The Transilvania International Film Festival has taken place since the early 2000s in Cluj-Napoca, one of the most significant towns in Romania. Slowly shedding its Eastern European humble origins, the Transilvania IFF (originally shortened as ‘TIFF’ but thereafter needing differentiation from the first TIFF: Toronto International Film Festival) could now be sold by one of its trademarks, which is the life-time achievement award given to well-known personalities of the western filmmaking world. As such, this year, the festival audience welcomed Oliver Stone, as well as actors Timothy Spall and Geoffrey Rush (who apparently flew from Australia just to participate in the festival and, unlike the American director, received a standing ovation). Gender bias notwithstanding, hosting the abovementioned in what is still an Eastern-European context has been carried out successfully by a professionalised festival organization, which means that the festival has integrated well into the international film festival network. And, if previous editions might have sought to channel Romanian film directors’ prizing at Cannes due to calendaristic proximity, this years’ edition took place at a healthier distance from the number one film festival. Being both ranked and recognised in the film festival network means, for any such festival, exclusive coverage and attendance by press.  

My attempt to be both sincere and exhaustive (or checkable in mundane terms) in covering this year’s festival edition comes then as an amalgam of my own festival experiences as well as insights distilled from real-time accounts about the festival (namely filmtett.ro and journeyintocinema.com by Redmond Bacon). Being aware of the risk of being drowned by numbers (pun intended), there is little reason to look at figures alone; sure, there has been a steady yearly increase in attendance/films (even film stars) but, at the same time, the endless fixation on discovering, at least in terms of cultural consumption, is what sets the tone. However, it should be obvious that aesthetic discoveries (‘pearls’ or hidden gems) have been carefully placed by festival curators and program selectors, who, in turn, were introduced to such cinematic works by someone else, or were themselves similarly subject to the films’ discovery. It doesn’t matter who got to the source first, it is the channelling and widening of the initial well or spring, and increasing its noise, to which the mediating function of film festivals amounts. Thus, most film festivals could be conceived as a pre-recorded but uniquely ‘local’ mix prepared by festival programmers, to provide atmospheric stages for the viewers’ film experiences.

Transilvania IFF is the film festival which I am most familiar with; having attended most of its editions for almost two decades I found myself still tackling an extraordinary diversity in terms of the festival program. On a closer look, there has been a constant shift in concerns, which was, in my opinion, by and large due to the grab-it-all intention of the festival. On the one hand, the festival cast a wide net over contemporary cinema. As such, I couldn’t initially identify the favouring of certain themes, concerns, or any declared support for particular causes to the detriment of others (more onto that a bit later). Still, certain films might have fared better with an accurate description of their themes (even if scheduled in the presumably transgressive ‘No limit’ section). On the other hand, next to the ordering/clustering of films into the already established blocks or sections (among which I should mention a focus on regional output, as well as global cinema ranging from the extreme to the more extreme, and a recently added focus on food consumption, or cinema revolving around food), films have appeared according to countries of origin (of the filmmakers). Under the umbrella of different nations or countries (for example, Spanish or Hungarian cinema) a rather disparate collection of cinematic works was scheduled. A plausible reason for this, I suspect, was the sheer number of films featured in the festival program (around 200 individual titles and an average 40 projections per day), so a simple compass was needed for the ordinary festival-goer. This leads me to the counter-argument that film festivals are essentially about competition in real-time (even if pre-selection rules should apply in terms of both quantity and quality). Moreover, festivals compete against each other, as well as against the different kinds of media-streaming platforms (not to mention private downloading/file sharing outlets). And, in such a context, any sensitive approach (dare I say a human one as opposed to the ubiquity of movie suggestions and recommendations by media giants and algorithms like IMDb or Netflix) is bound to be overtaken. Therefore, going with the algorithmic flow is both symptomatic of and perhaps signals an adaptive strategy to current media-market conditions.

Sick of Myself

Not everyone follows such automated routes when deciding which movies to watch. In an ocean of lists and likes, one could have a rich festival experience by focusing on a single festival block. By now, Transilvania IFF has a program schedule that overlaps with other well-regarded film festivals, including national premieres of titles that screened at Cannes as well as selections from the more accessible and arguably less blockbuster-oriented Berlinale or San Sebastian, among others. Thus, the titles included in the Supernova section traditionally focusing on established filmmakers’ recent creations (Tár, directed by Todd Field; Afire, directed by Christian Petzold; Passages, by Ira Sachs, Sick of myself, by Kristoffer Borgli, and even Triangle of Sadness, by Ruben Östlund) have attracted global interest irrespective of this festival. Nonetheless, I would argue that, by screening such titles, there’s a relay of sensitivity towards mental health and the social realities of our present (or what goes on in the realms of the private/intimate, and social relations as well as symptomatic personality patterns). Obviously, these films elevated the festival program, appealing to what most people want to see at film festivals: the best of current international cinema. 

Partnerships with well-financed film festivals (Göteborg Film Festival this year) meant an even richer program. The Nordic Focus section has been idiosyncratic to the extent that we could have surely pleased ourselves with an entire film festival dedicated to the cinematic output of Scandinavian countries. As I write, the festival’s Facebook account has created a buzz by polling participants on their best festival moments in exchange for the chance to win a Pilates session. Although festivalgoers’ movie-preferences could lead to qualitative insights, ultimately, it isn’t preferences that count as much as tickets sold.  Media buzz aside, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the reportedly more than 3,000 viewers for the more than usually bland Wes Anderson-output: Asteroid City, which closed the festival. Conversely, the new season of Lars von Trier’s Riget Exodus (The Kingdom: Exodus, 2022) was screened early on in the festival to only a handful of spectators. Having been a rewarding experience, it urged me to further explore the connection between comedy and nostalgia in the festival context. 

At the outset, there is a supposedly in-built wiring that enables us to laugh at what is familiar (as opposed to the unknown which may be terrifying). Comic scenes then, to the extent that they replay a past known to viewers, are bound to trigger nostalgia, too.  Similarly, a filmic context or sequence may be termed nostalgic, where nostalgia or nostalgic feeling is cued by certain audio-visual elements. So, in a way, such emotions do have context-dependent content and, to a certain degree, even a clear object (or what are they nostalgic about). In other words, positive emotional reactions to comic situations appear straightforward, especially where intentioned by directors. As such, the Romanian genre-bending Oameni de treabă (Men of Deeds, Paul Negoescu, 2022) and the Icelandic TV serial Verbúðin (Blackport, 20212022) struck similar chords, despite being worlds apart. Both were made by considering multiple genre conventions, and the various signifiers (social or historical) employed by the makers enabled not only the crossing of genre boundaries but, also, additional layers of meaning. These, in turn, were made relevant by putting collective memory to work. In other words, were it not for the Q&As, certain nuances sought by the filmmakers would have been lost on the audience. First, the Q&A sessions appear to me as prime places to explore capacities of collective memory, if the audience members are suitably attuned (affected largely by the film that the audience have just finished watching). So, with the characters and the social background depicted in the Romanian black comedy-turned-thriller having been rather familiar to the (mostly) domestic audience, as well as due to its realist take, nostalgic undertones were deployed in various ways (for example, even nostalgia for the arguably authentic Romanian New Wave). While the film’s plot, leading towards an at once Shakespearean and at other times pointless tragedy, stripped the narrative of nostalgia, it also provided food for thought as to whether the complexities of teamwork (as voiced by the cast) and the reiteration of failing characters (as voiced by the director himself) really balance each other out. But, circling back to the focus concerning comedy and nostalgia, the argument really clicked when one of the Blackport creators (actor/screenwriter/producer Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) talked about nostalgia more in terms of potential rather than in employing it for its own sake. Needless to say, playing with the emotion of nostalgia so as to counter the bleak atmosphere which has been hitherto characteristic of Icelandic film production also requires well-informed viewers who have cultural insight. 

The Hungarian program day was versatile enough, as it ranged from a recently restored Béla Tarr related piece from the analogue era to sci-fi animation; both screenings somehow had the corollary of reminding me about the kinds of films that cater well to film festival audiences (in general). Notwithstanding the distancing effects inherent in moments recorded too far away in time as well as those related to the experience of virtual worlds in the passive setting of the cinema-seat (as opposed to the active setting of video games), both could have been remarkable efforts. Unfortunately, any celebratory appeal of the Hungarian day vanished this year (at least for me) as other notable Hungarian films – namely Magasságok és mélységek, Heights and Depths, directed by Sándor Csoma, as well as Larry, directed by Szilárd Bernáth, both fictionalized docudramas – had already premiered in local cinemas before the festival (with their casts present also), which made their screenings at Transilvania IFF a predictable play. 

Among the similar events in the Romanian days section, showcasing recent Romanian feature film production, there were a few outstanding films. First and foremost, the combination of environmental consciousness (even if disguised here as plain mountain hiking) and realist cinema was, in my opinion, one of the sincerest success stories: David, by Radu Muntean. The screening of Libertate/Freedom, the new fictional piece by festival director Tudor Giurgiu saw even greater public success; if anything, it showcased the fruits of professional team labour in fictionally re-enacting the chaotic events related to Romania’s 1989 regime change on an action-packed but now already familiar micro-level. Throughout previous festival editions, I’d witnessed several Romanian film premieres with their whole crew present, and it dawned on me that the (any) festival is unique to the extent that it reflects the extended work or daily concerns of its organizers. In the case of Transilvania IFF, the core members of staff have been involved in curating new talent, film production and direction. Beyond industry related events, the active, filmmaking concerns are important in terms of what goes on throughout the festival period. Audience reactions are telling in the sense that one could feel the professional air brought by film professionals to any given event. Nevertheless, I traded the only screening of the new film by Romanian new wave icon Cristi Puiu – MMXX – for the film awarded Best Directing, Mangal (Charcoal, Carolina Markowicz). Honestly, my need for plot twists have been completely satisfied with the socially merciless piece, which, in retrospect, created discomfort about the great lengths we usually go to in order to feel like we’re piloting the proverbial plane. 

Like a Fish on the Moon

Several films slipped through my fingers owing to the overloaded program. I watched Dornaz Hajiha’s Like A Fish on the Moon, the trophy winner, on the last day. Set in present-day Iran, the film follows a middle-class heterosexual couple who struggle when their child stops speaking. The film stirred up emotions through its remarkable female voice and unique angle. Both the tone of the film and its subsequent awarding resonated with current public concern over the status of women in Iran (the festival also awarded the lead actress, Sepidar Tari). On a personal level, however, I have found that the same compression and intense representation of inner life – achieved here through countless close-ups and a very narrow camera focus – was present in two other favourites of mine from the festival, both also from female directors: namely Remember to Blink, by Lithuanian filmmaker Austėja Urbaitė and Sister, What Grows Where Land Is Sick?, by Norwegian filmmaker Franciska Eliassen. The former is, at surface level, an adoption drama, while the latter is a meditation/monologue about teenage personality development and (mis)adaptation; both offer moments that cinephiles surely recognize: at once, the suspension of and connection to everything that’s outside of the image. We, as viewers, are torn between generalized/objectified emotions (that we are expected to feel vis-à-vis specific cinematic encounters) and the intimacies of our own experiences. In other words, there is a mediation of experiences, but where the intimacy of the aesthetic experience ought to serve as a counterbalance to the market mechanisms of cultural production and consumption. 

Transilvania International Film Festival
14 – 23 June 2023

About The Author

Peter Virginas holds a Phd in Philosophy from Babes-Bolyai University, Romania and an MA from Central European University, Hungary. His research interests lie in film festivals and contemporary cultures of consumption. He works as a researcher at the Romanian Institute for Research on National Minorities.

Related Posts