In recent years, Romanian cinema has undoubtedly been experiencing its heyday. For international audiences, Romanian film even offers the best of East European cinema and seems to be fit enough to be given the “New Wave” attributes. While Romanian film has attracted critical interest since the early 2000’s, the first considerable success came with Cristi Puiu’s fiction feature The Death of Mr. Lazarescu at the 2005 Cannes IFF. Thereafter, Romanian cinema has been steadily charming international festival audiences to an unusual extent, grabbing some of the major awards at major festivals. Success came primarily with the production of features that have been drawing inspiration from common social contexts and demonstrating solid production standards, thus inciting foreign audiences to wrap up Romanian cinema into a set of particular movies. Keeping that in mind, it is understandable that contemporary Romanian documentary film has been viewed from this perspective, mostly taking a ride and gaining less publicity of major European media.
Rupert Wolfe Murray, the co-founder of Productive International, sees the situation clearly: “Romania seems to be succeeding quite well with fiction film but failing only on the documentary front. I don’t think that documentary is understood in Romania. People think of the kind of thing that Discovery makes as documentary, but these are just extended news reports or reportage.” In fact, as Monica Lazurean-Gorgan from 4 Proof Film suggests, the same approach is shared by the funding models, too. Surprisingly enough, although documentary seems to find itself on the periphery, it tis quietly reaching for awards and attention at most domestic and international documentary venues.
Appreciating the treatment of Romania's major national topic, Romanian audiences reckoned greatly Andrei Ujica’s epic documentary feature The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu. Nevertheless, the dictator’s portrait did not only manage to win the Romanian Journalists and Critics' Award for Best Romanian Film 2010. There were many other festival appearances, namely at Sheffield, Toronto, Cannes or Rotterdam, as well as Special Mention at CPH:DOX 2010, to prove that Ceausescu is a sufficiently compelling subject to draw international audiences. Similarly, Alexandru Solomon’s Kapitalism, Our Improved Formula also opens up engaging topics that appeal to festival and competition programmers - so far IDFA, One World, London IDFF, Prix Europa. However, the most recent, astonishing acclaim came with the festival tour of Anca Damian’s Crulic: The Path to Beyond, a retrospective documentary relying on the merging of true story, narration from experimental perspective, coated in rigorous animation. The Romanian-Polish coproduction has swept prizes in Locarno, Cottbus, Jihlava, Warsaw and Copenhagen so far. Even though international success regularly brings the necessary kudos, it is especially the domestic documentary festival circuit which turns out to be essential for Romanian docs: “Astra, One World Romania, TIFF, Documfest - There is more space within local festivals dedicated to docs, while doc festivals themselves have grown,“ says Alexandru Solomon, producer and director at HiFilm Productions, and the head of One World Romania.
The majority of Romanian documentarians would, however, also appreciate the fact that festival exhibition helps documentaries to gradually achieve a rising number of cinema releases. There is a good reason for it. Almost every documentary production house and filmmaker in Romania faces lack of interest from the national broadcaster – for many other regions a rather fundamental documentary platform: “The Romanian public television, TVR, and private broadcasters have little commitment to documentary. They have no clear and explicit programme policy, still under strong influence of politics, and rarely any budget. There is little investment in co-productions or commissioning and, in many cases, even poorly trained commissioning editors,” comments Razvan Georgescu, a documentarian and Pelegrin Film production house owner.
Eventually, HBO Romania seems to be the greatest asset for Romanian documentary broadcasting, annually producing and releasing three to four docs. “With such consistent support over the last three years, HBO has produced eight original documentaries, including Alexander Nanau's The World According to Ion B.,” comments Tudor Giorgiu, president of the Romanian Film Promotion and the Transilvania International Film Festival, on HBO's role. After all, Nanau’s Emmy-nominated film became one of the most successful feature documentaries HBO Romania ever managed to export outside of the country.
Operating with an average budget of about €10 million, coming from tax money, the National Film Center (CNC) has been the major public funding body since 2005 while steadily improving funding models. After establishing an independent commission in the Film Board, documentaries and animated films have been evaluated through their own criteria by a three-member commission, reaching for the financing of 10 documentaries in 2010. The annual portion of funds allocated for documentary support fluctuates around 10%, which seems rather undersized, especially considering that CNC is essentially the only alternative to grant funds in Romania. Estimating the disposable budget, Alexandru Solomon sees it as a step back: “Institutional support is weak […], and development funding for docs allocated by the Film Board is very low (around 2000 euros per project).” Although there is a set plan for funding sessions that are held twice a year, Tudor Giurgiu sums up that CNC has been unreliable in providing support in the past years: “In 2009, the CNC, the main funder of the Romanian film production system, decided not to organize any call for projects, stating that the regulations must be modified, which happened after every party involved in the industry has been consulted. In 2010, CNC resumed funding, organizing two sessions. For 2011, CNC has announced so far a single financing session, for which the results haven’t been made public yet.“
It comes to no surprise, though, that it is nearly impossible for individual projects to sustain adequate budget using exclusively Romanian sources. Despite CNC’s efforts to distribute funds justly, it is inevitable for majority of productions to seek international co-production. Art-Doc’s producer Ileana Stanculescu admits that many of the production house’s projects were financed with funds coming from Germany, Netherlands, or European Institutions. Besides that, Romanian concern in these cases usually shrinks to minimum, providing rather symbolic share. According to Lazurean-Gorgan, it is frustratingly common to have so little or no financing from local sources: “As an example, for The Devil’s Choice we have a German co-producer ready to apply to a German film fund. But it would have been even better to have financing for production from Romania, too. Unfortunately, this is not the case.“
Seemingly not as pressing as the funding difficulties, another persistent issue is that of centralization. Local film culture dwells primarily in the outskirts of Bucharest’s film industry, which often forces smaller productions from other parts of the country outside the scope of interest. According to Razvan Georgescu, several companies use their influence to dominate the funding system: “The CNC ‘point system’ clearly favors and protects established, bigger companies, and makes it very, very difficult for newcomers and innovative, smaller filmmakers to access the funds.” On the other hand, a number of smaller companies housed in Cluj or Timisoara try to oppose this trend, while the above-mentioned handful of film festivals dedicated to local documentary film balances the accessibility of quality production towards audiences outside of Bucharest.
Nevetheless, to the benefit of emerging documentarians, Romania has proved to be a nurturing environment with several well-established workshops and training programmes that maintain close ties with international initiatives. Especially the Central and East European association Aristoteles has managed to bring tutoring closer to topnotch standards. Similarly, in addition to being one of the major local professional organizations, DocuMentor has succeeded in connecting Romanian documentary filmmakers with the world’s documentary community, for instance presenting Romania at Sunny Side of the Doc. The conceptual support of Romanian talent on both domestic and international scenes is also the primary mission of the NGO Romanian Film Sector. It has been developing and promoting young docs through the co-production platform TrainEastFilm, and managed to establish and coordinate the international training consortium, associating various film institutions under the title East European Film Alliance.
This text was first published in October 2011 in IDF's Industry Reel #2 to accompany the Romanian Co-production Breakfast, a morning session where invited filmmakers and experts discussed funding and co-production possibilities available for documentary projects in Romania.