, without saying anything else that I am saying to you right now. And another man, who was in charge of the cinema, spoke up to let us know the festival that was screening the film was organized by the Town Hall. Meaning, how dare I say such things. In short, nobody said anything because there weren’t any interests in them discussing the film.

Very few Romanian documentaries end up having a large local distribution – and Timebox is about to be released. It’s a remarkable success. I understand that you also plan on launching a fundraiser along with the film, to digitize the rest of the archive.

It’s true, very few people watch documentary films in the cinemas, but I have to say that the number of Romanian films has gone quite up recently, especially in the past year, a great wave. I think it’s also somewhat courageous to release your film in cinemas since the result is predictable: you certainly won’t have a large box office. The only thing you can wish for is that the film is going to be seen by as many people as possible – that is, at least, what I am hoping for.

Together with my producer, Monica Lăzurean-Gorgan, and our press agent, Dona Georgia, we will launch a fundraising campaign that will be released together with the film’s screening at Les Films de Cannes à Bucarest. On the campaign’s website, anyone can donate to help us scan all my father’s photographic films, but also to create a web page where we can upload them all. It’s a huge amount of work – I can estimate the number of approximately 10.000 negatives – and that means a lot of work and financial resources.

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Flavia Dima Flavia Dima
Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short fim festival, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. For Films in Frame, she's in charge of interviews, along with Laura Musat. Favorite international film festival: Viennale.