Shake-Up in Romania Changes a Film Festival in New York

November 30th, 2012

Sundance Selects

Cosmina Stratan, left, and Cristina Flutur in “Beyond the Hills,” directed by Cristian Mungiu.

Ordinarily, a change of government in a Balkan capital would be little cause for concern at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. But when you sponsor a Romanian film festival, and your Romanian partner comes under attack by the new authorities in Bucharest, thus jeopardizing your joint undertaking, you may find yourself thrust into a political imbroglio.

The festival, Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema, will begin as scheduled on Thursday night at Lincoln Center, running through next Wednesday. But the film society has severed its connection to the Romanian Cultural Institute, the festival’s original government-financed co-sponsor, in favor of collaboration with a new, private entity, called the Romanian Film Initiative, run by the former director of the institute’s New York office.

In the last decade, the emergence of a Romanian new wave has been one of the most startling developments in world cinema, with one film after another winning prizes at Cannes and elsewhere. In New York a festival of Romanian movies was first held in 2006 in TriBeCa under the auspices of the cultural institute, and last year was invited to move to Lincoln Center.

But the arrival of a new administration in Bucharest “sent us back to square one,” said Corina Suteu, who resigned in September, along with her deputy, Oana Radu, as director of the New York office of the Romanian Cultural Institute. “The present authorities have gone back to a discourse on culture that is very archaic, and they do not consider new wave cinema as being ‘representative’ of Romania.”

At Lincoln Center, film programmers said there was no hesitation about continuing their partnership with Ms. Suteu and her associates and they opted not to explore the possibility of an officially sanctioned event.

“Under this leadership, the cultural institute did incredible things to make the new Romanian cinema visible in the United States, so there was never any question in our minds,” said Scott Foundas, associate program director at the film society. “Our feeling always was that we think very highly of these people as curators, have very similar taste in cinema and are very pleased to have them as part of the extended Lincoln Center family.”

The government of Prime Minister Victor Ponta, which came to power this spring, is a seemingly unlikely coalition between former Communists and a conservative party. In June it issued an emergency ordinance modifying the 2003 statute setting up the Romanian Cultural Institute, which had previously reported directly to President Traian Basescu, Mr. Ponta’s political rival.

“It’s an Ionesco-like government,” said Mihai Chirilov, the artistic director of the film festival, referring to the Romanian playwright who is considered a father of the theater of the absurd. “It’s a very unexpected combination that shows their only aim is power.”

As a presence on the New York cultural scene since shortly after the fall of Communism in 1989, the Romanian Cultural Institute has not limited itself to promoting its national cinema. The institute has also helped bring Romanian writers to the annual PEN World Voices literary festival, supported visual artists in their efforts to get their work shown locally, and collaborated on shows featuring Romanian music, both classical composers like the pianist Dinu Lipatti and pop groups like Timpuri Noi.

In place of that longstanding emphasis on making Romanian culture better known in the West, under the new emergency ordinance the institute’s primary task is “to uphold the identity” of Romanians living abroad. The previous, outward-looking policy was condemned in the ordinance as “highly negative” because it “impairs on a permanent basis the feeling of belonging to the Romanian nation in the case of those temporarily living in other countries.”

The Romanian director Andrei Ujica has made several critically praised films, including “Videogram of a Revolution” and “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu,” shown at the New York festival in 2010, that examine the relationship between political power and media manipulation. In a telephone interview from Berlin, where he teaches cinema, he described the new government policy as an “abusive change” and “anticultural.”

“It’s a kind of attempt at a small cultural revolution, in a Maoist meaning, but in a new form, coupled with the new tabloid culture that has become so strong in East European countries,” he said. “That is a new and dangerous mixture, with a very rigid nationalist focus.”

On the Web site of Mr. Ponta, the government has denied any intention to seize control of the cultural apparatus or limit freedom of expression. “The decisions that have been adopted are meant only to build a more comprehensive democratic framework for the Romanian Cultural Institute’s functioning and to redress the problems pertaining to its spending of public money,” an official statement said.

With government financing ruled out, Ms. Suteu and her associates did what everyone does these days: they began a Kickstarter campaign that raised $ 22,000 from some 300 people. In other gestures of support, leading Romanian artists, writers and film figures, both in the diaspora and back home, signed protest petitions and also contributed money, and the Trust for Mutual Understanding, which promotes cultural and other exchanges between the United States and the former Soviet bloc, supplied a $ 50,000 grant.

The festival opens on Thursday with “Of Snails and Men,” an absurdist comedy by Tudor Giurgiu, and will conclude with Cristian Mungiu’s religious drama “Beyond the Hills,” which won two awards at the Cannes film festival this spring.

In between, the bill includes several works by promising new directors and a retrospective of the films of Alexandru Tatos, who died in 1990 and is considered a major influence on the new wave.

Unusually, the program also includes two panel discussions, titled “Creative Freedom Through Cinema: Romania and Hungary,” that will be linked with screenings on Saturday and Sunday. Hungary, Romania’s neighbor, is included in the discussion because the nationalist government there has been criticized as curbing freedom of expression.

“Corina and Oana have been very quick on their feet to make this happen, which I’m not sure everyone could do,” Mr. Foundas said. “It was a very bold move on their part, and without skipping a beat, they have created an entity to protect the independence of this festival and to continue going forward in the way we want to see.”

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