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BERLIN – With serendipitous timing, this visually and emotionally rich documentary about a Romanian gypsy village premiered at the Berlin film festival this week just as Romanian president Traian Basescu was fined 600 lei ($185) for a recent speech in which he stereotyped Roma as petty criminals who are are too lazy to work. Such inflammatory rhetoric is commonplace in parts of Europe, especially around the Balkans, where the Roma have been a scorned and persecuted minority for centuries.
Produced by Munich’s school of film and television, The Forest is Like the Mountains is a German-Romanian co-production and graduation project for its co-director Christiane Schmidt. She and her Belgian collaborator Didier Guillain filmed over a year in a Roma village on the edge of Sfantu Gheorghe, a regional capital in central Romania, the heart of Dracula country. On paper the theme may sound like a dry academic exercise, but on screen it is warm, funny and immensely charming. With its newsy subject and high technical polish, further festival play is assured. After that, the small screen will likely be its natural home.
The main location is a rural shanty town with wooden shacks, unpaved roads and horses cantering lazily down the main drag. It looks like a mythic place from a Central European fairy tale, but the social problems the residents face are all too real, with unemployment and poverty rife. All the men are looking for work. Children cry with hunger.
Focusing on self-styled village patriarch Aron Lingurar and his extended family, the film-makers get under the skin of a community full of hardship, but also full of music and celebration, religion and superstition, family tension and teenage flirtation. Lingurar is a proud, avuncular and often comical figure, even when declaring his wrong-headed nostalgia for the brutal dictatorship of the late Nicolae Ceausescu.
The Forest is Like the Mountains feels like a companion piece to Danis Tanovic‘s An Episode In The Life of an Iron Picker, set in a similarly marginalized Roma village in Bosnia, which won a Silver Bear in Berlin last year and currently sits on the Oscars shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film. This documentary is less angry and less overtly political, woven as it is from dozens of small vignettes of daily life rather than a single life-changing crisis. This dearth of serious dramatic incidents could be seen as a flaw, but Schmidt and Guillain clearly had no intention to sensationalize. Their lyrical portrait of Roma life is selective and subjective, but does not feel overly sanitized.
Crucially, the film also looks terrific, with a warm and a vivid palette that often looks like colorized footage from the early 20th century. Extensive use of narrow depth of field and sharp foreground focus also lends many of these tableaux an almost 3D crispness. The camerawork is fluid while the editing has a musical rhythm, punctuated by recurring visual motifs, notably bundles of scavenged wood. Whether by accident or design, the scenes of potato-picking farm workers invoke iconic paintings by Millet and Pissarro.
The difficult balancing act in making this kind of ethnological study of an impoverished community is to avoid becoming too preachy on one hand, or too voyeuristic on the other. Both would be a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Fortunately, Schmidt and Guillain maintain a light touch, building up their observational character studies with a humane, humorous eye. Their tone is compassionate without being condescending, sympathetic rather than sentimental.
Production company: Hochschule fur Fernsehen und Film, Munich
Producer: Ferdinand Freising
Cast: Aron Lingurar, Elena Lingurar, Aronela Coscodar, Anamaria Lingurar, Aronas Lingurar, Camelia Lingurar, Simon Boros
Directors: Christiane Schmidt, Didier Guillain
Cineatographer: Christiane Schmidt
Editor: Lena Hatebur
Ton Didier Guillain
Sales company: Hochschule fur Fernsehen und Film, Munich
Unrated, 101 minutes
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