by Oana Tarce
Cinema, Mon Amour was chosen by Cinema ARTA to be part of the Cinema of Commoning film programme, currently screening at all partner cinemas.
A first reading of the images, sounds and narrative of Alexandru Belc’s observational documentary Cinema, mon amour (2015) invites us to follow the daily life of Victor Purice, the administrator of Cinema Dacia Panoramic from Piatra-Neamț, one of the few old cinemas still standing in Romania. While the film serves as an indirect portrait of the current state of Romanian cinemas, on a deeper level it is also a subtle reflection of Romania itself, uncovering layers of recent history and embedded social and cultural issues, and exposing a system that is in an overall state of malfunction.
The film opens rather abruptly with some hard cold facts, clearly stating that: “Before the fall of Communism, there were more than 400 cinemas in Romania, all owned by the state company Romania Film. Today there are less than 30 cinemas in the entire country. Cinema Dacia in Piatra-Neamț is one of them.”
The wider context is that after the official fall of communism in 1989, the entire state apparatus, including all institutions and industries, started undergoing a hasty process of de-centralisation. This was an attempt to reverse the effects of the nationalisation and expropriation processes that started at the beginning of the communist era, in the late 1940s and 50s. These reverse privatisation processes were, however, highly questionable, proving to be most advantageous for a small group of people at the expense of the large majority of the population. This high level of corruption, which dates back to before the Revolution, continues to pervade Romanian public institutions today.
As a direct result, some of the 400+ functional cinemas mentioned in the documentary were retroceded to the original owners or their heirs, who almost entirely transformed these buildings into more profitable businesses, taking advantage of an outdated system of laws that fail to include, protect or support contemporary cinema. From our knowledge, Cinema Arta in Cluj-Napoca, where the new private owner has chosen to keep the building’s original function as a cinema, might just be the only exception to this situation. In most smaller cities in Romania though, the buildings which before the Revolution hosted functional public cinemas have been transformed into supermarkets, cafes, stores, bars and even new cult churches.
A complete lack of political interest and funding from the newly installed capitalist governments that followed the Revolution, doomed the old cinemas, which had remained under the state company Romania Film, to downright collapse. Around 2009-2010, more than 100 cinemas still left in the property of Romania Film went into the local authorities ownership and administration. For most of them, this basically meant continued decline, because the new state owners, the town halls, were similarly lacking in vision, interest and expertise. Moreover, since 2013-2014 when Belc was travelling around the country for his research, the situation has changed even more dramatically. Romania Film is due to be dissolved undergoing bankruptcy, reporting in 2021 that only 7 functional cinemas still remained. Today, most cities don’t have a cinema anymore, and those few that do have one have a new type of multiplex inside a mall. Paradoxically, in the last 10 years, the number of total cinemas remained almost the same, around 80-90, because as the number of old cinemas constantly decreased, the number of multiplexes continued to rise.
Symbols of the Resistance
In this context, it’s easier to understand why Alexandru Belc’s protagonist, Victor Purice, along with his small team has been justly called a hero, a “Don Quijote”. It is Purice that, in spite of the lack of management and support from the cinema owner Romania Film and from the state system itself, has been keeping the cinema alive, investing his own money in renovation works and basic modernisation. Indeed, Purice even bought the cinema a digital projector, without which it would have been next to impossible to screen films anymore. Sadly, despite his personal heroic efforts, Cinema Dacia with its 500 seat auditorium remains stuck somewhere in the 1990s, as one can clearly see from the interior design, old cinema chairs, and film posters that we encounter in Belc’s documentary.
Cinephiles living outside Romania might be wondering about the new crop of recent Romanian films that have been receiving so much attention and international recognition in the past decade. How has the local film industry continued to grow and develop if there is a huge lack of infrastructure when it comes to the distribution and exhibition of arthouse film within the country? The answer might be as simple as this: in spite of all these barriers, resistance to both the malfunctioning state and private systems has continued to grow.
It is also worth noting that, in contrast to the stagnant public system, a ferocious capitalism roams freely in contemporary Romania. My peers and I, the generation born since the Revolution, have grown up with a brutal system that allows for the rich to just keep getting richer, and the poor to keep getting poorer, a pervasive capitalism that permits the exploitation of the majority and undermines the development of a functional middle class. These patterns of exploitation are evident in the cinema industry, as well as in the field of cultural work more generally, where exploitation and self-exploitation have become accepted norms.
Besides the new visionary bold and young filmmakers and producers that have managed to find the resources to make acclaimed films within this context, and besides the few old public cinemas that are left all over the country, there is now a significant group of individuals that also deserve applause. In the last 10 years or so, the number of civil society initiatives has been growing exponentially all over the country, in big and small cities alike, as independent associations have started taking up unused spaces and developing local cultural hubs. These organisations are programming film screenings, organising festivals and producing cultural events based on the principles of self-organisation, meeting the social and cultural needs they feel personally and acutely. These local heroes have become symbols of the Resistance as well, and it is also them that bring and keep alive the hope for a healthier and more sustainable transformation of the system into the future.
Oana Tarce is a cultural manager, event curator, and film programmer. She studied Philosophy at the University of Bucharest and has an MA degree in Arts and Culture from Utrecht University. She is the co-founder and co-manager of Citizenit, a local NGO focused on regeneration projects, cultural events and nonformal education. She has as well of experience in film production and distribution, and for the last 3 years she has been collaborating as a Programmer and Project coordinator for Cinema ARTA in Cluj-Napoca.