June 15, 2011  |  Film
Cinema Cluj

Transylvanian International Film Festival

To many of us who love the idea of vampires and Dracula, the notion of a Transylvanian International Film Festival (TIFF) sounds like something dreamed up by Mel Brooks, funny and weird. But surprise, this festival in Cluj, a city—at once medieval, Austro-Hungarian, and modern—of about 350,000 by the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, not only celebrated its 10th anniversary this week, but is a knockout of a film festival.

I was invited by the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York, a TIFF partner, to participate in a Festival panel on how film organizations outside Romania  perceive its “New Wave” of filmmaking. I found the selection of features and shorts from around the world to be first rate, audiences are appreciative and respectful, and viewers have an excellent opportunity to catch up with the most recent Romanian films—a pleasure for those of us who believe Romanian filmmakers are some of the best directors working anywhere in the world today.

The festival lasts ten days, with the final four days devoted (though not exclusively) to new Romanian films. Feature films, shorts, documentaries, animated works, focuses on national cinemas from Norway to Belgium to Portugal, and retrospectives are all part of the daily mix, as is an international competition. To acknowledge the stereotype of Transylvania, the Festival even has a “Shadows” section devoted to horror and fantasy, which included a creatively named Japanese film I didn’t have a chance to see; Big Tits Zombie created a small stir.

English is the lingua franca of the festival; all films are shown in original-language versions with English subtitles, and the frequent Q&A sessions and panels are also translated.

Manastur Open Air

Every evening a large inflatable screen occupies the main square, where open-air projections take place for the citizens of Cluj and Festival guests. Three older, single-screen cinemas, all within easy walking distance of each other and of the main square, show Festival films all day, as does an Odeon multiplex in a gigantic suburban shopping center—which could easily be mistaken for any mall in America—reachable by free shuttle buses or inexpensive taxis.

An advantage of staying in downtown Cluj is the charm of its busy street life and restaurants patronized by the city’s many students, locals, and visitors. A  favorite, Varzarie, to which I returned a second time, is known for its interpretations of cooked cabbage. Their specialty, “cabbage a la Cluj” was a delicious culinary discovery.

Between meetings and the many meals given by Festival sponsors around town, there are the films themselves, and this year they included a few New Yorkers probably know, like Winter’s Bone, In a Better World, and this year’s standouts from New Directors/New Films, Incendies and Happy, Happy.

Open-air screening at the "Versailles of Transylvania"

For this curator, the highlights of TIFF 2011 included an open-air screening about 20 miles outside Cluj in a castle/palace once thought to be (no kidding) the “Versailles of Transylvania.” The film, the recently restored Odessa in Flames, is an epic, overly melodramatic piece of 1942 fascist propaganda. A Romanian-Italian co-production directed by Carmine Gallone, the film celebrates—with much singing and marching—the brief period during World War II when Romania was part of the Axis.

The other “not to be missed” event at TIFF was a complete retrospective of the master Romanian filmmaker Lucian Pintilie, an artist barely known in America. Pintilie, born in 1933, made three films in Romania, two of which were banned before he was advised to go into exile in the early 1970s, which he did. He directed theater and opera in Paris, returning to Bucharest with the downfall of Ceausescu 18 years later to make a number of extraordinary, trenchant, and very darkly humorous (how else to dispel despair?) films, including The Oak, The Afternoon of a Torturer, and his last feature, Niki & Flo, which has never screened in the U.S., and which I am currently discussing showing at MoMA.

Film is not the only art for which Cluj is celebrated. It turns out the city is also a vibrant center for contemporary art in all media (performance included), with galleries and artists’ studios occupying and revivifying an enormous factory where every single paint brush in Ceausescu’s Romania was made. (The Communists adored centralization.) If a visitor could not get his or her fill from the over 250 movies at TIFF, a trip to the Brush Factory gives the visitor a chance to see some time-based moving image art and installations as well.