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“The way a festival is experienced in a cinema cannot be reproduced outdoors or online”

Industry Report: Documentary

Csilla Kató and Dumitru Budrala • Head of programming and founding director, Astra Film Festival


We talked with the founders of Romania’s oldest documentary gathering about the challenges they encountered while preparing the 2022 edition

Csilla Kató and Dumitru Budrala • Head of programming and founding director, Astra Film Festival

Twenty-nine years ago, Csilla Kató and Dumitru Budrala founded the Astra Film Festival, for many years Romania’s only documentary film festival and now the longest-running gathering dedicated to the genre. After two editions when it had to shrink in order to accommodate various health-and-safety regulations brought on by the pandemic, the festival has returned to its former self for the 2022 edition (9-16 October). Here is what the founders have to say about documentary trends and the challenges of organising this edition.

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Cineuropa: After two pandemic-stricken editions, Astra has soared again. What aspects of the 2022 iteration did you welcome the most?
Csilla Kató:
For the two previous editions, we adapted our approach in order to accommodate outdoor screenings and online access to the selected films. We faced some challenges, but it all went unexpectedly well. Even so, we really missed screening films on the big screen, in a cinema. That place surrounded by four walls proves to be a wonderful nest for so many stories, emotions, ideas and feelings raised by the films and their conversations.

But the thing we missed the most was the tumult and laughter of the 25,000 pupils and students who filled our venues over the five days of our Astra Film Junior “festival within a festival” [which was not organised in 2020 or 2021]. The selection catered to kids in three different age brackets. How the festival is experienced in a cinema cannot be reproduced outdoors or online.

Every year, you synchronise your programme with timely, relevant topics. What avenues did you explore this year?
Documentary filmmakers are endowed with the best-calibrated tools in order to explore the fractures and wounds of society. And documentary language has the ability to transpose and convey realities specific to the constraints of our societies, rendering the visceral effects of these constraints before the eyes of the audience. Every film in our selection promises an adventure and the exploration of such an experience. Besides the films shown in our four competitions, over the last six editions, we have explored relevant topics in what we call thematic sidebars, using the films to generate debate. An important topic this year was war in the 21st century, including what we called nuclear orthodoxy and its role in Putin’s ideology concerning the war in Ukraine. We also explored the ethical dilemmas caused by the voluntary termination of life in the Decided Death sidebar, plus existence and the possibility of achieving what we called Eternal Love. And especially for our Romanian audience, we created a sidebar dedicated to investigative journalism, where we screened several reports on state dysfunctionality, inviting the audience to take part in a dialogue with the journalists.

A special guest at this edition was British director Nick Broomfield, who is often a protagonist in his own documentaries. What do you think about his approach?
Dumitru Budrala:
This approach comes quite naturally today, and it is being tried out by many auteurs. Our portrait sidebar, where we invite along a remarkable personality from documentary cinema every year, both allows us to approximate the evolution of the genre and offers an opportunity to pick the brain of an established filmmaker on his or her vast body of work and impressive know-how.

There is a certain amount of controversy in Romania regarding the lack of state funding for documentaries. As promoters of the genre, what is your stance here?
We see a permanent contradiction here. The documentary audience is getting larger and larger, both worldwide and in Romania. An increasing number of film festivals screen documentaries, including those that traditionally specialise in fiction. The number of youngsters interested in directing documentary films is also increasing, although funding for this genre is scarce. Meanwhile, the state institutions which have the obligation to support cinema remain indifferent to this potential, or even become an obstacle in its path.

Next year, Astra will turn 30. What is the most important lesson a festival has to learn?
Thirty years – the time we needed to go from VHS to the immersive 360-degree, full-dome format. There are few festival directors still in their position after such a long time. In order to create and maintain a living platform for documentary cinema, I think one needs not only perseverance, but also the capacity to reformulate and reinvent the platform to accommodate the beings (which is what we consider films to be) who populate it.

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