Making merry with movies

by Sean Hillen

“Sixty-two,” I could sense film nerds whispering, “and he’s still a virgin. Hasn’t made a movie in all those years.”

“Well here goes,” I say to myself. “I’ll stop their idle chitter-chatter. Never too old to learn, but how do I start?”

“With a camera,” someone in-the-know says. “And you don’t need rolls and rolls of film and a pair of scissors either. It’s all changed since ‘your day.’ ”

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Wandering through a ‘loud’ section of Vama Veche late at night, trying to decide if I should use the images I’m taking. And indeed, as they are so shaky, whether I have the first symptoms of Parkinson’s.

Though a young teenager when the so-called ‘Troubles’ in Belfast broke out in ‘69 and not averse to building street barricades back then, I’m not a violent man by Nature. Yet… I’m sure there must be a pipe bomb or a Armalite rifle, or even a small Semtex device left over that I could use on this fellow. Put him in his place, so to speak.

Ooops, just remembered. That fellow happens to be me. A residue of guilt from my old Catholic, church-going days in not achieving enough.

Ok so, let’s get to work. Just do it, as someone, somewhere once said. There’s only a few days left before the annual week-long VSLO creative fest – encompassing film, photography, theater, sculpture and painting training – is over in Vama Veche, the ‘Venice Beach’ of Romania’s Black Sea coast.

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Is that man performing a rain dance? I hope not. I came here from Ireland to get away from that.

And to lose my virginity, I don’t even have to wear a condom, ‘cos I’m told that’s also changed since ‘your day.’ Really, I wonder. Do they have sex now like we used to …in ‘my day?’ Or at all, these days? I mean, is it all done nowadays on the Internet? Through technology and robots, and all that stuff? Instead of in-the-flesh. Surely some things don’t change.

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Waking at 4.30 in the morning – for twenty seconds of sun rising. Am I ‘nebun’ (crazy) ?

God bless Catalin Rudolf and his First Mate, Andreea. They’ve set up everything shipshape. For a whole platoon of participants. Catalin (I call him ‘Captain’ behind his back) supervises with a quiet gaze, shifting his eyes almost serenely from one scene to another in the swish and swirl of activity around him, deciding in an instant whether he needs to step in and solve a potential problem or let the situation run its natural course.

Catalin Rudolf VSLO, Andrea Rudolf VSLO, festivals in Romania

Captain Catalin. I honestly think he must be extraterrestrial, or at least hybrid alien. Too much creativity for an Earthling.

Such Captains – experienced in the mercurial ways of Man – keep vessels afloat and people alive when storm-waters ride over the sides of ships and drowning seems inevitable. If Catalin had been the captain of the Titanic, a chapter of history would be re-written and a certain iceberg would not live in infamy as it does today but would have remained merely a plain bit of frozen water.

Catalin and Andreea organized a meeting for me and other beginners, including Andrei and his son, with a real film maker/editor, a man whose name I’ll never be able to pronounce: Veaceslav Cebotari. From Chisinau in the Republic of Moldova. I’ve never been there. Shall I tell him that? Will he be upset and tell me to bugger off back to the faeries, the leprechauns, the whisky and the diddly-dee music?

Veaceslav Cebotari film maker, film makers Romania

‘Oh boy, what have I got myself into?’ thinks Slava (right), wondering if he’ll ever recover his sanity as I show him my overly ambitious list of images I want to get.

At least I know where it is. Almost went there once when I was a foreign correspondent for The Times of London in Romania. Smallest war known to Man, Transnistria. But I’d had too much war reporting back then. Wanted something simple and easy, like travel writing. Reporting on the VSLO festival, for example.

So how is it then I still end up involved in shooting?

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Interviewing beautiful, sexy, intelligent ladies. How can you not love film-making (yes, the camera is shaking, as am I, how could any healthy male not do so)?

Professor Veaceslav (thank goodness I can call him ‘Slava’ for short) is a decent fellow. Certainly lives up to his name. Slave driver of sorts. Four days on a threadbare ration of bread and water (and the odd bottle of pale ale, placinta dobrogeana and covrigi), scouring the streets and the beaches, hefty camera in hand. Bent over an editing computer the rest of the time.

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Eureka, By George he’s got it! A semblance of sanity is returning to Slava.

But he certainly knows his stuff. His flighty fingers across the keyboard make mine look like stubby stumps of wood. A scene I labored an hour over, he polishes in less than a minute. I tell him people can go to Africa and find shiny stones that are pretty much worthless but if you can find a man who knows how to polish them, one could end up rich. Slava’s that man.

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George Stanculeanu (right) diligently explains how to work the camera. My eyes are about ready to pop out of my head. And my head off my shoulders.

Seeing me wandering around lost, and being a generous and enthusiastic sort, George Stanculeanu (where do they get these names from – out of an alphabetical hat?) comes to my rescue. George is a key account manager in the pro photo and video channel for Canon. Most of the time he seems to be balancing four phone calls and six conversations simultaneously. He works with Laurentiu Tarloiu, another channel manager, and Victor Matei, a regional business development manager.

Interestingly, also knows where twenty so-called ‘Golden Dick’ awards for impressive pornography performances are stashed in a locker somewhere. I’m going to ask him to get me one so I can show off to my mates. As a man who believes in gender equality in all things, however, I’m disappointed there’s no equivalent ‘Golden Clitoris’ award. George says he’ll find me a contact. We’re going to start a civil rights campaign to get that particular situation changed.

Though lovable, George keeps telling me numbers. A 5DS body, a 2470 lens, an 35 F1.4, an 851.2, a 5D Mark 4. While I’ve always had a penchant for words, numbers tend to leave me bereft of intelligence, a state of mind I’ve noticed is becoming more common as I get older. Some of his technical talk has as much meaning for me as cave drawings in Lascaux, Dordogne or hieroglyphs in the tomb of Tutankhamun.

VSLO Romania, photography festival

A contented Sean. I’m getting use to this. I’m even enjoying it. My Caribbean friend Maurice on Plaja de Carte is black and girls think he has a long penis. But I’ve got a big Canon.

I try to hide my utter confusion and nod sagely but I was never good at impressions. Instead,  I look at him like a week-old puppy looks at its master who’s asking it to do roll-overs, yoga postures and leap through hula hoops. But George is so informative, helpful and patient, I’m seriously considering rolling-over techniques and other sorts of doggy tricks as an act of gratitude.

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Light moments of relief and fun for hard-working owner of Plaja de Carte, Adrian.

Seeing my pitiful state, another photographer walking past with a tray of cold beers on the street, stops to offer me one. I politely decline (a trait of Irish people is to first decline something offered, probably in the hope they’ll be offered two instead) but seeing this kind soul doesn’t seem to be aware of this peculiar cultural characteristic, I suddenly grab one as he’s about to walk off.

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Joke: an Irishman, a Romanian and an Englishman got together on the beach in Vama Veche…

Then there’s the lectures. Diverse and fascinating. Guys like Jens Krauer from Switzerland, Chris Suspect from Washington DC offering up know-how and intriguing anecdotes about their experiences shooting street photography.

And easy-going Cristian Crisbasan from Romania, telling me he loves Ireland, but has never been, only visited, on Google Street. His chance may come to see the real thing. Columbia, my Transylvanian wife, is thinking about starting a photography retreat to match the successful ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ she launched five years ago in the ‘Forgotten Land’ of Donegal on the picturesque ‘Wild Atlantic Way.’

Cristian Crisbasan photographer, photography workshops romania,

God Bless Cristian Crisbasan, he helped me turn a dream into reality. I’m now a better man than I’ve ever been. Move over Mr. Clooney, Mr. Cruise, Mr. Pitt…

Oh, and I’m so indebted to Cristian for one other extremely important thing, turning every able-bodied man’s dream into reality. The chance to film sensual, erotic, beautiful ‘pin-up girls’ cavorting delectably around an outdoor swimming pool. And to George, for giving me a great camera to get up-close. Lost in lust, in all my 700 years on this tiny planet, I’ve never seen such supremely gorgeous vrajitoare, one of whom I hear, Sabina, happens to be Catalin’s niece. I’d dearly love to meet his sisters and aunts.

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Facing such sublime beauty, I’m so proud I could focus properly when taking these photos… and I haven’t used a camera in over 25 years.

I leave late Friday night after a full-day of shooting and editing. Night has fallen like a dark veil over everything. The Moon is high. After watching and listening to evening speakers at La Frontiera, the traditional venue for VSLO, and the presenting of awards, I start to pack my stuff. Tomorrow is deadline day so I should catch up on lost sleep.

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It’s called teamwork. And it’s working (or rather, you can see who’s working). Who said slavery was abolished?

Before exiting the editing room, I turn. Slava is sitting there, behind a computer, earphones on, his face a mask of concentrated effort. I point to my watch as if to say, “It’s late.” He shakes his head and smiles. Dedicated to achieving the best he can as both teacher and film-maker, I sense he could be there until dawn if the situation required it.

For me, this lasting image sums up VSLO – dedication, perseverance and commitment.

VSLO main partners this year included Canon, Silva, Olympus and Sonny.

catalin rudolf, cristian crisbasan, vslo vama veche

Partnership at its best. Catalin and Cristian singing from the same hymn sheet.


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