It’s all in the marketing. Say you’re going to Cluj-Napoca and you might get a disinterested geographical “Where’s that?” Say you’re going to Transylvania, however, and virgins, garlic, fangs and all things Dracula are thrown almost pruriently into the conversational mix. This is not limited to the British wit but seems to be something of a pastime even in native Romania.
Last time I was in Cluj-Napoca with my previous film, The Living and the Dead, I became festival friends with Udo Kier, the sometimes schlocky, sometimes fantastic Germanic actor from the 70s who often plays charismatic evil henchmen and occasionally Old Nick himself. A group of us including Udo wended our way to the Diesel Club one night, entering casually and confidently; one problem, however. The doorman wanted Udo to put his jacket in the cloakroom. Udo didn’t want to. A discussion ensued. Then a minor argument and Udo turns and says he can’t be bothered anymore and he’ll see us tomorrow. We bid farewell and continued our revelries. The next morning a Romanian newspaper headline screams: THE DEVIL GETS KICKED OUT OF CLUJ NIGHTCLUB! Welcome to the world of the Transilvania International Film Festival.
TIFF has been growing slowly but steadily since its inception nine years ago and now rates itself after Karlovy Vary and Sarajevo as the largest film festival in Eastern Europe. Like any great festival, the programming is admirably eclectic and the great line-up chosen by artistic director Mihai Chirilove boasts 270 films this year with sections ranging from the compulsory Romanian cinema to world cinema to horror to the unclassifiable. My latest film, Red White & Blue, which I wrote and directed, is a hard edged slacker revenge movie starring the fantastic Antipodean Noah Taylor. It’s a film we shot in Austin, Texas, last summer and one which premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival and then SXSW (in Austin no less) and is now energetically doing the festival circuit, generally to great critical acclaim and, so far, one prize. I guess I must have made a good impression last time to be invited back and added to this I’m also on the jury for the ‘Shadow Shorts’ – horror shorts basically, so I’m looking forward to the brief sojourn.
Arguably things start pretty badly for me when I have to wake up at 4.45am to get to Luton airport for an 8 o’clock flight but actually things take a potential turn for the much worse when I fall over at the airport. Occasionally I fall over when I’m skiing and even more occasionally when I’m drunk (less occasionally when I’m skiing drunk of course) but here I’m neither. I’m walking briskly to the check-in desk and try a quick one-two dodge past an old couple with a suitcase on wheels and a young girl with a shoulder bag. Somehow my feet get caught up in the suitcase and I swap ballast from one foot to the other. I trip over my own feet doing this because when the girl turns around with her bag and knocks me with it I have nothing to balance with and I’m sent crashing to the floor. I make a quick recovery, however, and pop back up off the floor dazed but fighting fit, accept all the profuse apologies but trying not to look anyone in the eye, speed walking out of the humiliating situation, no bones broken, no ligaments torn.
I pass out on the plane and wake up about 180 minutes later in Romania. Film festivals are great since there’s always someone to pick you up from the airport and take you to your hotel. At the hotel I’m shown to my room which turns out to be more of a penthouse suite than a room – with both a lounging area and an impressive flight of stairs to a split level bedroom. Yes! I grab an impressively cold Tuborg from the mini bar and a chocolate bar to celebrate my arrival and after supping half my drink I promptly pass out again – I guess I must be tired.
I wake up a few hours later and decide I shouldn’t spend the whole of my trip in my bachelor pad penthouse hotel suite so take quick stock of the activities presented to me in the welcome pack and decide to go to the early evening cocktails. Whether I’ve missed these or not I’m uncertain but I arrive at a courtyard and I’m directed to a table of five insalubrious film school types smoking and drinking beer. I decide not to go to the early evening cocktails but instead wander around the charming building. As it happens there’s an art gallery nestled in the top floor so I wander around this for a while and I’m pretty sure I spot top German director Wim Wenders. This wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility since a) he’s at TIFF for a lifetime achievement award and b) the exhibition is of photographs by Donata Wenders. I conclude, therefore, that it is Wim Wenders.
Part of me feels like saying hello but the other part of me is less forthcoming because in reality I think I’ve only ever liked one of his films, Paris, Texas, and that was about 25 years ago and I think I only liked it because it starred Nastassja Kinski, my main teenage crush; he’s also wearing some trainers which I find slightly mind-boggling. Oh well; I check out the show and I’m generally underwhelmed with a feeling that anyone could have taken these not terribly moody black and white photographs. There’s also a painting show which I gravitate to a fraction more, an impressionistic two-dimensional James Turrell if you will; simplistic but pleasant enough. Although this is the official opening (to which I suppose I’m not really invited), there’s no alcohol and I idly consider why this is important to me as Wim offers his speech about the value of painting in the 21st century. He then comes and stands right in front of me as the artist responds to the speech and I do the only sensible thing; I take out my camera phone and take photographs of Wim’s back. There’s only so many photos one man can take of another man’s back however and soon hereafter I leave and wander around the rustic town until the next reception (to which I am actually invited).
Cluj-Napoca itself has a charming, old-fashioned, even post-war feel to it with some elegant backstreets and a couple of stunning churches. Although an atheist, I’ve always loved the grandiosity and magnificence of religious architecture which combine with an austere introspective atmosphere and so, in the end, I spend about 45 minutes sitting in one the churches reflecting on MY LIFE SO FAR.
Although thirsty and exhausting work indeed, I’m slightly reticent about going to the next reception because, as far as I’m aware, I’ll know nobody there. But, hey, I need a (free) drink and film fests are all about meeting people, not hanging out by yourself. I try to make small chat in the minibus on the way to the party and succeed but moderately; the chat doesn’t take me as far as the minibus does that’s for sure. I enter the next reception alone, grab a sparkling wine and ‘circulate’. As luck would have it, I spot Rik Vermeulen, one of the main guys from Rotterdam Film Fest and also executive director of TIFF. I accost him and his table and start chatting to a director called Nowt who has a film in competition (bastard); he’s a friendly chap and actually, one of the best things about film fests is that they offer rare opportunities for directors to meet other directors so it’s always interesting to compare notes, bank accounts and girlfriends etc, etc. Whilst we’re doing exactly this a woman bounces chirpily up to me and says “You’re Simon aren’t you!?” There’s no denying it, it’s true. She introduces herself as Michelle and even though I have no idea who she is, we chat amiably. Sometime later, I still can’t work out who she is and I ask if we’ve met. We haven’t but it turns out she’s also on the shorts jury with me.
Around this time Wim also turns up and wanders around like he’s not quite sure what he’s doing there, looking slightly isolated from the rest of the party, looking like he is the existential director pondering the value of all these free sausage rolls and lukewarm fizzy wine but you know, whatever, I’m having a great time chatting to my new chums Nowt and Michelle. Rik’s already left for the next party and we’re not far behind. ‘If it’s Thursday, it must be the HBO party’ the invitation reads and it turns out to be at Cluj’s most famous nightspot from whence the Devil himself was once ejected; the Diesel Club. This time no-one gets kicked out and in fact it’s so overwhelmingly packed that the bouncers must have let the whole town in. Nonetheless the drink supply remains overwhelmingly intact and the parting gift of a wooden spoon and solar panelled light-box are unusual but worthy additions to my growing collection of useless but appreciated film festival and party giveaways.