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October 18, 2021

TIFF – A Romanian brand

TIFF is, above everything, a society phenomenon. From an adventurous initiative risking to rapidly fail or remain a marginal expression of provincial ambitions, the Cluj film festival which became the grandest and most successful event of its kind in Romania relies on a recipe. A good organiser – Tudor Giurgiu – whom the success of TIFF and the entrepreneurial spirit propelled meanwhile as a name that matters in the local movie industry, as producer, distributor and even director, a young critic – Mihai Chirilov, nonconformist, provocative, but with an eye to the marketing, whose cinema tastes succeeded in inspiring a certain identity to the festival – a regional brand – Transilvania, better known in the West (through Dracula, of course) than even Romania – several sponsors aware of the potential of an annual event with its own mythology, also joined by local authorities at some moment, because TIFF is the main argument for hoping to the title of Cultural Capital of Europe.

As years went by, the festival moved out of cinema halls and reached the public square, the bar and mall, the car park, a remote neighbourhood or a nobleman’s castle. It brought divas (like Claudia Cardinale) and masters of the genre (such as Wim Wenders or, this year, Jiri Menzel), for whom the public prey to a snobbish nostalgia crowded the halls. It became associated with the theatre, the museum, the concert stage, it mobilised the school inspectorate and the teachers, it invited for talks politicians about to be elected, it provided spaces for seniors, and collaborated with bistros and cafes. Its increasingly exclusivist parties became the most coveted of the town.
TIFF actually is a real marketing success. Its halls are overcrowded (at a moment when regular projections barely gather a handful of spectators), many plan their vacations in the respective interval, streets are full of people wearing festival badges, some of them with exotic aspect. As for the cinema offer proper, the Cluj-based festival has several specificities. The selection is provocative, above all. Who would have imagined in the conservative town of former mayor Gheorghe Funar, not so long ago, projections of gay films at the heart of the city, on a gigantic screen? TIFF represents an avant-garde spearhead in the evolution of mentalities. Who will grant awards, at least in Romania, to a film with explicit fellatios of high-school students (and not only)? Unchained sexuality (in all its variants, from the French porn of `la belle epoque` to contemporary sado-masochism), the gay themes (at least one third of films have each year connotations of this kind, another absolute Romanian record), violence and horror (also marked by a specific annual contest – Shadows Shorts; additionally, this year will take place the second edition of a baby TIFF, a festival in the ‘gothic’ atmosphere of Biertan) – these are themes meant to provoke controversies.
Not surprisingly, in the case of TIFF, which nobody dared to criticise in the name of a moral debate. Its merits are remarkable: promoting (largely) marginal cinemas, inaccessible in the usual circuit of distribution (how many saw movies from the Philippines, Iceland, Peru or Saudi Arabia?); recovering niche directors or forgotten ‘classics’, especially in the absence of a network of cinematheques; the emphasis cast on ‘serious’ problems, at the antipode of simple amusement; presenting a vast panorama of aesthetics in the contemporary world movies, a rare chance for the Romanian movie fan; encouraging the Romanian film (to be honest, it also profited from the association with the successes of the ‘new wave’). But let’s look beyond merits. Like in any ample festival, despite the displayed selectiveness, the quality of offers is uneven. It is also a matter of funds, for sure (this year, declared of crisis by organisers, also brought more expensive tickets, along with other austerities). `Supernova`, the section dedicated to the films that already were awarded in other festivals, is also on a decline compared to the years when the winner movies at Cannes, Venice or Berlin also arrived in Cluj. Some films seem to have been brought only due to their provocative potential (for a spectator comfortably sitting in front of the TV set it would be shocking to see how a movie character consumes his own semen, because of hunger) or a polemic theme.
In its turn, being crowned with a TIFF award is not a sure criterion of quality. It inevitably is also a subjective matter (there is a jury with its own tastes), but the extra-aesthetic motivations are present too. The principle of the Cluj-based competition is the debut (directors must be at their first or second film), so TIFF can be a launch-pad for some. This year, Anand Ghandi won with `Ship of Theseus`, some sort of answer to `Babel` (three successive stories with some small connection between them), but on the theme of transplant. The first part is promising (as heroine – a blind photographer, the story apparently opening a perspective on the metaphysic of aesthetics), but the next two do not get past the merits of ‘political correctness’ – dedicated to vegan activism and, respectively, to illegal organ trafficking (and implicitly economic discrepancies).
TIFF efficiently promotes the cultural globalisation, by opening to regions otherwise ignored and by association to ahumanism capable of transcending political, cultural or religious borders. Without being too strictly ideologically positioned, because it affords having an ecological section without turning away, if needed, controversial sponsors in the field. All these contradictions correspond to a cultural phenomenon whose alertness certainly cannot be denied. As documentary makers already successfully investigated the history of some commercial trademark (some presented through the year in the Cluj-based festival), it is already possible that a filmmaker chooses as subject precisely the TIFF. Which actually became one of the not so many successful Romanian brands in the cultural industry.

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