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TRANSILVANIA 2017 Romanian Days

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Planet Petrila: Fighting for the cultural heritage of Romania’s oldest mine


- Andrei Dăscălescu’s feature-length documentary, which has just screened at Transilvania, shows how art can save tradition

Planet Petrila: Fighting for the cultural heritage of Romania’s oldest mine
Ion Barbu in Planet Petrila

Following its world premiere in the selection of last year’s IDFA, Romanian director Andrei Dăscălescu’s second feature-length documentary, Planet Petrila [+see also:
film profile
, was screened in the Romanian Days competition of the Transilvania International Film Festival, receiving a well-deserved Audience Award for its intriguing mélange of laughs and tears triggered by a city’s fight against cultural obliteration. 

In the communist tradition, entire cities could appear on the map following a top-level decision to build a plant or an oil refinery. Deserted fields would become streets and apartment buildings where thousands or even dozens of thousands of people were brought to work and live. After the 1989 Revolution, these industries became the nerve centres of a struggling economy, and other top-level decisions turned them into nothing more than ugly spots on the Romanian landscape, with entire communities condemned to unemployment and poverty. 

This was the case for Petrila, a town with a century-long history that became a single-industry hub when Romania was ruled by former dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. The mine employed thousands for several generations, but in 2013, only dozens still climbed down into the shafts, in conditions that would make a European workplace safety expert shudder with horror. But none of the miners is happy that the mine is due to close, as this means an uncertain future for their families. Dăscălescu attentively captures their fear of the unknown, most probably difficult, future. The audience will laugh at the miners’ banter and jokes, but a tear is always welling in the corner of their eyes. And what rattles them most is that the mayor is prepared to tear down the entire mine. Ion Barbu, a former miner in Petrila and now an artist and activist, enters the scene. 

Dăscălescu’s documentary conveys both how an entire community is affected by the lack of debate and how an unconventional endeavour can create a sense of community. When the authorities announce that the mine will be demolished over the next few months and the bulldozers start to have at the mine’s buildings, the feeling of powerlessness is overwhelming. But a small sign of hope appears on a wall soon to be demolished: it is a drawing, a small, apparently harmless, naïve drawing that will become an impressive example of nonviolent, absurdist, immensely funny and touching resistance.

While watching the documentary, viewers may ask themselves when, if ever, they have simultaneously laughed and cried at the cinema. This is the effect that Planet Petrila has on the audience, and its impact will be similarly powerful wherever it is screened, as redundant industries, humorous reactions to the authorities’ ineptitude and the fight for the survival of memory are familiar to every culture. 

A protagonist more charming than Ion Barbu is rarely seen in a documentary. His lesson of civil disobedience can inspire many, while his perseverance in preserving Petrila’s history is similar to that of cinema manager Victor Purice from Alexandru Belc’s Cinema, Mon Amour [+see also:
film review
interview: Alexandru Belc
film profile
. In the context of the indifference of decision makers, both men found highly creative ways to keep on going. 

Planet Petrila was produced by Filmlab and co-produced by HBO Europe. It will be released in Romanian cinemas later this month.

See also

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Basque Cannes

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