As a direct result of the new policies in Romania, 2012 funding for RCI ceased in July of this year, endangering existent programming worldwide such as the Romanian Film Festival in New York, which is partnering for the first time this year with Lincoln Center. “Making Waves,” as the seventh edition of the festival is called, will in fact take place, closing with “Beyond the Hills.” However, the Lincoln Center’s partner is no longer the state-run RCINY. It’s now called the Romanian Film Initiative, and it was started by the former heads of the RCINY office, Corina Suteu and Oana Radu. To replace the funding recalled by the Romanian government, Suteu and Radu were forced to launch a Kickstarter campaign that successfully brought in more than $22,000 from 263 donors.
While the old RCI seemed committed to bridging the gap between Romanian artists and their potential audiences, its new mission is to promote state-sponsored Romanian cultural products abroad (or what some might label “propaganda”). For an idea of what this might mean, consider the difference between the films of Neil Jordan and the mass-consumption-ready thrills of “Riverdance.”
In pointing to the discomfort and difficulty of watching the Romanian New Wave films, critics are not wrong, per se. The prevailing aesthetic of “Beyond the Hills,” like Mungiu’s previous film “432,” is life, starkly lit and captured by a lens that aims to withhold judgment, blame or any hint of gratuitous softness or relief, while also pinning the viewer to her seat with an accumulating tension so that she can’t look away. It’s hard to defend against accusations that the film sometimes nudges realism over the ledge of “unflinching” to something just short of sadistic, even as it waves the anti-sensationalist flag.
The new Romanian films are difficult to watch. As were the great films of the “Old Wave,” from directors such as Lucian Pintilie and Mircea Danieluc. So perhaps it’s understandable that many older Romanians, who’ve lived most of their lives under Communism, and who now face an austere and frightening retirement, might respond to the reallocation of state funding with a gesture that is as much Romanian as the thumb-to-forefingers is Italian: a simultaneous shrug and scowl of swift, bitter dismissal. “We’ve lived through miserable times,” they could be saying. “Why pay for more of the same?”
Meanwhile, many of the younger generation, brought up in a dilapidated educational system only to come of age in the midst of recession, unemployment and a devastating national drain of intelligence, talent and manpower (the theme of Mungiu’s first film, “The West”), find these films too bleak, too long, too silent — in other words, not entertaining enough. (It is maybe worth noting that when Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” came out in 1948, the poor, beleaguered Italians it represented hated the film and asked for their money back, while the rest of the world immediately recognized it as a masterpiece.)
Romanian filmmakers aren’t concerned with simple entertainment, nor should they be in a culture so long deprived of real freedom. We need their “24 lies per second in the service of truth,” as another “difficult” director, Michael Haneke, has said. Stripping artists of the infrastructure that supports them is a form of suppression, as damaging as dictating what kind of work they are allowed to make. And the loss of a functional cultural infrastructure for Romanian filmmakers is a loss for the people who will have a harder time getting access to their work. Cinema, the most collaborative, cumbersome and costly of the creative arts, is particularly vulnerable.
The hope is that the last few years of strong Romanian films have bolstered both the filmmakers and their audience enough to overcome Romania’s truly shameful politics and to keep this creative valve open. Visibility is a filmmaker’s practical currency, ensuring opportunities and funding for future films. But it isn’t only that. Visibility, literally, is what makes the film a reality. In effect, a film that nobody sees doesn’t exist.