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SARAJEVO 2020 Competition

Ruxandra Ghiţescu • Director of Otto the Barbarian

“Any less-than-perfect reality tends to be marginalised and hidden away”

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- Romanian director Ruxandra Ghiţescu tells us about her film Otto the Barbarian, centred on a 17-year-old punk whose girlfriend has just committed suicide

Ruxandra Ghiţescu • Director of Otto the Barbarian
(© Norbert Fodor)

Films about teenagers are quite rare in Romanian cinema, where cinema usually favours mature protagonists. This question of representation is now less of an issue thanks to Ruxandra Ghiţescu’s debut feature Otto the Barbarian [+see also:
film review
interview: Ruxandra Ghiţescu
film profile
]
, which boldly tackles topics such as suicide and mental illness. Here is what the director has to say about the challenges faced while making her feature.

Cineuropa: The two most interesting recent films from Romania focusing on teenagers have main characters with a different sex from the director and screenwriter. Radu Muntean directed and co-wrote Alice T. [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Radu Muntean
film profile
]
, and you directed and wrote Otto. What challenges did this pose for you?
Ruxandra Ghiţescu: Thank you for this comparison, which I honestly find flattering. I wrote Otto’s character very carefully, especially because he is based more on observation and empathy rather than direct experience, even though many of his traits come straight from me. Together with Florentina Bratfanof, our casting director, I looked for the right actor for a long time, and I tried to learn something from the performance of every Otto I met. Marc Titieni is a very generous actor and we were able to build something together. The most sensitive moments were the ones concerning sexuality and violence. For these specific situations, we pushed even more, outside of Marc’s usual behavior and the projections we might have laid out. Laura's character was a challenge too, as it is not at all easy to imagine a 16-year-old girl, especially in her difficult context. Ioana Bugarin and Teona Galgoţiu were my close partners in creating Laura.

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An important part of the story is the relationship between Otto and Costin, the social worker investigating Laura’s death. What sort of preparation was there in writing Costin’s character?
I think Costin is the most documented character in the film. This slightly Mephistophelian figure was drawn from an occurrence I was told, in which a psychologist attached to a similar social investigation advises the child, at the end of their encounter, to see Andrei Rublev. I really empathised with Costin and I think this is very obvious in the film. While writing Costin, I had the help of several specialists who did social work. They guided me to related literature and I was able to examine, according to my abilities, several case studies.

Your film displays issues that could resonate profoundly with a teenage audience. Do you think the film could be screened and discussed in high schools?
I really hope this can happen. Lately, I have often found myself in contexts that brought teenagers within my focus, and I feel Otto is a mandatory film that addresses, with empathy I might add, lack of communication but also fear of mental illnesses. We are surrounded by so many fictitious happy narratives, redacted to look true, to the degree that any less-than-perfect reality tends to be marginalised and hidden away.

How do you feel as a director investing years in making a film and finding out days before its world premiere that it will not have a screening in front of a cinema audience?
I don’t really know how to express what I feel. As a director, I have never experienced a feature film premiere, so the only thing I’m losing is what I imagined it would be like. I really wished and hoped that the Sarajevo Film Festival would have physical screenings, and this was the plan for the organisers until the very last moment. For sure I wanted to share the emotion of the screening with the crew and the audience, but things are what they are. I must say that the Sarajevo team is struggling and mostly succeeding in offering a complete cinema experience. I feel involved and hope to receive feedback from those who have seen or will see my film.

How do you feel young audiences in Romania relate to local films with protagonists their own age? If some years ago we would have said that such films were hardly noticed, Oh, Ramona! [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
and 5Gang: Another Kind of Christmas [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
proved us wrong. How could this audience be drawn to more relevant and more challenging films like Otto?
It’s great that young moviegoers are not reticent to domestic films anymore, but I don’t really feel that we are targeting the same audience. Films like Oh, Ramona and 5Gang enjoy success because they start from a better position than most films produced in Romania and rely on different marketing budgets and/or on solid online communities, built over years.

I don’t know if a film like Otto can enter the same fight. Certainly Otto is a more challenging film, but I also believe it to be necessary and I trust that it will find its audience. Punk is not dead! Of course we are now talking from the perspective in which our reality will at some point return to more familiar patterns in terms of film distribution. We are living in a new age, so to speak.

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