Romanian-born filmmaker Bogdan George Apetri has made a life for himself in New York City, since moving there 19 years ago to study film at Columbia University, where he now teaches. But for the director whose second feature film, “Unidentified,” played in the Meet the Neighbors competition at the Thessaloniki Film Festival, Greece’s second city has a special meaning.
It was in Thessaloniki that Apetri’s debut, “Outbound,” took home the Golden Alexander for best feature film 10 years ago, shortly after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. “I love Thessaloniki because it’s close to my heart,” he told Variety. “Of course, now I can see [Greece] is much closer to the Balkan experience, so for a Romanian film—people in Greece will respond in a different way than in America.”
“Unidentified” is the story of a hot-headed cop (Bogdan Farcaș) who grows fixated on cracking open a mysterious case of arson that left two women dead. Determined to pin the blame on a young Romani man (Dragoș Dumitru), he begins to lose control, driven less by the evidence than by racism and his cold-blooded pursuit of revenge. The film is produced by Apetri and Florin Șerban, of the Bucharest-based Fantascope Films, and co-produced by Viktor Schwarcz of Czech Republic’s Cineart TV Prague and Aija Bērziņa of Latvia’s Tasse Film.
Apetri spoke to Variety during the Thessaloniki Film Festival, which ran online Nov. 5-15, about shooting his latest film as part of a planned trilogy, working with the iconic Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu, and returning to the country of his birth to make movies.
Can you tell me what inspired “Unidentified”?
I wanted to make a trilogy set in my small town in Romania. I’m from a small town up north, it’s close to the Ukrainian border. It’s close to Bukovina. It’s called Piatra Neamt, which is the city that you see in the movie. It’s underrepresented. People don’t make movies there. There are fantastic actors there, there’s a fantastic theater there…[but] those actors, being far away from Bucharest, are underutilized. I said I want to make a movie set there. Let’s have a trilogy of three stories which are self-contained stories, but it’s the same world, the same characters.
How long will it take for the whole trilogy to unfold?
I’m already editing the second movie, which is called “Miracle.” When you watch all three movies, it’s like a world where small characters become principal characters in another movie, and vice versa. And we were crazy enough to shoot the first two movies at the same time. One day we shot “Unidentified,” and the next three days we shot “Miracle.” Because of the locations, the schedules of the actors. And there were a few crazy days where we shot one movie, took a lunch break, and then shot the other movie.
“Unidentified” is lensed by Oleg Mutu, one of the great Romanian cinematographers working today. How did he get involved in the film? It’s beautifully shot.
Don’t use the word beautiful when you meet Oleg, because he always has something against it. [Laughs.] He will say it’s not about being beautiful, it’s about being right. It’s a small world in Romania; we met 10 years ago, and I always wanted to work with him and try a new experience. Oleg is a true artist. When we talked about the script, even when we went to do lens tests—for the most technical, boring thing, you do lens tests and suddenly he stood up and was smoking and was looking at the screen. A true artist that cares about every millimeter [of film]. It was a pleasure. He never is in his own world; he’s in the world of the movie, and the movie becomes everything when he’s shooting. It was a blessing to work with him on both movies. And I’m going to work with him on the third movie as well.
Was it an easy collaboration, or did you two butt heads?
The best part about working with Oleg, even when we had contradictory ideas, it’s never a fight. We meet in the middle. I have an idea, he has an idea, we always meet in the middle. We always started with the same discussion: what is the scene about? That determined our discussions, that determined…where to place the camera, how to place the camera. He was a huge asset because he cares about the film.
Chopin is a recurring theme throughout “Unidentified,” both in the composition of the film, and as something of a plot device. Does he have a special significance for you?
With Chopin, I think if you find different “Preludes,” for example, they still have this unity about them. So I think that’s why I used Chopin. No matter what you choose, you still have a stylistic unity. It was such hard work, because Chopin has hundreds of pieces. While editing, I had like 300 pieces, and I was listening to them and listening to them and listening to them. I knew I wanted to be consistent with the Chopin, because it’s a whole sub-plot. You realize [the movie] is not about the case; it’s about his personal condition. There’s a huge element missing in the movie, and you gradually discover [it] as you go toward the end of the movie. I wanted Chopin to somehow stand in for that, to fill that gap. In the beginning, you think it’s just a cop that likes classical music, but then you realize the music itself is an integral part of the script. But the difficult part was how to pick the right music, how to pick it for the right moments. I listened not only to all those pieces, but to different interpretations. It was weeks and weeks.
For someone who’s been gone for two decades, what sort of attachment do you have to Romania? Because you’re telling this story that’s set in a very specific world, do you still feel a connection to the place?
One hundred percent. When I’m here in America, Romania means everything to me. I always check websites. I always talk, every hour, with my family. I’m in touch with what is happening there. It’s always there. When I’m in Romania—I know it’s a paradox, even if I’m here for 19 years, America melts [away]. If somebody told me, “You lost your job,” I would be surprised, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. If someone had said, “You lost your apartment, you’ll never be able to return to New York,” I would not be shocked. I would be very happy in Romania. Why am I still here? That’s a question to be answered. Still, one hundred percent, I have a connection there, I don’t intend to be here forever. I intend to go back to Romania at some point. I hope I don’t die in New York. I hope I die in my small town in Romania. I do have a love for it.