Premiul pentru publicistica 2015 al Asociatiei Criticilor de Film

On People and Waters and Canons

by Călin Boto

     About this time last year, I was writing on “the fictitious non-fictional canon” of Romanian cinema. While going round and round the exhibition "History in Fragments", curated by Raluca Velisar and Andrei Rus for EUROPALIA’s Romanian edition (Oct 2, 2019 – Dec 2, 2020), an iconoclastic display of documentaries from all times, something suddenly struck me– there is no such thing as a non-fictional canon of pre-2010s Romanian documentary. However vague my previous arguments might seem (1), their main idea looks as legitimate as ever. I’ll extract just a few lines that present two illustrative episodes from the 2000s: Immediately after the Revolution, but also during the ‘90s, the situation would become more and more precarious. Then came the 2004 edition of the International Documentary Filmfestival in Amsterdam, where four Romanian directors participated (Alexandru Solomon, Ileana Stănculescu, Florin Iepan, and Dumitru Brudrală) and, on this occasion, released an open letter (2)  that highlighted the deplorable state of the documentary film’s financing system. In 2008 the Cele mai bune 10 filme românești / Best 10 Romanian films of all times collective volume is launched under the coordination of Cristina Corciovescu and Magda Mihăilescu. This is, above all, an honest and almost ridiculously predictable ranking; no one would be surprised by the 10 fiction films listed (all of them by male directors), from Puiu to Daneliuc. 

     Not that one cannot trace a few iconic documentaries that are kept close to a generation’s heart or had their 15 minutes of fame from one festival or another – University Square: Romania (1990) by Stere Gulea, Vivi Drăgan Vasile and Sorin Ilieșiu, or Adina Pintilie’s Don’t Get Me Wrong (2007). The question should sound different – did any documentary enjoy the very same means of validation that are used to perpetuate the canon of fictional films (lengthy studies, cinematheque screenings, auteurist retrospectives, restorations, DVD & VoD releases)?

     And when I say national canon, such a firm yet ambiguous term when singularized, I’m not being reductive. If when it comes to Romanian fiction film we need to make a distinction between a “popular” canon and an “art canon” (3), for this specific case, the distinction doesn’t hold. Not yet.
     To be clear, none of this has to do whatsoever with the quality of Romanian non-fictional cinema, be it produced before, during, or right after communism. Or at least I don’t fancy this kind of judgment for now. It has to do rather with a precarious history of the practice, with its “smell” of ideology (4), its restrictions regarding running time (Sahia usually imposed a 10-minute limit), and eventually its lack of validation coming from decisional forums such as those cited above.

     The 2010s paved the way for a sense of coherence in non-fictional production. Not only that a handful of features (Andrei UjicăThe Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Infinite Football, Anca Damian’s Crulic) became festival darlings and critics’ fetishes, but the second film of 2018 in terms of audience was the Ro-UK co-production Untamed Romania (d. Tom Barton-Humphreys), with 81.426 spectators. The decade’s coronation happened last year, 2020, which was unprecedentedly dominated by two documentaries – Acasă, My Home (d. Radu Ciorniciuc), and collective (d. Alexander Nanau). However, there’s one revanchist effort that kept my attention, precisely due to its relative obscurity (the pandemic had a great role in this, no doubt) – the very limited release of a restored version of Black Buffalo Water (1970), which premiered at Transilvania International Film Festival, screened at the White Night of Romanian Films and eventually presented again by TIFF, this time on their VoD.

     For Black Buffalo Water holds strong – it has a legend, strong signatures, and a brief episode of conflict with the communist officials. Subtitled “on people and waters - May 1970, the film was baptized by film critics as the manifesto of the  70s generation. In the light of the sorrowful floodings from 1970, a group of young graduates felt the need to respond with their cameras. Andrei Cătălin BăleanuPetre BokorIosif DemianStere Gulea, Roxana PanăDan PiţaDinu TănaseMircea Veroiu, Ion Marinescu, Dan Naum, Bogdan Cavadia, Theodor Mitache, Nicolae Mărgineanu, Felicia Pătrașcu, Youssouff Aidabi, most of these names were about to become of great importance for Romanian cinema, yet it would be a mistake to look for individual contributions in their collective debut. For now, they are just ambitious debutants cruising for opportunities. And making their debut as a collective is a beautiful, if not wholeheartedly respectful way of mirroring the kind of collective tragedy those people experienced. One would (and should) link their decision with a call repeated three times in the last ten minutes, asking all the citizens from Satu Mare to join forces and build new dams.

     It all happened in Bucharest Cinema Studios-Buftea, where they were doing small jobs, waiting for something to come. The idea to do the film for the Bucharest Studio and not Sahia was not a mere coincidence – all of them were reticent about the kind of documentaries produced at the time. “Let’s make a film about the floods. Sahia will make one for sure, and they will drown it in propaganda. It will turn out how good it is to have floods because they give birth to citizen solidarity!” (5). The executives – Lucia Olteanu, Ion Brad, and Florian Potra – agreed. One bus, a handful of cameras, no scenario to be approved, and the willingness to listen to people were enough for the film to be born, yet not to be distributed in theatres, which eventually happened the next year, in 1971, after Stere Gulea’s intervention (6). What made the film different in the eyes of its makers was the absence of a voice-over, which indeed was a tradition at Sahia – either a jolly know-it-all narrator or a literary voiceover. Hearing people speak their minds was by no means a given. Especially in such contexts, when an omniscient voice presenting how the authorities solved the problem would’ve been expected. There’s a sense of continuous discovery in every poetic glimpse put together by the makers. The pictorial takes and alert camera movements, let alone a breathtaking moment when some soldiers discover a body underwater, are here to stay. But styles come and go, obsolescence is always just around the corner. What’s truly imperishable is how the filmmakers captured the people’s tumult – their gestures, reactions, stories, and popular wisdom. If anything, it might be the closest film to the spirit of the direct/vérité tradition. Not to its practice, but to its philosophy. But imperishable ideas are not enough either. An unseen film is a dead film. Consolidating a canon of pre-2010s documentaries might be a losing game in many ways (depending on how we see canons), but before anything else, it would mean bringing back to life a handful of films. And, with the right infrastructure, others could and would follow.

1. Călin Boto, “The Fictitious Non-Fictional Canon”, Revista ARTA, column/the-fictitious-non-fictional-canon/, published on March 10, 2020, last accessed on 20 February 2021.
2. Dumitru Budrală, Alexandru Solomon, Florin Iepan, Ileana Stănculescu, “Scrisoare dupa IDFA”, Observatorul cultural,, published on March 10 2020, last accesed on 20 February 2021.
3. As Mihai Fulger does in his essay “De la curatoriat la canon” / “From curating to canonizing” in Gabriela Filippi /Andrei Gorzo (eds.), Filmul tranziției: Contribuții la interpretarea cinemaului românesc „nouăzecist”/ The Transition Film: Contributions towards a critique of Romanian 1990s cinema, Cluj-Napoca: Tact Press, 2017, p. 223.
4. Meaning communist, for only in 1950 – the birth of the studio “Alexandru Sahia” – did an ample production of documentary filmmaking began. But it’s also available for films made under fascism (1940-1944), which became untouchable after 1945 – Our Holy War (d. Ion Filotti Cantacuzino, 1942).
5. Andrei Rus, Gabriela Filippi, “Stere Gulea: pasiunea pentru formele clasice”, Film Menu, https://, published on 30 November 2014, last accesed on 22 February 2021.
6. Ibidem. 


Căliman, Călin, Filmul documentar românesc, Bucharest: Meridiane Press, 1967.
Duma, Dana, Cineaști în era digitală, Bucharest: UCIN Press, 2020.
Littera, George, Pagini despre film, Bucharest: UNATC Press, 2012.
Filippi, Gabriela / Gorzo, Andrei (eds.), Filmul tranziției: Contribuții la interpretarea cinemaului românesc „nouăzecist”/


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