Editorial: Focus Romania, clashing identities

A look into the Focus Romania program through the eyes of Bianca Stanea, the producer of BEAST IFF.

The cinematographic landscape of Romania is ever-changing, multi-layered and internationally recognized. Being the only Latin country from the East, combined with Oriental, Slavic and Balkanic influences, its cultural scene has always been a very eclectic one. As soon as the film world started detaching itself from portrayals of the Communist Era, there was an interesting shift of paradigm that resulted in the above-mentioned eclecticism. Romania is a country of contrasts, of extreme highs and extreme lows, of outsiders, of migrants and most of all a country that is dealing with an untreated (but not incurable) identity crisis. In this intricate web of untold stories and unheard voices, rises the Romanian documentary. 

The four selected films for the FOCUS ROMANIA program are very different aesthetically and story-wise, nevertheless, they portray the complex relationships between the protagonists and the landscape. Geography becomes more than a means of spatial measurement, but a reflection of the struggle to belong.

The proposed cinematographic journey breaks the conventional borders of the country and takes us as far as Serbia, Moldova and the USA. In the clash between the East and the West in terms of values, the films present two important attitudes: the reaction to globalization, to freedom as it is understood by the capitalist society and the reaction to the long term effects of the communist past. 

Ivana Mladenović (‘Ivana the terrible’) is a Serbian filmmaker that lives in Bucharest. She travels back home to Kladovo, a city on the border between Serbia and Romania. Her two lives are divided by a bridge that crosses the Danube River.  In this docu-fiction feature, the filmmaker stages a conflictual return to her family, based on her real-life struggle with health issues that all the other characters seem to believe can be resolved by getting married, settling down and embracing motherhood. 

Gică Enache and his family (‘Acasă, My home’) have lived all their lives in a swamp in the middle of Bucharest. As soon as this place is turned into a natural reservation, they are forced to move into an apartment building in a social neighbourhood. They exchange nature for concrete from one day to the other.  The director Radu Ciorniciuc manages to create a very tender, yet sometimes rough portrait of the family through his observational documentary, highlighting a bidirectional type of discrimination: the Enache’s are firstly discriminated because they are Roma and secondly because they chose a different kind of lifestyle than the socially accepted conventions.

Nina Cassian (‘The Distance between Me and Me’), a famous Romanian artist, tells her story of the struggle between oppressive regimes. She ends up in a forced exile in New York, eventually, becomes an American citizen and never returns to her country. Based on a large archive of visuals from Nina’s past, she speaks about politics, arts and the image of the woman during the Communist era. As one of the directors, Mona Nicoară says, ‘Nina’s story teaches necessary lessons in a time when creative freedom is once again threatened by the rise of authoritarianism and extremism.

Dragoș Turea (‘The Soviet Garden’) is a filmmaker from Moldova, an over disputed neighbouring country of Romania. He starts an investigation trying to correlate the increase in cases of cancer, with Soviet agricultural experiments. He travels back and forth in time, through interviews and archive footage, unearthing well-kept secrets. In this Moldova-Romania co-production, the director’s starting point is a very personal one, the strange death of his grandmother. However, he ultimately manages to assert the atrocities of the regime and to deromanticize the Soviet imagery. 

After all, these films are not just about travelling through space and time, but about transformative journeys. They showcase strong protagonists who dared to define the system, to speak out, to be different, to expose themselves and the corrupted ones around them. In this melting pot of cultures and influences, Romania becomes a country of diverse ideologies, oscillating between the Western progressive values and the nostalgic feeling towards its past. 

Even though there is a constant fight against diversity, the collective efforts of artists are starting to push back against this current of ultranationalism, hate and discrimination.  Cinema is finally embracing this identity crisis and generates meaningful artwork from it, becoming an incubator of new ways of storytelling, aesthetics, imagery and powerful topics.