Oana Giurgiu: I hate this approach “it’s not how you do things”
“Occasional Spies” (2021), Oana Giurgiu’s second documentary as a director, is now in theaters.
Based on real facts and testimonies, the film recreates the story of an unusual espionage operation that had a major impact on the development of World War II: several young Zionists from Palestine were recruited by British Intelligence and sent back to their countries of origin in Eastern Europe, including Romania, to help the local resistance to fight the German invaders.
Oana Giurgiu came across this story while making her first documentary, “Aliyah DaDa” (2015), about the emigration of Romanian Jews to Palestine.
On the occasion of releasing her new film, I invited Oana Giurgiu for an interview to expand on her three roles: documentary director, producer of several Romanian and foreign films in the last 15 years (among the most recent, “Spiral”, “Servants” and “Moromete Family: On the Edge of Time”) and executive director of the biggest film festival in Romania, Transilvania International Film Festival.
The discussion is part of our monthly column of in-depth interviews with established filmmakers, from directors, actors and producers to directors of photography, editors and critics.
You said in an interview that you have no special interest in Jewish history and that you were rather driven by a curiosity towards this area. Still, is curiosity just enough to spend so much time on a topic? Doesn’t it take something else?
I said that I’m curious by nature and that it’s out of curiosity when I start a project. But I have a great interest in history in general. Not just for Jewish history. These films aren’t meant as a gift to the Jewish people. They are a gift to me, to my generation and to the generations that come after me.
Searching through the past, I realized that they (i.e. Jewish people) have better documented their history. A history that we haven’t had access to for a very long time. For example, the ’50s and the ’60s are very blurry. That is why many of us now revisit that period. I believe that directors who make narrative or documentary films about the past do so out of curiosity, due to the fact that they didn’t know much about those years.
At one of the screenings of the first film in Israel, I was asked by the audience why I’m doing this for them, and I said at once that I’m not Jewish and that it was very difficult for me to start from nothing and that I don’t do it for them, but for my generation, both in Romania and in Israel. And the second film, I made it for my generation in Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Israel. We need to realize that history is like a chessboard: you make one move but you need to take into account the entire game, otherwise, you will be left exposed.
I like history, I’m interested in this area, so I want to know that through documentary, even if it’s a hobby, meaning it’s not my main activity, I unraveled things and left them clear behind. That’s my goal. If what I have done sheds some light on things and inspires someone to go further in documenting the subject, I feel that I have achieved my goal. If a historian comes and tells me that through my film they discovered something they didn’t know about, that’s a great honor.
I’m obsessed with the fact that we don’t preserve our history. Whereas Jewish people do. So there you have it, Jewish people left Romania, I “clung” a bit to them and I untangled some things.
What keeps you tied to a topic for so long and pushes you to explore it in more depth? Especially since you say that making documentaries is a hobby for you.
It is a hobby, but it’s what I like the most. Don’t think that I like being a producer. I like organizing events more than film production, but not more than filmmaking. It’s the profession I was forced to interrupt when I was still very much into it. We broke up but there was still passion between us.
And when you still had a lot to say.
I hadn’t done much in television (i.e. before switching to cinema, Oana Giurgiu worked in television for several years, mainly making reportages). I wasn’t really interested in it. I left television and started working in film at a time when there were no budgets for reporting. There were studio shows, which wasn’t fulfilling my needs. So I sought another job to satisfy my need of moving around, going places.
What are your fears when you start a project as a director?
That’s not how I go about it. First, I search around a lot and gather information. I know right away that there’s potential for something. I’m not afraid at this point. Fear sets in much later, when you are not sure if what you’re doing is actually going to be stupid or nonsense. I’m talking about these two films I made. Otherwise, this is not how I was trained to work. In television, I did a lot of reporting and interviews. I’m very familiar with this area. The problem is, I had no one to interview here (i.e. Occasional Spies). Anyway, I had a different approach at the beginning and along the way, I realized it wasn’t working.
Turning to photo reenactment was a great solution. Given that we’re talking about a secret mission, its very purpose was to leave no traces, so you faced another challenge, that of not having any kind of footage.
Exactly. There is no way to illustrate the story. I made two films facing this challenge. The first one (i.e. Aliyah DaDa), where practically I would have used photos if they had existed, but there were only portraits from that time. So then I came up with the idea of making collages by putting modern photos under the portraits. And now I’ve made a film about some spies whose activity obviously couldn’t be illustrated.
I found this solution (i.e. photo reenactment) after previously thinking that I could make a film based on interviews with the descendants. But it didn’t work. After putting in all the effort to find and get in contact with them, it was very difficult for me to make the decision to cancel and give up all the interviews and start everything from scratch and go by a different approach. That’s when fear arises, when you don’t know if what you’re doing makes sense or is stupid.
The main challenge of the film seems to be the huge amount of information, the large number of characters and narrative threads, the fact that several countries were involved. I think it was difficult for you to try to make everything as clear and coherent as possible.
You’re right, it wasn’t easy. I don’t ask the viewer to remember all the names and all the threads of the story after watching the film. It wouldn’t make sense. But I had to sort them out in the film. Because it’s the kind of film you can revisit, if you’re interested, and pause it whenever you want and make notes and then read books on the topic. The film itself works as a document for those who become more interested in the story. If not, you’re only left with a chessboard, from which you learn that a move made by someone in a time of crisis, such as in 1944, during the war, has repercussions elsewhere. Basically, you see the chain of events in connection with the policies of several countries.
The history we are taught in school is rather a national history. Nobody explains to you why certain events take place and how it affects a neighboring country. For example, the war starts in Ukraine, but, guess what, it has repercussions in Bucharest, Cluj, Isaccea. Everything is thrown out of balance when something happens.
So it wasn’t an option to focus only on the spies sent to Romania?
We are all built to care about what happens in our own backyard. I wanted to make a film about these spies who were sent back to Romania, especially since I knew what happened with them even after the war was over. It’s just that along the way I realized that it’s not that simple and you can’t separate things. For example, the spies who operated in Hungary were born in Cluj. Okay, Cluj wasn’t part of Romania at the time, but now it is. I’m interested to know what happened to them in Hungary. And if I’m interested in what happened in Hungary, I’m also interested in the fact that a Romanian who wanted to enter Romania from the north got lost in Slovakia and he remained there in the end.
I realized I can’t do things this way and that I would make the same mistake everyone else does. In fact, for none of the films I worked with historians on research, because if you only work with one, then they take you to the same places where they, and thus the others, had been before. You don’t have the freedom to go roaming about, to do something different.
How does your experience as a producer influence the way you make your own films?
There are both positive and negative sides to it. Positive, because you know very well how far you can go, what you can afford within the budget you have. Negative, because at some point you compromise things that a director who is not a producer wouldn’t compromise. That’s why I envy them sometimes, because I know I won’t be able to do that. But in the end, the fact that I have a producer’s mind helped me solve things that no one else could have. I knew where to look and how to handle stuff.
What do you find most difficult about film production in Romania?
Maybe I’ve grown tired or maybe all of us have, but the hardest thing is to carry the emotional and mental fragility of the team. It’s very difficult. I can’t help but joke about it whenever I hear the question: What qualities does one need in order to be a film producer? You’d say being good at getting funding. But, no, you’re wrong. You should first and foremost be a good psychologist and a good conflict mediator.
You know what the problem is? The problem is, you fantasize about what the film is going to look like and it’s pointless. You, critics, see the films as if they were in their final form. Those who read screenplays imagine how things will turn out. Everyone imagines a homogeneous thing. And, no, it’s a venture. The problem is, everything you’ve fantasized before practically collapses the moment you get to the set on the first day of shooting, when all sorts of issues start to come up like there is no coffee yet, the generator didn’t work, there’s no parking, etc. Ordinary stuff that ruins the catharsis the director hoped so much for. You have to be very strong to be able to get over all that.
I, for example, if I could and if there weren’t all sorts of rules that seem to be set in stone, would keep the team as small as possible when it comes to making documentaries. Why do we have to do it this way and not try a different approach?
But these are universal problems. I was rather asking you about the Romanian production system. For example, almost everyone complains that there is not enough money.
Of course, it’s very difficult to find funding for a film, but this is true for many countries, not just for Romania. To each their own. And yet, in countries where it’s harder to get funding, films seem to be better than those made in countries where money is not a problem. Maybe the lack of money forces you to be a little more creative, a little more flexible.
As a producer, I try to be creative where there is room for improvement and I have the OK to step in. That’s where I usually get involved. For example, when it comes to location scouting. I take the director to places that I think fit the story. As a producer, you have very little leeway in the creative area. There are so many creatives on the set that there is no room for you anymore. But I take no comfort in that. That’s not enough for me. I’m not the person who finds parking places and counts money, although I also do that sometimes because I want things to go as smoothly as possible for the director, for them not to feel what I was saying earlier.
You also said that in choosing the projects you work on as a producer, the most important thing for you is the director because you are going to spend a few years with them in making that film.
I swear, I would even sign in my own blood on that notebook of yours, I am only going to work on the film if I enjoy working with that director. Why do I say that? Because I want to help them make the film. And I want to do it with an open heart. It’s not like a regular job that just needs to be done. I give all of myself. I give all the time that I have. Time that I could spend doing something else. Time I could spend with people I love, seeing places I like, doing other things, making films I like, for example. So I want to do this (i.e. produce the film) for a person I care about. That means a person whose talent I respect.
Isn’t it important to also believe in the project, have an interest in its topic? Shouldn’t that matter too?
Yes, of course. Obviously I’m not going to work on something mediocre just because I’m good friends with the director. If that’s the idea that transpired from what I’ve said, it’s false. Of course, it has to be a project that is worth spending a few years on. The director might be great, but the film might be bad or I might not get along with them. I don’t want to take this kind of projects anymore. I mean, it’s not like have done it that many times anyway. I think I have two things that I almost regret, but that’s all.
One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received was from Kornél Mundruczó, a very difficult director, who came and told me at the end of a very hard film to make: “It’s the first film where I didn’t feel the production.” That’s what I want to do for a director, I want them not to feel all the burden that this process entails, even if it might be written all over my face.
How do you see the role of Transilvania IFF today, after two pandemic years, when the festival did take place physically, and after 20 editions?
I can’t speak for the entire festival, because every member of the team has a different view of things. I can only talk from my perspective. Which intertwines with my perspective as a producer.
And the perspective of the one that many consider the main pillar of the festival.
Not true. I do play an important part during the festival and when it’s about to start. But I step in quite late. About a month before.
I try to take a step back and look at the bigger picture of where the cinema landscape is today. I think that festivals, including Transilvania IFF, are turning into something very boutique and high-end and are going to be attended only by certain people, those who are really passionate about this world. And it’s because film distribution, no matter how hopeful we are and how hard we hold on to it, slowly melts away. Obviously, I don’t want that to happen. I wish cinema was booming as it did when I was little. Unfortunately, some films, coming from countries that don’t have such a developed industry and aren’t major producers, will be more likely to be seen at festivals. That’s where the audience will come across them. Perhaps, festivals are becoming this multicultural venue where you can discover something new from other places. But, for that, you have to have a great love for film and to be there. It will be a meeting place for those who love cinema. As it always has been. And we, at Transilvania IFF, struggle to keep it this way. Maybe “struggle” is not the right word – that’s our duty, that’s what we set out to do and that’s what we do: we always try to bring a new audience, to engage the students who arrive in Cluj, to inspire other generations to come and watch films.
Unlike mainstream streaming platforms, festivals offer curated content.
A festival offers you a guide. You go there because you trust the curator and the selection they put together for you, the spectator. You might discover a director, you might follow their work. For example, many of those who presented their first films and won awards at Transilvania IFF became great directors. Mihai Chirilov proved that he has a nose for emerging talent.
We are going through a very different period from the moment when TIFF started, even compared to a few years ago. The climate everywhere has become very polarized. There is a fierce clash between conservatives and progressives. Last year, at TIFF, there was some controversy over the presence at the festival of dancer Sergei Polunin, known as a supporter of Vladimir Putin. I also have some younger colleagues who have challenged TIFF on this matter. What is the stance of the festival in this context?
We are not just one voice, we are a bunch of voices. I think it’s important that we managed to come to an agreement and respect each other’s decisions. The Polunin thing was way out of line, in my opinion, because it had nothing to do with the film. Polunin’s choice is Polunin’s choice. What TIFF has done and will always do, with all the risk of causing an uproar, is to be a platform for expression for filmmakers.
I think we are all on the same page when I say that we all hate this cancel culture. TIFF has never done and will never do that. For example, there have been directors we were in conflict with, but TIFF always had its door open to them. They had a platform where they could show their films. We are bigger than that. After all, the audience is bigger than that. There is an audience for each film.
Still, shouldn’t a festival take into account what’s happening around?
It does take into account what’s happening around but it gives these people a chance to express themselves, that’s all. You give everyone a chance to express their point of view. We’ve accepted everything that came our way – criticism, protests, controversies – but we never canceled anyone. Trust me. If you think there is someone who hasn’t been to the festival, they weren’t because they didn’t want to be, not because they weren’t given a chance or weren’t invited.
So you’re saying that a decision not to have a character like Polunin at the festival would be a gesture of cancel culture?
Talking about Polunin is pointless, in my opinion. Personally, I found out much later that there had been controversy regarding his presence at the festival. And I didn’t understand what it was really about. Okay, if he wanted to tattoo Putin’s face on his chest, that was his choice.
Yes, but now, in a context like the war in Ukraine, it turns out that such a decision – inviting someone like him – is no longer available.
But that’s sad. Beyond the fact that he has Putin’s face tattooed on his chest, Polunin is a great dancer. It’s sad that he can’t perform because of cancel culture. We’re not going to do that with films. I think it’s stupid. That’s my opinion. And it’s based on what I’ve encountered out there. I believe that positive discrimination is just as harmful as negative discrimination. It has proved its inefficiency over time. I’m not talking about films now but in general. All these exaggerations will blow up somewhere at some point. And it’s going to be ugly. Shutting people up can only bring harm. It can’t bring anything good. You implode and you can’t even hope that something will change if that person doesn’t have the chance to speak.
I don’t want to advocate for any type of movement. These are my opinions and I’ll stand by them. I hate putting labels. And, in general, I hate this approach “it’s not how you do things”. If you want to see my head explode, tell me “it’s not how you do things”. Who decided that? If I had listened to “it’s not how you do things”, I would have never done anything. I don’t agree with it. I don’t care about it. I’ve seen things over time. I know what I’m talking about because I’ve witnessed some ugly situations. I saw what happened when certain people were shut up. I don’t know what solutions there might be, but that’s certainly not okay.
Of course, you have to have some sense and not bring in extremists. In my opinion, the only solution is to spot them early if they are extremists. It’s very difficult, so I can only wish “good luck” to anyone who curates. Everyone is going to feel at some point that something falls into one extreme or another. Any extreme is harmful. Any positive or negative discrimination is harmful. Any cancel is harmful.
Your new film as a director is now in cinemas. As a producer, you’ve also been involved in the theatrical distribution of many Romanian films. TIFF is also a great launching platform. As a critic and journalist, I find it sad that Romanian films, even the award-winning ones, end up gathering only a few thousand viewers each. Of course, there are several explanations. But I’d like to know how you see it.
It doesn’t matter how I see it since many in the industry are not willing to see it. And the pandemic hasn’t made things clearer or helped us to come up with some ideas. I don’t have any solutions; if I had them, I would have applied them. I only have bits and pieces of solutions, but what I can say loud and clear is that things are changing. Consumer behavior is changing, so we need a reality check and to think of something. Film distribution is no longer what we knew. But again, these are generations of people who are a bit tired and bored and seem inflexible and unwilling to look for ways and solutions. And they are the decision-makers. It’s more comfortable doing what you already know and have been doing all your life, but it’s not working anymore. I recently heard a saying that I found funny: “Outdated and obsolete”. It’s outdated and obsolete, get it? Seriously, let’s face it – it’s time to leave the old ways behind and move on. It’s just sad that we don’t realize that.
A big part of the problem, however, is that we don’t have enough cinemas to show Romanian films.
Do you know what we don’t have? Small cinemas, like boutique cinemas. You can no longer show a film and hope to gather 300 viewers. C’mon, let’s be serious. Rather make event halls for that capacity. It would be much simpler and much more useful. That’s what I was thinking these days. Personally, I don’t care. Even if there is only one person in the entire cinema, to me, they are still an audience. And I understand that, that’s why I made the film, after all; for someone to see it. I know very well how things are and I don’t have high expectations. In fact, you can’t promote your film the way you used to, when you thought that if it was mentioned on a TV show, done, the film was promoted. I think we need to grow communities. I think that the task should fall on the person who manages a cultural center. They should try and create a community around it.