CLUJ, Romania — The off-beat, the avant garde and the boundary-defying take center stage at the Transilvania Intl. Film Festival, which kicked off Friday night with a soggy start to the 17th edition.
Unspooling over 10 days in the lively medieval city of Cluj, a festival known for bold and provocative programming will feature 12 films in competition for the Transilvania Trophy, starting with fest opener “Foxtrot,” Israeli director Samuel Maoz’s Oscar-shortlisted portrait of a grieving family who lose their soldier son in the line of duty.
Though evening showers threatened to turn the night into a washout, the skies cleared over the historic Piata Unirii (Union Square), where Maoz’s controversial film, which won the Silver Lion in Venice last year, played to a damp but upbeat crowd.
With lightning flashing over what the Israeli helmer described as “the biggest screen and the biggest screening my film has ever had,” Maoz said the Transilvania fest — where he’s served as a jury member — had a special meaning for him. “It warms my heart to see you here,” he told a sold-out crowd of nearly 3,000.
Glancing at the sky, he added, “I hope we won’t get wet!”
The weather held, while the controversial film “gave some gravitas to the opening,” according to TIFF artistic director Mihai Chirilov, who called it “our subtle way of saying that we are not living in a bubble with the festival.”
“It deals with a hot political topic of the day, but not in an obvious way, but in a very artistic manner,” he said. “These [types of] films are very rare.”
The thematic section of this year’s festival is titled “To Be or Not to Be Politically Correct?,” featuring 10 recent films competing for the Fipresci Prize that have each, in their own way, pushed the envelope of artistic expression. Titles include Isabella Eklof’s shocking portrayal of brutality and sexual humiliation, “Holiday,” which premiered in Sundance this year, and the world premiere of the irreverent sex comedy “Tripping Thru Keta,” by the Mexican duo Julio Bekhór and Fernando Sma.
Chirilov considers the theme especially timely “because of this brave new world we are living in,” with artistic freedom under threat across the globe. “I can see the dangers ahead,” he said. “No matter how brave the ideas, I can see [films] being reshaped so they can follow these new…written or unwritten rules.”
Calling this year’s selection of non-PC films an “alarm,” he added, “I’m happy that difficult films and disturbing films…are still being made. The discussions around all these topics should still exist.”
Controversial and challenging movies are part of the festival’s DNA. TIFF was founded at a time when Romania was still struggling through the doldrums of the post-Soviet era, as cinemas across the country were shutting down and risqué programming was “the only thing that could somehow shake the viewers who had become numb,” said Chirilov.
“TIFF started as a festival with very provocative content. We always had very edgy openings,” he said. Pointing to examples like Park Chan-wook’s “Old Boy,” Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games,” and Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine,” he said. “We didn’t have comedies or feel-good films just to play it safe and attract a crowd.”
That strategy helped TIFF build a core audience of cineastes and industry professionals. More recently, “we started to work on audience development, and we tried to attract more types of [viewers],” said Chirilov, calling recent openers, like Fatih Akin’s “Soul Kitchen” and “6.9 on the Richter Scale,” a musical comedy from Romania’s Nae Caranfil, “easy auteur films that had a mass appeal.”
The selection of the controversial “Foxtrot” to open TIFF’s 17th edition is a return to the festival’s roots—a break from the “more harmless” openings of the recent past, said Chirilov. “You have to stay true to your festival identity,” he added.
Running parallel to the main competition is an eclectic selection of side bars such as Back in the USSR, which will present digitally restored versions of iconic, nostalgic and subversive films that rocked the Communist bloc before the fall of the Soviet Union, and an irreverent program of low-budget schlock curated by Prague’s Shockproof Film Festival. “It’s a bit frivolous, it’s a bit serious, it’s a bit provocative,” said Chirilov. “It’s a bit of everything.”
Continuing its commitment to filmmaking from around the region, TIFF will again roll out the red carpet for its annual Hungarian Day celebration, which features a selection of new Hungarian films alongside tributes to iconic helmers István Szabó and Márta Mészáros. Focus Bulgaria offers a snapshot of daring contemporary cinema from Romania’s southern neighbor, including 2017 Un Certain Regard selection “Directions,” by Stephan Komandarev.
On May 30, the curtain rises on Romanian Days, the highly anticipated spotlight of new films from the country’s established and emerging filmmakers. Included among the 13 features and 22 shorts are two auspicious debuts, Adina Pintilie’s Berlin Golden Bear-winning “Touch Me Not,” and Andrei Cretulescu’s black comedy “Charleston,” that point to a promising future for a new generation of Romanian filmmakers.
“They are not so keen to follow the very strict aesthetics of the Romanian New Wave,” said festival director and veteran helmer Tudor Giurgiu (“Love Sick”), citing the emergence of directors “who want to try different narrative formulas.”
“I think they want to play a bit, they want to try different genres,” he said. “They want to get out of the box and go through the very risky areas which are more related to experimental film, to expos[ing] yourself as a filmmaker.”
While the past decade has groomed a generation of festival darlings, such as Palme d’Or-winner Cristian Mungiu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”) and the critically acclaimed Cristi Puiu (“Sieranevada”), the “new new wave” is breaking out into horror, romcom, and commercial crowd-pleasers. “From now on, there will be many surprises,” said Giurgiu.
The Transilvania Intl. Film Festival runs May 25-June 3.