Romanian Karma; or: How I Became an Authority on South East European Cinema in a Matter of Days

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When I wrote "Romanian Cinema Is the Worst Thing to Ever Happen to the Romanian Tourism Industry" a couple years ago, I never thought that post would become the Internet phenomenon that it's become, still driving a healthy amount of traffic to this blog and still compelling people to leave remarks in what has become the longest comments thread here—a lot of it fueled by a blend of national pride, anger, and a severe misreading of my text.

That post—which dared to ask, jokingly, if Romania is the shithole that Romanian cinema makes it out to be—was not so much a criticism of Romania or even Romanian cinema. It was, rather, a criticism of an industry, an international system, that only allows certain types of movies from places like Eastern Europe to cross over to the United States.

Festival programmers and film distributors, you see, seem to like their Eastern European movies served up bleak, with a side of depression. That's why the only Romanian film that the average moviegoer has maybe heard of in the last few years is 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which I also affectionately call "that Romanian abortion movie" in order to drive home my point.

Imagine my surprise when I was contacted by the Director and Founder of the South East European Film Festival, which screens movies annually in Los Angeles. She stumbled upon me via the Internet—when you Google "Romanian cinema," as of this writing, my blog appears on the first page of results. Seriously.

So, surely, this woman—who hails from the former Yugoslavia and who is a champion of films from South East Europe—wanted to tear into me like so many Romanian commenters have on my blog, right?

Well, it turns out that she appreciated my sense of humor (and, I'm guessing, my being sophisticated enough to even want to go see films from Romania—I mean, seriously, do you know anyone who says they look forward to the newest Romanian export?). She asked me if I would be involved in her festival in some way, and that's how I ended up on two festival juries—one to determine this year's Best Short Fiction Film and one to choose Best Short Documentary—which means I had to screen 14 films, some of which were from...Romania!

And although those shorts did not make Romania out to be as much of a shithole as the features I've seen, I still don't want to visit—it's a country where cops accidentally shoot you and mothers try to marry off their daughters by placing jugs on fences as code for "Romanian Bride Available in This House! Come Right In!" No, thank you.

The idea that I could be recruited to act as some kind of authority on South East European cinema is patently absurd (I mean, I've never seen a Marvel movie I didn't like—even Daredevil with Ben Affleck!—don't judge me!), so I decided to take my duties to their illogical extreme and become as participatory in SEEFest, as it's also called, as much as possible.

I looked at the festival program and discovered that the opening night film was not only from Romania but it was also a romantic comedy! You read that correctly! They were going to screen a Romanian romantic comedy! And not only were they going to screen a Romanian romantic comedy, it was titled (say this in a thick accent) Hello! How Are You? Ha ha ha ha ha! If you're not laughing your ass off right now, you're not hearing it right. Imagine me doing a horribly offensive Romanian accent, smiling, and declaring, "Hello! How Are You? Is Romanian romantic comedy! Hello! How Are You? Is romance and comedy from Romania! Hello! How Are You?"

I mean, I didn't know Romanian romantic comedies even existed. In fact, it's been reported that there hasn't been a Romanian romantic comedy since 1990! That's more than 20 years! For more than 20 years, romance in Romania has never been funny! For more than 20 years, love is something you simply don't laugh about! I mean, cops accidentally shoot you and mothers place jugs on fences, remember?!

When I arrived at the festival location, the Goethe-Institut in Los Angeles, on Thursday, I headed straight for the free wine. You see, I still have the sneaking suspicion that "that Romanian abortion movie" is considered to be a comedy in Romania, so I needed to be fully prepared (read: liquored up) in case Hello! How Are You? was replete with horrifying imagery, say, lingering shots of dead fetuses (see: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days).

Before I could get too drunk, I was approached by the enthusiastic and strikingly elegant festival director, who showered me with praise about my work, and introduced me to a number of people in rapid succession, before leaving me to be cornered by a Turkish reporter who wanted to interview me on camera because, you see, I am, apparently, an authority on South East European cinema!

I managed to slither away because the program was about to start, but one of the reporter's Turkish colleagues assured me that they would track me down later. A promise? A threat? Drink up, Prince, it's going to be a long night!


Hello! How Are You? (Buna! Ce Faci?) is about an undersexed married couple who's lost that romantic spark after 20 years and their oversexed teenage son who can't seem to find contentment despite being quite the ladies' man.

Sex is a problem in contemporary Romania—too little of it and too much of it—but the characters seem to be afflicted by something deeper—yup, an existential malaise that Internet chat rooms (the husband and wife unwittingly start an online relationship with each other) and a career in porn (the son attempts to break into the industry) can't alleviate.


Well, guess what? Although it's not as hysterically funny as the Romanians in the audience thought it was (the Consulate General of Romania was there—can you believe how crazy my life is?!), Hello! How Are You? is actually quite charming (and unexpectedly sexy). Screenwriter Lia Bugnar and director Alexandru Maftei keep the narrative light and the characters sweet for as long as possible—before boldly betraying genre and offering up a (mostly) unhappy ending.

You see, the film is inspired by a true story that ends in divorce when the husband and wife finally discover they are chatting with each other. (Hey, you don't expect a Romanian movie to end happily, do you?) Although its conclusion is a bit downbeat, it's disarmingly affecting.

And considering the film is about middle-class (is there a class system in Romania?) Romanians, there's nothing about the movie that screams "Romania is a shithole!"—so Hello! How Are You? has tons of good things going for it.

This trailer may be NSFW because there's a very quick boob flash:


After doing a bit of research, I discovered that I am not crazy. The film's Romanian screenwriter told a blogger:

Most Romanian films are about misery. [Hello! How Are You?] is actually a nice film, so we are already starting with friendly adjectives when describing a Romanian film.... Ever since Romanian cinema started to have international success, many films made us well-known all over the world, but we know that Romanians do not watch them because nobody wants to see the mess in his own place. Maybe this is something they will want to see.

The blogger then asked the director, "How did you manage to make our so-unattractive Bucharest into such a romantic place?" The blogger actually asked that! Maftei replied:

You must look for the beautiful Bucharest to find it. Of course, you also need to wait for the proper light.... Some of the things we did ourselves. We paved a street in front of the car wash. The city hall helped us. We said: 'We want to shoot here, and it does not look good. Please pave the street.' And they did. That street is called George Vraca. So, I think you can find a beautiful Bucharest.

I managed to leave opening night without the Turkish reporter grabbing me and without having to face the Consulate General of Romania and answer for my crimes.

* * *

I just got back from attending closing night of SEEFest at the James Bridges Theater at UCLA, where I headed straight for the free wine as soon as I arrived—but there was no free wine to be had! They were saving it for the after-party, which means I was left wondering how I was going to sit through a Turkish political documentary about Turkey's effort to join the European Union and a Turkish art film about a woman who travels the country to collect depressing elegies.

Not only that, I had been tapped to co-present the awards for Best Short Fiction Film and Best Short Documentary. No. Seriously. I had to get up in front of an audience—because I am an authority on South East European cinema! (Two films tied for Best Short Fiction Film: a wicked and psychologically perverse Slovenian drama, The Visit, written and directed by Miha Mazzini, and a simple and heartfelt Hungarian piece about cultural prejudice titled Cold Shower, written and directed by Osri Nagypal. Best Short Documentary went to A Murder Revisited, Milan Miletic's engrossing exploration of hooligan violence in Serbia.)

After barely making it through the two Turkish films without falling asleep (to say the movies were glacially paced is an understatement), I headed for the free wine. Before I could pound it down, I was cornered once again by the Turkish reporter and his colleague, and I discovered that this interview they wanted to do was for Turkish National Television!—because I am an authority on South East European cinema! A list of excuses to aid in my escape flashed through my mind.

But because the reporter was hypnotically handsome and smiled a lot, I was lured in front of the camera, where he pulled the old bait-and-switch and fired a series of politically charged and historically probing questions at me, and I had to do my best to not sound like a complete idiot and to make sure to say a few nice things about the Turkish films I had just suffered sat through. I mean, I was on Turkish National Television!—what was I supposed to do?! I didn't want to end up in a Turkish prison! I saw Midnight Express—I know how unpleasant that could be!

Standing before the camera, a microphone in my face, I felt like I was in some kind of nightmare because what the hell do I know about the politics and history of the region? All I know, from living in Glendale, California, which is heavily populated by Armenians, is that you don't go into a restaurant and order a Turkish coffee anywhere within the borders of this city. That's it. That's all I know. (Oh, also, it's Istanbul, not Constantinople.)

Near the end of the evening, they announced the winner of the Audience Award, which was given to—are you ready for this?!—Hello! How Are You? (Is Romanian romantic comedy!)

During an award-acceptance photo op, a Romanian actor yelled, "Romania is good!" Am I paranoid, or was he looking directly at me when he said that?

This surely marks the end of Romanians' Internet war against me—Turkey can now officially pick up where they left off. Don't worry. I can handle it. (In case any Turks misread my text, I can assure you that I love you and your country! Your reporters are handsome and smile a lot!)

All in all, being a part of SEEFest was a lot of fun. I hope they invite me back next year. How could they not? After all...I am an authority on South East European cinema!

[Update 03.09.17: I'm also an authority on Thai cinema, as I just launched a website making that bold claim.]

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BAMBOO NATION: Romanian Karma; or: How I Became an Authority on South East European Cinema in a Matter of Days
Romanian Karma; or: How I Became an Authority on South East European Cinema in a Matter of Days
[Updated 2017] I was somehow mistaken as an expert on Romanian cinema as well as Southeast European film. What follows is unbelievable.
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