12:08 East of Bucharest an interview with Vera Mijojlic

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Vera Mijojlic is the founder and director of the South East European Film Festival in Los Angeles. Formerly a film critic in ex-Yugoslavia, she also works as a marketing consultant for art house films in the U.S.

12:08 East of Bucharest: 16 years after the Revolution and just days before Christmas, a local television station in Bucharest has invited several guests to share their moments of glory, as they allegedly stormed city hall, chanting “down with Ceasescu!,” before Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and his wife fled the presidential palace by helicopter so many years ago. An alcoholic history teacher and a lonely retiree, who moonlights as Santa, are forced to answer questions from dubious viewers who aren’t overly convinced that the Revolution ever took place in their city.
12:08 East of Bucharest is winner of Golden Camera and Label Europa Cinemas at Cannes Film Festival 2006.

Cinema Without Borders: 12:08 east of Bucharest that you co-presented at the AFI Film Festival last November is now in theaters in the US. How was this film received at the festival ?
Vera Mijojlic: We had a full house, and a knowledgeable audience well-attuned to the Romanian history, sensibilities and quirky humor of the film. There was this sense of general excitement which sometimes dooms the film, because people expect too much. But once the movie started the people inside the Arclight theater responded with enthusiasm and you could tell they were “hooked”. I waited at the door after the screenings, to check the reactions as people were filing out of the theater and yes, they sported the unmistakable smile and were hanging around, chatting, greeting each other, going over some particular moments in the film they liked. One can’t hope for a better outcome; I knew we’d have a very good word-of-mouth on this film.

CWB: I think it is important for the audience of this movie to know a bit about these new Eastern European democracies and the challenges they need to overcome in order to get rid of their past. Don’t you think so? Also I have to say that this film reminded me of how we all reacted to the 2000 presidential election in Florida .
Vera: You brought up an important aspect of the whole recent fascination with the Eastern European, and especially Romanian, cinema: the fact that these filmmakers were able, and supremely so, to channel the anger, passion, unrealistic expectations and hopes of their recent political turmoil into par excellence cinematic art. Somehow they avoided simplistic, purely political discourse and heavy-handed political agendas. Instead they grasped the human core underneath the hubris, the pain, the confusion, the stupidity of everyday situations, and ordinary people’s emotional reactions to so-called historical events. They even question the very idea of these events being “historical”, or ushering a real “change”. We’ve come a long way from the sentiment of “10 Days that changed the world” or even “Reds” to subtly humorous, deeply human touch of “12:08 east of Bucharest” which never slips into banality or total absurd though it deals with both. (Of course, one is immediately reminded of Kundera, or Jiri Menzel and his unforgettable ‘Closely Watched Trains’ which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968. However, the latest round of ‘revolutions’ in Eastern Europe didn’t produce a new satirist of this caliber in the Czech Republic. Instead, the creative spark was lit in Romania….).

Director Porumboiu draws his characters with a great sense of sympathy and understanding for their shortcomings. He does not burden them with “history”, but neither does he cheapen their vulnerability. When one of the characters is revealed as a drunk who got caught up in the “revolution” because he happened to be out in the streets at the “historical” moment with his late-night drinking buddies, the director does not do this to score a joke. While we may laugh, we are also deeply moved by this man’s plight and our heart ends up going to him and his hapless Chinese friend; finally, we are able to identify with them, laugh with them, root for them, cry with them.

Going back to your comment about the 2000 elections, I don’t think we’ve yet had a film of this caliber that would equally express the pent-up emotions stemming from that, or any other event that has shaken the national psyche in this country. We get decent, well researched documentaries. But there is no feature film, and no scri pt, that would emotionally galvanize the movie-going audience the way Porumboiu’s film does, or Menzel’s before him did.

CWB: I found 12:08 to have an exceptionally great sense of humor. It’s also very honest.
Vera: I agree, very much so. Humor, especially when blended with political satire, is a tall order for any artist. Corneliu Porumboiu, who by the way is only 32, is remarkably adept at creating very complex characters, who have depth and come across as real people. None of his characters is one-dimensional, or easily categorized. The journalist who at first hello may seem nothing more than a local schmoozer and social climber, perennially worried that something he does might backfire (which is why he goes for the ‘fool-proof’ guests, only to find himself stuck in quicksand) he is no better or worse than your average news anchor. Filmmaker is also absolutely honest in his approach. And not only with the characters he had created, but also with his treatment of them. Just think WHAT could have gone wrong at almost every turn of the story! After all, the entire film is about three guys sitting at the table, one of whom hardly speaks (he just makes paper boats and keeps fidgeting), with a few off-screen people phoning-in in lieu of external action!! But the filmmaker keeps things under tight rein, obviously doing a great job with his actors. He knows that with one gimmick too many the whole thing would slip into farce. Or worse, it would ring completely false. One paper boat too many – and he’ll lose his audience. It’s a gamble where bluffing would have been deadly. I have great respect for artists like Porumboiu who trust their instincts and are honest, as well as disciplined.

CWB: Romanian cinema is blooming and has surprised the world. Do you think we will continue to see more great movies from Romania?
Vera: It’s a tough call, looking into the future. Who knows? We can only go by what we have seen so far. This is a generation of young directors who have only made their first movie or two, so it stands to reason that they should continue to develop, and make more movies. I have great faith that we shall see good work coming from Romania in the next few years. I might be more concerned about some of these talented directors, and writers, being drawn too soon into the big-game world of European or American film industry. And I have no doubt that Hollywood agents are already calling. But in my opinion it would be wise for Romanian filmmakers to keep close to the home turf, creatively speaking. We’re all deeply influenced by our heritage and there is a mystical connection with our cultural roots. It’s hard to transplant one talent into another culture. Someone once told me that a fruit tree can be physically transplanted; it will continue to bear some fruit, but it will never fully bloom and its fruit will grow smaller every year. We may not like it, mobile as we are, but like Antaeus we get our strength, especially creative strength (and inspiration) from the ground we were born on. And inspiration is not a small matter in the affairs of cinema, so hopefully our Romanian friends will keep those artistic borders open……

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Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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