So, we took all my dreams on VHS out to sunny Bucharest; a city that in terms of its vibe sits somewhere between the austere granite charms of the major eastern European capitals and the dusty bustle of a Mediterranean hub (stitch that, Lonely Planet! That’s proper travelogue writing, right there.)
We were in competition at the NexT International Film Festival, dedicated to short and medium-length movies. It’s a wonderful event and I’d recommend it without reservation to anyone wanting to show their film in Romania. For the most part the audiences were young (around student age,) very engaged and open towards the films on show, whatever their style or content. I was worried beforehand that a film with as many textual ‘asides’ as VHS might not travel all that well, and was nervous as hell before our first competition screening; but the audience was laughing along with the film almost instantly, and various bits of comic business along the way (hello O-T, hello Gugu) even got impromptu rounds of applause.
Tanuja (VHS line producer) and I spent most of our time in the cinema, seeing all of the competition screenings and some off-competition ones where possible. Favourites? Vestido by Jairo Boisier, an understated and touching story of unrequited love; Le mort n’entend pas sonner les cloches by Benjamin Mirguet, a hushed, poetic treatise on the pitfalls of blind faith, reminiscent of Tarkovsky or Herzog; and Tudor Cristian Jurgiu’s Nunta lui Oli, a fly-on-the-wall style drama where a father ‘attends’ his son’s USA wedding via webcam… proper heartbreaking stuff that deservedly won the Best Romanian Film award.
Our hosts were as entertaining as the films; we were ‘billeted’ at the flat of Adriana Racasan, NexT’s volunteer co-ordinator – a job that in itself evoked the tactical deployment of a small army, with Adriana’s cellphone chirping away every 2.8 seconds.
Adriana regaled us with tales of working on Anton Corbijn’s Control and Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth. Interestingly, she had recently – for eminently sensible reasons – turned down some solid movie work in the USA; a decision that goes against the cultural impetus amongst many young Romanians, who dream of getting the hell out of what they see as an eastern backwater burgh at the first available opportunity. Certainly 90% of the Romanian shorts we saw over the weekend were about – or had a subtext of – leaving the country for a better life. Funnily enough, I didn’t ‘get’ the picture of Bucharest as a dead-end town; maybe I’d have to stay there longer to truly pick up on it. The city is a work-in-progress, sure, with hardly a single pavement that hasn’t been surgically opened up and roped off, scaffolding attaching itself limpet-like to anything that stays still long enough… but overall I got the impression of a friendly, vibrant sort of place. Maybe NexT was the principle factor in my feeling that.
My fellow delegates and film-makers were equally interesting dudes. HEY, howsabout a shower of random facts? Thanks to a remarkably steady flow of seminars, dinners and parties, I picked up on (amongst other things) the following:
1. I’ve always wondered why most Italian films have their dialogue entirely recorded in ADR, in post-production. Apparently it’s because Italian film crews find it near-impossible to shut up during takes.
2. Romanian thatched cottages have immensely high, steep roofs (like an oversized bouffant wig) so as to increase the gradient of the thatch, enabling rainwater and thawing snow to trickle down the sides with maximum efficiency.
3. Purgatory was invented as a money-raising scam to fund the final, uncompleted bout of the medieval Crusades.
4. Tanuja and I were interviewed on the final day of the festival by a nice bespectacled woman from a Romanian radio station. I was later told she’s something of a cultural heroine thanks to her habit – during the communist era – of procuring forbidden western films and producing DIY audio translations for them; her voice was the one Romanians heard when they saw De Niro or Dunaway, Darth Vader, Dirty Dancing etc. And probably some other films from later in the alphabet.
5. In other ‘Insane Communist Bastard’ news, the stray dogs that one occasionally sees patrolling the streets of Bucharest are largely the result of Nicolae Ceauşescu‘s utterly gargantuan “House of the Republic” – a building whose construction required the bulldozing of a huge stretch of the city’s old town… and with the grand ironic inevitability that only a project named “House of the Republic” can truly provide, made a great many families homeless. These people understandably found it difficult to tend for their domestic pets, setting them loose onto the streets with predictably numinous consequences. Here’s the wanton, inexplicable structure that led to an army of puppies:
… and that’s only the main facade. The damn thing is as deep as it is wide.
6. Surprisingly, the architectural phrase “Stalinist Wedding Cake” has yet to enter the popular Romanian lexicon.
7. Oh, did I mention? We won two awards.
All my dreams on VHS won the audience award. So just to clarify: the first public screening of my first professional film picked up a gong, and the coveted audience award to boot. God bless the popular vote! Here’s a picture from the NexT website of my ‘acceptance speech’ (including a botched attempt to speak Romanian) with yours truly looking like the most unsettling stand-up comic ever:
You can see the look of fear in Tanuja’s eyes. She probably suspects I’m about to burst into song or something.
Having said that, it’s not as bad as the following, from Thursday’s post-screening Q&A, where I and my fellow film-makers look like the WORST BOY BAND IN THE WORLD, EVER:
Afterwards some generous fellow competitors said that, from the start, they thought VHS had the audience vote in the bag. But I didn’t see it coming. We were up against some truly amazing films, including a few that had collected awards and accolades across the known galaxy, and I wasn’t expecting to be going anywhere near the stage that night. Watching the post-awards screening of VHS was even more rewarding; being able to properly relax and pick up on the subtle reactions that I hadn’t spotted in the audience before, and how little throwaway moments in the film, including actions that were changed radically and unexpectedly on the day of the shoot, earned their space in the viewers’ hearts. We received compliments on the acting, the confident and unfussy camera work, the music and the editing… in fact, on almost every area of production. Perhaps the nicest remark was from the competition programmer Andrei Gorzo, who told me “I don’t know how anyone couldn’t like your film. I think it’s irresistible.” A fantastic thing for a first-time director to hear.
The second award we picked up went to Tanuja, for a 3-day residency in Berlin, to develop one of my feature screenplays for European co-production. It was thanks to Renate Roginas and her Villa Kult initiative, and came about after a pitch we made to Renate on the last day of the festival. Completely out of the blue, and very exciting… a giant step for both of us.
Meanwhile… the prize I took away was one of these. So there’s no excuse not to make the next film now.