A couple of years ago, while serving on the jury of the Transylvanian International Film Festival in Cluj, I had the good fortune to visit the first ever exhibition of photographs by Cristi Puiu, one of Romania’s finest filmmakers and, indeed, one of the most interesting writer-directors in the world today. (His best known work remains the groundbreaking The Death of Mr Lazarescu, made in 2005.) That exhibition, entitled Sieranevada after his most recent and very wonderful feature, consisted of snowy cityscapes taken in and around Bucharest, of which I wrote the following:
‘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.’ (You can read more about that exhibition here.)
Now, at the same Cluj gallery – BARIL – one can find a second exhibition of Puiu’s photographs, entitled ‘FOZAKAKOZFEA’. The photos – 90 x 120cm– were apparently taken in March of this year in Dobrogea in eastern Romania, so in some respects they are quite different from the winter cityscapes; yet I feel that the paragraph above again reflects my feelings about the way they depict the countryside. (Sadly, I haven’t seen the photographs in situ as I am in London, not Cluj, but I believe they’re worth bringing to your attention, even though I’ve only seen them on my computer screen. Who knows? You may even be able to visit Cluj before the exhibition ends on 16th November – or you can make do like myself by checking the gallery’s website.)
All the photographs bar one – a portrait of Puiu’s brother and sister – are of these rather bleak, haunted landscapes. What did he have in mind when he took them, and why did he give it the title he did? Here, in a text Puiu wrote for the exhibition, is a little background information:
‘At the beginning of February, I was coming back from Ljubljana, disheartened and despairing, after trying in vain to salvage the sound on my new film. For reasons wholly mysterious, the same reasons that prevented the filming from going well, I hadn’t been able to splice together the sound and pictures of the film. And the whole way back, all I did was calculate, assess and put together the presumable causes of that failure, all Anca and I did was seek solutions to be able to repair what could still be repaired.
Since I’d gone to Ljubljana by car, it was a long journey and it gave me time to examine every facet of what had happened with the unfinished soundtrack. All the while, hills, and vales, and plains passed before the windscreen. Gradually, the world from which winter was about to depart became consonant with my own despair.
The fissured road, flanked by concrete pylons and shrivelled trees, the farmsteads surrounded by ramshackle fences, the crooked houses leaning against each other, garbage strewn over hill and dale, concrete hulks dotted around . . . From the edge of the road to the horizon, to the vanishing point, the land seemed to murmur the same story which, in Ljubljana, I myself had murmured, while, together with Zoran, Ognien and Christophe, I wrestled with the sound on the film, lest it get away from us.
And then, all of a sudden, I felt calm.
Because for a long time, secretly, I’d been wanting to collect, in an interminable series of correctly exposed images, the pieces of this puzzle, the pulsation of an epoch still fading, and because Sorin had made available to me his gallery space for the month of October, I decided that after I got home, I would make a journey and photograph the vestiges of this epoch once spring returned, once the grass humbly began to crack the asphalt.
That’s how I ended up spending March in the back of beyond, to the east, along the Danube, toward the Black Sea, waving to Virgil Mazilescu and Nichita Stănescu, to George Topîrceanu and Ion Pillat, attempting to shut myself inside the edges of the frame, a declaration of love befitting the thrill that distance aroused in me. And only later did I understand that the pieces of this jigsaw composed neither The Return of Immanuel, nor Porcelain Deer, nor Bird of Ill Omen, nor Hello! We’re Dying! but FOZAKAKOZFEA, the word that Zoe wrote when she was four, on a sheet of A4, on which first she’d drawn Ana and Elsa from Frozen.’
That, I hope, clarifies the genesis of the pictures and the exhibition; the former, meanwhile, speak for themselves. Now I’m just looking forward to seeing (and hearing) that new film…
Cristi Puiu’s exhibition of photographs FOZAKAKOZFEA continues at BARIL in Cluj until 16th November. Photos courtesy of Cristi Puiu and BARIL. With thanks to Sorim Neamtu for bringing the existence of these photos to my attention.