Mihai Dragolea: “Cinema gives you an infusion of life, it makes you more complex”

26 July, 2022

In September 2021, journalist and film director Mihai Dragolea was beaten, together with a colleague, Radu Mocanu, and an environmental activist, Tiberiu Boşutar, in a forest in Suceava county, while shooting a documentary on illegal logging in Romania. A project for which they obtained funding this year from the Romanian Film Center (CNC) and which appears to be one of the most anticipated upcoming Romanian films.

In parallel with this project, Mihai Dragolea made a short film, “Aurica, a Dog’s Life” (2022), a fiction-documentary hybrid that tells the story of a fugitive who lives in a cornfield and befriends a villager’s dog from whom he steals food. The film won the Romanian Film Days Award for Best Short Film at this year’s edition of the Transilvania International Film Festival (TIFF).

In 2020, Mihai Dragolea released the short documentary “Everything for Riana”, about a couple struggling to save their baby’s life, who suffers from a heart condition, with the father selling fake iPhones in Italy to get the money for the operation. In 2017, he made the medium-length documentary “PhoeniXXX”, about two young women working in the video chat industry.

Mihai Dragolea made his debut in cinema with the feature-length documentary “Golden Robot” (2015), made together with Radu Mocanu. The film focuses on Steluța Duță, a 32-year-old boxer, multiple European and world champion, who is preparing for the last major championship in her sports career. She hopes this final win will bring her the thing she never had, a home. Steluța Duță was abandoned at birth and lived a life of violence and abuse until the age of 20, when she was discovered by her coach and adoptive father, Constantin Vocilaș.

Born on June 14, 1989, in Cluj-Napoca, Mihai Dragolea studied Cinematography, Photography and Media at the Faculty of Theater and Television (now the Faculty of Theater and Film), Babes-Bolyai University. He further went on to earn a master’s degree at the National University of Arts (UNArte) in Bucharest. He worked for several years in television as a camera operator, video editor, and director. He is currently a freelancer.

What was Cluj like while growing up?

I grew up with my grandparents until I was 7, in Petroşani and in the village of Romos in Hunedoara, where I now have a tree farm. Then, I went to middle school, high school and college in Cluj. In high school, I was in the Social Science class, which was considered the weakest one. But I liked it. It was more diverse, but fun and cool. I was playing bass in a band. Then, around 2004-2005, there was a great punk movement in Cluj, mostly started by our Hungarian fellows. We had all become punkers. But I also liked it at school, especially the History and Romanian classes.

There were better times then. Cluj was in a transition period, from Funar (i.e. Gheorghe Funar, former mayor of Cluj-Napoca) to the “glorious” Boc era (i.e. Emil Boc, the current mayor of Cluj-Napoca). The city was very simple and quite poor. But it was rather wild. Finally free of Funar, people needed something, because it was just dull, there was nothing in terms of entertainment. Cluj attracted people from other places in Transylvania. At first, there was only one rock bar, where everyone gathered, then another one appeared. And one or two “tacky” places. Other than that, we would drink on the street.

We wanted to be cool so we would buy clothes from the flea market, Oser, which is emblematic. There you could find all kinds of things brought from abroad. Cluj was much less consumerist then. It was full of life and vibrant. We were free to do whatever we wanted, always looking for something new. After that, those times faded very quickly. I left Cluj when the city was starting to become very commercial, around 2011.

The early 2000s also saw the birth of the Transilvania International Film Festival. Did it have any influence on you?

It was kind of fun. We were acting like schmucks. Me and my friends would just waltz into the theaters, drink beer, belch, and laugh out loud during the movies. It was cool, it was very interactive. I saw La mala educación by Almodóvar, which stuck with me. Cluj was not very open, so we would giggle and laugh at the more “explicit” scenes, but ultimately, we liked it. The first reaction was to make fun, but if you are open enough, the film gets you hooked. I also remember seeing The Way I Spent the End of the World, by Cătălin Mitulescu. I liked it a lot. The theater was full and we sat on the stairs.

At that time, TIFF had music documentaries in its program, and they were very popular with the teenagers in Cluj. We wanted to be like the skinheads starring in them. Naive, but cool. We integrated TIFF into our lives. So the festival had an influence, especially when it came to music documentaries. But we didn’t go to the parties. We’ve only been to a few good movies.

You further went to the Theater and Television school. How did you come up with this decision? Were you already interested in filmmaking?

I was a movie fan. I used to buy movie DVDs and watch them with my mother. But I didn’t necessarily want to do film. I wanted to do television. My dad worked in television. I actually wanted to be a TV show host. I really liked Cap şi pajură (i.e. TV show hosted by Cristian Tudor Popescu and Emil Hurezeanu) and I wanted to do something similar. But I didn’t know how to get there. Filmmaking seemed out of my reach at the time, so I thought it was beyond me. I was taught to be more realistic, pragmatic. In my head, I was going to get a job at TVR Cluj and do nature and adventure stories, film people. That was the plan.

The school was fairly new in Cluj, but was revolutionary for Romania. It was set by film critic and professor Doru Pop, with whom I’m now working on my PhD. I admire him a lot. He created this school based on the Western model. It wasn’t like UNATC, divided into departments, rather you studied a little bit of everything and then saw at the end what you wanted to do next. There were very few of us in a year, only about eight students, I think. The department was called Cinematography, Photography and Media (CPM). It didn’t necessarily train you to be a director, but rather an artist. You mostly made documentaries, but you could also go for fiction for your graduation film.

My graduation film was a simple documentary short, also about a female boxer, called Porcelain Champion. It was an observational documentary. I liked Frederick Wiseman, so I was inspired by his film, Boxing Gym (2010).

Then you came to Bucharest, where you got into the Photo-Video master’s program at UNArte.

I moved to Bucharest in 2012. In 2011, I went to Istanbul, with the Erasmus program. When I returned to Cluj from Istanbul, it was imperative to find work. I found a job at a very small television station, Alpha TV, running in this small booth in a parking lot. I was working as a cameraman, as well as an editor. Making all sorts of crap. But it was fun, hilarious. I came to Bucharest in 2012 also because my then-girlfriend wanted us to move there. I had some money saved up, but not enough. So when I got to Bucharest, I was desperate to find work, in order to support myself. I was hungry. I was naive. I had a recommendation letter from my boss at Alpha TV, and with that and my CV, I walked all over Bucharest, went to every television station and knocked on every door. I was desperate. But no one would even look at me. It was really lame. Finally, a friend helped me get a job at Digi 24. They hired me as a news editor working the night shifts, between 2am and 10am. Total chaos. Terrible. But I was happy I had found a job.

Were you already thinking about filmmaking, about making documentaries?

Ever since my last year of college, I knew that I wanted to make documentary films. But, once again, I didn’t know how to get there. At that time, Cluj was quite isolated. We didn’t know about film festivals, except for TIFF. The school was very new. At the beginning of 2013, when I was already in Bucharest, I got into the Berlinale Talents programme with my graduation film. I thought it was a film writing workshop, I didn’t even know it was a film festival. I was excited that they selected me.

While in Bucharest, haven’t you thought about going to UNATC?

I was a little scared. I didn’t think I could get in, I felt I didn’t belong there. They seemed highly specialized. I went to the Center of Excellence in Image Studies instead. Got in, but then dropped out. It was too theoretical for me and I didn’t like the vibe either. Then, I applied to UNArte and I liked it there. I met Alecu Solomon. And that was it.

What kind of impact did this meeting have on you?

In Cluj, I studied documentary film with Dan Curean. After that, I went to Istanbul, where I made a documentary about baggage carriers. After I returned from Istanbul, I met Radu Mocanu, with whom I made Golden Robot and with whom I’m also working now, on our current project. Radu was in Cluj as well, working at PRO TV. I was at Alpha TV. We met on the field, while covering stories, and we started talking. He had studied at a great college in France. But he, too, ended up working as a camera operator. He was the one who told me about the female boxer I made my graduation film on. Radu moved to Bucharest because he was offered a job at another TV network. Later, I also moved to Bucharest. Then I went to Berlinale Talents. I saw that filmmaking was possible. At the same time, I got into the master’s program at UNArte, where I had Alecu Solomon as a teacher, with whom I got on very well from the beginning. That encouraged me to pursue filmmaking. He didn’t tell me that himself, it was simply his way of being and how he would talk about films during classes that gave you confidence to go in this direction. So Radu and I started working on Golden Robot. In 2013, I was an editor at Digi 24, doing night shifts, and in the morning, we would take the bus and go to Buzău to film Steluţa Duţă. It was hard.

What motivated you all this time?

We knew we wanted to be an observational and participatory documentary. We knew we were making a film, but we didn’t know what we were going to do with it after editing. We didn’t have a producer. We were two guys making a documentary. But it was fun.

Our main motivation was Steluţa Duţă as a character. She brought us into her world, which we thought was awesome. Then, Radu and I had both studied film, but we were both working in television. We were desperate to do something, so we agreed on making a film because we couldn’t live like this, we felt like we were wasting ourselves. Since we had the knowhow, we had this need to create something. I had an iMac, Radu had a camera and had also bought a microphone, only we didn’t have a boom, so we taped the microphone to a telescopic broom tail and that’s what we used to record the sound (laughs).

Did you have a concept?

We both like Frederick Wiseman and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) had just come out. We were interested in Oppenheimer’s interactive and participatory approach. We, too, wanted to make a film like that, form-wise. But at the same time, incredible things were happening in front of the camera, real events that were very cinematic and which we captured through long takes, not static ones, but shot with a moving camera following the character.

These are the most genuine moments. In fiction, you have to be a master to create them, but in real life, they just occur. I love that – getting really intimate and deep things about the character when you turn the camera on them and wait long enough.

What is “enough”?

I don’t know, let the camera on for at least a few hours. You need at least two hours for things to lighten up. And then you start to get stuff that you normally don’t notice when the camera is present. We also knew that we had to be there whenever something was happening, always have an action: Stela goes to her parents, Stela goes to her home village, Stela has a boxing match. We would also go to her house and interview her, but these moments were weaker. But when she was engaged in an action, you could get some great layers and subtexts.

You were still working in television at the time. The positive reception the film enjoyed locally must have determined you to continue with filmmaking.

We made this film, people found out about it, and it was received quite well. A lot of things changed afterwards. My superiors at Digi 24 realized we could do new things. I was also very hardworking. So they put me on their campaigns as well. I had a camera and I told them I could help. I wanted to earn more money because I would spend most of them on my projects. I also got a raise. That’s also when I started taking other jobs, besides the one I had in television. I had a friend whose brother was a manager at a video chat studio, so one of the jobs was to make their video ads. That’s how I met the characters in PhoeniXXX.

Were you not afraid to go into that area? You didn’t have any ethical dilemmas? The film could be criticized for exposing some characters who are in a vulnerable situation.

Indeed, looking at it now, it does seem this way. The film had some problems afterwards. In Romania, it was shown at a few festivals. When I got that job at the video chat studio, I was quite young, about 24-25 years old. At that age, you are fascinated by these things. I thought it was cool that those girls, who had a tough background, were thriving through video chat. That was the narrative I saw in them. They seemed to be cut out of an Almodóvar movie, somehow. Obviously, I thought about whether it was ethical to film them. But I told them that I wanted to make a film about how they succeeded by doing video chat. And these two girls wanted to tell their stories. Later, after the film came out, they changed their minds, they didn’t want to appear anymore. They were afraid they were exposing themselves.

It was, however, a good story. You see these girls had ideas, they had critical thinking. One of them was doing it for the family, for her daughter. They wanted more from life and found this thing, which in Romania means being in a vulnerable situation. It was also about the quick money trap. But I didn’t exploit that in the film. I had a more romantic approach. Being young, I thought how awesome these girls are, they don’t care about the rest, they make money and everything will be fine. Then I realized that it’s not really like that.

I was fascinated because I saw them as some rebels who were doing this thing and were managing so well. I let them take the reins of the narrative. I was just there to film them. They invited me to their home. They wanted to show that they were okay, that they weren’t what the world thought about them, some easy women.

How do you determine the perspective from which you approach a topic?

In the case of PhoeniXXX, I also went for a participatory and observational perspective. I thought there was a very good story there. Video chat is part of the evolution of the Romanian entrepreneurial culture, and you, as a storyteller, regardless of the environment you choose, must attest to that. I was a documentary filmmaker, and such a topic was happening near me. What do you do? I told this story in a straightforward manner, the only way I knew how. I wasn’t yet exposed to experimental film and I didn’t have enough knowledge on fiction to make such a film.

Does the fact that you work in television influence your documentary filmmaking in any way?

I no longer work in television. I don’t know if it influences you. For example, at that time, Vice had a lot of articles and clips about video chat that were fake. I was exposed to this media. They were saying how cool it is to do video chat, that these women are entrepreneurs and make good money. I was looking at that stuff. We cannot say that those videos were a journalistic product. They were shot in a cinematic way, but there was no cinema to them at all, because the characters were some girls who, although very successful in their field, weren’t saying anything real.

For me, cinema is when you find the human element, even though it’s a sensational topic. If the cinema is good, it can take a sensational topic and reach a truth that journalism would never get to, a universal truth.

I like to level with the characters, see if they are fake or not and if we can commit to a project together. And also see if I’m interested in the story. That’s how I test the waters, by building up enough of a rapport. That’s how you gain their trust and they become comfortable enough to act naturally, without me forcing things. In my case, often the characters are the ones who take the reins of the action: let’s go to Italy to sell phones.

You are talking about the protagonist in Everything for Riana.

Yes. I asked him what he was doing for a living. And he told me. Then he invited me to go with him. There I learned what it’s like to live on the street and sleep in a car. I had never been to Italy before.

Once again, you threw yourself into an apparently sensational topic.

It was the same thing. I found it really cool that this guy was doing what he was doing to help his daughter. But there was something more profound here compared to PhoeniXXX. When I started making documentaries, the world wasn’t so politically correct. Obviously, in one way or another, I exploited these characters. It is what it is, I can’t change that now. I had a camera and I wasn’t making films about myself, so I exploited these characters to tell stories that I liked. It’s selfish, can’t argue that. But I didn’t exploit them in a sensationalist way, like they do on the five o’clock news. I just liked them because they resonated with something in me and I found myself in them. For example, the fact that the protagonist in PhoeniXXX does video chat to support her child. I, too, was raised by my mother, grandmother and sister, because my father abandoned us in a rather harsh way.

Then, I thought it was interesting that the character in Everything for Riana does an immoral thing – he scams people who are probably in a worse situation than him – for a moral purpose, to save his daughter. I really like this moral dilemma.

What can I say, I don’t make nice, virtuous films, meant to teach you good manners. There are terrible things that happen in life, and the greatest thing is to understand the person who does them.

Your films might be seen as “social documentaries”. Do you find this label to be simplistic?

Yes. I didn’t ask my characters for an intervention. I only tried to make people understand them because I, myself, found something personal in them that I liked. The protagonist in PhoeniXXX, the fact that she didn’t leave her daughter and fights for her. Steluța Duţă in Golden Robot because she was punk like me. Kalo in Everything for Riana because he was fighting for his family in a very rebellious way.

People say they are social documentaries because they focus on these categories that we see as more vulnerable. But that is a preconception that society has about this type of characters. They are not that vulnerable as we make them to be. They aren’t just all good or all bad. I made these films as freely as possible. That’s why I made them with my own money and without any financing, so I could go about them however I wanted.

In your newest endeavor, the short film Aurica, a Dog’s Life, you experiment with a hybrid form, a mixture of documentary and fiction. Where does this interest come from?

Precisely from what you said earlier. We touched on exposing the characters when we talked about PhoeniXXX. At one point, this idea of ​​making documentaries about marginalized characters really wore me out, not just physically, but also in terms of human connections. I do carry some guilt. I can’t do it, I don’t want to anymore. If I do want to approach stuff like that, though, it’s going to be a fiction film. As to not expose people anymore. I learned that along the way. I wasn’t part of the film world, so I didn’t have the filters that one gains in the field. I had a lot of freedom. I’m not on bad terms with any of the characters, but it wore me out, you have to give a lot of yourself. I also realized that it’s been a few years since I’ve watched any documentaries. I mostly watch fiction films.

It sounds like a paradox.

Indeed, it is. For example, Everything for Riana is a very edited film. I didn’t follow the chronology of events. It’s a film made in editing, very fictionalized from this point of view. It’s a trend now. Besides being afraid of exposing the characters, I also wanted to tell stories like in fiction films, so I turned to editing to superimpose narrative structures on the reality of the characters. But I wasn’t getting where I wanted. Reality is not on your side. That’s what’s frustrating about documentaries: people would tell me about their stuff and I would film them talking. And I realized it’s all for nothing, there’s no point in me being there. I don’t have the action, I only have some words. So I decided I won’t do that anymore. I’m going to make a film that is documentary up to a point, then I switch to fiction and say it’s a hybrid, and that’s it.

How did you meet Aurică and how did you come to make a film about him? You made this short film as a concept for a feature film.

I met him while working at a dog shelter. He was helping there, I was a volunteer. Aurică is a social outcast. He doesn’t want to talk, for obvious reasons, he is an ex-convict. I find that really cool – finally, a character who doesn’t feel like talking. I started working with him, I got to know him in the process, and he was paid for his performance. I have great respect for his work. I like his world, which is somewhere near Bucharest. Between urban and rural. Wild. I like this area where even the laws become quite redundant. There are no rules or restrictions, it’s freedom all the way.

Tell me a bit about the project you are working on now with Radu Mocanu, which focuses on illegal logging in Romania. An ambitious documentary with Monica Lăzurean-Gorgan as producer and for which you obtained funding from the Romanian Film Center this year.

Working in television helped me evolve. At Digi 24, I came to do the shows that I really wanted to do, but which were rather left aside. In 2019, I decided to make something about nature because I was very concerned about climate change. I wanted to do an awareness show. That’s when I met several people in this field. I did interviews with pretty much all the local environmental activists. I started going on mountain hikes more often. That’s how I met Tiberiu Boşutar. In 2020, after seeing Everything for Riana at fARAD, Monica Lăzurean-Gorgan called me and asked if I had any projects in development. I didn’t, but the idea came to me immediately – a documentary about illegal logging in Bucovina.

We’re working on it since then. It’s a project that is developing well. But we had a problem: Tiberiu had already done a lot of work as an activist in the past few years and we hadn’t been with him, we missed it. It was frustrating that we didn’t get it from the start. I liked what he was doing, but at the same time, I didn’t understand some things. I didn’t necessarily understand the motivation.

Will he be the character of your film?

No, not anymore. He was at some point, but we were always a few steps behind him. We weren’t there when many things happened. We couldn’t make him redo them. Then there was the attack, which will obviously be introduced in the film. Since then, Radu and I have become the main characters. The footage we have with Tibi and the attack will be like a prologue for what will follow. We were thinking of covering the trial, but it’s very boring, especially since it’s all a sham. You only need a few things to understand that the system is corrupt.

It will be a film about our environmental efforts, but even more than that. It’s about how humans relate to nature. And it’s also about how we, the filmmakers, pollute as well, for example by driving around to make the film.

Basically, that incident changed the perspective.

Yes, it inserted us in the film. We turned the camera towards us. But we will also have a collaboration with a great biologist. He works at the Ceahlău National Park. He has a very critical view of the world.

But how did the incident at Vatra Dornei occur? Were you there to shoot for the documentary?

Yes, we were there to shoot some scenes with Tiberiu. It was somewhat fake, Tiberiu Boşutar showing a villager, who is concerned about nature, how to identify illegal cuttings in the forest. And it exuded triumphalism. But it was just an act. In reality, that villager only wanted to rat one of his neighbors out, because he had some beef with him. The villager was using Tibi to achieve his goal. Tibi was using us to appear in the film on this thing. We used Tibi to make our film. And we all got our asses kicked (laughs). That’s the whole truth.

And you ended up all over the media, not just in Romania but also in the international press, and in official reports.

We weren’t there as journalists. The whole media presented us as journalists and talked about the freedom of the press. Sure, we could have been journalists, but we were there as filmmakers. It was quite traumatic. It was terrifying to see all those 20 men coming toward us with their axes in their hands. I was angry with Radu, because the day before I had felt very sick, I had had severe enterocolitis or COVID. I couldn’t get out of bed and asked Radu to leave that very day. He didn’t want to, for the same reasons, because our character wanted to show us something. So we didn’t want to be disrespectful to him. We were also somewhat misled. I told Tibi that I didn’t feel well enough to go up on the mountain. He told me not to worry, that the place we were going was somewhere close. But it turned out to be a 40-minute drive up the mountain, to a place where those guys who beat us had already told Tibi that if he showed up again, they would kill him right then and there. And now Tibi has taken us to that place, thinking that they won’t attack journalists. And we all ended up getting hurt.

Why do you like filmmaking?

My view on that has changed over time. At first, I loved telling stories through cinema. I believed that through cinema you can reach some truth in your character. Which also might seem selfish: I find a story and then show it to you. I also believe that now but there’s something more than that. I like that cinema can put you in a situation you’ve never experienced before. Like this incident that happened in the forest, being attacked – I called the emergency number, and in the film, there will be a scene where the screen goes black and you only hear the call. I don’t wish anyone to go through that, but you experience it through the film.

I think cinema enriches you greatly as a viewer. And I always think about the viewer. That’s why I make films that are easy to understand. Cinema gives you an infusion of life. It doesn’t make you better or worse, but it makes you more complex. I like that cinema can turn into an almost extreme life experience, through which you get to understand some things that you wouldn’t encounter in your everyday life.

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