Transilvania Film Festival Bounces Back After ‘Tough Years’ of Pandemic, Sees Attendance Soar

When push comes to shove, the Transilvania Intl. Film Festival has always prided itself on pushing the envelope, preferring to err on the side of provocation where other fests might choose to play it safe. That mentality has been encoded into the fest’s DNA since its beginnings in the tumultuous post-Communist era, when civil liberties and artistic freedom were still far from guaranteed in the newly democratic Romania.

Yet after a turbulent period of unprecedented disruption, brought on first by the coronavirus pandemic and then by the widespread humanitarian and economic crises spurred by Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine, even TIFF founder Tudor Giurgiu admits, “These were tough years.” The temptation might have been there to tinker with a formula that has made the festival such a success for the past two decades.

But for its 22nd edition, which runs June 9 – 18 in the picturesque medieval city of Cluj, Transilvania has remained steadfast in its core belief that the “passion for cinema connects individuals,” according to Giurgiu. On the eve of this year’s event, which kicks off with Icelandic director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson’s high-concept comedy “Northern Comfort,” that message has clearly struck a chord with local audiences: Ticket sales are already up 30% from the previous edition.

If there are any doubts that this year’s TIFF might be reluctant to stimulate or provoke, look no further than lifetime achievement award winner Oliver Stone, the polarizing, three-time Academy Award winner who will be feted in Cluj while presenting his latest film, “Nuclear Now,” described by Variety’s Owen Gleiberman as an “intensely compelling, must-see documentary” after its Venice premiere last year.

Actor Timothy Spall, meanwhile, will also be honored and will appear in conversation with TIFF artistic director Mihai Chirilov, while Geoffrey Rush — one of just two dozen actors to achieve a rare triple crown with Oscar, Emmy and Tony awards — will be on hand to lead a masterclass for young film professionals. “It’s great for our public and for our audience who love having not just great programming, but also some stars attending the festival,” said Giurgiu.

Long committed to discovering and promoting new voices, Transilvania boasts 10 debut directors among the 12 films selected for its main competition. Among them are Finland’s Tia Kuovo, whose dysfunctional-family drama “Family Time” is coming off a premiere in the Berlin Film Festival’s competitive Encounters section; Brazilian debutante Carolina Markowicz, whose black comedy “Charcoal” bowed in Toronto; Nicaraguan writer-director Laura Baumeister, also premiering in Toronto with her empowerment drama “Daughter of Rage”; and Catalan duo Alejandro Rojas and Juan Sebastián Vasquez, with their multiple prize-winning interrogation drama “Upon Entry.”

Meanwhile, the What’s Up, Doc? competition section for documentary films includes a range of recent festival highlights, including Estonian filmmaker Anna Hints’ Sundance prize winner “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood,” Swiss director Tizian Büchi’s Visions du Réel Grand Prix winner “Like an Island,” and Saudi Arabian-born docmaker Ahsen Nadeem’s SXSW and Hot Docs player “Crows Are White.”

Other programming highlights include a focus on Nordic cinema, as well as tributes to Jean-Luc Godard and Sidney Lumet, and a presentation of iconic Romanian animator Ion Popescu-Gopo’s slapstick comedy “A Bomb Was Stolen,” featuring an orchestral accompaniment with an original score created by composer Alexei Țurcan and conducted by Tiberiu Soare. “It’s going to be really majestic, and I’m so happy that we can offer this event for Romanian audiences, but also for international guests who might not even know about Gopo,” said Giurgiu.

The festival’s industry program, meanwhile, will see the return of the Transilvania Pitch Stop, a co-production and co-financing platform for filmmakers from Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the wider Black Sea region, which will present 10 projects by first- and second-time directors during its tenth edition. Also on tap is the third edition of Drama Room, a TV series workshop and mentorship program, that will help the creators of five Romanian series or mini-series in development hone their production skills and understand the dynamics of the international market.

TIFF kicks off just a fortnight after a buzzy Cannes Film Festival that saw not only a constellation of mega-watt stars descending on the French Riviera, but a record number of industry professionals taking part in the Marché du Film, bolstering hopes that the international festival circuit has bounced back from the pandemic’s doldrums. Earlier this year, the European Film Market also recorded its highest-ever number of participants.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a return to business as usual — not when the film industry continues to be disrupted by global streaming services whose own business model in the past year has increasingly been called into question. In the ongoing debate of streaming vs. theatrical, however, Giurgiu insists that festivals will continue to play a vital part in the life cycle of movies.

“I’m pretty sure that the streamers’ influence will be even bigger in the years to come,” said the TIFF topper. “But even with this circumstance, I think the role of the festivals will be even more prominent for showcasing the best in terms of auteur films or genre films. Transilvania is going to be a unique opportunity for the audience to see films that might not be seen on the streamers.” He added: “I’m very optimistic about the role of festivals in the future.”

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