February 11, 2021
By Călin Boto
A Hundred Minutes
A hundred and four, to be more precise. What follows is, of course, a list, but not quite. Year after year, as we well know, the dominant film publications and those of the opposition wage a war for two or three months. Rankings, anti-rankings, lazy summaries, overviews, the first ten, twenty, a hundred movies made by… and voted by… I admit, the stakes are high, as such pieces, besides shaping taste, generate authority and, in time, the canon. Today’s rankings are tomorrow’s statues. That is why the blows that progressive critics administer to eurocentrism, cultural phallocentrism, and the industries are so vital. But this text is an irresponsible one. As I was saying, it is defiant at heart, as it includes  all made before the Revolution. Furthermore, most of them belong to that most endangered genre in Romanian film history. Experimental films, I can understand. Animations, that’s fine. But documentaries? In any case, I abstain from any combative and corrective discourse, out of a kind of embarrassment I have been confronting myself with recently – perhaps too much pedantry hurts. Here is not a list but not an anti-list either.
“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.”
We’re good at filming construction sites, but…
A friend was telling me that she is often charmed by the passion with which we film critics become attached to a movie. That was while we were checking out the films of Petre Sirin, a documentary filmmaker for Sahia Studios, better known nowadays as part of the ’50s gay intelligentsia. But this spontaneous, unconditional love between myself and what I have seen from Sirin’s documentaries just wasn’t meant to be. “There is just no cinema here,” I would pompously tell my filmmaker friends, who had invited me to watch some of his films at the ANF. When the people at One World Romania had an online screening of his Letopisețul de piatră al Dobrogei (The Stone Chronicle of Dobrogea, 1962), one of the first films made by Sirin for Sahia (having worked as an assistant for Ion Bostan for a while), it all felt straightforward – I really do not see any cinema in this short history of a past civilization in the territory of Dobrogea. Of course, I fell into my own trap – what is cinema anyway? Does Sirin’s film not have camera movement, panning, close-ups, and long shots? It does, and when not filming museum pieces, the camera is actually playful. Is it not, in the end, a documentary? Is there not something being recorded, documented? The problem is just that: that something is being documented in the most stifling way possible, with chronologies and maps, all by the book. Even when there is a group of archeologists (or, well, diggers) on screen, they are more an accessory than anything else, a visual stimulus to fill in the metaphors of the past-present binary that Sirin stimulates. If I had to preserve a few seconds from the whole film, it would be two shots showing the face of a man that we saw earlier picking up a few finds. In a film from which all emotion was evacuated so urgently, they cannot but stick out. It comes down to the viewer’s wish to see a facial expression.
“I confess I am unable to interest myself in the beauty of a place if there are no people in it (I don’t like empty museums); and conversely, in order to discover the interest of a face, of a figure, of a garment, to savor the encounter, I require that the site of this discovery have its interest and its savor as well.” (Roland Barthes in “At Le Palace Tonight…”)
So many lines about a film that I find hollow, for what? In order to introduce Titus Mesaroș, also a director at Sahia, also rediscovered in 2020, this time by the platform Docuart. The connection to Sirin might not be obvious, as it pertains more to a conversation with myself about overfull movies or movies lacking cinema. Of course, Sahia films couldn’t be raw life or have that drive of direct cinema or cinéma verité. Life and reality could not appear naked, let alone allow themselves to be picked at, pinched, questioned. Multiple takes, too little sync sound, pre-written dialogue, thematic plans, carefully handpicked landscapes, all these political safety measures kept Romanian documentaries restrained, “not as close to life as to an ideal.” Many said it, both then and now. Perhaps Doru Segall, director and operator at Sahia, said it best:
“[…] We’re good at filming construction sites, for example, but our images shot from boat skips and cranes don’t go in-depth. We have standard images – very nice, but standard. What happens to these construction workers after work? What do they do there, on the construction site, in their free time? What do their wives do? How do they wait for them at home, how do these families live? Our cameras are silent about that.”
Alright, so we don’t have a whimsical reality, what do we do? There have been alternatives – there are tens, if not hundreds of Sahia films that would impress any skeptic.
And Mesaroș is a case in point – his movies Craiova văzută din car (Craiova Seen from a Cart, 1975) and Scrisoare din orașul nou (Letter from the New Town, 1978) are actually dioramas, photomontages (with some very small filmed sections) conceived around narratives. And what cinema they have! As hackneyed as it might sound, as full of pathos as Samuel Fuller’s line in Pierrot le Fou (1965) might seem, perhaps it bears repeating – cinema is emotion. I wouldn’t that was the criterion I followed when I started sorting through the Sahia shorts that I got, without a scholarly plan. I called it a formal ambition, a progressive agenda, anything else. Of course, there is a lot of formal ambition here, and we could, without a doubt, call it experimental cinema. But yet I still always return to emotion, to the fact that both shorts weave a dynamic between the countryside and the city onto the experience of a child. Or, rather, children, as there are two – Ștefănică in Letter from the New Town and the unnamed boy in Craiova Seen from a Cart. I don’t know how representative these movies are for Mesaroș’s career, but they are more than enough for me to detect a bubbling sensitivity in him. The first series of photos, inevitably documentary in nature (there is no diegetic fiction in photography, only visual tricks, a mise-en-scène, and interpretation), is fit within a narrative frame: a letter sent by Ștefănică to his cousin, who has recently moved to Bucharest. Having been away for a while, the cousin might not be aware what has been going on in Nehoiu, a village ready for urbanization. Read with the nerves and Atlas-like responsibility typical of children, like at the school ceremony, almost in an anti-rhythm of speech, the text describes the wonders and certainties with which Ștefănică sinks his baby teeth in the city’s transition (“the city begins where the wind stops”/ “they’d better not think that now that we’re a city we’ll all be sitting around eating donuts all day – there’s work to be done too”). Of course, the stories are embellished, but that doesn’t bother me at all, as nothing seems out of place. For instance, when the kid starts talking about the village’s new hospital, where they x-rayed him, it’s clear that the story might be about modernization, but its core lies somewhere else: the boy was afraid he had swallowed the button from his pants, which his mom would have been sorry for; one from his shirt would have been fine.
Craiova Seen from a Cart is a bit different. It’s unclear how much of the Letter is Ștefănică and how much is Titus Mesaroș, but it’s clear the text hadn’t already been written in preproduction. Craiova is based on the autobiographical poem of Marin Sorescu (read off-camera by Ion Caramitru), a writer who also worked in film as editor-in-chief and scriptwriter at Animafilm Studios. Taking word for word what Sorescu wrote in ’73, you’d think Mesaroș was abandoning the documentary format. And you’d be wrong! These are the most interesting minutes in cinema, those that seep through the chinks between documentary and fiction. Sorescu’s childhood, despite being fictionalized, begins to inhabit Mesaroș’s scenery, which is a vivisection of Craiova – the old Craiova is “cut” from the new, made to resemble the landscape from the late ’40s (after leaving his native village of Bulzești, Marin Sorescu studied at the Frații Buzești High School in 1947-1948). Nothing is staged – those buildings were really there when the camera captured them. Also, a newspaper mentions that the little protagonist and his mother were actually villagers from Bulzești. But what is really fascinating is the shakiness of Mesaroș’s conceit. An example is the photo in the opening credits, the one with the main building of the University of Craiova, on whose façade one can read some of the letters that are still there today – UNIVERSITATEA. Well, it seems those letters were only installed in the ’60s, perhaps even in 1965, when the seven faculties in Craiova were united into the University of Craiova. And the University would look differently after the earthquake of ’77, so the historical inconsistency becomes a historical document. Another such detail is the photo with the N. Bălcescu National College, which, before 1948, was named after Carol I. In any case, an architectural investigation is beyond my ability – it would probably be fraught with of error and naivete – but what I am trying to say is that Mesaroș’s film is a wonderful example of an accidental document. The director might have wanted to divide the city as he saw fit, but time waits for no one. Cities are “a sequential but still unitary space,” the endless project of its inhabitants, but especially of the governing political powers. One after another, historical conglomerates appear and contaminate one another. The Sahia director’s failure is in fact a great victory. Of course, that is not what defines the film. Craiova Seen from a Cart is even more ambitious than Letter from the New Town. Sorescu’s poem describes a country boy’s first encounter with the big city (“Perhaps that matters too, my retina was fresh and free of trash”). A grand epiphany in itself, but it becomes grandiose and overwhelming from the boy’s perspective – the mother decides she would send him to Craiova to continue his studies. She needs two portrait-type photos (3/5) to enroll him, which can only be done in the city, but, to further complicate things, she needs to find a photographer who would be willing to take cornmeal as payment.
In terms of visuals, a few photographs of the city are shown in succession at the beginning, in accordance with the tone of omniscient storyteller that Sorescu assumes (“Craiova seen from a cart is the most beautiful city in the world, / Even now I am awestruck when I think about it, and my mouth waters”). After that, a large part of the film takes place on the road from the village to the city, while Mesaroș thumbs his nose at the limits of the diaporama. More so than in the Letter, the camera explores the photographs, zooming in and out, panning left to right and right to left, briskly imitating the limitless space that film has at its disposal. Not to mention the attention to the gradient of light and ambient sound, through which the gaps between the images are harmonized and filled with time. We are not seeing moving images, but images – photographs – set in motion. And this in a film that uses the photograph as its substance.
The Animafilm Spotlight
A more tangled case is 1980s filmmaker Radu Igazság’s Family Snapshots (1983), included in this year’s Animest retrospective, curated by Dana Duma to mark a century of Romanian animation. Igazság plays a cute game – our oversimplified art history teaches us that photography freed painting from realism. Of course, this is an idea that does not admit exceptions. Nor should it; clear-cut chronologies of ideas have their didactic purpose. But what I want to say is that imitating photography through drawing/painting is not an innocent act; it feels like intellectual trick. And Radu Igazság, both a director of animated films and a photographer, is the most qualified to play it. But the air of play is temporary and quickly replaced by one with a whiff of incense. Perhaps Igazság’s ambition is an intellectual one, a treaty on photography as a “mirror with a memory” (Oliver Wendell Holmes) created through the “spiritual reality” (André Bazin) of visual art, but it wouldn’t be enough without its living subject, which is the micro-drama of the passing of time in the life of a family. In this case, the photographs are tropes, immortalized events marking turning points – the wedding (in three photos – the couple, the couple together with the parents of one of them, and a group photo together with the guests), children, reunions. Formally speaking there’s not a lot to family photo portraits. Of course, two different photographers would take different pictures, but not that different. The tradition of family photography, its uncritically perpetuated protocol, falls too easily into the banal. And yet Radu Igazság sanctifies the meaning of these photos. There is nothing banal in the father-in-law’s anxiety when facing the camera, in the sighs of a woman seeing her young self, her sons now away from home, her daughters now all grown up, a frozen moment where everything seemed better. Certain details sometimes flash on the blurred faces of these generic people – a short mirage gives them eyes, expression. For Igazság, the wheel of life is not round but angular, with small rectangles you hold close to your chest, hang on a nail, frame, or send to others.
It is somehow unfair to put Geta Brătescu in the Animafilm spotlight. As much as I like the artist’s two animations from the second half of the ’60s, I know that in the studio there were so many pairs of hands over the years that went unnoticed. I don’t know how her presence at Animafilm was felt. It was in any case much shorter than, say, Sabin Bălașa’s (who made nine films between 1966 and 1979). It’s possible that Brătescu, like Bălașa, worked on a contract basis, that is, getting percentages instead of a salary (to quote that same Radu Igazság : “Anyway, we didn’t receive percentages, we were employees, only those with a contract received something extra for the copyrights, like screenwriters, directors or composers. I didn’t work on a contract, I was an employee of Animafilm. Very few directors were on contract – Gopo, Sabin Balasa, who was working on his last film when I arrived at Animafilm, Nell Cobar who was working on Mihaela, Matty Aslan who had a cartoon section in Romania libera. So those with a more special status”). And yet I believe that what we know about Geta Brătescu will always be incomplete if we do not address this short creative period. Plimbarea lui Esop (Aesop’s Walk, 1967) was one of the last films shown at the Cinemateca Eforie before the lockdown in March, as part of a screening organized by Film Menu Magazine, to which I contributed too and which was reiterated in an exhibition space (Scurtă istorie a scurtmetrajului românesc / A short history of the Romanian short film, at the Museum of Recent Art in Bucharest, 1-11 October 2020, curated by Alexandra Safriuc and Gabriela Filippi) and online by ShortsUP festival. As the title suggests, in this film Brătescu turns again towards Aesop, the ancient Greek fabulist who existed and didn’t exist, half man half legend. The extremely unsightly young man Aesop is tongue-untied by God as reward for a good deed. And, of course, he his tongue is sharp. What makes Aesop so delightful is his wittiness, something between the wordplay of ancient elders and an aura of irreverent rebelliousness. First by chance and then strategically, Aesop the slave falls into the hands of multiple brash masters who, enraged that his wisdom is greater than theirs, pass him on to the next. But his fame grows, as worldly wisdom does not just enrage the learned (the adepts of a book culture, an elitist one, one could say), it also wins over the souls of the masses. And so he passes from master to master, until he is finally freed and his fables are on everyone’s lips, later entering the libraries too. Even in this very brief, not very nuanced presentation, one can clearly see why the communists were so interested in Aesop and the entire tradition of the fable.
Now, what is interesting about Brătescu’s animation debut is that it involves a certain metanarrative, just like the Life of Aesop. The legend makes use of the slave-philosopher’s biography as a broader frame in which certain fables and aphorisms appear, their genesis being thereby narrativized. What Brătescu does is she takes Aesop for a walk, accompanied by the discreet music of Radu Căplescu (the one who composed the soundtrack of Lucian Pintilie’s debut, Sunday at Six). The cartoon finds the artist in an interesting position, especially when compared to the lithograph series Aesop (begun in 1967), which makes use of the manuality of fluid lines, playful, broken, hollow outlines, somewhat gestural, at the limit of the illustrative. Aesop’s Walk is a different species, belonging to the rigor of geometric form, the straight line, and the finite outline, from which stem some of the artist’s collages (Frontispice for Unwritten Love Poem or The Rule of the Circle, The Rule of the Game, both from 1985).
Aesop is, like in the story, hunchbacked and wearing a potato sack, and his face looks like a profile in a mirror, reminiscent of the theme of doubling/alterity in Geta Brătescu’s work, explored on one of the covers of Secolul 21 Magazine (1-7/2002), but also as a visual trick in the animation. Visual arts critics can say more. The animation blends multiple fables, either directly through recognizable characters (The Fox and the Crow, The Fox and the Mask, The Old Man and Death) or through the story (The Fox and the Goat or The Frogs, from which you have the well, The Charcoal-Burner and the Fuller, with the idea of cleaning the sky, The Goat and the Wolf, with the song that cheats death), or, for instance, The Cat and the Cock. And others. What’s relevant is that Brătescu’s narrative is stripped of the classic Aesopian conflict. Present instead is the Aesopian attitude of a sly but noble-hearted character, always morally one step ahead, which means he goes through a lot. Basically, throughout his journey, a girl pops his ball, a traveling companion makes him carry cement boards (an allusion to the bread story in The Life of Aesop), which the philosopher will use to build an improvised rain shelter, occupied by the companion, a mob knocks him out after catching him in the clothes of their emperor, two knights hound him for a fruit, etc. But in none of these circumstances does Aesop bear a grudge or plan revenge. He simply slides, fully limp or on his bottom, through the fingers of dangers. The relative minimalism with which Brătescu planned her shots, those forms that populate monochrome backgrounds, is not at all an arena for robotic movements. The drawings break apart and come back together, slither like snakes, take flight, or summersault about. For them, shrinking and expanding are always options. The artist’s fascination for movement is perhaps more visible in her closed-eye drawings, performance pieces, and videos, but we would be blind not to also see it here, just as vivacious. And seeing a video of Geta Brătescu at work, mostly because of my background in film, I wonder why we don’t more often discuss the movements that create an artwork. I can only recall what Ion Grigorescu says, namely that everything is a performance – “The painter’s/draftsperson’s maneuvers lead to a performance, where the whole body must be set in motion. The entire universe, our life as human beings, seemed to me connected to movement and its affixing.”
UFOs in Cluj
In order to discuss Brătescu’s work, her prolific career demands that we first prepare the playing field. That is not the case with Cluj-based filmmakers Gábor Nagy and Jenő Márton, who are like rediscovered treasures. There is no use pretending, the films the two made were like UFOs. They showed up from nowhere, vanished in a flash, and only a handful of people could come forward and claim they had seen them. Little is known about the two photo-amateurs. What we can dig up from Cinema ARTA in Cluj, the one that digitized and screened their films, and the only cinema in the country that maintains a spark of intellectual independence, goes something like this: “In the late ’70s and early ’80s there was in Cluj a group of friends that made experimental films. They bought a Super 8 camera, rolls of film, and started recording throughout the city.” Vague would be an understatement. In any case, until the details start surfacing, let’s look at the movies, the first and only that Nagy and Márton would make (I know this from behind the scenes).
What I like about amateur filmmakers is precisely their visual violence. What for many would have been a simple urban panorama becomes in Senki földje / Pământul nimănui (No Man’s Land, 1979), the directors’ first film, a pandemonium of claustrophobic fragments of peripheral apartment blocks, dynamited through nervous zooming. Csaba Barabás’s hypnotic soundtrack gives fluidity to the clashes of frames throughout the film. The cluster of apartment blocks houses the average apartment of an average young man (Tibor Kiss) – our protagonist from now on. His routine, foggy and diffuse because of the in-situ lighting, promises no extravagance. One feels a bohemian air about him as soon as he leaves the building – the long hair, the overcoat, not to mention the casual grace with which he strides to the bus stop. Then the camera is flooded by people, an amalgam of sneakily recorded frames inside and outside the bus, shy glances, and eyes looking out the window. I admit, it was only during the part in the city center that I saw how bohemian the young man was – having looked over the movie theater’s program (the current Victoria Cinema in Cluj, if I’m not mistaken) and a shopping window of outdated chic items, he stops at a café. A loafer in an overcoat. However, once sat at the table, things escape from the mundane, as he one day escaped from the brutalist landscape all around into a forest. This Proustian introspection is sectioned off from the rest of the film through other swift zoom-ins on the apartment buildings. His escapade proves to be magical, as he runs, jumps, rolls around, all this interrupted at times for a sip of coffee in the film’s present. What follows is a game with death, a tragic occurrence from which the protagonist flees, only then things take a turn for the strange, something between horror and revery, something that the protagonist, having left the café, now brings with him into the crowd, stored in his mind, one among many other urban minds.
Playfully titled Anexă / Melléklet, the Cluj duo’s other film is a reading of articles from the Hungarian newspaper Igazság (Truth) over snippets of the urban hustle and bustle of 1980s Cluj. Nothing grand, just commonplace journalism, like stuff about the weather and traffic, read in semi-robotic voices with the funny, solemn tone of a public announcement. Then there is a letter to the editor – the detailed story of the routine of an old man, who finds his embodiment in a gentleman from the crowd. A great choice, as this attention to the smallest details typical of old age, perhaps augmented by the pressure of the 1980s under Ceaușescu (whence the mathematical planning of food), is in harmony with the directors’ fascination for the microscopic mundane. Ordinary news follows, names and numbers in rapid succession, the fastest train in Europe, how many viewers Sahia movies have had, how to cure a headache, and a story from a grocery store. One wonders how far such an experiment can go. Sure, you overlay a day’s news with fragments of life from that same day. And tomorrow. And the day after. And then? Such initiatives need neither heads nor tails, what’s important is that they produce a detachment, that they can enrich your – please excuse and enjoy the beauty of the antinomy – critical sensitivity.
I also need to mention that the seven films I have written about are not the prerevolutionary shorts screened last year, but a series of short films that my whim has brought onto the page (so as not to say “on paper”). There could have been others as well, hence the atmosphere of an end-of-the-year ranking. One wonders how far this such an experiment can go.
Translated by Rareș Grozea
 I’m referring here to the films that somehow depend on the archives that manage their second life. In this case, it is the Nation Film Archive.
 Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods.
 Andra Petrescu, “Filmul nonficțional activist al anilor 1950 în România,” in Irina Trocan and Andra Petrescu (editors), Realitatea ficțiunii, ficțiunea realului. Abordări teoretice ale documentarului, Editura Hecate, 2018, București, p. 47, emphasis in the original.
 Valerian Sava, the “Documentar” column in Cinema, issue 12, 1975.
 Geta Brătescu, “Orașul ca o revistă,” Secolul 21, issue 7-12/2007, 381.
 The screening included the artist’s second animation, Altă scufiță roșie (Another Little Red Riding Hood, 1968), which I haven’t managed to watch again since then.
 As they are folk narratives, both the Life and the Fables have a deeply religious character, which is preserved in the Romanian edition edited by Mihail Sadoveanu (Biblioteca pentru toți, 1960).
 Which, by the way, can also be read in dialogue with the artist’s later Drawings with the Eyes Closed.
Călin Boto is the editor-in-chief of the cinema magazine Film Menu and the coordinator of its weekly film club. As a freelancer, he collaborates with several publications and film festivals, includin...