Environments and Subjectivity

in 15th Transilvania International Film Festival, Cluj-Napoca

by Irina Trocan

Environments and subjectivity by Irina Trocan The Transylvania International Film Festival in Cluj-Napoca, the largest film event in Romania, is well-known regionally for several things. To the national audience, it is a chance to watch the Romanian premiere of several productions which have already created buzz abroad – only this year, feature films Dogs and Sieranevada (along with Graduation) have had their world premiere in Cannes, a few weeks prior to their TIFF screening. To cinephiles (be they locals or guests), it’s a chance to catch up with acclaimed international titles released in major festivals, several of which are grouped in the Supernova off-competition program. For the industry, its networking events and workshops are where the magic happens – and this year, the Transylvania Talent Lab offers a welcome instruction to aspiring cinema curators. The Eastern-European TIFF is also the venue of cine-concerts and family events and of the very-young spectators’ program EducaTIFF.

This year it was easier for the regular spectator to cope with the something-for-everyone format of TIFF and its multiple attractions, since the FIPRESCI jury I was in was assigned to choose a winner from one section: the #Animal program assembled this year by TIFF’s main programmer Mihai Chirilov. Ranging between ecological advocacy, propunded by the documentary Tyke Elephant Outlaw (dir. Susan Lambert and Stefan Moore) to low-key spectacle (Wild by Nicolette Krebitz) and absurdist fable (Animal Político by Tião), from film diary (Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog) to counterculture cinema pastiche (Gyula Nemes’s Zero), the films in #Animal were marvelously eccentric.

Several of them featured an animal as their protagonist: the otherwise unremarkable A Family Film alternates its irresponsible-mother plot with one reserved solely for the family dog, the survivor of a nautical accident that finds ingenious ways to keep itself alive in the wild when the family gave up any hope of retrieving it. (The dog survival story is slightly less compelling than Matt Damon’s scenes in The Martian, but not by far.) Similarly, the Azerbaijan village story of Holy Cow (dir. Imam Hasanov) is regrettably full of ignorant folk stereotypes, but it achieves some sort of grace by taking the protagonist’s obsession with a cow very seriously: the film tracks his attempts to buy it and take care of it despite his modest means and of the other villagers’ resistance, while allotting a plenty of time to this process to unfold – one could even go so far as calling the project the cow version of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.

The winner of the FIPRESCI jury, Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull, is so focused on the facts of life that it manages to soften the authoritative boundary between the rodeo bulls and the behind-the-scenes workers travelling with them, who depend on this occupation to make a living. Mascaro and director of photography Diego García renders their physical work and interactions in visually beautiful long shots, which capture the rhythm of their rootless, but dignified living. There’s a subtle refinement to the film’s dramaturgy, which might strike cinephiles as a post-Hays code Howard Hawks film: the characters are obviously close, but not exactly tied, to one another. Iremar (Juliano Cazarré), the informal leader of the cowhands’ group, has an unlikely passion for designing women’s clothes and practices his craft on the outfits of Galega (Maeve Jinkings), the truck driver and the only woman in the group. There is an intimacy between them which may or may not be sexual, and he also nurtures paternal feelings to Galega’s pre-teen daughter whose father seems to have left a long time ago. Change within the group comes slowly and it is never catalyzed by a conflict from within: a loyal co-worker leaves when hired by a horse breeder, and his new employer takes the precaution of sending someone to instantly replace him; a cosmetics saleswoman wanders by and draws the erotic interest of Iremar. There’s an underlying optimism in this de-dramatized tale of nomadic workers with an occupation in decline – there may be no clear way out, but chance may always throw pleasant surprises their way, as long as their inner fire keeps burning. Rather than turning its characters into abstractions or inviting viewers to pity their way of life, the film contains plenty of humor and passion among the routines of a precarious living.

Also notable, though in a thoroughly different vein, is Laurie Anderson’s sheltered-existence chronicle Heart of a Dog, a portrait of her departed pet Lolabelle. While the film can be enjoyed on several levels, Anderson’s cinematic essay is a fortunately ambiguous rendering of a loving relationship (of any sort), where it is very hard to trace the demarcation line between the actual Lolabelle and the woman’s impression of her. Free associations lead to a 9/11 reference (cued by Lolabelle’s near-collision with a bird of prey), to a stream-of-consciousness explanation of babies’ dreams and their relation to crib death, to monologue on the artifice of storytelling, as well as to several unforgettable animated sequences. The heart beating at the center of this film undoubtedly belongs to the filmmaker, although her original intention is that of keeping her pet’s memory alive.

The #Animal label seemed initially a cryptic motif for a program, but having seen the films, it turned out to be very inspired. Since cinema – these films included – is frequently an anthropomorphic medium of representing reality, seeing a series of films made by humans about animals is a good starting point for seeing what is really out there in the world and what we make of it.

Edited by Christina Stojanova