TIFF fever: behind the scenes of Romania’s biggest film festival with Oana Giurgiu

Oana Vasiliu 13/06/2024 | 16:58

Over 150,000 film enthusiasts are expected to arrive in Cluj-Napoca this year for the Transylvania International Film Festival (TIFF), the country’s largest film festival, taking place both in cinema halls as well as in outdoor and alternative spaces. We talked to Oana Giurgiu, the executive director of TIFF, to find out more about the architecture of this event.


What are the stages of building a festival like TIFF?

First, there is a team that works on the festival year-round, covering aspects like international relations, management, and more. Some of my colleagues work all year to collect key information from the field, which we discuss periodically to stay updated on various projects and their status.

Starting in April, I begin receiving all the information my colleagues have collected. My role is to blend this information effectively, a process that includes engaging in discussions with sponsors, partners, and cultural institutes focused on specific countries. I work on integrating and synthesising all the data. You can’t run a festival on a fixed recipe, using the same locations and film structures every time. You need to come up with some new things as well.

What does all the behind-the-scenes work involve when it comes to aligning concepts, sponsors, and films with spaces that are somewhat limited?

The cinemas are somewhat limited, but we also have alternative spaces in universities, theatres, cultural houses, with the same main festival locations every year. In a recent discussion, I realised that we lack medium-sized halls—not just cinemas but event or concert spaces. We’re not talking about malls; our festival isn’t one to be held at a mall.

A festival is unique; it possesses a distinct energy that you can’t find in a busy place like a multiplex, which may offer perfect screen and sound quality but lacks the complete experience. That kind of experience is available year-round, but not at a festival.

How do you connect with the communities around the alternative locations you find, like the university spaces? Do you plan for specific audiences, like in a marketing manual?

Things don’t work that way. Although the festival has been in Cluj for 24 years, the student population changes every 3-4 years, so we always have a new audience. While we have some veteran attendees and a core 30+ audience, we’re constantly thinking about engaging new viewers. Each location choice involves evaluating and balancing various factors. We focus on cinemas in neighbourhoods farther from the centre, aiming to revive them since they are often quite inactive during the year and benefit from people being reminded of their presence.

We have a good idea of the kind of audience each TIFF festival location might attract and which potential audience is still unreached. But things are always changing. For example, last year in Manastur, we discovered impressive recreational grounds with a young population and many children. Observing the city’s urban changes helps us identify new audiences to engage.

Now that you’ve reached the 23rd edition, could you explain in more detail how you view the city centre versus the neighbourhoods?

I’m a doer, not a social strategist, but I always consider people’s comfort. My goal is to bring culture into their lives while making sure they are comfortable. When we started the festival, we aimed to celebrate in the city centre. However, cinemas were distributed differently back then. After years in the central area, we felt the need to expand, so we started moving towards the city’s neighbourhoods.

One of the main reasons we started this festival was to revive cinema attendance and promote Romanian films. We succeeded, as evidenced by the vibrant Romanian Film Days at the end of the festival, which are always eagerly awaited by the Cluj audience.

Beyond leaving the centre, we’ve also aimed to promote Cluj’s surroundings. We started with Bonțida and continued with other places like the castles at Gilau, Vlaha, and the refurbished castle at Rascruci. We’ve always sought out new, alternative spaces to give back to the community.

What do you still find as challenging as you did back in the first edition?

Finding new places. They are always changing. The city is always changing. You just have to pay attention to it. A stranger, someone who comes from outside, sees things differently than you do in your city and has a different perspective. Many of the new places have been discovered by people who didn’t pass by them all the time. I find it beautiful to look at the city as a living being with all sorts of moods; sometimes it’s friendly, other times it’s not. The city is alive. And there’s always something new for me.

How do you see other film festivals?

It’s an exchange of ideas—they probably steal from us, and we steal from them. We have some “favourites,” meaning festivals that are similar in size and sometimes take steps ahead of us, and other times it’s the other way around. But yes, you need to watch to see the dynamics and what they’re doing.

What do these festivals actually mean? They are big events that bring the city together, and some are cultural events, but beyond that, they are social events where people and the city interact, where foreigners come and discover those places. It’s an opportunity for development.

I was rather curious about this multi-faceted role of yours, as a producer and director, as a simple spectator, as an industry specialist.

I wear many hats, and that helps me see the big picture. Festivals vary, they happen in all kinds of places from university towns to tourist spots like Venice, and each offers lessons to improve ours.

As an event organiser, it’s crucial to view the festival from an attendee’s perspective. My secret is to imagine knowing nothing about the event, experiencing it fresh, and seeing how well it guides me.

How do you take feedback and implement it?

There are several levels of feedback. In my role, I receive immediate, critical feedback from industry professionals, which I find more valuable than praise. We also partner with the School of Sociology for annual surveys to understand participant interests, with this year’s focus being on sustainability.

Feedback also comes from the film selection team, based on ticket sales and public votes. Each location has a mini-team that gathers on-the-spot feedback, helping us make improvements for future editions. Many changes have been driven by public feedback.

What do foreigners find most impressive when they come to TIFF?

If you ask people about TIFF, they often mention the parties, but it’s really the warm, familiar energy that everyone feels. TIFF has cultivated this atmosphere in Cluj from the beginning, and I vividly remember our journey. We’ve fostered a sense of community and easy interaction, making it a festival for the public. Each year, we strive to engage new audiences.

Have you found the same familiarity at any other festival?

It’s not necessarily Balkan. I recall an exotic festival in Manaus, in the Amazon rainforest, with a 19th-century theatre. The same team organises theatre, film, and jazz festivals, creating a veryh welcoming atmosphere. This familiarity is common in smaller festivals and something we’ve never wanted to lose at TIFF, even as we’ve grown. Knowing your location and audience is crucial to staying on the right path.

What motivates you to do what you do?

What motivates me is the wonderful team, the challenge, and the constant variety. It’s like a family, even for those who are no longer on the TIFF team. This family feeling shines in critical situations. Once, we had to move a party for 1,000 people within a few hours. Everyone, including former team members, came together, ready to carry things, help with the set up, and decorate. It was amazing to see everyone waiting for the signal to start working and I believe this is the essence of TIFF.

What advice would you give to a team of young people who are thinking of creating a festival?

First, consider the cultural history of the place and whether it needs what you’d be offering. Some cities search for their identity, unaware that it’s already there.

Think about the foundation you’re building on, the history of the place and its audience. Then, find partners—godparents, really—and sponsors who believe in your vision, allowing everything to grow organically.



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