February 22, 2024


Transition, Tradition: On Three Recent Experimental Short Films

Sometimes, distance can be way more interesting than the close proximity. In the seemingly distance between three recent short films, started from the same initiative* and screened in very different ways, fits a good part of the current state of the Romanian experimental cinema, insular by tradition, precarious and non-institutionalized. Between Lucky Girl Syndrome, Captures and A Dying Leaf Should Be Able to Carry the Weight of the World, the movies of Raya Al Souliman, Ana Gurdiș and Thea Lazăr carry an entire dual and uninterrupted history of thinking and, at the same time, of the experimental cinema’s production in Romania.

Once essentialized, this history shows that, uncoincidentally, the most interesting experiments of Romanian cinema – not a lot, but representative: two or three movies by Wanda Mihuleac, also about two-three by Ion Grigorescu, Eu-Tu-Martor (1979) by Constantin Flondor, Va veni o zi (1985) by Copel Moscu, Generation Loss (2009) by Michele Bressan & Larisa Sitar, Soarele și dublul său (2014) by Mona Vătămanu & Florin Tudor and so on – have as the main subject the ontology of image, a visual awareness which developed in time until this day, contemporary to Lazăr Gurdiș and Al Souliman. This awareness is not easy to put into words – it is linked by some sort of artisanal way of frame-by-frame filmmaking (Mihuleac and Grigorescu, for instance, edited from the camera), then watching frame by frame (Bressan, Sitar, Vătămanu and Tudor belong to the media theory generation, with Andrei Ujică as its forerunner) and afterwards, meaning now, in the all-media generation of living frame by frame (spiritual parent and terrible child: Radu Jude). With such differences, the films of these three share this moment of imagery.

Lucky Girl Syndrome can be confusing, which rarely happens in cinema. It is, after all, a correspondence diary that Al Souliman makes from Zurich for those back home, filming herself in postcard landscapes that she captures in an annoyingly ironic, cold yet sensitive voiceover coming from the off, or rather sensitively cold, not letting the images consume her self-evident imagery – the I’m good spoken in breathless whispers. But the film is not so simple in its contradictions. Firstly, because there is no but in Al Souliman’s film (an exercise in montage), but only at the same time (an exercise in composition) – everything is beautiful and at the same time not so much. She, the first person in every image and every word in the film, is in the landscape from the very beginning, does not occupy it, hijacking it into the portrait – like those violent tourist selfies, the most harmless manifestation of the cultural desire to occupy – does not contemplate it pictorially, nor does she allow herself to be lost in it, thanks to an almost paranoid attention of turning the camera on at the right moment when every other presence is evacuated from the landscape. Perhaps this co-existence in the frame of something and something else, this almost primal understanding of representation on screen, however essentialist, is not meant to mean much. And yet it impresses me, almost moves me, as it is not often seen in contemporary cinema.

The filmmaker is not well in Switzerland but wishes she were: happier, wealthier, more Swiss, more self-confident, often thwarting in tone the nastiness of these maybes, hence the need for a lucky girl syndrome (telling yourself all is well until it is), but a muted, endless murmur. Many of the questions she asks herself in the off are naive, somewhat silly – what if I had been born here? –, but common to all, inevitable, haunting, perfectly closed, and yet not alienated, as the first person often is. I’m fascinated by Lucky Girl Syndrome precisely because I’m stuck in it, not knowing how to put into words its state of grace in which nothing matters – because everything will be okay, and when it’s okay, it won’t matter. “Contradiction is the clearest way to truth,” the voiceover says to itself, looking at itself. If the so-called content of a film is light – making the invisible visible – and the form: darkness, then Al Souliman’s film is a glimmer of fluorescence.

Captures by Ana Gurdiș is a family film in a circular kind of way – photographer father, filmmaker daughter, a closed circle rolling in time. We know all too well, that family archives and narratives are transforming in contemporary art from family stories to Christmas-like family stories. More or less the same, but always effective, for few can escape the narcotic sensation instigated by the searing, unbound and unpredictable, and thus unsuspected, attachment to a grimace, a gesture, a stranger’s photographically eternalized presence – to an unlikely stranger, as Walter Benjamin splendidly put it in a passage I never shy away from quoting in extenso:

“(…) in photography we find something new and strange: in that fishmonger in New Haven who sits with her gaze downcast, with such lazy and seductive modesty, there remains something that does not become a testimony to the art of the Hill photographer, something that cannot be silenced, stubbornly demanding the name of the one who lived there, who is still alive, real and here, and who will never fully become ‘art’.[1]

Films such as Captures, in which the first person takes the lead on these photographs, often tell a simple story, just like Gurdiș’ – it captures the form, also through simplicity: the screen is taken over photo after photo, imitating the ritual act of flipping through these albums. The father was a photographer, and we are shown some of his photographs, he met his future wife – photographs of her, then of the two of them – they had a child: a photo, then a second, the filmmaker herself, etc. Of course, this is far from a mechanical process. But it becomes a method – of documentation, hypersensitive to the story (the images illustrate this), and seemingly indifferent to the images themselves. Among these some are fabulous, like that family photo in which a mother and father (the same?) pose in a garden with the baby, and beyond the fence, down-right, nestled in another garden, a little girl squinting at the camera; or the one of the older sister in the yard posing straight and bright in a white dress, and halfway down the side, the younger sister (the filmmaker) doing the same. I wish the filmmaker’s omniscience had gone into such detail – for, despite her stated fascination with the photographs taken by her father at festive dinners and weddings and birthdays, until recently bastardized in the family album, the interest seems to be in revelation as plot-twist, not in these documents of facts and sensibilities belonging to the father.

But everything changes in the end, when a generic credit admits, “The film contains photographs from my father’s archive and images from an unknown archive found on the streets of Bucharest”. A kind of spectator paranoia demands the right to review, but the situation is awkward – which of the photos might seem more authentic to a Bessarabian amateur photographer? The filmmaker’s omniscience played a trick on the screen, provoking photography’s fundamental paradox of loading and then unloading information from one viewer to another: masking them as historical documents arranged linearly, chronologically, Gurdiș made use of their magical consciousness, as Vilém Flusser calls it: “This space-time peculiar to the image is nothing other than the world of magic in which everything participates in a context full of meaning. Such a world differs structurally from historical linearity in which nothing is repeated, everything has a cause and produces effects. For example: in the historical world the sunrise is the cause for the rooster crow; in the magical world the sunrise means the rooster crow, and the rooster crow means the sunrise.”[2] Never a “pure”, factually intelligible document, Captures – what a bland, yet perfect title for the act of photography, this creator of a continuous past – also becomes an exercise in the composition of faces and places: which does not fundamentally change its state of affairs but invites reflection. Indeed, Gurdiș has tacitly fooled the screen, freed herself from convention and proved something about the nature of photography: but she has sacrificed the spontaneous and unconditional delicacy of her family album.

I don’t doubt that, for some years now, the most interesting Romanian animations have not been called such anymore, but videos, digital art, pixel-something, despite – or maybe due to – the fact that the film industry did not pay attention to them; out of ignorance, or maybe because of the infantilization that has cursed animation in the guild, reducing it again and again to fantasy. Thea Lazăr doesn’t have much fantasy, but a concept – the death of passion for the film industry, the eternal obsession of the visual arts industry: A Dying Leaf Should Be Able to Carry the Weight of the World, like her previous films, makes vindictive use of animation to give moving, retaliatory power to historically two-dimensional, unjust images, such as female portraits (in For You Can See No Other, 2021) or, in this film, plant iconography in botanical gardens.

Like Captures, Lazăr’s film tacitly invokes Flusser’s distinction between the two kinds of representation and reception of the world, the historical – linear – and the visual – magical. And this is because both pose the question of preservation, of all that remains and is lost in a culture that wants to preserve itself in its entirety. In fact, in these terms, A Dying Leaf Should Be Able to Carry the Weight of the World is the unsuspecting counterpart to Captures.

Comparing recent footage from a visit to the “Garden of Five Continents” in Cluj – shaky frames, eulogistic, almost religious glances at the museum’s geometric misanthus, with its sheen of glass and laminated wood under neon light – with illustrations from the printed guide to the same greenhouse in ‘79, the filmmaker immediately assures the museum’s presumption as a keeper of history. Accompanying the images, the voiceover gives rise to an open essay, rather in the form of notes, little odes of poetry and theory – a Teleencyclopedia of critical theory – about, on the one hand, the power of botanical conservation as a science, and on the other, the ideological limits of museum practices, the violence that knowledge and documentation have presupposed, the impression of the culture’s domination over the nature they nurture, etc. It may seem paradoxical that, with these arguments on the table, the text continues to show itself enamored of preserved plant exhibits. But this is not at all the case, for Lazarus prizes the image of plants, and thus the magical understanding of them, as a landscape in their own right, not the backdrop for human civilization as it becomes in institutionalized history. This is beautifully seen in its climactic moments, when the images in the greenhouse become abstract, melting into 3D animations of living, pre-applied, and wild landscapes, the revenge of the moving image over the fixed, culturally set one.

It worries me to hear Raya Al Souliman wondering if she’ll make films again. Just as it worried me to read Jude’s statement, already at a very high point in his career, about his first film that he called “experimental”: “I hope there will be the possibility of screening this film in Romania, either in cinemas or galleries.” But to get back to these three short films, I don’t know what to write so as not to sound reductive – that I wish them a lot of screen time. Of course, I do, what I saw seems infinitely more valuable than many hours of ordinary films distributed in Romania. A way out of the insularity of short films, non-fiction, experimental?

Definitely, for I felt again that I had been shown an important secret, like when I saw all those movies I breathlessly listed at the beginning. And it always seemed to me that a secret worth complicity is already a public secret, made to circulate, thus defying its context: that an image worth having is already a public image.


*The films were commissioned by artist Larisa Crunțeanu, general director of the 2023 edition of the One World Romania Film and Human Rights Festival, in continuation of the inaugural exhibition curated by her “Research for Tomorrow. Videodioramas” (20 March – 20 April 2023, Scena9 Residence). Work-in-progress versions of the films premiered at the festival’s Timișoara retrospective on 5 November 2023. This text was also commissioned as part of the same project.


[1]  Walter Benjamin, “Scurtă istorie a fotografiei”, IDEA Magazine, translated by Maria-Magdalena Anghelescu, opened on 29th December 2023.

[2]  Vilém Flusser, Pentru o filosofie a fotografiei, „Imaginea”, Idea Design & Print, Cluj, trad. Aurel Codoban,  p. 9 .


Translated by Liliana Popescu


Călin Boto

Călin Boto is the editor-in-chief of the cinema magazine Film Menu and the coordinator of its weekly film club. As a freelancer, he collaborates with several publications and film festivals, includin...

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