Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A little Romania Fatigue

I must admit, I'm feeling it: I have a little case of Romania Fatigue.

For all of those Romanians out there, who constitute our most loyal fan base (largely because the friends and family of Sorinescu seem to be the only ones actually reading this blog), let me first say this: I love Romania. The first time I came to Romania, I couldn't believe it was still a largely undiscovered tourist destination, because parts of it are just fairytale beautiful. I went camping in the Carpathians and strolled through charming mountain villages and marveled at the beauty of cities like Sibiu, Brasov, and Bran. Romania is a fascinating country filled with intelligent people who have a culture worthy of worldwide appreciation. It's also a country that got a lot of bad press in the early 1990's because of the child welfare situation, and like many Americans and other Europeans who've been here since, it was through working with a group of children in the system that I came to discover all of the other beautiful things about this country. There's an apt neologism for this kind of trip: "voluntourism." I came, I volunteered, I traveled. I fell in love with Romania, and the next year, I fell in love with Sorin. How could I not think Romania was a magical place?

I might not have come to Romania at all if it hadn't been for my friend Kim, who was in the Peace Corps here from 1995-96. She taught English at a high school in Bistrita, and also started a project in which teenagers from her school were paired up as mentors with children from the local orphanage or "casa de copii." Kim continued this project after she left Romania, and I joined her in 2001 to help out with an art therapy camp. I came back the next year, and now I'm here for nine months to do a documentary about several of the children I worked with in the first camp. I love documentaries that follow people over long periods of time; I am fascinated with the ways that people evolve over time--the twists and turns that life takes. Michael Apted's "7-Up" series is the best-known example of this kind of film. When I first met the children, they were living in an institution. Now, they're in foster families. I would like to come back in four more years, to see what happens when they leave the child welfare system and are on their own. I am not sure yet what shape the final film will take; it is a long process that right now is motivated most strongly by curiosity and concern. I like and care about these kids, and I am very curious to know how they are doing. Yes, there are themes and structures and techniques that I think about from a filmmaking perspective, but right now I am focusing more on the curiosity and less on structure; trying to trust that this will gradually emerge. It's not so easy sometimes.

So, this brings me back to my fatigue . . .This fatigue comes from the disconnect I feel between my own interest in the kids and my desire to have others know them through me (via the film), and the reaction I get from Romanians when I tell them what I'm doing here. One of the most important attributes a filmmaker can have is a thick skin, coupled with an absolute conviction about one's work. I have neither at the moment, to be honest. Thin-skinned and capable of seeing others' point of view to the point of losing track of my own, I find it a daily struggle to defend myself against the disapproval. The objections are nearly universal: "Why can't you show the beautiful things about Romania? Romania has more than abandoned children! Why don't you document the problems in your own country?" These questions range in tone from teasing, to impassioned, to angry. While I initially found the candor and directness of Romanians refreshing, I must admit that I am very weary of defending myself. If one more Romanian suggests that I make a travel program about monasteries, I think I will scream.

The monasteries in Romania are VERY NICE. I also personally think they are VERY BORING ON VIDEOTAPE. This is not to say that an excellent documentary on Romanian monasteries could not or should not be made--BY ROMANIANS. Seriously, you Romanians, get your video cameras out, and start documenting those monasteries! We all have our ideas of what we think is beautiful. I personally think that the children I know are beautiful and interesting, and it's unfortunate that the "abandoned child" has become the symbol of Romania's bad international image. The kids certainly have no idea that they're part of the reason for Romania's bad press, or that they're part of a grim historical legacy (Ceauscescu's anti-contraception policies and otherwise disastrous government policies), or that they're ugly and embarrassing things not to be videotaped, for fear of damaging Romania's image. It's true, my subject is not new or original, but my approach is sincere. That's all I can do.

I welcome comments that come from a concern about the children's rights, and about the role of the media in general. I empathize with Romanians' frustrations with members of the international media--who are usually able to travel with greater ease than they--who come here looking for the exotic, the dramatic, and the sensational, just as they do everywhere, in every country. I agree that outsiders' perceptions of Romania are skewed by a disproportionate focus on certain subjects and stereotypes. But these mediamakers aren't out to destroy Romania. And in the case of the abandoned children, the media attention brought a great deal of aid to the country that helped to improve conditions dramatically for this population group (which has yet to decline in numbers.)

Yes, there are a gazillion social problems to document in the US. But I'm really here to document a "social problem." I am just following a story about these kids, in a country I think is amazing. Hopefully the "beautiful things" about Romania will come through. In the meantime, I am just going to have to learn to develop a thicker skin.


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