• International Competition



Ana Lungu

How is memory constructed? What remains of individual and collective stories? For this initial work with and on archives, Ana Lungu takes us to Romania, mainly the Romania of the Ceausescu years. To start, several background images, including one of her own family. What should be done with this material, produced in a context of political oppression? Family and private space, its secrets and their intricacies, will be our tour guide for this journey through time across half of the 20th century. But what can these images tell us? Undoubtedly more, and possibly something other than what they show: between their subject matter itself and the off-screen we can guess at, between the person who produced them and what the images are saying, sometimes reluctantly. In this wavering, Lungu, attentive yet without fetishism, decides to intensify the fiction they describe. Through the three chosen moments – a child in the 1980s-90s, a music teacher from the 50s to the 80s (the Communist era and its prohibitions), and an aristocratic couple caught up in the Second World War – Merman takes us on a journey through these ordinary, unremarkable lives and the desires and fantasies they convey (passionate love, a father’s gaze, the life of a bachelor) caught up in the constraints and contradictions of their time just like the authors of these images. Ana Lungu gives these lives a new lease of life, reinventing them in a dialectical movement that challenges the false evidence of narrative and images. Between what we hear and what unfolds before our eyes, the beauty is all the more clearly restored, as are the cruelty and violence of which they are in turn the sign and the instrument.

Nicolas Feodoroff

In this new project Triton (Merman), you use exclusively family and private archives (films and photographs), from 40s to 90s: a young girl’s childhood, a music professor documenting decade of his life, and an aristocrat capturing his wife during wartime. How do they come from? What interested you in this material?

Often when one decides to make an archival film, it’s because one has a desire to work on a particular subject for which you go to the archive to find the images to illustrate your ideas. But in my case, this happened in reverse: the images found me, not the other way around.
The project started years ago when I discovered my uncle’s 8mm rolls shot during the Ceausescu era. While most of the images I knew from that time were official propaganda images, I was fascinated by this “uncensored, amateur” gaze and for some time I tried to make a film out of my family archive. This work has led me to discover other sources: the vast image archive of the music professor Alexandru P. and some rare 8 mm footage shot during the 40s.
Because 8 mm technology was widely available in the Western world during the ’60s and the ’70s, home movies were common place and are associated with the ordinary. But in Romania it was extraordinarily rare and those who had a camera understood the dangers associated with filming anything that would expose them to the wrath of the regime. The same rule applied to photographs — this why there are so few photos taken in the streets during the dictatorship. A Romanian Jonas Mekas could not exist.

The material is real, but the characters you build with them are partly fictitious. How did you come to make this choice?

In the very beginning I didn’t know anything about the people in these found images. (except the ones in my family). So, the first step was to identify the faces and connect them to stories, letters, other documents. But some of these “matches” proved later to be false. This made me think of W.G. Sebald and the way he was combing text with image, fact with fiction, quotation with invention. In an interview he was saying “that we tend to believe in pictures more than we do in letters. Once you bring up a photograph in proof of something, then people tend to accept that, well, this must have been so.”

We cross the decades, but the film follows a complex narrative, not chronological, intertwining the stories, and structured in chapters. How this structure came out? How did you work with Dane Komljen, who wrote and edit the film with you.

When I found myself with three private archives, discovered by chance, that didn’t have anything in common, my first instinct was to unite them into a single narrative. For two years I worked in this direction with a French editor and a writer but we didn’t succeed. Then I worked by myself for another year and then Dane arrived into the project. We immediately decided to keep the three parts distinct and to treat them stylistically different. He came with the idea of using a different person for the V.O. for each part which I liked a lot. We worked together at my home in Bucharest, exactly this time last year; editing and writing together during the day, then me recording the voice at night.
Regarding the editing, it is not always following narrative continuity. Sometimes we tried to establish more poetical connections. Like this moment, when after Alexandru P. dies, we cut to the beach full of tourists – which we imagined a sort of Paradise for him. And there also shots that are simply there for the sake of beauty that we saw in them, without any justification.
Dane’s role in the concept of the film was crucial. He is the one who helped me organise the huge amount of materials and give Merman the actual form.

We hear a narrator, who seem to be built as character. This female voice narrates, sometimes comments her position as a viewer. She also seems to exist in a concrete, sonic space. What significance do these aspects have for you?

Doing the research for the film I felt like a detective investigating other people’s lives. Like a Securitate agent, only with a different purpose. And this was the starting point for the narrator character: realising that I, as a filmmaker, am an intruder in the land of personal and private memory. In the words of the poet and writer Maria Stepanova: “Without being aware of it, I had internalized the logic of ownership. Not in the sense of a tyrant, lording it over his hundreds of enslaved peasants, but perhaps like the tyrant’s enlightened neighbor, with a landscaped park and a theater in which his serfs acted and sang. The subject(s) of my film had become my property, to treat as I wish. And they cannot object or react to this, for obvious reasons: they are dead.”

The narrative mainly takes place during the communist era. Was it important from the beginning of the project?

I was born in 1978, so I grew up in the worst years of Ceausescu era. During the 80’s, the dictator’s control over the population increased and dissimulation became a necessary survival skill as citizens remained acutely conscious of the difference between their private realities and their public personas. This split between private and public is a characteristic of life under totalitarianism – like it is today in Russia, Iran, Syria. As a result, I think, images that emerge from such regimes are valuable, as they show as much as they conceal, preserve as much as they erase.

One of the cores of the film is love, sexuality, but seen in way from a male gaze. At one point, you use erotic and pornographic images. What was your interest in using again these images?

My interest in those images was mainly political. In communist Romania explicit eroticism and pornography were prohibited. The de-erotisation of art and literature was a particular aspect of the official cultural doctrine. It is in this the context that I discuss the pornographic images and the male gaze in my film.

The title?

The Romanian Triton and its English equivalent, the Merman is the legendary male animal that sometimes can be described sometimes as ugly and sometimes as beautiful. In music theory, the tritone is defined as a musical interval spanning three adjacent whole tones (six semitones). It is a harmonic and melodic dissonance that can be used to avoid traditional tonality.

Interviewed by Nicolas Feodoroff

  • International Competition
16:1527 June 2024Cinéma Artplexe 3
16:1528 June 2024Variétés 1
18:4529 June 2024Cinéma Artplexe 3

Technical sheet

Romania / 2024 / Colour and B&W / 85'

Original version: Romanian
Subtitles: English, French
Script: Dane Komljen, Ana Lungu
Photography: found footage found footage
Editing: Dane Komljen
Sound: Vlad Voinescu, Filip Muresan

Production: Adrian Sitaru (4 Proof Film)
Contact: Ana Lungu, Iriana Cuconu

THE BELLY OF THE WHALE, 2010, 64 min
ONE AND A HALF PRINCE, 2018, 105 min