The BFI’s Revolution in Realism: Geoff Andrew on Romanian Cinema and Ideas of Realism

In the midst of the infancy of 2017, it is only fitting that we take a moment to look back on a filmic revolution  showcased by the British Film Institute (BFI) in the summer of last year. Revolution in Realism: The New Romanian Cinema was a collaboration between the BFI and The Romanian Cultural Institute. In the aftermath of the EU Referendum in which Britain democratically chose division over unity with Europe, the need for the BFI and the European Cultural Institutes to nurture cultural unity through cinema, where politics and progressive democracy have failed has only become more imperative.

This summer of Revolution in Realism was curated by writer and Programmer-at-Large for the BFI Geoff Andrew, a mainstay of the British critical establishment, who has lectured on film and authored: The Films of Nicholas Ray (1991), Stranger Than Paradise: Maverick Film-makers in Recent American Cinema (1998), Directors A-Z: A Concise Guide to the Art of 250 Great Film-makers (1999) and The Director’s Vision (1999) amongst others.

The spark that saw Revolution in Realism engulf the Southbank in the summer of last year was one that required time and patience. “Well it was something that we had been thinking of doing for a few years” explains Andrew. “It is just over a decade since The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) won the Certain Regard prize at Cannes, which was seen by many as something of a turning point for the Romanian cinema. Two years later there was the Palme d’Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) and quite a lot of prizes have been won at festivals since then. And the films made in that time have largely been made in the stylistic contrast of what was made before – mainly low key realism films, which are often very distinctive in their own right.” What Andrew calls a “little retrospective” would spiral out of a personal interest that happened to coincide with a timely proposal from The Romanian Cultural Institute. “I had been following what people were up to, and I knew that both Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu were likely to have films that would start appearing in the world, and indeed both of them had films play in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival” remembers Andrew. “So it seemed timely and as it happened the Romanian Cultural Institute also had the same thing in mind. They contacted us and asked whether we could do something with them, and we told them we had been thinking of doing something anyway. What we came up with is a survey of more or less the films made from Lazarescu onwards, and a little retrospective of Puiu’s own work.”

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“With Radu Muntean we put in two of his films because one of his very early ones The Paper Will Be Blue (2006) is quite important in that it depicts the revolution itself, and that’s quite rare in the films.”

As is the case with any retrospective, compromises come part and parcel with the endeavour. Yet in the summer of last year, Andrew’s Revolution in Realism found itself having to negotiate with the American filmmaker, Steven Spielberg. “I would have liked to see it rather bigger than it was, but because we were doing other stuff including the Spielberg season, we have had to leave room for those. So I made it almost as big as I could without annoying my colleagues.” It was Andrew’s clarity of intent towards one Romanian filmmaker and not only his negotiation within the intimate world of Romanian cinema itself that would create the necessity of further compromise. “I knew I wanted to do a retrospective of Puiu’s work because in my opinion he’s probably the most interesting and artistically successful of the lot. And he’s certainly one of the most interesting filmmakers around anywhere today. But it left us with only so many places in our programme, and so I decided it would be best to limit it to one film a director.” With a little manoeuvring Andrew was able to deviate from his decision, and as he explains, “Actually in two instances we managed to get around that a bit. With Radu Muntean we put in two of his films because one of his very early ones The Paper Will Be Blue (2006) is quite important in that it depicts the revolution itself, and that’s quite rare in the films. Then his recent film One Floor Below (2015) is tremendous, and so I made an exception with him. And then with Cristian Mungiu I managed to put Beyond the Hills (2012) in our Flare strand, which is Lesbian and Gay films. So it seemed to fit quite well in there, although that was cheating a bit by putting in an extra one. But basically yes, I was more or less limited to one film a director, which was a little painful with a few of them.”

This season of films could then and now be viewed as Romanian cinema encountering a rediscovery. Andrew’s words called to mind an idea about the journey of an individual film that Terence Davies expressed when I spoke with him for Sunset Song (2015). The words, which reverberate with the impression of absolute truthfulness the more I read them were, “As it goes out into the world it has to either survive or die.” At this point if we expand the idea of a film dying to a piece of music, there are those memorable pieces of classical works such as Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (1806) that was resurrected by composer Felix Mendelssohn. In short, art seems to have a way of enduring even amongst hostility, always an opportunity for it to be resurrected and rediscovered to moderate appreciation or great acclaim. “Well I would hope so yes. We were not getting huge audiences, which is a pity. But I think the people that were coming along were definitely enjoying the films, and that’s the main thing. The reason I have done a Puiu retrospective is because I want to try to help people to realise that there is a major director here who’s doing something that’s adventurous, new and almost radically different in some respects. Aurora (2010) is quite challenging because it is so uncompromising and rigorous in what information they will allow you to take from the film as it proceeds. His new one is much easier, but similarly is very, very ambitious. You do have to work at it a bit yourself to find out why all these people are gathered together in this apartment. After about ninety minutes you sort of find out why, and it’s also very funny. Terence is a case in point. He was almost forgotten about when the Film Council didn’t fund him for many years, and because I had been a follower of his from the beginning, I decided to do a retrospective of his work. We revived Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and gave him a BFI Fellowship. And then he was interviewed a lot where he was saying: “Oh, I can’t get funded… Oh, I can’t get funded.” Eventually someone gave him some money to make Of Time and the City (2008), and that’s all it needed – a little archive film.”

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“But I always think what really counts is a bit of imagination. If you see a film like the Iranian film Ten (2002) by Abbas Kiarostami, which is shot with a couple of cameras mounted on the dashboard of a car and minimal scripting, it’s made incredibly cheaply and very quickly.”

One idea that has been circulated in response to the success of such films as John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is the consideration of a limited budget as a potential source of a creativity – the filmmaker forced to find creative answers to the limitations. Alternatively would it be unreasonable to suggest that part of a film’s identity derives from a small audience? “I don’t know really” offers Andrew. “It isn’t irrelevant because film unfortunately is not like writing a piece of music or painting a picture. It costs money, although at least with this sort of technology you can do it much more cheaply now. But I always think what really counts is a bit of imagination. If you see a film like the Iranian film Ten (2002) by Abbas Kiarostami, which is shot with a couple of cameras mounted on the dashboard of a car and minimal scripting, it’s made incredibly cheaply and very quickly. But it is a masterpiece – an innovative film and thoroughly accessible as long as you are happy to read films with subtitles [laughs].” Recently there seems to have been a movement towards the acceptance of subtitled drama by the British audience. This has been evidenced by the BBC Four Saturday evening prime time slot, alongside other broadcasters programming foreign language television dramas and Arrow Films’ unwavering commitment to the Nordic Noir and Beyond label. “I think the British are finally getting over that as a stumbling piece. It used to be the case that subtitles for so many people would mean that a film must be obscure or arty. What it actually means is that it is made in a language other than English because it is made in a country where the first language isn’t English. And I think perhaps one of the good things about globalisation, and I’m not sure there are that many, but one is that we are more curious and open minded about the world around us. Whether you are watching Korean horror movies or Romanian realist films, people are prepared to have words at the bottom of the screen now, which is good.”

On the subject of the audience, is there a level of engagement that goes beyond their role to simply receive films as suggested by English filmmaker Carol Morley. Recalling her experiences editing The Falling (2015), she stated her feeling that as a filmmaker, “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” We could take this one step further and look for a point in which through the act of completion, there is an inherent transfer of ownership. “I don’t think there is a transfer in ownership because ultimately the creator is going to be the owner” says Andrew. While he may not perceive a transfer of ownership, the act of completion is an observation he shares with Morley, and one that strengthens the vital collaborative relationship that exists for him between a filmmaker and their audience. “Any film worth its salt does something more than entertainment. It’s something that doesn’t just spoon-feed you stuff. To me the most interesting films have always been those films where you have to engage through your imagination, by reflection and bringing certain things with you to the film in order to help complete it. And we all complete it in different subjective ways. So everybody sees a different film as well as seeing the same film. Let’s say they see the same film, but they experience a different film. Unfortunately a lot of cinema isn’t particularly like that and a lot of the mainstream cinema wants to spoon-feed you information – it doesn’t particularly want you to be thinking. It wants to be pushing your buttons as it were so that you respond in certain ways. All filmmakers push buttons a bit, but the best ones are those that leave a little space for the viewer to do some work. And whether that’s a filmmaker like Puiu, Kiarostami, Altman or Renoir, those filmmakers are all people who say, Come on. Think about what you are watching a bit and join in with the act of completing the narrative, and the characters.”

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Aferim! (2015) is a case in point where Radu Jude was an assistant to Puiu on Lazarescu. He’s very much working in a realist style, but he’s beginning to find his feet and he’s doing things slightly differently.”

The experience of curating a film season or as Andrew calls it a “little retrospective” must no doubt influence the curator as a kind of parent figure. The process is one of engagement with the familiar, but curating Revolution in Realism Andrew admits, “I had to watch a number of films that I hadn’t already seen in order to get a more balanced programme, and that was interesting because I’ve included a couple of films that are slightly more generic. There was one called Why Me? (2015) and another one called Orizont (2015), which are perhaps not quite the same as some of the others.” He perceives a confidence permeating from contemporary Romanian Cinema, but one that has gradually evolved as the filmmakers have dared to express themselves by way of their own independent voices. “I do think there’s a growing confidence among Romanian filmmakers these days, which means they are beginning to perhaps flex their muscles a bit more. In the beginning because of the success of Lazarescu, a few people – I wouldn’t say they copied Puiu’s style – were certainly influenced to some degree by it. Now some of the filmmakers are beginning to say: Well that’s not the only way to make films. We can do our own. And Aferim! (2015) is a case in point where Radu Jude was an assistant to Puiu on Lazarescu. He’s very much working in a realist style, but he’s beginning to find his feet and he’s doing things slightly differently. I think that’s really healthy and I suppose it has made me think more about realism – what can realism be?” And it is here that Andrew acknowledges how Romanian cinema has influenced his broader perspective of cinema, echoing the value in multiculturalism and the interaction of cultures to create a fuller comprehension by provoking contemplation anew. “In Britain we have a certain idea, which is to do with a certain television tradition or the Ken Loach or even the Mike Leigh tradition” says Andrew. “But there are obviously other forms of realism. There are the neo-realists and then there are people like Cassavetes, Rohmer and even Ozu. But the Romanians have come up with their own brand of realism, which then makes you think: Well if there are so many different types of realism, then what is realism? Is realism just making us believe that something is real? And there are plenty of ways of doing that as we know, and many of those ways are all deceit [laughs]. Cinema is the art of illusion. People tell lies with cinema in order to make us believe things. So I have always been interested in what realism is, and thinking to some length about Romanian cinema has added to that.

Related Reading:

Interview: “A Process of Thinking”: Radu Jude on Aferim!
Interview: The Struggle Toward Beauty: Terence Davies on the Road to Sunset Song
Review: The Human Imperfection of The Falling
Interview: Carol Morley – The Falling

And: Christopher Sharrett’s Beyond the Hills, or The Woman’s Prison 

 

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