A New Tiff Emerges By David Robinson
If, in its first formative years, you told colleagues you were going to TIFF in June, most would have looked a little bewildered: “How nice for you! But isn’t the Toronto festival in September?” When you explained that this TIFF was in Cluj-Napoca, Transylvania, there would be an embarrassed pause, followed by the inevitable Dracula jokes – which the festival wittily exploits, with its vampire logo-trailer and a special screening of Murnau’s Nosferatu.
With TIFF now in its sixth year, perceptions have changed. A run of outstanding films, crowned by the Cannes Palme d’Or for Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Weeks, 3 Months and 2 Days (4 Luni, 3 Satamini si 2 Zile) and the Un Certain Regard award for the late Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ (Nesfarsit), has put Romanian cinema firmly in the world’s line of sight, inevitably heightening the international profile and status of the national festival.
This year, the festival was spread between two cities; in addition to Cluj, screenings and events were located in Sibiu, one of this year’s two European Cities of Culture, the centre of Transylvania’s Saxon population since the Middle Ages, with a history that goes back to the Roman era. The festival triumphantly managed the shuttling of guests between the two cities, three hours apart, even if there was sometimes slight confusion about who was where at any given time.
The major activity, however, remained in Cluj-Napoca, with the festival’s main screenings in commercial cinemas conveniently situated in the center of town. The largest, the Republika, is in a new, modern complex; the smaller houses, the Victoria and the Arte, are well-preserved theatres apparently dating from the late 1920s. Projection standards – including digital – are good, with additional digital tools ensuring every film was offered with Romanian and English subtitles. The city provides admirable facilities for the festival’s other activities, such as press conferences and seminars. For instance, I was invited to give a Master Class in criticism, which resulted in some stimulating interaction with the attendees. The engaged majority of the class was made up of very young critics – some in their early thirties, but one as young as sixteen (and this was a very smart and literate commentator). Though the class officially ended at 1300, the group was still in passionate debate four hours later.
I cite this only as an instance of the phenomenal appetite for films that distinguishes this festival. Cluj-Napoca is predominantly a university town, and the festival’s general audience is very young and very dedicated. Young audiences from the more westerly parts of Europe often tend to a somewhat cynical approach of challenging the film. The Romanian public gives itself willingly and whole-heartedly to what is on the screen. (This is not to say the bad habit of leaving one’s cell-phone on in the theater is any better here than it is at most international festivals; in fact, it might actually be worse.)
This audience, along with a highly dedicated festival staff (both employees and volunteers) that shares their passion for cinema, gives TIFF an atmosphere, a geniality, a warmth and an enthusiasm that this cynical festival-goer, with decades of experience, cannot remember having encountered before at this level.
This warm ambiance more than compensates for TIFF’s inevitable difficulties (as a new festival, somewhat outside the established circuit which film owners see as promotionally advantageous) in getting major premieres. An exceptional coup this year however was to capture the world premiere of Nicholas Roeg’s Puffball, adapted from the novel by Fay Weldon. Premieres apart, however, TIFF provides its hungry audience with a large, wide-ranging, sometimes eccentric, always imaginative selection of films, in a bewildering variety of sections.
For foreign guests there is the particular bonus of the section dedicated to the year’s national production. Officially, Romania has perhaps been a little slow in realizing just what it has in its currently vibrant and enthusiastic cinema. (A week before Cannes, the official film authority is said to have been preparing litigation against Cristian Mungiu for criticisms that had appeared in the press: the action seems subsequently to have been quietly dropped.) With official recognition of Mungiu, and the presence of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Culture at the festival’s awards ceremony, there is every sign that Romania is waking up to its current good fortune. Certainly, TIFF is making a major contribution to this appreciation, at the same time as it has established itself as a significant date on the festival calendar.