Throughout the anxious weeks leading up to the opening night of the 19th Transilvania International Film Festival, as the coronavirus pandemic continued to spread across Romania, government officials began to impose a series of increasingly rigorous safety protocols that cast the festival’s viability in doubt. But the organizers insisted that the show would go one.
“When we realized that the [case] numbers were increasing…we immediately created a crisis committee” to determine how to create a safe movie-going environment, says TIFF founder Tudor Giurgiu. In the picturesque medieval city of Cluj, which plays host to the festival, a series of outdoor venues were marshaled into service—from open-air cinemas to public squares to a leafy courtyard at the local agricultural university. After ensuring the necessary health and hygiene measures were in place, the green light from the government finally came with just days to spare.
“I think we’ve been quite fast in reshaping the whole event,” says Giurgiu on the eve of opening night. From July 31-Aug. 9, a hybrid edition of the Transilvania Film Festival will unspool through a combination of online industry events and open-air screenings, marking one of the first large-scale film events in Europe to take place since the start of the pandemic.
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In keeping with past editions, the festival will present a wide-ranging, provocative, and iconoclastic slate of more than 125 films, with an official competition dedicated to first and second features. At a time when movie-goers across the globe have spent restless weeks and months in quarantine with their loved ones, this year’s competition perhaps fittingly offers 12 “surprising, daring, and cutting-edge stories…all revolving around family dynamics and the inherent crises that come along with it,” says TIFF artistic director Mihai Chirilov.
Among the films competing for the Transilvania Trophy are “Babyteeth,” the buzzy feature debut of Australia’s Shannon Murphy, which premiered in Venice last year, and French director Zoé Wittock’s Sundance premiere, “Jumbo.” The popular Romanian Days sidebar, meanwhile, will unspool with 21 features and 16 shorts from local directors, including Cristi Puiu’s Berlinale award winner “Malmkrog” and Radu Jude’s Berlin player “Uppercase Print.”
Pitching sessions for the influential Transilvania Pitch Stop co-production platform will be held on Aug. 7, combining both physical presentations and live streaming to industry professionals around the world, while industry events such as the Transilvania Talent Lab training program will take place online for accredited guests. The virtual component will extend to screenings: at least 20 films from this year’s festival will be available for two weeks through the TIFF Unlimited VOD platform, a curated selection of festival highlights which launched last year and is available across Romania.
Over the course of the past two decades, TIFF has proven its ability to adapt in uncertain times; the festival was founded during Romania’s rough transition to democracy, as the country’s post-communist identity was still waiting to be forged. In the run-up to the opening night, which will unspool with a scaled-down ceremony in the historic Piata Unirii (Unity Square) on July 31 with a screening of Nicolas Bedos’s comedy “La Belle Époque,” Giurgiu says many members of the local community asked if it was the right time for a celebration of cinema. Yet the TIFF topper insists that this year’s edition is more vital than ever.
“It’s important to show a small sign of a return to normality, even though it’s not a normal situation,” says Giurgiu. “We have to…show our audience that we can continue the festival under a totally different paradigm.” The annual pre-festival buzz has returned to Cluj, he adds, with many screenings sold out just hours after the online box office went live. “I got this feeling of people wanting to go back to their habits and to their previous lives.”