Dumitru Budrala • Founding director, Astra Film Festival
"We have retained the same mission since the very first edition – that of curators of reality"
- With 25 editions of Romania's biggest documentary film festival under his belt, Astra's founding director, Dumitru Budrala, talks about the event's challenges, goals and overall mission
Having now reached its 25th edition, the Astra Film Festival is Romania's oldest documentary gathering. Its founding director, Dumitru Budrala, reminisces about the challenges of the past and talks about the importance of educating new generations of documentary lovers in this interview conducted in the heart of beautiful Sibiu, the city that becomes a documentary hotspot in mid-October every year.
Cineuropa: How was the documentary genre perceived in Romania when you founded the festival, and how is it now received by the Sibiu audience?
Dumitru Budrala: When we started the festival back in 1993, we started totally from scratch. Nobody knew anything about non-fiction cinema then, and the documentary genre was mistaken for TV science shows. The idea of having a cultural event organised by someone who was not at all connected with the state institutions seemed like an extravagance. Astra Film Festival was an innovative project in the context of the entire region of South-Eastern Europe, and those years were full of emotions, incertitude and challenges.
Over the last 25 years, we've had the privilege to watch documentary cinema develop all over the world, with huge changes in this particular cinematic landscape. And this happened because documentary has the ability to create infinite possibilities to tell unknown stories about people, things and places that may seem insignificant, but which reflect the realities we live in, from the drama of a local community to feelings and stories that are universally understood. Moreover, the impressive range of approaches and their solutions for telling novel stories through the cinematic language have propelled the genre to the very core of top film festivals, where they enjoy the same attention as fiction features.
As for how Astra is perceived, I think the festival benefits from our audience's need to know and understand the reality surrounding them, but also the reality of others. The incredible power of storytelling has created a meaningful experience for the audience each time, as well as generating an intimate connection between the filmmakers, the audience and the protagonists of the stories shown on the big screen. For us, it means so much that, over time, we have succeeded in educating a faithful and well-informed audience, who are deeply involved both socially and emotionally. The audiences come to Astra screenings to watch and be watched back from the big screen, to experience an immersion in reality, but also to experience a kind of introspection, to understand and think things over.
You said that documentary films are “lifeboats in a sea of alternative facts”. Can you elaborate on this opinion on the power and usefulness of the genre?
The audience potential of documentary cinema is amazing, as it can reach both a wider public and a specialised, niche audience. At every edition, Astra Film Festival offers a host of thematic sidebars that explore reality by proposing an intimate, detailed portrait of humanity. These films are a shortcut to social consciousness and a tool for change, “a therapy for the mending of society”, as Cristi Puiu [a jury member at Astra 2018] puts it. Both in Romania and around the world, daily events in the social and political landscape leave a mark on the very essence of the human condition. Reality is more spectacular than fiction – or, as they say, “life beats film”. Documentary has become more and more relevant because people feel the need for an alternative source of knowledge and new tools for understanding reality in a world where fake news, intolerance, cynical dissimulation and the redaction of the past are becoming more and more invasive. The information we get from the media is only one perspective on reality, a perspective that is more often than not subjective, increasingly manipulated and distorted by various entities serving their own agendas. In this context, non-fiction becomes key in getting to the core of personal stories, and in getting to know reality as well as all of its layers and complexity. As they explore, documentary films promote tolerance, openness towards what is new and towards others, the courage to explore the unknown, introspection, critical thinking and the investigative powers of the mind. These are able to save the world we live in.
From your point of view, what was the biggest challenge of the 25th edition?
Every edition has its challenges. Some of them we face every year, as it’s a difficult exercise that we find it hard to get used to, even if we manage to get to the end of it every time. I am thinking, of course, about the difficulty of securing the necessary budget, or the creative “tempests” that swirl and show up among our closest collaborators. Other challenges are new to every edition. For example, this year, we had a record number of submissions – more than 3,000 from 93 countries – and I would say that deciding on the selection was the biggest challenge of them all. The richness of topics, the variety of approaches and the stylistic prowess of these films were so impressive that we grouped them in as many as 14 thematic sidebars, which examine various aspects of the contemporary world and some of its most pressing issues. Family relationships, the generation gap and the effects that the passage of time has on us, the difficult endeavour of finding an identity, be it personal, national or digital, but also the search for the right balance between accepting fate as a given and building one's own destiny.
What is new at Astra 2018?
At every edition, we keep the basic framework of the festival intact – the five competitions (see the news), a certain number of thematic sidebars, some venues and the city of Sibiu itself. As the reality we live in changes from one day to the next, the rest is completely new every time. We have new life stories from new corners of the world, new perspectives, new emotions and new issues that humanity has to face. The human condition is by its very nature dynamic and, hopefully, perfectible, and that is why a festival that explores reality must re-invent itself every time.
Of course, after 25 years, the festival is more mature, more experienced, and it has perfected its strategy in accordance with the evolution of the world in general and the evolution of non-fiction cinema in particular. The vision behind the selection is now more modern, but we have retained the same mission since the very first edition – that of curators of reality, as we follow day-to-day life in search of untold stories. If we find films that capture this kind of content, and these movies have the narrative strength to tell that specific story, they find a place on our shortlist. For the final selection, we have to omit many excellent films, as screening space and slots are limited. This is what strikes the balance between observing tradition and embracing change in our programme.
A new element this year is The Road to Europe sidebar, with ten films exploring how former communist countries have embraced Western European values. Do you think Romania is nearing the end of this road?
That is a tough question. As the organiser of Astra for the last 25 years, I have been in contact with as many as 23 Ministers of Culture, and so few of them truly understood or supported the festival. The fact that we have managed to survive despite their lack of support is a source of joy for us. We kept on down our path, “explaining”, edition by edition, the importance of documentary cinema. Another source of joy for us is that we are not alone any more, like we were for the first 15 editions. Now, there are so many other motivated, passionate people, eager to dedicate themselves to promoting documentary cinema. One World Romania and Docuart in Bucharest, the Transilvania International Film Festival in Cluj-Napoca, Pelicam in the city of Tulcea... They all do a great job of making local audiences take more of an interest in the genre.
So to finally answer the question, one could say that, despite its issues in terms of politics, the economy and culture, Romania has made important steps on its road to Europe. But I for one don't think we are at the end of it yet.
Would you say the festival receives enough institutional or local support?
Yes, we enjoy loyal support from our local and institutional partners, as we have managed to build strong relationships with them over the years. There is a certain anxiety every year, of course, but we have managed to keep, cultivate and develop these traditional partnerships.
Astra invests a lot of energy in getting younger audiences involved. How important is it for the festival to educate a new generation of documentary lovers?
The Astra audience is indeed very young – 60% of the viewers are in the 18-34 age range – and they are curious, creative and eager for new experiences. I think those who love documentary cinema are also passionate about life and about understanding what it means to be alive in the present, and these two passions are very close to the heart of younger audiences. Youngsters are also very interested in watching documentaries in the newest formats that technology allows.
Astra Film Festival is also a point of interest for documentary students [it has a competition for school documentaries, with 15 shorts and features in the selection this year]. Every year, we receive more and more submissions from all over the world, which turns the selection into a difficult process. No matter the topic they examine, the selected movies are characterised by freshness and originality, and most of the young filmmakers are impressively mature, artistically speaking. Their mobility, curiosity and creativeness, their dedication to finding novel topics, be they close to home or in the most far-flung corners of the world, give us hope for the future of the genre.
The impact of Astra Film Junior, our festival-within-the-festival dedicated to very young viewers, stands as proof of the lasting effect that education through cinema has on new generations. Last year, Astra Film Junior surpassed 25,000 admissions, and this year, we expect even more “juniors” to show an interest in our programme. They can take part in “My First Film”, a workshop for high-school students, which will end with a gala where the films made by the very young participants will be screened in front of the audience. They can also watch films selected especially for ages between six and 15.
Astra Film Junior also offers a programme for teachers, providing guidelines for how to encourage their students to evaluate the films, with tools that are appropriate for their ages. For example, we have a comics competition for pupils in primary school: children can re-tell the story of a certain film through their own drawings, or even create an original story based on these drawings. It is vital to educate new generations of documentary lovers. They will be able to explore and understand reality, beyond lies and manipulation. Only by knowing reality can we understand it, and only by understanding it can we change it.
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