Film review and interview – Wild Romania, a ten-year journey from idea to breathtaking nature documentary
Our film columnist Ioana Moldovan has talked to the creators of Wild Romania, one of the most appreciated documentaries launched in Romania in recent years, to get a glimpse of what's behind the scenes of this impressive production.
After having toured festivals and filled summer venues in summer, the spectacular nature documentary România sălbatică/Wild Romania premiered in theatres across the country last week. I talked to its directors, Dan Dinu and Cosmin Dumitrache, shortly before their premiere, and you can read our conversation after the short review below.
Wild Romania explores the various natural regions of Romania, forests, the Danube Delta, mountains, each with their own features, a breathtaking plea to protect their remarkable biodiversity. The animals inhabiting them get their own stage time, and wonderfully so, in stories that amaze, amuse, and surprise. There are so many moments to name here, from birds and their hilarious courtship rituals to playful bears and even more playful foxes.
What makes the film particularly enjoyable and more than an informative look at Romania’s biodiversity (although facts, numbers, and a comparison to other European countries are always welcome) is its narrative character, from the way it is structured across seasons to its individual sequences with various species. It is also beautifully shot, with a lavish orchestral soundtrack and narrated by the now-ubiquitous Adrian Titieni, whose soothing voice proves a true asset. And even more spectacularly, it is a nature documentary that has been (so far) very successful with audiences and is now being shown in cinemas, an even greater feat.
In the first weekend, the film had over 16,000 spectators in local theatres, a strong performance considering the subdued cinema attendance for documentaries in general. The movie is currently running in 80 cinemas, in 39 cities across Romania.
Wild Romania is a debut for Dan Dinu and Cosmin Dumitrache, who were generous to share with me their thoughts on shooting their documentary, its challenges and joys, and working in and with nature.
Thank you so much for chatting with me about your majestic film! Wild Romania has a spectacularly long genesis - you started no less than ten years ago. How did you begin, with what purpose, and how did it all evolve during this decade?
Dan Dinu: The ideas I had for the film did not change, really. I started in 2010 with a photography project, to show how beautiful Romania is, and I also wanted to support the natural and national parks, working together with WWF (World Wildlife Fund for Nature) and I thought I’d also share the pictures with them for promoting their work and supporting the parks. After about two years, Cosmin approached me and suggested making a documentary. I might have thought about making some making-of videos, but never that it would turn into such a massive project.
Cosmin Dumitrache: After I discovered Dan’s project I wanted to get involved, because I was really passionate about nature and I couldn’t find any documentary about Romania at that time, so I thought, because I was working in video production, I could contribute and shoot a documentary about the local nature. We were not really experienced, we started slowly and gradually worked on some smaller projects. We also made a series called “Descoperă România sălbatică” (Discover Wild Romania) for which we shot in various areas of the country, included advice for travel and photography. There were also projects coming from various NGOs, so it was a continuous learning process for us as a team to be able to work on a project this complex.
How did you change your approach, from photography to thinking in terms of a classical structure for a film, with narration, music, because even if similar, they are different formats and work differently for an audience?
Dan: It’s all about storytelling, I realised that my common passion for the image is related to the idea of telling a beautiful story about nature. Our initial attempt, about six years ago, was much more descriptive. We didn’t think back then that we’d capture so many animals in the film, that all happened in the past three years mostly. And then new species came along, new ideas, and the script sort of finalised when we worked with Adrian Titieni’s voice-over. From the very start, we wanted everything to be sort of like a puzzle, to have these separate stories that would make up a larger story. We wanted to avoid jumping from one chapter to another without a connection. These connections were very important to me, and I think we made it.
Cosmin, how was it for you since you had been working with images before you started working with Dan?
Cosmin: I had been working in video production, yes, and it was all an adventure, an exploration of the country. We just started from Dan’s photography-based idea to go and gather images from different areas and gained more experience by doing other smaller projects along the way. In 2018 we decided to focus on this film only, until 2021 we went on a marathon to find subjects, interesting species, we also got help from nature-lovers who helped with tips on certain areas. We just went to shoot as much as possible, then we thought how a certain scene might fit, how we could combine descriptions with the stories of animals.
Since you mention animals and their stories, I was so impressed with how near you got to them, underwater, on land, in the air. Do you think you were lucky to get some of these episodes or did you expect many of them to happen, knowing how these animals behave? I am thinking of how the falcon attacks the bear trying to reach its nest, or how all animals go into hiding when the harrier comes out to hunt. What were the moments you were most surprised to catch, and what were the ones you hoped to capture, and couldn't?
Dan: Right, let’s talk about the falcon episode because we haven’t discussed that yet in interviews, to mix things up (laughs). With nature, you can know a lot and still be lucky, or be lucky whether you know or not what to expect. Right under this rock, there was a peregrine falcon’s nest. And it was so surprising to see how a bird was trying to attack a bear, which is much larger, when it got too close to its home. I remember when I was there, the falcon also tried to warn me not to get closer, so we got very lucky with this scene and then we said we’d try to shoot more. We built a hiding spot next to the nest and we also put up cameras in the neighbouring trees to capture the falcon approaching. Basically, we were lucky at first and then kept shooting. But we also had other moments where we knew exactly what we wanted and we were lucky to get it.
Cosmin: We often knew exactly where to be, for instance when we discovered a new nest or knew from friends when the mating season started for red deer and capercaillie. But still, in the first five days shooting the stags, for example, we only got one frame with an animal, that’s all. We had to stay five more so we can tell a narrative. For the mating capercaillie, however, we got all on camera in two days. For the common kingfisher, I waited for eleven days to capture the entire story, and we were missing just one really important frame. I left, came back, and got it then. The bee-eaters we filmed for two or three days, but also five years before, and we caught a unique behaviour, I was so surprised to witness it. Many times we were at the right spot at the right time. The longer you wait, the better chances you have at capturing more to have a proper story, with a bit of action, a bit of comedy, a bit of drama.
These episodes are so engaging, they have a built-up to a climax, a lot of drama often. I am thinking of a story with the eagle chicks (I will not say more because it would be a spoiler, but for our readers: rest assured you will know which scene I mean). Were you surprised too, did you expect it to happen?
Dan: We did know about the eagles’ behaviour, but we wanted to film this with a lesser spotted eagle, not a golden eagle, but the spotted eagle nests in trees, and we would have had to build a platform in a tree ready for it to return to from migration. We also didn’t know whether it would build its nest in the same place. So a friend suggested the golden eagle, that nests in the mountains, but Cosmin can tell you more about it.
Cosmin: Oh yes, for that bit, we first went in spring and waited for nine hours and the eagle just didn’t move from the nest, at all. The next day, its partner arrived, and the eagle moved, but after two weeks, something unexpected happened. We returned after a year and we managed to capture this special and dramatic scene, and honestly, I didn’t know what to expect either and I was very moved. I don’t want to give too much away, because that is a key sequence in the film and I am sure very intense for the audience.
Dan: I think we also need to mention that I haven’t seen this type of behaviour almost at all in other documentaries, at least not in Romania, so it's also a premiere that we shot here.
I am sure this episode will move the audience immensely. Jumping to a purely technical question: How did you actually work? Did you set up cameras and went back to check them, or did you spent most of the time hiding and waiting with a camera?
Dan: If Cosmin had the pleasure to lurk and wait most of the times…
Dan (laughing): Yes, although I was also there to suffer through those very long nine hours. If Cosmin was mostly filming from a tent with a camera, I did most of the camera trap work, mostly because I set these cameras up near Brașov and it was easy to go check on them (editor’s note: both Dan and Cosmin live in Brașov). You set up a camera in a place where you know animals wander, they have a motion sensor, and when something moves, it is turned on, and the camera starts recording. We used this mostly for two species, wolves and lynx, because filming them with a normal camera in Romania is almost impossible.
Are they shyer?
Dan: They are shyer, they move across larger territories, and they avoid people, especially wolves. Even when we set up a camera, the first time they passed by, wolves saw it and made a little circle around it. Even after months, when passing the camera, they looked at it, they knew something there was foreign, they are very intelligent. We had around twelve cameras at one point, and what we wanted was to capture everything very naturally, without directing or choreographic anything, without animals in captivity. There is one exception with semi-captivity but you will see it in the film. It was obviously much more difficult this way, sequences came in short bits, maybe a few seconds a month, and for at least two years we worked like that. But at the end, in winter, we even caught a lynx with a live camera, after twenty-four hours of waiting. It just came very close, and it is also the motif on the poster, and the image we use to promote the film. In Romania it is really difficult to film animals, even with a camera trap, animals just show up and move along, you rarely get entire pieces of behaviour. There were also the usual annoyances, two cameras disappeared, one was taken by a flood, one was broken by the two playful bears you see in the movie.
When you say how difficult it is to shoot in Romania, is it because animals appear rarely, or do you mean the infrastructure or information on how to get where? Is it easier to film animals somewhere else?
Dan: It is certainly easier in other places, where animals are more used to humans. In Romania, we still have a lot of hunting and poaching, or areas in which people interact more with animals, in villages. And then animals perceive humans as being a danger and avoid them, so it’s hard to photograph them. We have a lot of wildlife, the largest carnivorous population in Europe, but we do not have many areas in which animals are comfortable being around people. The best example for one would be the national park Piatra Craiului, where chamois are used to humans, and they let them get near. Here they’ve learned we are not a threat.
Wild Romania as an encompassing initiative has a website with many categories, and I noticed it is focused on the idea of a dedicated community. How can a community help best? I saw you can pre-order the DVD, or download an app in the future. But how do you imagine a growing community, how can we help? Obviously by more than practicing a responsible form of tourism, something which is not self-understood in Romania, sadly.
Dan: I have a good example for this. When we launched the photo album “România sălbatică” (”Wild Romania”) at the beginning of 2021, we launched a pre-order site and for each pre-order, we donated one album to a school or a library, so the community helped to educate a younger generation who will hopefully grow up nearer to nature than we did. And the second thing you can do is simply buy a ticket and watch the film in a cinema, and support cinemas and the theatrical distribution of documentaries. It is also a direct support for the project, to recover the money and work invested, although I don’t think that can happen, really (both smile).
I did want to ask you about financing at some point...
Dan: We can discuss it, of course, but we didn’t make this project for money, so there were no expectations, no pressure at all. But it is important for people to watch nature documentaries, and for cinemas to feature them more often, for anyone who wants to see more nature in a theatre. This is basically how one can get involved, but we have been open and accepted any proposal to get involved in this project.
Cosmin: There was so much help from a community of people who love nature. They helped us with information about an area, with accommodation, with a lift, also the staff of the national protected areas, they helped us reach more isolated spots. Environmental NGOs also helped.
You have been working close to nature for a decade. Dan, you are also, or mainly, a nature photographer. Have you noticed a tendency for a growing awareness about the environment in recent years? Are people more interested in nature and its preservation?
Dan: I would say things have changed so much. In 2010, when I started this project, there were hardly any nature photographers in Romania. Environmental projects were sparse, there were a few large NGOs, now I can see a lot of smaller NGOs, working locally, which is very useful. I can also tell there is more enthusiasm for nature photography. I am one of the founding members of FORONA (The Organisation of Nature Photographers in Romania) and now we have more than 90 members. So yes, I can definitely say that the awareness you’ve mentioned has grown. At the same time, I can see a more pessimistic wave: everything has been destroyed, woods cut, bears on the streets because they lost the forests that fed them, which is a pretty big aberration. So I can see a positive side to counter this. I am optimistic, I would say we are moving in the right direction.
Cosmin: I can also say there is clearly a growing number of people who want to get involved more in preserving nature and biodiversity in Romania, and also now, with the pandemic, there was a revelation for local tourism, but a pressure on habitats as well.
I would have liked to finish on this high note, but Dan, since you mentioned you would say a few things about financing…
Dan: Which financing (laughs)?
Exactly! It is a challenge in Romania to finance any film, in particular documentaries, so I was wondering how it was for you, for such a complex endeavour. What is the balance between work and practically a hobby for ten years?
Dan: Things are pretty simple: we were afraid to make a calculation to see how much we paid out of our own pockets, so we don’t know, really. I prefer to know I worked on a fine project for which Cosmin just jumped in. And I am happy we have jobs that are not ‘normal’ – working in photography and video production are not that common in Romania – so we could go out in nature and do this. We had some small financing here and there, but the interesting thing was NGOs found out quickly about what we did and approached us for their own work, so many of our later jobs, even larger international ones, started with Wild Romania. Lately, things settled a bit, because there is a bit of budget from our co-production partner (Libra Film, editor’s note) but we spent it all for the project, because we wanted a quality soundtrack, an orchestra (there hasn’t been orchestra music for Romanian films in 20 years, I think). Plus the sound, it was very poor when we recorded, we had no sound person, so many ambient sounds had to be redone in the studio. So a lot of money went for post-production, and then on promotion, tours etc. What makes me happiest is that we managed to find a team of wonderful people who supported us, and I am thinking most of all of Alexei Țurcan, who wrote the soundtrack, of Ioan Filip, who worked on the sound with his team, people who adopted this project and made it their own. And of course Tudor Giurgiu and Matei Truța, of Libra Film, who believed in us when we initially approached them at TIFF in 2020. And for this I am grateful, for having a team now who can make nature documentaries in Romania at such a professional level.
Now that you have this fantastic crew, what do you plan together?
Cosmin: We want to start pre-production on a film about the Danube Delta. In the meantime, we will continue working on smaller projects about protected areas, together with NGOs.
Dan: Oh, and this time we’ll take Ioan Filip along, the sound person, to have good sound from the start (laughs). Another plan for the end of this year is to put together a making-of video, we have so much footage with the team, to show how much fun it was, how happy we were about those moments in nature. It was not just challenging work, but also a lovely time.
A making-of would be such a good companion to the film, because there were so many question running through my head while watching it, I am sure it is the same for everyone. And thank you again for the interview! I wish you the fullest cinemas in the following weeks and months, and cannot wait to see what you do next.
By Ioana Moldovan, columnist, firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photo info & source: cover photo: Dan Dinu (left) and Cosmin Dumitrache (right) / ©Chris Nemeș, courtesy of TIFF & Wild Romania // photos in slideshow: ©Dan Dinu & Cosmin Dumitrache