An interview with the founder and director of London’s South West International Film Festival.
A Film Festival in London held in November last year introduced me to a man passionate about filmmaking. Laurentiu Huianu founded the South West London International Film Festival (SWIFF) and is a force to be reckoned with. Highly enthusiastic and with a nose for a story, he is ready to pick up his camera to capture a moment at any time. We chatted in his lovely home in Colliers Wood, South London. Entertaining and being a gracious host was part of his culture and he was proud of that heritage. What was meant to be a couple of hours of interviewing continued into an evening of celebration with his friends and family. The setting was one of Romanian folkloric music, wine, food and conversations about times past. It’s curious that a gathering of people in these circumstances can bring connection and familiarity, if one is open to it.
What made you set up a film festival in South West London?
We moved here 17 years ago and as a film maker, I wanted to start something in my local area, to develop it. This area is south west London – Colliers Wood. It was quite run down at the time. My wife and I have three children, and I thought what better way for them to grow up than with exposure to films and festivals. We had a few courses available about film making for very young people so I thought I’m going to set up a film festival where everybody can mingle and share ideas and enjoy it once a year. I didn’t think at the time how big I wanted it to grow to, and didn’t think it would grow to the extent it has now. I had the idea ten years ago but it actually came to fruition five years ago.
What has been your connection to filmmaking?
I had worked for Amnesty international for 11 years. I had this bug to make documentaries at the time. I was sent to Beirut and Mexico with Amnesty, and I started to collect more and more stories. And I realized that was exactly what I wanted to do. Later, I studied documentary film making in Czech Republic and in Romania. I began making documentaries for a TV channel there. In 2001, I decided to move into filmmaking. In 2004 I made a feature film that I submitted to Cannes. I then realized how hard it was to make fiction films – to wait to raise money to fund it years on years. Following that I’ve just worked doing documentaries full time. I’ve worked as a freelancer, and worked for different companies. Currently I work as a producer/director for the NHS and I make a lot of documentaries for them.
You were born in Suceava, in the Bukovina region in north-eastern Romania. What were your earliest memories of family and growing up there?
My father belonged to an elite group. He was a criminologist. My mother used to own a nightclub and trendy bar. So I grew up around a lot of different types of people. This was in the 70s and early 80s. My father used to bring home a lot of stories and photographs of crimes from his work as a criminologist. This used to intrigue me. We all listened to illegal radio stations like Free Europe, Voice of America. These used to inform us of what was happening in the world. I was very lucky in that my parents were also part of this culture. They always told us that there were two sides to the coin and that reality was different from what we would see. Music used to travel via Europe (mostly Germany) into Romania. My music influences were the Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and these weren’t so much a danger to listen to, under the Ceaușescu regime. I think there were other songs that the regime didn’t like — freedom songs, or Bob Dylan. These weren’t so welcome in Romania at the time.
The situation being as precarious as you describe, how did you get hold of music?
Very often, we would tune in and we used to hate it because it would work for a few minutes and then there would be interference, enormous interruptions from Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Democratic Republic of Germany at that time . They would tamper with the reception and try to cut these channels out. And we would get so angry, we’d swear as they would cut it off right in the middle of a song. We used to learn some of the words so we could sing it in between the bit of the song they had cut. So it was quite a challenge to get hold of the music. Someone, on occasion would smuggle in a tape. We could only play cassettes at the time. It was extremely rare to get hold of LPs. They were like gold. We could get some via Bulgaria or Yugoslavia, but it was almost impossible to get hold of much.
Did filmmaking creep into your mind at this time?
I didn’t really think about it. I didn’t know anything about documentaries or filmmaking as I come from a very socialistic communist background where film makers were chosen in those days. I also didn’t read about documentaries. They didn’t exist in Romania. What was available were these very orchestrated documentaries by Ceaușescu and the communist regime. There was nothing open and free until the revolution took place in 1989 when we first saw some of the new media – new channels like the BBC and other American channels. We were shocked to see how freely people could speak and express themselves on TV.
What interested you at school?
I went to an art school where I studied painting and sculpting as a child. And then I had to train in something that would get me a job because that was what one had to do. So I studied for five years to become a vet. I worked as a vet for two years and very quickly after that, I gave it up and I never wanted to hear about it or do it ever again.
Why did you give it up?
Nobody there could understand an artist. Everyone was talking about cows and sheep and dogs. I was interested in paintbrushes and music and other things. And in 1989 when the revolution happened, someone I knew had got a video camera from abroad. And the minute I touched it, it became my new toy, my hobby, and I knew it would become my career, and I never wanted to let it go.
Did you travel to other places when you were a child?
I did not travel anywhere until 1989. We were not allowed to travel anywhere. First of all because of my father’s job, being part of the army, we were not allowed to travel abroad. You could travel within Romania or up to the Black Sea coast, to some of the former Eastern Bloc like Russia or Poland, but never to the west of that area. I used to stay with my grandparents for months at a time, normally during the summer, as my parents were busy working. And they always told me that when I grow up, make sure to travel free and see the world. So when the revolution came, I joined the International Red Cross, and travelled with them pretty much everywhere.
Your life shifted in a big way in 1989, as it did for many Romanians. Can you talk about the lead up to that point and after, how it affected you?
The reality of the communist regime in Romania was worse than other parts of Eastern Europe. There was a lot of poverty, lack of freedom of speech, a lack of books, a lack of knowledge, the lies we learnt about history. It was just a big lie. They made it up for us. I think if you come to a certain age, you realize everything is a lie, and you start to question what’s true and what’s not. And even years later when I go back home, there are many who can’t believe the truth. When you’ve been brainwashed for forty years, it’s almost impossible. But I remember the month before the revolution. It was December. People had had enough. You couldn’t have concerts anymore. You couldn’t have food, you couldn’t have freedom. You had one hour of hot water in the evening. The lights were cut off from ten o’clock. You couldn’t go to a restaurant. You couldn’t do anything. It was striking poverty but more poverty of the mind, not just food. You had no heating, nothing. Every child was crying. People had had enough. Some more courageous people than others took to the streets in the west of the country. Others followed and now the history is re-written again by those who stayed behind and became politicians.
I was there on the street with a lot of them, even my parents because they had lost their jobs a few years before. They went against the regime. I was very encouraged by them. They said go and do your own revolution, and they were not afraid to let me be who I was. I participated, distributing all the illegal leaflets to blocks of flats. I was leading protests on the street. I was not afraid. I was very young and when you are young you are not afraid. I think when you have a family, then you are afraid.
And then immediately after that I remember….I’ll never forget. I remember arriving a few months later in Germany in 1990. I was sitting on the floor on one of these army bags with a big red cross flag on it. I was traveling with a bunch of people. We were going to Sweden for a First Aid Championship. We had nothing. There were twenty of us that were chosen. But in a way, it was not just participating. I think they were trying to show us the other side of the world, you know, the freedom. It was fantastic. Countries like England, Germany, Sweden came to help Romania. I remember twenty of us sitting on these bags in Germany, just watching people pass by, because we hadn’t seen so many pairs of jeans, never seen so many perfumes in a shop. Everybody was smelling of different perfumes. Back in Romania, we used to pay almost in gold to get a bottle of perfume. They used to be smuggled in from the west. We had some local Romanian perfumes that killed every fly in the world.
When you live for twenty years of your life not seeing much, not having all different types of clothes, and then when you see it for the first time, I know it sounds strange, but you fall in love with the label of the clothes, the materials. We had to share a pair of jeans in my family. I had to ask my brother when he was going out and how long I had to wait to wear the jeans. And the same thing with shoes. We had a pair of western shoes and we wore it in turns when we went out with our girlfriends.
What was that like — young teenage discoveries in a repressive political environment?
It was a beautiful freedom to a certain extent because I think when you don’t have much, you make the most of what you have. We had a lot of friends. There were strong friendships. The community is always together in a way. We had a camera and we shared it, and everybody shared knowledge. I remember being ten years old, and there lived this painter in my block who could be a professor in any university these days. And I learnt how to paint and mix oils at ten years old because he had nobody to teach. When by the time I was eleven, someone taught me how to weld – this sculptor who spent five years in political prison. He taught me acrylic and copper welding. This helped me later to get a job when I moved to England. I also learnt carpentry with a great sculptor who couldn’t find a job as a sculptor, so he worked as a carpenter. So there was sharing of skills and knowledge. This is probably something that doesn’t exist in the West as much. It’s probably my reason for bringing together film makers for the festival. It creates a sense of community and support.
I see you have a giant tent in your garden? That is a tent, isn’t it?
Yes, that is a tent. We tend to have a few parties a year, invite about a hundred people. We like parties. My parents were party animals. They loved having people around. And so I think that’s why we try to have as many friends around as we can. The kids love parties. For children, it helps later in life to communicate with others.
Earlier you were listening to Romanian gypsy music. Is that something you listen to often?
Yes. I grew up in a family that was colour blind. We never noticed skin colour, social classes or anything like that. In a way, the Communists were good at that — to make everyone equal irrespective of colour or class, even though it was just on first appearance. But my parents were very good at discounting these differences. My grandparents were very good at that. We had people of every class invited to parties. My parents would invite people who today are known as Romany gypsies. We had them sing in our house at least a few times a year just because we never knew this difference. Over the years I came across some amazing Romany gypsy music. My father was involved in some big criminal cases where he came across this music and he brought it home. I remember listening to it with my friends and all of us thinking it was very cool music. Unfortunately in Romania, everyone hated the gypsies. Recently in the 90s, they burnt their villages. I think when there is a group different from the rest, they stick out. It’s a tragedy. It’s a tragedy all over Europe that such a great community is continuously hunted and put down. That’s why they come to the West where they feel better accepted. I’m not saying that there aren’t bad people in these communities but so also in every community. So if you think there are 11 million Romany gypsies in Europe; that’s bigger than the population of Belgium or Hungary or many other places. So there are those who wouldn’t want them to unite and be represented in parliament. For me, they’re like the Apaches of Europe.
How do you mean?
They’re free. Unlike us, they don’t have mortgages, bank accounts. They have their musical instruments and they travel from town to town, country to country, and because we don’t understand that style of life, we react against them. We enforce laws to arrest them, and give them names. In a way, it’s exactly what happened to Apaches in America. And then we regret it later. I think we should embrace their culture. The Spanish embraced it, and you see the influences in Flamenco. Portugal embraced them also, and you can see the influences in the music and food. And unfortunately, eastern Europeans are still racist in many ways. I’m not sure if they’ve always been like this or is it because they haven’t been exposed to other nations. Or is it that they don’t understand them, or like I mentioned earlier, that the history we’d been taught was lies and we’re taught that they steal, they kill, and that we are the perfect ones. And everyone else wasn’t. If you learn that for a thousand years? History is a complicated subject.
At the moment you make medical documentaries for the NHS and universities. Is there something you have in mind to shoot in the future that isn’t medically related?
Absolutely. I am first a human rights documentarian. I do medical documentaries because it pays the bills, and also because I come across great communities that suffer in one way or another. This is very good for the public to know. I think I do want to go back to make a fiction film.
Do you write your own projects?
Yes. I do. It’s easier for me to write my own. Directors are quite selfish. We think our work is the greatest.
Is there a particular human rights issue you’re obsessed with?
The death penalty is a strong one. I’ve worked before on this subject. Also, freedom of speech. I have come across some great stories from China when I worked with Amnesty. There are many human rights infringement stories from Russia that we still haven’t heard about. When I was with Amnesty, I had the opportunity to interview a journalist just before she was killed. And it stuck in my mind that those stories are there and we haven’t heard a portion of what happened because people are too afraid to listen to it. Or because the world has moved to the next war, and somehow the next war becomes more important. The human attention span is so short these days. We’re moving so fast, and criminals are moving so fast. We can barely keep up.
We need to hear these stories. It’s a process of healing in a way for many who have been affected by these atrocities. And I think there are not enough journalists in the world to cover these stories, because honestly you will need millions of hours for the millions of people that have been killed.
Would your film throw light on these issues by using fiction?
The fictional film is more about a social event in the West. Inevitably it is a human rights story. It’s about a woman who is judged by society.
There aren’t enough women directors, just like there aren’t enough women journalists in the world. I’m never scared of women competing, and the more women compete, there will be better work for the men because we will then turn around the rubbish that we do now. No man can see the world with the same eyes as a woman.
Do you receive many entries from women at the festival?
We do every year. But it is still a much smaller number than men. There are good subjects to cover. I think it would be a great idea to run an advertising campaign to encourage more women to make films, no matter how old they are. And women always have a better entrance to certain groups than men. And the world is ready for women filmmakers. It’s probably the best time for women to make films.
You seem a happy, contented person. Is there something you feel should take place in the world for the sake of your children?
No artist or filmmaker is fully happy. We live with our demons for the rest of our lives. We’re misunderstood. This is how we are. Someone said this before but behind every contented man is a wonderful woman. And it’s my wife Penny who gave me time, understanding and pushed me forward to do all these projects. She is co-director of the festival. Without her I couldn’t find the time. I might as well have been a drunken single man. But she’s the one who keeps the balance. With regard to children, I think we live in a world like the Cold War. For the youngsters, there is something or someone creating this scary, unsettling atmosphere. The media is feeding stories about predators. The point of childhood is to be happy, to be sure. It is not to be scared all the time by whoever scares them. I know there are horrible people out there and horrible governments, but we have to create this platform without continuously drawing their eyes to the dangers. We need to give them plenty of creative environments so they can express themselves. So the more children travel with their parents the more they will learn to socialize and the less we will hate each other. I think there needs to be better educational programmes on television. At the moment, I don’t think there are happy programmes for children to watch. There are a lot of debates with grown ups and a lot of sad people, but there aren’t debates where the children are invited to participate. In fact, I don’t see anything on television where children are considered to have a voice. I don’t know who decides that an adult woman or an adult man is more important or more interesting than a child to talk on the radio. Their voice is completely missing in these programmes.