A few months back, I received an invitation to participate as a member of the jury for the main competition of the Transilvania International Film Festival (TIFF) which takes place in Cluj-Napoca, Romania’s second largest city after Bucharest, in early June. Honoured to be asked, and keen to visit a country which has been giving us so many fine films and filmmakers over the last decade or so, I accepted immediately – and once in Cluj, was very glad I had. The city is a lively place, with plenty of restaurants, bars and cinemas; my fellow jurors – producers Elizabeth Karlsen and András Muhi, actress Clotilde Courau and director Marian Crisan – were excellent company; and the festival provided generous hospitality and some excellent movies for us to watch. (For the record, the main prizes went to Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’s My Happy Family [Georgia], Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson’s Heartstone [Iceland], and Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country [UK].) In short, I enjoyed myself immensely.
One of the highlights was related only tangentially to TIFF: an exhibition of photographs in a recently opened gallery in Cluj, which was not part of the festival as such, even though the pictures were by one of Romania’s leading filmmakers, Cristi Puiu. Those who have followed the fortunes of ‘the Romanian new wave’, as it has sometimes been called, will probably know that things began to take off when Puiu – who’d already created a minor stir with his feature debut Stuff and Dough and his Berlin prize-winning short Cigarettes and Coffee – had a hit at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival with his ground-breaking second feature, The Death of Mr Lazarescu. Thereafter, other Romanian filmmakers started winning festival prizes on a remarkably regular basis, while Puiu quietly established himself as one of the most ambitious and interesting writer-directors at work today. Indeed, his most recent feature, Sieranevada – which screened in the main Cannes competition last year – topped my own personal list of films seen during 2016; you can read the Sight & Sound review I wrote after its Cannes premiere here.
Anyway, Puiu was in Cluj not only to promote the BluRay release of Sieranevada but to open the photographic exhibition of the same name. I wasn’t able to get to the opening, and due to a mess-up with the map on my phone, one of my fellow jurors and I almost managed to miss the exhibition altogether by going to the wrong gallery on the wrong side of town. We persevered, however, and thanks to a very helpful taxi driver managed to make it to the right gallery in time to catch what turned out to be a small but excellent show of what was probably around 30 pictures. Puiu, who trained as a painter before turning to filmmaking, and who has recently taken up his brushes again, clearly has a great eye.
Before we go any further: the film’s (deliberately misspelt) title has nothing to do with its content, which is about an extended family gathering that takes place in a cramped, crowded apartment. (In the press book for the movie, Puiu explained, ‘It’s a title that popped into my mind. How did it come about? That’s a mystery… It sounds nice. It also evokes snowcapped mountain chains that resemble the communist apartment buildings…’) Unlike the movie, however, the exhibition really does feature plenty of snow. Puiu went out into various Bucharest locations with his camera, hoping to capture an image that could serve as a poster for the film; during his excursions, which took place during an extremely cold period (according to Marian Crisan, the city was decked out in an exceptional amount of snow, ice and fog), he ended up taking photos of anything that struck him as visually interesting, regardless of whether it would be suitable for the poster. Consequently, he found himself with more than enough material for an exhibition.
The snow, ice and fog certainly don’t make Bucharest look picturesque; quite the contrary. That was evidently not Puiu’s intention; indeed, he will sometimes show how dirty snow can be when it has been churned up. What’s so impressive about the photos – which are all 102 x 70cm and quite amazingly sharp – is the way Puiu combines different intersecting lines, balances foreground and background, and subtly draws attention to small, sometimes surprising details in the architecture, signage or landscape. After a while one notices that people – so consistently the main focus of attention in his films – are barely evident, and when they are, they are usually in the distance (not so very unlike the characters seen but heard only with very great difficulty in the lengthy opening shot of Sieranevada the movie). The Bucharest on display feels almost like a ghost city, mysterious, remote, secretive, its inhabitants hidden away behind walls and windows or beneath layers of snow; stark traces of the city’s history appear to be unceremoniously strewn about like litter or wreckage.
These are simply my impressions, of course; whether any such thing was Puiu’s intention I cannot say. (I haven’t had a chance to discuss the photos with him.) As with his films, seeing his photos one feels at once that there is a very distinctive sensibility at work, a very particular point of view, that is at once rigorously unsentimental and keenly alert to the strange poetry of everyday reality. As far as I am aware this was the first exhibition of his photographic work; I certainly hope it won’t be the last.
Top picture by Geoff Andrew. Cristi Puiu’s photographs courtesy of Cristi Puiu and : BARIL gallery (www.baril.ro). These and others in the exhibition can be found in a booklet accompanying the Romanian BluRay release of the film Sieranevada.