CLUJ, Romania–“The road is the burden they have to carry,” director Claudiu Mitcu notes of the countless Romanian emigrants who have left the country in search of better fortunes, unsure if they’ll ever return. A recent U.N. migration report ranks Romania second after only Syria on the list of countries with the greatest number of emigrants between 2007 and 2015. For a nation that’s not at war, but whose bleak economic prospects force many into exile, the numbers are startling.
In “Emigrant Blues: A Road Movie in 2 ½ Chapters,” Mitcu and co-director Mihai Mincan follow the journey many take to Spain, where Romanians make up the largest migrant group from within the E.U., with more than a million inhabitants. The directors use original footage and an evocative pastiche of cell phone videos to document their lives—a journey abroad and, ultimately, back again. The film was produced by deFilm and wearebasca, with the support of the Romanian Film Center, the Creative Europe-Media program, and Romanian public broadcaster TVR. It world premieres this week at the Transilvania Intl. Film Festival.
Mitcu spoke to Variety about the long journey from Bucharest to Madrid, the emigrant’s life of compromise, and the promises we make – and break – while searching for a home.
What inspired you to make this film? Is this a story that you have a personal connection to?
In my grandmother’s village, every family has at least one member working abroad. It’s one of the problems we deal with in Romania, especially in the countryside. When co-director Mihai Mincan and I started documenting this situation, the numbers we found confirmed the phenomena to be one worth looking at closely and portraying.
During the opening segment of the film, which takes place on the bus from Bucharest to Madrid, we observe the passengers but never interact with them. What made you decide to film the passengers without engaging them more directly? Another director might have decided to ask them about their lives and journeys, but this was clearly a deliberate choice not to.
The road to Madrid takes 55 hours. The passengers are mostly quiet, alone with their thoughts. The silence gets heavy sometimes. We wanted the audience to feel the atmosphere and to make their own stories, to imagine each passenger’s profile. It might seem as a cliché, but in this case I think it’s fair to say that sometimes pictures can speak more than words.
The first chapter, which follows various Romanian immigrants in Madrid, is something like a collage of found footage: Old home videos, cell phone recordings, etc. Why did you decide to tell this chapter in this way? And how did you assemble the footage?
There’s no better way to get to really know a person than looking through their phones, through their memories, seeing some of their most important moments. No acting, just reality. Regarding the process, I can tell you the hardest part was to gain their confidence, as to give us access to their archive images and phones. We chose different typologies and ages, in order to see the reality as it is; it is important for us to show how each of them adapted to their current lives. They are different, they live differently, for each of them Romania has a different meaning.
The Madrid chapter is approximately one-quarter of the film’s running time; for most of the film, the Romanian passengers are moving from one place to another. Do you think this is a fair way to look at the lives of these emigrants—people whose lives are never truly settled in one place?
There are the Romanians that are never really “home,” indeed. One of the reasons is that most of the immigrants leave home for a year or two, to make some money, but end up not going back and repeating to themselves that it’s only temporary. I think that by not accepting a situation as it is in a certain moment, they are not able to feel really at home anywhere. Spain is temporary, Romania is far away.
There’s also a new generation of children born in their parent’s adoptive country, and for them there’s only one home. Romania is the country they know their family was born in, and maybe they go once a year to visit their grandparents, but it’s not home. The children of the first Romanian immigrants in Spain are adults now, they built a life there, they even gave birth there to a new dialect they call “Romaniol,” a combination of Romanian and Spanish.
The final “homecoming” in the film’s closing scene doesn’t end in Romania, but on an anonymous stretch of highway. Do you think home for many of the Romanian living in Spain – or elsewhere in the world – is also a place that’s always just out of reach?
Ideally we should call “home” the place where we feel the best. For people moving away from their families, most of them for material purposes, life is about compromise. They miss their country but become addicted to their adoptive one. Both are home in a certain way, but none of them 100%. Traveling between the two becomes part of the routine, the road is the burden they have to carry.