Matei Dima: “I think that almost everything that happens around us can be viewed from a comical angle”

21 November, 2023

The Romanian commercial film disappeared with the fall of communism, and along with it, the large audience in theaters. The 1990s, even if they meant freedom, also brought poverty and a lot of chaos. Everyone could do whatever they wanted – some managed to assert themselves and build empires, while others remained in the poverty they had become accustomed to during communism, glad that at least they had gained their freedom. Although the 1990s also meant the closure of numerous movie theaters, for filmmakers whose free expression and creativity were restricted, it meant a new beginning, an opportunity to tell stories from realistic angles, inspired by the most traumatizing period of Romania they had recently experienced  – thus, the New Romanian Cinema was born. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the movement divided the public into two – cinephiles (i.e. the small part, considered by many the local elite) and people who avoid Romanian films (because they don’t want to see or experience what they lived through for decades) but widely appreciate Hollywood movies.

For 30 years, local films have been at the bottom of the Romanian box office, relying mainly on state funding and international prestige obtained through nominations or awards at some of the world’s largest film festivals. All of this changed in 2019 with the release of 5GANG – the first film starring influencers and vloggers, produced by Matei Dima, known everywhere as Bromania. Miami Bici and Teambuilding followed, with the latter becoming Romania’s highest-grossing film of all time. And perhaps the most talked about on social media, stirring reactions among the local film community as well. From Teambuilding to the appearance of this interview, less than a year has passed, during which the number of commercial films has doubled, as has the audience, and Romanian art films have entered a downward trend. 2023 is the first year in which the official selection of Cannes or Berlinale had no Romanian title in the international competition. Because the industry is changing, and so is the public’s perception of Romanian cinema, I wanted to talk to the man who started it all – Matei Dima, aka Bromania. It wasn’t easy to get to him but once I did, I realised quite quickly he is one of us. He’s much more Matei than he is Bromania. Sometimes happy, other times insecure or vulnerable, with fears and dreams. We met this summer at TIFF Transilvania and shortly after, I proposed to him an interview for our printed edition. He asked me to meet up twice. He had gained weight for the shooting of Miami Bici 2 and he wanted to lose weight before our shooting. It’s very easy to judge Matei as a cold, distant and even arrogant man. His persona and the fame around it oblige him to be skeptical about the people he meets and make them earn his trust. However, he’s a man that reads people easily, a quality he has gained while doing sketches – it required paying a lot of attention to everything that’s going on, to people’s behaviour and reactions. The weeks that followed until we met again for our photo shooting I discovered a guy who talks very little but does a lot, with a huge energy to create. So here’s an interview about everything that he’s created so far, including his latest film, Miami Bici 2.

Foto: Sabina Costinel. Styling: Ruxandra Marin

Tell me about your childhood.

When I think about childhood, I think about the atmosphere of the ’90s – everything was very new. I didn’t understand the effects of the regime change, what the transition from communism to freedom meant. For us, the main source of fun was playing football against the wall in the neighborhood. I was a bit chubby, so I was always the goalkeeper; I wasn’t one of the cool kids. I remember perfectly that wall – there were always debates about whether the ball went in or not.

Summer was the most beautiful time of the year. The city was so lively and vibrant, probably because of the tourists. I was always very sociable and made friends quickly. My parents allowed me to do anything within limits, which annoyed me, but I understood that later. I recently went to Constanța and passed by the summer theater, which has been abandoned for many years – when I was little, I used to go there in the summer with my parents to watch movies with Steven Seagal or Arnold. There were two other small movie theaters – Popular and Progresul, both currently closed. Only Republica was renovated, but I think they turned it into a cultural center.

Were there things your parents insisted on when you were little that stuck with you?

There was a certain way of raising your child back then, and pretty much all parents had the same rules, the same fundamental principles. What my mother very much insisted on was to be generous. She thought I was a sensitive child and insisted that I never give that up.

You wanted to make films since you were 10, inspired by watching Van Damme movies. What was it that attracted you to the world of cinema?

I think when I was little, the action in movies made me feel alive. I never analyzed why I immersed myself in movies, but what is clear to me is that I found it easier to overcome the difficult moments in my life by watching films. Living those stories and allowing myself to become attached to the characters. Over time, I realized that I would love to offer the same to others. It all started with my desire to make people laugh, which I’ve had since I was little and it always came so naturally to me.

Indeed, you’re very good at comedy. Where does that come from?

We laugh a lot as a family. Although we’re different, humor is a common thing. My earliest memories are of me making jokes. That was my way of being, and clearly, my relationship with my parents allowed me to develop in this direction.

Foto: Sabina Costinel. Styling: Ruxandra Marin

Watching La Seral, your first YouTube series, I noticed that you capture the essence of our nation very well; it’s a cool approach to Romanian stereotypes.

I think I have a great sense of observation – if you want to do comedy, it’s important to notice what’s going on around you. I think that almost everything that happens around us can be viewed from a comical angle. It’s like a muscle you develop over time. Great comedians do this all the time – one of the guys I grew up with is Jerry Seinfeld; I’d listen to him and always say, “Holy shit, that’s right!”

In comedy, I think it’s important to notice when a pattern or a reaction appears. There are many things that bother us but which we don’t talk about, and if you find those things and address them with humor, you got the crowd. Kind of like “Finally, someone said it!”

What do you dislike most about Romania?

The hypocrisy, that there’s a lack of acceptance for who we are.

And how are we?

We have issues that we don’t accept. We are ignorant; people don’t want to accept certain things and project their frustrations and shortcomings onto others. It seems like we’re filled with hatred, a hatred that has become more and more present, especially since it’s amplified online by inflammatory comments, but also because of all the tensions in the world. I totally feel these things in the way people relate to me online. It’s a lot easier to be malicious from behind a keyboard. You asked me what I don’t like and I need to be honest about it. I’m not a perfect person, but the way the way my work is regarded is not objective.

You told me what draws you to cinema, but I’m curious, what scares you about it?

That I don’t have time to do everything I set out to do. I wish I could enjoy more of what I create, of my achievements, without adding pressure from year to year. My personality and ego need to be fed constantly; I always ask myself what’s next – what’s the next movie, how do we make it better, how do I help the younger generation? There are many things I want to do and they all take time, and the passing of time scares me.

You studied theater and PR in the USA. What do you remember fondly from your time as a student and what is the most important thing you learned in college?

There were several things, first of all, the chance to do theater – we had to learn a bit of everything, not just acting. I loved the openness, the free-thinking; it didn’t matter where you came from or who you were, everyone treated you with respect. No one forced you to be a certain way, we were just people in an artistic setting. I made very good friends in this healthy environment, from which I learned a lot. In my first year, I was cast in all three plays staged at school. The second year meant a lot of tennis – a completely different environment from that of the theater – and I also started working. I got a job in a cafeteria and quickly moved up from the kitchen to the front desk. In the third year, I became the president of the faculty’s international club, a club with many resources that allowed me to organize all kinds of activities. I was cast in a play staged at the local theater, got a part as an Eastern European, and directed my first play, as I chose directing for my major. Each year brought something different, and I liked that because that’s how I am: I like to produce, know the budgets, and deal with the numbers, but I also like to tell stories.

Would you ever return to theater?

Yes, because films can’t convey the feeling stage plays do. In 50 years, I would love to carve out a space for myself in the Romanian theater community.

Foto: Sabina Costinel. Styling: Ruxandra Marin

Since you started producing, you’ve brought diversity to the Romanian film landscape. I believe we’ve needed commercial productions for a long time. How do you see the films you’ve made so far? At what level are they?

Everything I produce comes from instinct. Even though I went to a film school, I don’t feel it had as strong an impact as the YouTube series, which I started with some friends in Los Angeles – because the practice helped me much more than the theory I learned at school. I like to try things.

I believe many good ideas don’t happen because people lack the confidence or courage to try.

The films I’ve made so far are well-received because the Romanian public has not seen such films since before the ’90s – it’s clear they haven’t been made because there are no budgets and no large audience to allow making big-budget films; the highest number of people going to the cinema is somewhere around one million, and that rarely happens. It’s a start, though, a strong start that I’m not ashamed of. I think the films I’ve made have achieved their purpose. I learned from each experience, and the production level has increased with each film. More and more experienced actors are approaching us, marketing campaigns are better organized, and so on.

How do you measure the impact Teambuilding had, beyond the box office success?

I can only answer from a personal perspective – I believe it changed many people’s perception of me. For me, it was the most challenging project. From the beginning until its release, we had a lot of problems, many times I thought it wouldn’t work out. The script kept developing; initially, everything was supposed to happen in an office. Then came the idea of a team building, to bring the company’s teams from different cities to the mountain. In the first few days of shooting, I thought everything would fall apart; we weren’t prepared for such a big production. On the last day of shooting, my mother had a heart attack, and I had to leave. I was the first on set every day, deciding with Mișu [Ionescu, the director of photography] step by step what we were doing that day – we couldn’t plan anything in advance because Mișu joined the project one day before the shooting. That’s how we kept it for 20 days, at the end of which I felt exhausted but proud at the same time. I was lucky that everyone worked harder on this film than usual. It gave me confidence that I should continue on this path until the very end. That’s the impact it had on me; I can’t speak for others.

Foto: Sabina Costinel

What do you think is the perception of the Romanian film industry toward you and the films you produce, and how do you feel about it?

We had this discussion in a panel at TIFF (i.e. Transilvania International Film Festival). I believe everyone is okay with each other, and we and the rest of the industry understand that we want different things. But people look for gossip. I don’t see why diversity would be a problem, and that bridge between the two worlds will be the high-quality commercial film, when that should appear. In the meantime, there are two different ways of making cinema. I don’t think art films suffer because of commercial films.

Have you ever seen a film that made you feel uncomfortable, and thus be surprised by the impact it had, even if it disturbed you?

Of course, although I avoid such films. At least now, I prefer escapist movies that allow me to relax and forget about everything – and that’s why my films are like that. I wouldn’t want you to leave one of my films feeling uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean that in the more distant future, I don’t want to make different kinds of films. At the moment, I still have things to learn about myself and about cinema – I can’t be that kind of creator yet. I don’t think a film that makes you feel uncomfortable comes from a very pleasant place in the mind of its creator.

Give me an example of a movie you saw recently that impressed you.

Oppenheimer. It has a great story, great cinematography, great music, and on top of that, it made me think about it long after.  For me, that’s what a great commercial film means – it’s a level we too can reach over time. At the moment, it’s impossible.

Right now, you are following a pretty specific recipe.

Yes, because if I set out to do something at that level, there’s a very good chance I would screw it up and go bankrupt.

So there’s a lot of pragmatism involved when it comes to choosing your film subjects.

That’s because the entrepreneur in me says that’s how things should be now. But my plans are long-term, and I’m open to a different kind of cinema. I’ll always test my limits.

Miami Bici 2 comes out in cinemas this week. Why the sequel?

It’s a special film for me, it was the first one I made. And then I didn’t have the financial situation I have now, nor the experience. It’s a film I made with help from friends and would have become a major industry disruptor if the pandemic hadn’t stopped it. I relate to its story because I was the Romanian guy who went to America – not necessarily the character in the film, but the cultural shock is the same. After these four years of learning so much about film production, I feel like I owe it to myself to tell this story (again), which I find super fun. And, in the end, the films we make represent us. Plus, going back to the pragmatism of the company, the film already has a fan base. The hardest part is getting people to come to the cinema.

I relate to its story because I was the Romanian guy who went to America – not necessarily the character in the film, but the cultural shock is the same. After these four years of learning so much about film production, I feel like I owe it to myself to tell this story (again), which I find super fun.

It seems to me that there’s something of you in all your characters. They share this want to be kind, to be “good”. Would you play or write a completely different character from you, one that challenges you?

Yes, it’s coming, along with the next set of projects we’re working on.

And until then, would you play in an art film?

Yes, of course – I would like to go through the whole audition process. I don’t think I’ve been tested as an actor yet; I’ve worked in very comfortable environments that I created for myself. I would love to discover my potential by working on an art film. I’m sure it would help me.

You are an actor, producer, and recently a director. You also do other things outside the film world. What represents you the most, what do you enjoy doing the most?

I’ve asked myself that question too, but in a pragmatic way. I think we’re short of screenwriters, so that’s where I’m trying to invest the most now. With the right team, maybe at some point, I’ll be able to pick one and stick with that.

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.