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Traitor to the Dying Genre

An interview with Romanian filmmaker and producer Florin Iepan about his latest documentary project Odessa, Romania's involvement in WW2, pigeonholing, resurgence of intolerance, observational fog, Michael Moore, and more...


Romanian filmmaker and producer Florin Iepan is passionate about the seemingly simple goal of his latest documentary project Odessa. He would like to nudge Romanians to engage in a long-overdue public debate about the Odessa massacre and Romania's involvement in the atrocities of WWII. In Mr Iepan's Odessa, the Odessa massacre refers to the events of October 1941 when over 20,000 Jewish residents were murdered by Romanian and German troops in the occupied Ukrainian town of Odessa. Close to 300,000 Jews and Roma were killed in the territories controlled by Romania's Antonescu regime during the war. Yet disapproving public reactions which the filmmaker has received suggest that some Romanians may not yet be willing to acknowledge the past, and that losing face might seem intolerable to the country's fragile psyche. Mr Iepan doesn't mince words about the dangers of such reactions, and about the difficulties that, for entirely different reasons, come up when he tries to win support from abroad.

Florin Iepan pitched and discussed
Odessa at the 2010 East European Forum. Release is planned for March 2012.

Was there an impulse for choosing the engaged approach you did?

Initially, four years ago, I was close to making this an ordinary historical documentary and I gave an interview to Hot News and the reaction was so violent and disturbing that I realized that the problem was much bigger than I thought. People threaten me just for making a documentary film about events from 70 years ago? At that moment I changed my mind - OK, I'm not doing a historical doc, let's take this one in a different direction.


Do you still plan a campaign to engage audiences more in the project and to be part of the completed film?

We're still preparing a campaign, we had some work in progress screenings with 50 minutes of the material and we're preparing a hot line. There have been several press articles regarding the subject. The internet is already part of the project. We posted part of the film on the internet and it was in the media. But we still plan to use the internet more.


What has so far been the biggest problem since you've taken up this project?

The cross-genre nature of the project is the biggest issue. It's neither a historical documentary nor an observational documentary, and it has a cross-media dimension. It's very hard to pitch a project that doesn't have clear genre definition. But the greatest challenge lies in the story itself to the extent of how open Romanian society is to talk about its fascist past when there are so many other issues related to everyday lives of the people. Also, there's a kind of fear to discuss our past because there's a kind of feeling in Romanian society that we don't have too many values and to broach a debate about our past would be like losing the last one.


It has a lot to do with the country's self-confidence.

It's a complex thing because I am the main protagonist, the author who approaches the subject from a historical background and it's really hard to get strong support from the local TV market for this kind of film but we already have several TV stations involved - Romanian TV, YLE, WDR Germany, Ireland's TG4... We're hoping that once we have the rough cut, we can go back to some of them and they will be able to provide more support.  


Have you sometimes used your credit in garnering support for the project?

Yes, sometimes I've used it. In some situations it's helpful because I have better access to television, politicians. Yet in other situations that's not the case, for instance, there's reluctance on the part of Romanian film critics who often say that what I'm doing now is not the best way to approach this subject and everything is somehow related with my past films. But I'm not so famous in Romania in order to generate support only using my name. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn't. Internationally, since I've already done several co-production projects, it's an advantage to start a new project for me. So at this moment, I think of myself as a kind of Don Quijote who's trying to bring others on board, which is very difficult and takes a lot of time. Sometimes doubts creep in...


Have any public figures or fellow filmmakers voiced their support?

Some - not many - people have expressed support for my project but they're not sure how it's going to develop and they're not sure if it's good for them to be associated with a project that is still not very clear and may be considered very provocative to Romanian society. Most people are still hesitant.


Are they afraid of the Michael Moore factor? Do you hear a lot of sweeping references to Moore when people discuss your project and would this sort of approach be an issue for them?

If we talk about the project in terms of the author, my biggest problem with this project really is Michael Moore. This is not just in Romania but also abroad; they have the impression that I'm some sort of a European Michael Moore, probably because I've gained some weight in recent years [laughs], I'm not sure, but it runs deeper. It's a big, big problem. Michael Moore is despised, especially, by a lot of commissioning editors, but not only them, like a public enemy of international documentary film, which I think is a bit unfair. But it's doubly unfair because what I'm trying to do at the end of the day is that though I turn the camera on myself and I comment on and analyze my identity, some of which are obviously elements of Moore's films, I'm also trying to do something a little different. Right now it might seem impossible to change people's mentality but in the long run, it could have a successful outcome. A friend of mine, filmmaker Cristian Puiu also remarked that I'm an East European Michael Moore which was really hard for me to swallow, especially from him. [laughs]


In light of what you've said, how do other filmmakers or funders imagine one should tackle a project that is by nature so explosive? Did they offer any suggestions?

The problem of a provocative documentary is that you're pushing the boundaries of the genre, you're the creator of a true document and this approach can bring films like, let's say, Filip Remunda's Czech Dream. I remember that he had the same problem at festivals abroad and in debates with filmmakers that the director shouldn't be any kind of entertainer and should stay behind the camera, especially if you're from Eastern Europe, in which case you should only make observational films.  


Is this a view that's implicitly shared even by professionals in Western Europe and beyond?

Yes, the same perception is in the West - East Europeans should only make observational films about their communities in remote or desolate areas, with a thick fog, long shots, hours of uneventful suspense, following an old person who keeps a cow, a horse or chickens. Just looking and waiting for something. This is a model East European documentary, both for East Europeans and for Westerners. So obviously when you're trying to do something else, you are a traitor to the good documentary. At the European Film Awards, of the three nominated films, two were extreme novelties. But in Romania I've been criticized by other filmmakers that what I'm doing now is against the documentary bible, that it's immoral and unfair.


What would your project possibly be like if you could force it into the observational mould?

Actually, I could probably make it into an observational documentary if I'd just wait a few more years until the ethnic cleansing starts again here in Eastern Europe or in Romania. At that moment, I'd become a very traditional, elegantly skillful director, watching how the Roma villages near Bucharest are burned down and at that moment I'd be a good director taking exactly the right approach to documentary film.


Have you noticed an increase in intolerance and anti-Roma sentiments in Romania?

It's not only in Romania, it's everywhere in Southeast Europe, there is an increase in intolerance towards minorities. It's a big problem especially in countries who were allies of the Nazi Germany -  Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria, Slovakia... But not only them, Austria, for instance, has a very big problem to deal with its past. My concern is that if the European project becomes foggy or comes to some kind of a standstill or, even worse, reverts, then the level of intolerance and lack of understanding will skyrocket. That's my impression and possibly the main motivation behind my project.

If you look closely, there used to be many places and communities in Romania where minorites would live side by side without any problems. After the fall of communism, the Germans went to Germany and so on, and today it's almost impossible to find this type of a mixed population model that was quite common in the 1980s. And it's the same thing in former Yugoslavia, no mixing of nationalities, it's not possible anymore. The only community in all of this without a country are the Roma. They are totally exposed today.

And going back to what kind of documentary film I'm making, yes, I could make an observational film with long shots, a very patient film without me in front of the camera, but that would only be after the tragedy has already occurred.


What do you think should be the role of a documentary filmmaker? Or is there at all a particular role that documentary filmmakers should fulfill in society?

I've completely lost my confidence in the meaning of a filmmaker in contemporary society, especially in Eastern Europe. If you're doing only historical documentaries, then no matter how strong they are or what archive you have, owing to the huge variety of media and channels, their impact is so negligible. With classical tools like a historical documentary - and I'm a huge fan of historical docs, don't get me wrong - you couldn't reach social impact, which is needed sometimes.

Unfortunately, film festivals as well as some TV channels and film critics are against this, trying instead to preserve the supposed purity of the genre, not understanding that a genre without force and power is a dying genre. And observational documentary is a dying genre if you're talking about social impact, unless of course you wait to see the event but then it's always too late and it becomes a lesson for the next generation.  


How is your approach to the subject reflected in the Romanian context? What exactly are you trying to achieve?

In Romania they know that I've done historical documentaries in the past, and they tell me: Why aren't you doing a classical documentary with archives, interviews and the rest? And that's considered enough for you as a filmmaker to deliver the message. But I honestly don't think that's possible and it certainly isn't effective. Romania is gradually going back to the atmosphere of the 1930s, we're disappointed with politics, democracy seems defunct, people seem to be doing worse and everybody's looking for some kind of a special hero, a national hero, someone we could be proud of as Romanians and someone to solve a hundred different problems.

Obviously, this isn't possible but I think that the most important values we have today are precisely democracy, freedom of speech, etc. and that's what I'm trying to emphasize: What could a modern-day Don Quijote do in this society? I'm not complaining, I'm sure that sooner or later I'll achieve my goal to put the Odessa story on the public agenda.


Despite the clearly Romanian focus of your film, you are very concerned about the broader context in which the issue is played out. Have you travelled outside Romania to include bits from other countries as well?

It was always in the back of my mind to make a kind of journey outside of Romania, to places like Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia... Places where I've heard nationalist and authoritarian mindsets are very popular. I thought it'd give me a chance to show that this is not only a local story related to Romania but that it involves many other countries that went from fascism straight to communism and none of them understands fascism. For many people, whatever came before communism is viewed through rose-coloured glasses. And after the fall of communism, a lot of war criminals, former fascist leaders became instantly popular.

I'm not sure if I end up shooting in other countries, it depends on how the story develops, but it could be important for Romanians. You have to understand that Romanians are very sensitive. They have the impression that perception of Romania is much worse than they deserve. And if you try to discuss something related to the past, they think you're opening up yet another problem.

I might travel to Israel too, I'm not sure yet... Now the official relations between Romania and Israel are very good. Shimon Peres visited Romania last year and he said he was grateful to Romanian people because they saved 360,000 Jews during WWII, not mentioning anything about the 300,000 Ukrainian and Russian Jews killed. So compared to the 1990s, there's certainly no political pressure now from Israel, the United States or European countries to acknowledge our fascist past. Everyone has the impression that we have done our homework, when we officially acknowledged our responsibility for the holocaust in the constitution and they're like: What the hell is he trying to do again? But the story deals with a tragic day in our history, October 23, 1941, when 20,000 people were killed, most of them children and the elderly. This is a tragic day in our history and nobody knows about it. It's our problem today.


Is the WWII subject attractive for international broadcasters?

That's a bit of a problem. For example, a commissioning editor from ARTE privately told me that there was a kind of unofficial policy in place at ARTE of no more holocaust documentaries because ARTE has such poor ratings that holocaust stories are no longer welcome, they need more optimistic programmes because everybody's fed up with the holocaust. There's a kind of holocaust fatigue, which is very unfair because no director has ever done a documentary about Odessa. So even though it's one of the biggest crimes of WWII, it remains largely unexposed because it was committed by Romanians. But we found a very important document about the purpose of the Romanian involvement in Odessa and how they plundered the town...We'll reveal this document for the first time to the Romanian public.   


Speaking of documents, how do historians view these events?

Romanian historians from the 1930s developed the kind of nationalism that transformed Romania into a fascist country. Nobody's talking about the responsibility of historians. They create the image that a foreigner is the enemy, and even though they are not necessarily soldiers, there's a superior reason for killing foreigners.

Historians are currently trying to convince Romanians that we need monarchy back. The republic, democracy are no longer functional and we need monarchy back to improve our society. Of course, it's stupid, impossible and monarchy is nothing but another group of people with their interests. But it's also something that goes against democracy. Romania was a kingdom until Ceausescu's death, a communist kingdom. [reference to the BBC documentary The King of Communism (2003), Ed. Note]. It's another expression of how desperate Romanian society is to find a solution that could work, which I totally understand.


You've applied for funding from ITVS. What's your experience with international funds?

ITVS and a lot of organizations seem hesitant about accepting point of view documentaries from outside the US because they fear that once you're in front of the camera and you're in control of the editing, you're able to control the perception about yourself and some people consider this an ego trip danger. The story kind of revolves around you, you're a kind of hero, you are in a position to control your image...

It's a creative problem and it's something I'm aware of. I simply haven't found a character to follow who'd be determined about the subject and who could be the protagonist. It's a matter of finding someone to take my place. Maybe I'll be able to find the right solution. The best thing would be to find someone who would be able to persuade the Romanian president to go to Odessa and acknowledge what happened.  


What are your plans in terms of festivals and distribution?

I'm afraid that the selection committees of big festivals, especially when receiving documentary films from Eastern Europe, tend to accept only one genre - observational documentaries. They seem to be more interested in the genre, in what kind of documentary you're making than in the subject and social impact.

Once the project is finished, I'll be totally exhausted. Distribution will be the last thing on my mind. If I can find a big distributor, then fine... I've actually realized that in the end it's not important how this project turns out, the process itself is important for me personally, for people around me and for Romanian society. At the end of the day, this film may never be finished. But if I can achieve the results I set out to achieve, it'll be worth it, it'll be money well spent. 

The film itself could be three minutes long, or a single shot or whatever, it's not really that important. For me, the true meaning of this project is what I'm able to change in the mentality of Romanians. A film can be lost in the sea of a thousand other films. So my point is that filmmaking is important even before a film is actually made. It wields its power even when you just tell people you're making a film. Only a few filmmakers, Michael Moore included, could claim that their films have actually changed something. And their work is influential, popular and very important. So I'm not sure if I ever have an interesting film to present at festivals but the story of Odessa will be known in Romania.





Director: Iepan Florin
Production company: Sub-Cult-Ura Production, StarCrest Media

Romania, 52 min, HD, History, Society

In 2009 filmmaker Florin Iepan launched a personal campaign for the ‘denazification‘ of Romania. Based on the darkest moment in the recent history of his country, the massacre from October 1941 when Romanian soldiers, without any German assistance, burned alive more than 22,000 civilians in the occupied town of Odessa, Iepan starts the first public debate about the fascist chapter in Romanian history. This proves a real challenge for the EU and NATO member country, that carefully concealed its crimes against the Jews and Roma people during WWII, and where Marshall Antonescu, the head of the government at that time is considered even today, by the majority of Romanians, as a great patriot and anticommunist leader.


Related Articles:
Banality of Pragmatic Evil (Interview with Florin Iepan)