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ASTRA 2020

Dumitru Budrala • President and founder, Astra Film Festival

“The audience was our main partner”

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- We talked to Dumitru Budrala, the president and founder of the Astra Film Festival, about how outdoor screenings are an effective way to rejuvenate one’s audience

Dumitru Budrala • President and founder, Astra Film Festival

The 27th edition of the Astra Film Festival, Romania’s longest-running documentary gathering, came to a close last night. We talked to Astra president Dumitru Budrala about the secret tools a festival needs in order to turn a challenging edition into an audience darling.

Cineuropa: The open-air edition of Astra 2020 has come to an end. What conclusions have you drawn from it?
Dumitru Budrala:
It’s been something entirely new both for the audiences and for us, the organisers. Even if we’ve been doing this since 1993, this edition was indeed special, as we had to face a novel challenge, the pandemic. And we re-invented almost everything with a hybrid format: Open Air and Online. Our outdoor edition re-confirmed the necessity of a physical festival, because no matter how vivid our life online can be, it is hard to equal a screening in front of the audience. And we’ve had such a wonderful audience. The audience was our main partner this year, and we were blessed with amazing weather. These ten days have been something to remember. As they say, something to tell your grandchildren about…

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Astra usually has a pretty well-established structure. How was it switching to so many outdoor locations?
Everything went smoothly, even when we had to face a little hiccup or something unexpected. The screening locations are so important for the atmosphere of a festival, as they contextualise the interactions between the filmmakers and the audience. These meetings go on rather differently when the screening is outdoors, and as we had to leave our traditional indoor venues, everything had to be adapted. And it was a challenge indeed, as Astra has never been associated with these kinds of events, which usually unfold in an atmosphere of relaxation and fun – for example, screenings of comedies or watching football matches. Here, we had to take a risk, and our satisfaction was tremendous as we saw Astra’s traditional audience welcoming these changes and even coming to screenings accompanied by new, truly enthusiastic and very young members of the public. We thought we were living through a difficult situation, and then we discovered these spectacular results, with Q&As so long that they had to wrap up only because the next film was supposed to start screening.

Would you say that this edition came with any opportunities? If so, what were they?
The audience’s reaction is the true judge of a festival’s success, and I think this edition has many reasons to linger in people’s memories. One of these reasons is, for example, our screenings where the viewers were sitting in boats. For three nights, we screened films on a giant screen located among the windmills in the Astra Museum, and the viewers rowed their boats under the starry sky to take their place in front of the screen as a fanfare band played on a ferry nearby. This viewing experience made us reconsider our surroundings and, while we were seemingly trapped by health restrictions, turn the situation into an opportunity. I especially remember the screening of IHuman: the boats slowly moving on the surface of the water became a metaphor for the uncertainty we are living through, while the film talked about how quickly society changes, even without us being aware of it.

I would also like to mention how both our generous audience and our guests stressed again and again how much they needed physical, cultural gatherings. We have many reasons to think that this edition brought the local audience back to life, and we all discovered together how vibrant outdoor venues are and how they make the festival more accessible to those who want to enjoy documentaries for the first time.

Speaking of younger audiences, it seems as though you curated the selection to accommodate their interests.
Indeed; when we decided to have an outdoor edition, we adapted to the new conditions. We removed some films that may have been too long or too experimental, favouring documentaries with extremely powerful stories. We even turned to some recent titles in our archive, as they were very well suited to outdoor screenings. As the students were still enjoying their summer holidays, Astra discovered that many very young viewers accompanied our traditional, more mature audience to the screenings.

The open-air edition was dominated by the Romanian Competition. Would you say there is a particular trend or a specific point of interest in the local crop of documentaries from 2020?
We favoured this competition as local filmmakers could attend the screenings. As for a trend, the only constant was, if I may say so, the great diversity of the stories and approaches in the 11 films competing for the awards. It is always rewarding to discover that new and powerful filmmakers are adding their voices to the chorus that makes us go back to our perennial credo, “Documentary Matters”.

What should we expect from the October edition of Astra? You announced an online event, but now the cinemas are open…
Yes, the authorities recently announced that audiences can go back into cinemas. We will make films available on our viewing platform, astrafilm.ro, including the International Competition, New Voices in Documentary, the Eastern and Central European Competition, and some thematic sidebars. But we are also considering screening movies in cinemas. Anyway, for certain, the online edition will include meetings with the international directors and our industry event, DocTank@AFF.

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