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Alexandru Solomon: Documentary, his improved formula
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Our regular contributor Yoana Pavlova attented the 17th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival to participate as a FIPRESCI Jury member and met Romanian filmmaker Alexandru Solomon, one of the honored personalities at this year΄s TDF. 

For the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I decided to watch Andrei Nekrasov΄s documentary series Farewell, Comrades! Long-forgotten faces and voices materealized all of a sudden to reconstruct what was the news environment from my Bulgarian childhood. One of my 1989 memories, though, the most vivid one, was missing from the movie. As the Romanian Revolution evolved in the second part of December that same year, anti-Ceaușescu demonstrators took over a TV studio. I remember my parents watching in dismay the footage of that unthinkable coup, a real fourth wall breach, given that media in socialist society was considered sacred.

Discovering the filmography of the acclaimed Romanian documentarist Alexandru Solomon at the 17th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) was like seeing my childhood memory come to life, on the big screen. His body of work explores storytelling and social engineering as aspects of any repressive regime but also within the field of cinema, which made the selection very topical. And by the way, Farewell, Comrades! is produced by Alexandru Solomon΄s wife, Ada Solomon, and her highly acclaimed company HiFilm.

Alexandru Solomon and TDF programmer Dimitris Kerkinos (photo by Motionteam)

How do you feel about this celebration of your work as a documentary filmmaker in Thessaloniki, at this point of your career? To what degree do you think that the selected titles in TDF΄s tribute represent your methods and aspirations?

I feel very honored that the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival has scheduled this tribute. It comes at a stage in my work when I also feel I have closed some chapters and that I should renew my approach. The choice of films is representative, since it covers the different directions I explored in documentary filmmaking and includes the films I am (still) most keen of.

What was the feedback from the local audience, especially given that Greece is one of the few Balkan countries that did not embrace socialism and left-wing ideas have kept their appeal, up until the present day?

I have been present to three of my screenings, and I must say that the debates were always interesting; you can see that the audience of the festival is an educated and dedicated one. It’s always interesting to see what a different audience takes from your film, how they translate it into their own “language”. Of course, Greece has not experienced a communist dictatorship, but the country has experienced dictatorship, propaganda, the breach of human rights, corruption – all themes that are tackled in my films. So discussions with the Greek audience centered on these issues. I guess the most passionate Q&A was the one following the screening of Kapitalism - Our Improved Formula, since the audience translated the awkward, corrupt formula of post-communist Romania into its own terms and made parallels to the crisis in Greece and to the crisis of global capitalism. 

Kapitalism - Our Improved Formula (2010)

I have to admit that among the films in the programme, Clara B. struck me most with its approach to Europe and European history à la Marguerite Yourcenar, while the story itself reminded me of the recent discovery of Vivian Maier. What did this experiment teach you about the (re)construction in documentary cinema?

Clara B. was a special case for me, since it was an idea that originated from a producer (Jean-Jacques Schaettel and Cédric Bonin from Seppia, a Strasbourg-based company) who proposed it to me. It was a foreign story for me, based in another country and in a historical context that I didn’t know much of. This made the research very passionate – since I had to immerse into this foreign world - and it also offered the privilege of playing with this formula of docu-fiction beyond what I have experienced before.

I always liked to play on this border, but this time the film was very much written in advance and mixed real stories in a fictional soup. It had – at its centre – a fictional character built from many real biographies. I think that, finally, I have appropriated the story and included some of the themes that I have been preoccupied by before (like the scene between the two protagonists that is recorded by Stasi, the East-German secret police, so that we get to know some partial truth through the files of a repressive instrument). I took the story to the East, to those parts of Europe I knew better. Clara B. was also a wonderful experience in working with archives and re-writing a fictional story with factual pictures. In the end, even if the film incorporated a lot of signals that it was fictionalized, I was amazed how audiences took the story for real.

Apart from Apocalypse on Wheels, you seem to shoot quite often your subjects while they are driving, in Cold Waves there is even this sequence with the phone conversation with Carlos the Jackal, in which you film from a moving vehicle. Could you please tell me a little bit more about this strategy? Do you see it as part of the mise-en-scene, or you believe that in general Romanians tend to be more frank behind the wheel, or your protagonists are busy people, like in Kapitalism - Our Improved Formula?

I didn’t think of this as a recurrent strategy. The decision to film subjects while driving has very different reasons, depending on the film. In Cold Waves, shooting while driving around the high fence of the Clairvaux prison – where Carlos spends his sentence – and then stopping in front of the back gate was more a way to render the fact that the prison was impenetrable for us. The experience of circling around the prison, at a few hundred yards from where Carlos lives, without the possibility to meet him face-to-face, was strange enough, and I wanted to include this suggestion. In other instances, like in Kapitalism, a car is taking us from one place to another, and going on this road takes us from one narrative point to another.

Cold Waves (2007)

At the same time, watching Great Communist Bank Robbery and Cold Waves made me ponder over the fact that post-1989 propaganda is everywhere, only the messages and the channels are different. How do you deal with contemporary propaganda?

I made the two films you mention, because I thought that these stories tell something about the present that I live in – or that we can learn something from how propaganda kidnapped people’s lives and used them (in the first case), or how a propaganda war influenced history (in the second case). In a way, Great Communist Bank Robbery speaks about propaganda through cinema, Cold Waves about propaganda through radio, Kapitalism about the influence of television in the building of our post-communist society. At some point, I thought of these three films as being parts of the same sequence in which different media become power tools.

But since the years 2000, I think the media situation changed radically, due to internet, because global participative media is a much more chaotic, dissipated phenomenon. There is an infinite number of power circles, interests, groups of influence that occupy and act in the online bubble. Of course, you could argue that the current struggle for control over the internet – with its American episodes, but also with its Russian or Turkish manifestations – proves that online is not a free space, yet I think there is a big difference to what we experienced under dictatorship at a time when internet didn’t exist. I also tend to resist the conspiracy theory, which suspects that behind every message there is a hidden agenda. Propaganda comes from the word “propagate”, it doesn’t necessarily have a malicious intention. In the 1930s and 1940s, Western governments had a propaganda ministry. Propaganda became an ugly word recently.

Following the red thread in your documentaries, do you think we will ever see the birth or the engineering of the New Man / the New Woman? How do you imagine them?

I hope we will never see the birth of this New being. I prefer all the flaws of human nature to what such a being could be. But, yes, it is an idea that has been incessantly fascinating people, be it dictators or scientists. I am more interested as to why are humans attracted to explore engineering and modeling a New Man/Woman, than in what this being could be. I guess dogs do not dream to engineer a New Dog. So it is part of our specific - dreamy or mystical – nature.

In the past years, I have been interested in how science is driven to accomplish some of these mystical projects. Science-fiction flourished, for instance, during the first period of the Soviet rule. I’m trying to make a film on this topic.

I find it quite interesting that the Romanian New Wave (the way we perceive it abroad) is so ascetic and upright in its approach to images, whereas recent documentary hits from Romania, such as Tom Wilson΄s The Bucuresti Experiment (2013), Sinișa Dragin΄s The Forest (2014), Vlad Petri΄s Where Are You Bucharest? (2014), or Corneliu Porumboiu΄s The Second Game all experiment with archival material with the zest of Andrei Ujică. How would you interpret this roles΄ swap? At TDF΄s press conference you mention that you feel inspired by Romanian theatre, however I am curious to know – how do you see your place in today΄s Romanian cinema?

I think that the Romanian documentary scene is less visible than the fiction one, but it offers more diverse formulas. The films that you mention have nothing in common, in terms of style or vision. I also feel that filmmakers tend too much to stay in their own bubble and do not communicate enough with the other arts. There are a lot of possible, valuable exchanges. Documentary filmmaking is a border genre, and the more eclectic and difficult it is to be defined, the better it is. As to my own place, I don’t plan it, or I don’t define it. I prefer to stay true to my interests and to speak about stories that I feel are important, for me and for those around me.

I just feel sorry that I don’t find ways to say more of these stories. I’m living in a country where documentary is needed, as a form of social and cultural expression. That’s the reason why I am also involved in a documentary festival.

Great Communist Bank Robbery (2004)

Switching to the latest edition of your own festival, One World Romania, could you please share your own highlights and impressions? This year΄s topic, Kino Maidan, is truly daring!

“Maidan” is a word that we once used in Romanian to refer to an abandoned wasteland in a city. I liked this switch of meaning to a community-space that gathers people and filmmakers. This 8th edition of our festival was, by far, the most successful in terms of audience, buzz, number of guests, and richness of content. The debates after the screenings have become more substantial, meaning that our audience is more keen and capable to discuss film and human rights issues. The screenings for high-school students were much more crowded than before. We have opened a window towards a large continent that we know almost nothing about in our parts: Africa. Our panel involving three Romanian-born directors (who presented films in the festival) attracted a large number of people – and this is a very good sign. We had a wonderful, inspiring presentation of the National Film Board of Canada on interactive documentaries. We organized, for a second time, a tongue-in-cheek tour in the city, this time dedicated to the “history vandals” and to the heritage buildings that they have destroyed in Bucharest. I felt the festival was fun, inspiring and people left happy, with something new in their heads and hearts.

As for the Adopt a Documentary program, it is an admirable initiative, leaning on the current crowd-sourcing hype yet giving visibility to the selected titles as well as sense of shared responsibility to all parties involved – how would have this kind of backup influenced your career as a young filmmmaker, had it been available in the 1990s?

I have no idea. When I started, in the 1990s, the time was not ripe for crowd-sourcing, but I had the chance to work in an organization that opened its doors and let me use their equipment and offices in a friendly, creative atmosphere. It’s called Fundaţia Arte Vizuale and, under Vivi Drăgan Vasile’s direction, it produced many short films by an array of people coming from cinema, arts, dance, theatre, etc. There were almost no money, but it was a great playground.
  The Bucuresti Experiment
  Kapitalism - Our Improved Formula
  The Second Game
  Where Are You Bucharest?
  The Forest
  Apocalypse on Wheels
  Cold Waves
  Great Communist Bank Robbery
  Clara B.
  Vivi Dragan Vasile
  Ada Solomon
  Corneliu Porumboiu
  Tom Wilson
  Alexandru Solomon
  Yoana Pavlova
  Andrei Ujica
  Vlad Petri
  Sinisa Dragin
  HiFilm Productions
  17th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival 2015 - Main Tributes
  Thessaloniki Documentary Festival 2015 - Alexandru Solomon Press Conference
  One World Romania 2015
  altcine Explore movies by Country People To read
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