Transilvania Festival Returns to Its ‘True Spirit’ With Provocative Selection: ‘We Decided to Go Back to Our Usual Self’

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After pulling off the near miraculous feat of mounting two in-person editions in the middle of a global pandemic, the organizing team of the Transilvania Film Festival had hoped for a return to normalcy this year – hopes that were quickly dashed when Russian troops invaded neighboring Ukraine on Feb. 24.

The tone and tenor of this year’s event swiftly shifted gears, says TIFF founder Tudor Giurgiu, as festival leadership looked to strike a precarious balance. “The lives of many people have been turned upside-down. We need to be empathetic and pay attention to what’s happening over there and try to mirror through the festival program this tragedy which is happening in Ukraine,” Giurgiu tells Variety.

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As TIFF kicks off its 21st edition, which runs June 17 – 26, the war in Ukraine will be reaching the conclusion of its fourth month, a period that has already dramatically upended life in its Eastern European neighbor. Both in the Romanian capital of Bucharest, and in the historic medieval city of Cluj that hosts the festival, local NGOs have spent the past four months marshalling resources to help an influx of Ukrainian refugees.

The war has also had a tangible impact on preparations for this year’s festival, as both the immediate economic fallout in Europe – along with lingering fears of a protracted recession – have hit many of the funding bodies that help to finance the long-running Transilvania event. “It has been difficult to cope with all the side-effects of the Ukraine crisis,” Giurgiu admits.

The festival has nevertheless redoubled its efforts to support Ukrainians who have been displaced by the war, offering free access for Ukrainian citizens to many films, including “Pamfir,” by Ukrainian director Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk, which comes off its world premiere in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight section and is taking part in TIFF’s main competition.

A special charity event will be organized around a screening of Oleh Sentsov’s “Rhino,” with all funds donated to the Emergency Fund for Filmmakers, which supports Ukrainian filmmakers displaced by the war. Other cultural events throughout the week will highlight Ukrainian music and food, as Transilvania looks to both support and celebrate its eastern neighbor.

Nearly 200 feature-length and short films will screen at this year’s Transilvania Film Festival – an increase from the two previous, slimmed-down pandemic editions, but a slight decline from 2019, which TIFF artistic director Mihai Chirilov largely attributes to rising licensing fees. The festival has nevertheless returned to its full range of indoor and outdoor venues with the relaxation of health and hygiene protocols in Romania. And after a deliberate effort to program feel-good films in 2021 – a recognition by the programming team that its pandemic-weary audience was looking for a pick-me-up – Chirilov says Transilvania has also reclaimed its old pugnacious spirit. “We decided to go back to our usual self – back to films that are problematic,” he says.

The festival kicks off June 17 with Phyllis Nagy’s abortion rights drama “Call Jane,” starring Sigourney Weaver and Elizabeth Banks, which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and played in competition in Berlin. Among the films vying for the Transilvania Trophy, which is awarded to one of the 12 first- or second-time directors in TIFF’s main competition, are Vincent Maël Cardona’s 2021 Cannes Directors’ Fortnight prize winner “Magnetic Beats”; Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s “Beautiful Beings,” which debuted in the Berlinale’s Panorama strand; and a trio of Sundance premieres from this year’s festival in Park City: Monia Chokri’s “Babysitter,” Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s “Utama” and László Csuja and Anna Nemes’ “Gentle.”

One notable programming shift this year is in the long-running documentary strand What’s Up, Doc?, which for the first time will be a competitive section. It’s a recognition not only of the genre’s growing relevance in the contemporary cinematic landscape, but of the ways in which the form’s permutations and mutations increasingly reflect the way we see and consume the world around us.

“This new type of documentary flirts more and more with fiction, knowingly breaks the rules and even indulges in the luxury of blasphemy and conspiracy,” says Chirilov. “At the risk of upsetting purists, almost anything goes in What’s Up, Doc?, including those films that blur the line between fiction and documentary to the point where the labels become inoperable and you no longer know exactly what you’re looking at, what’s real and what’s not, and why.”

Throughout the week, open discussions will be programmed alongside films that touch on hot-button issues, such as abortion rights in Nagy’s “Call Jane,” police brutality and corruption in Jan P. Matuszyński’s “Leave No Traces,” and the crackdown on dissent in Putin’s Russia in Daniel Roher’s “Navalny.” Chirilov insists this is less an effort to “check boxes” by addressing the issues of the day, but part of the festival’s long-standing desire to “encourage a discussion, a debate, a dialogue.

“We live in a world where people got used to thinking in black and white, and nobody’s listening to anybody’s point of view,” he continues. “TIFF from the beginning was a platform of dialogue – encouraging every voice to be heard, encouraging the conflict of opinions. That’s the true spirit of the festival.”

That spirit extends to the programming team’s decision to resist ongoing calls for a boycott of Russian films. Among the competition entries is Lado Kvataniya’s psychological thriller “The Execution,” one of several Russian titles that will screen in Transilvania. “We don’t believe in cancelling people. We don’t believe in shutting down voices,” says Chirilov. “We think that dialogue can solve more than cancelling.”

Giurgiu says festival leadership did not take its decision lightly, as TIFF ultimately followed the lead of the Cannes Film Festival and others – including Venice and Karlovy Vary – which have banned official Russian delegations while allowing individual filmmakers to participate.

“We do believe that it would be nonsense to boycott, for example, young, independent Russian filmmakers, or other films which we wanted to profile,” says Giurgiu, citing the example of “Captain Volkonogov Escaped,” by directors Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov, which premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival last year. “We are not advocates for…[having] a radical attitude toward cancelling all films, all filmmakers. I think we have to be more rational.”

The decision is in keeping with the DNA of a festival whose provocative and iconoclastic programming has long championed artistic expression, born as it was out of Romania’s tumultuous post-Communist era, when civil liberties and artistic freedom were far from guaranteed.

More than two decades on, the festival has other threats – both practical and existential – to contend with. Global streaming services have upended the exhibition industry and undermined the very movie-going experience that film festivals like Transilvania so passionately promote. The war in Ukraine continues to cast a long shadow across Europe and the rest of the world. And however much it has faded from recent headlines, the coronavirus pandemic has entered its third year, with new variants continuing to stymie efforts at a return to pre-pandemic life – a status quo that might never return again.

Yet such challenges have only underscored the importance of in-person events which on some level have always been an act of faith in our desire – even need – to come together. “Festivals are a celebration of cinema, an amazing occasion where the auteurs and actors can meet with their audiences,” says Giurgiu. “I think the role of festivals [in the future] will be essential for showcasing certain types of films which on a big streaming platform would be lost.

“I’m more and more convinced that a festival like Transilvania will grow not in terms of size but will grow significantly in its importance – for filmmakers, but also for the audience. It will be a unique moment in the year when you can find those gems, when you can meet your heroes.”

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