Turmoil in Bucharest’s National University of Theatre and Film: A step-by-step narrative of the events

UNATC – short for the National University of Theatre and Film “I. L. Caragiale” – is a state university in Bucharest. Its two halves are the Film Faculty and the Theatre Faculty – the two biggest Romanian schools preparing professionals in film-related and theatre-related fields (including theory and historical research). What became known to Romanian public opinion, during the months of March, April and May 2015, as “the UNATC scandal”, started to sizzle between the walls of the University much earlier than that – at the beginning of summer 2014, just before the summer holidays – with Sorin Botoșeneanu, at that time the Dean of the Film Faculty, being subjected to ever more intense hassle by the Rector of the University, Adrian Titieni. The stated aim of the hassle was to make Botoșeneanu resign from his position as Dean. Of the accusations made against him, only two were formulated with any clarity – and those two were very easy to dismantle. One of the two accusations made against Botoșeneanu concerned his having fraudulently identified himself as “producer” of a number of short student films made in UNATC, when the school submitted those films for consideration for the Gopo Awards (the annual awards of the Romanian film industry). The Association for Romanian Film Promotion, which organizes the Gopo Gala, assumed full responsibility for this error, thus clarifying the matter. The other accusation against Botoșeneanu concerned an error found in the documentation accompanying the Film Faculty’s acquisition of some cables. That matter, too, was easily clarified by Botoșeneanu. (An interview with him, offering more detailed clarifications, can be read in Romanian here.) The other accusations against Botoșeneanu took the form of mostly unspecific talk of “thievery”; none of it was properly documented and formulated in writing. Still, the harassment became more and more intense during the last autumn and winter.

Andrei Rus, a young (tenured) adjunct professor in the Film Faculty’s Film Studies Department, was one of the very few people in the UNATC who, at a certain point, started to openly question the Rector’s treatment of Botoșeneanu. He immediately found himself the target of faintly threatening remarks (made by Rector Titieni), concerning his activity in the University, and also his personal manners. Apart from his classroom activity, Rus had been editing a journal of cinephile film criticism, Film Menu, a brainchild of Botoșeneanu’s, funded by UNATC, written mainly by enthusiastic students, and also distributed outside the University, where it had acquired a devoted readership (surprisingly large, given the seriousness of the journal’s ambitions). In relation with the journal, Rus was also running, with help from the students, a very well attended cineclub within the University. (All these activities didn’t add anything to his salary.) Confronted by Rus on the issue of his harassment of Botoșeneanu, Rector Titieni took Rus to task for running the journal from an office which was bigger than his, for not answering to his hierarchic superiors about the editorial content of Film Menu, and for creating partnerships between the University and other organizations (such as Accept – a nongovernmental organization advocating for the rights of LGBT people in Romania) without asking the University’s permission (although until then the University had seemed perfectly happy with promoting those events on one of its Facebook pages and with leaving to Rus the business of making partnerships). In addition to these, Rus was reproached for not properly saluting the Rector when they met on the corridors of the University. The Rector also made a move to cut his young colleague’s already minuscule salary (the Romanian equivalent of less than 250 Euros), although he changed his mind about that. The effect of these attacks on Rus and his Film Menu colleagues (another tenured adjunct professor – myself – and, for the rest, students) was aggravated by his being informed around the same time that the University had decided to halve both the budget and the circulation of the journal. This decision had been taken at the beginning of last summer, when tensions between Titieni’s office and Botoșeneanu’s had only started to escalate (and Rus hadn’t yet intervened to question the Rector’s behavior), so it may not have been related to the conflict – it may not have been a punitive measure. It rather had the appearance of a blunder. The problem was not that Film Menu was to receive for 2015 only half the money it had received in 2014. That was perfectly justifiable and didn’t hurt the journal – half the money was exactly the amount of money the journal had actually spent in 2014, from the budget it had been given. It had proved to be enough for four issues with a circulation of 3000 copies per issue (the usual circulation of Film Menu). The unexplained part was forcing the journal to also cut its circulation to 1500 copies per issue. Why force it to do that, if the money was still enough for sustaining the old circulation? It didn’t seem to make sense.

So the Film Menu group (led by Andrei Rus and myself) petitioned the Rector for some explanations – of the cuts, and also of the remarks and gestures made by Titieni, hinting at his being displeased with the journal and with Rus. As that petition was not answered in due time (within 30 days), the same group wrote again to the Rector, asking for a meeting. 30 more days passed and once again we were ignored. Thus it became obvious that the University’s internal mechanisms of communication and error-solving were not going to work for us. The only mechanisms that still seemed to be working were those allowing Rector Titieni to harass Botoșeneanu with accusations of what increasingly appeared to us to be imaginary crimes. There were others, very real misdemeanors happening at the Film Faculty. There was, for example, the matter of the entrance exams, for which, year after year, many candidates were allegedly tutored (seldom for free, of course!) by some of the very professors who served in the examination committees. That practice – amounting to what constituted bare-faced conflict of interests – was known to be a tradition in our Faculty (even if not in all its departments). Many ex-students were talking about it – and had been talking for ages; even some of the UNATC staff was talking about it – although no member of the staff and no student, from those I had asked, wanted to turn his or her story or stories into a written declaration, to be used for investigating and confronting the corrupt professors. More than my colleagues at Film Menu, I knew of these matters, because, at the invitation of Botoșeneanu, I had been Vice-Dean of the Film Faculty for two academic years (2012-13 and 2013-14), and the Dean and I had looked in vain for a way of putting an end to that practice. (My resignation, in September 2014, had nothing to do with this failure, nor with the slowly escalating tensions in the University. I just needed a sabbatical because I wanted to concentrate on other projects, and in order to leave on this extended vacation from the University – it ends in August 2015 – I had to give up my position.) So there was real corruption in the Faculty, accepted by nearly everybody as a natural fact of life, and, as far as we could see, it was not Botoșeneanu’s. It became clear to us – to Andrei Rus and to me – that his harassment by the Rector constituted an abuse of power, aggravated by the threatening noises the Rector had made in the direction of Rus and Film Menu, instead of answering our legitimate call for explanations. It became clear to us that we had to make our call public. Internal procedures had failed. They didn’t work for everybody, as they had been designed to do; they worked only for those in power. Our only chance of gaining some power was to take the matter into the arena of public opinion.

So we did. A public letter signed by the Film Menu group was posted on March 17. It was given a wider media exposure than we would have got otherwise by film director Radu Jude, recent Silver Bear winner at the Berlinale, who, as an avowed fan of Film Menu, reacted with his own public letter  to what he perceived as a threat to the journal’s existence. There was no official explanation from the University, just some messages of reassurance – from people like the Vice-Rector Nicolae Mandea and the Rector himself – that the journal was in no way endangered, that its budget and circulation were not going to be cut at all. No explanation for what was happening to Botoșeneanu, no assurance that it was going to stop, no proof that it was in any way deserved, no convincing account of specific, documented misdemeanors on his part. And, although the Rector and the Film Faculty’s Council of Professors immediately organized meetings with the Film Menu people (two meetings in which I could not physically participate, being on leave from the University), Andrei Rus and his students/colleagues at the magazine were not treated there as partners in a dialogue of equals, as people whose serious questions deserved serious answers. As it turned out, this was not why they had been convoked to those meetings. They were there to be chastised, “put in their place”. To their call for explanations, the Rector of the University and other higher-ups from the Film Faculty reacted with outrage and authoritarianism.

An authoritarianism that Rus and I promptly went on to denounce on our Facebook pages. We repeatedly drew attention to the fact that, while Sorin Botoșeneanu was being bullied so relentlessly for serious-sounding, yet phantomatic offenses (if the Rector was so convinced of his being a thief, why didn’t he ever produce a single shred of evidence? Why didn’t he call the police?), corrupt traditions like the one involving private tutoring for admission exams by professors also serving on the examination committee were tacitly accepted. A few students and ex-students (most of whom had studied film directing) wrote to us either privately or publicly (one of them on his personal website, the others on Facebook), confirming with their own experiences the existence of that tradition. (The most articulate of these personal accounts, belonging to ex-student Barna Nemethi, can be read here in Romanian). This led to a violent epistolary exchange (on the Film Menu blog, in the comments section of the page dedicated to Radu Jude’s initial letter of support for the journal) between Andrei Rus and me on one side, and Laurențiu Damian, then president of the University Senate (and apparently very dedicated to squashing our rebellion), on the other side (The exchange can be read here in Romanian:). This led to Damian’s resignation from his position as president of the UNATC Senate, a resignation presented by him as springing from a desire for reconciliation. This happened on April 22, a day after an exhausted Sorin Botoșeneanu had also resigned from his position as Dean of the Faculty of Film. Thus ended the first phase of the public scandal.

Botoșeneanu’s successor as (interim) Dean of the Film Faculty was Ovidiu Georgescu, a tenured adjunct professor from the Film Directing Department – the very department were some professors were rumored to offer private tutoring for the admission exam, before sitting on the examination committee. The professors rumored to do that included Marius Șopterean, who chaired the department. The freshly appointed Dean didn’t express the slightest intention of investigating the accusations against Șopterean. He just ignored them. The new Dean has also directed a feature film – last year’s widely ridiculed Ultimul zburător. Refusal to screen this film at the cineclub he was running within the walls of the University had been cited against Andrei Rus as proof of his insubordination, of his not knowing his place. The film’e editor, Laura Baron, had been chosen by Rector Titieni as one of his two Vice-Rectors. The other Vice-Rector, Nicolae Mandea, tried to justify publicly (on Facebook) Ovidiu Georgescu’s appointment as Dean by invoking procedures: at the last elections, Georgescu (and no one else) had candidated against Botoșeneanu; the latter retiring, after having functioned in his last weeks in office without a Vice-Dean, Georgescu automatically became his successor.

As for the position vacated by Laurențiu Damian – that of President of the University Senate –, it was filled by Sergiu Anghel, who was chairing the Theatre Faculty’s Department of Choreography. Anghel’s first act in office was to sign a document in which the Senate was drawing the attention of the University’s Committee of Ethics to the fact that Andrei Rus and I had been “spreading untruths” meant to turn public opinion against “the university, its structures of leadership and its leaders”. In other words, Rus and I were being found guilty before being judged, before any investigation had been made concerning the truth or untruth of what we had been spreading!

Our first reaction was to write a protest addressed to the same Committee of Ethics, bringing to its attention the fact that the President of the Senate, who had signed that document, was presuming us to be guilty without giving the slightest evidence of having investigated our case. Our protest was dismissed with an elaborately sophistic explanation. My second reaction was to have a look at Mr Anghel’s Facebook profile. I immediately came across some recent racist (anti-Roma) comments of shocking virulence. I posted those on my page. The next day, Andrei Rus and journalist Iulia Popovici, who had written an article about the scandal in its early days, and had continued to follow it closely, discovered other, equally virulent comments made by Sergiu Anghel on Facebook, again targeting the Roma, but also the Jews. The case left no room for doubt, no ambiguity: for example, Anghel was approvingly alluding to the stereotype according to which Roma women hated to work; he opposed the Romanians and the Roma according to us-or-them, kill-or-be-killed, they-are-strong-because-we-are-too-soft logic; he invoked dark international conspiracies paying Roma people to commit crimes and misdemeanors abroad, thus bringing discredit to the Romanian nation; he attacked the Romanian law punishing Holocaust denial for being created by a Jew with “Bolshevik” ancestors; he alluded again to “Bolshevik-Jewish oppression”. (Screenshots of Anghel’s racist and anti-Semitic comments can be sampled here).

Outraged that a racist and anti-Semite like Sergiu Anghel was chairing the Senate of our University, and that he was sending Rus and me to the Ethics Committee in order to be punished for statements that he knew in advance to be lies, we went on talking publicly about his racism and anti-Semitism: Iulia Popovici wrote in the press about it, while Rus and I wrote on Facebook; the three of us tried to notify not only UNATC’s own Ethics Committee, but also people and organizations dedicated to the fight against racism and anti-Semitism in Romania.

Meanwhile, colleagues of Anghel’s from the Theatre Faculty were rushing to his defense on Facebook: two professors, Florin Zamfirescu and Doru Ana, highly respected and well loved beyond the University’s gates as actors (just like Rector Titieni himself). Somehow persuading themselves that Rus and I were gay, and that the scandal we were making had something to do with our wanting to proselytize, they duly descended to abysmal levels of gay-baiting, Zamfirescu asking us who plays father and who plays mother in our sect, while Doru Ana was using words like “behind” as double entendres, advertised by suspension points. (It is worth keeping in mind, given the playground quality of their gay-baiting, that Zamfirescu is 65 and Ana 61. It is also fair to say that Ana quit this game after his initial Facebook post; Zamfirescu was still at it a few weeks later.)

By then, Rus, Iulia Popovici and I were enjoying more and more support from increasingly mainstream Romanian media. In Dilema veche, Cătălin Ștefănescu meditated on the sadly widespread approval enjoyed in Romanian society by racist and anti-Semitic opinions such as the ones voiced by Mr. Anghel. Florin Iaru wrote about the matter in Cațavencii, emphasizing the appallingly low intellectual level of the discourse produced by Zamfirescu and others on Zamfirescu’s Facebook page. Popovici, who by then was as thoroughly immersed in the cause of UNATC reform as Andrei Rus, blogged again on the subject on the website of the newspaper Adevărul.

At the background of all this, a clock was ticking. On the 4th of May, Andrei Rus had received his summons to appear in front of UNATC’s Ethics Committee. The hearing had initially been set on May 6, but the Committee changed its mind: the hearing would now take place on May 25, almost 30 days after the President of the Senate had filed his initial complaint against us – complaint which, according to written University rule, had to be answered within a month (no later than May 27). Rus immediately realized that this didn’t leave the Committee enough time to verify the statements he was going to make at the hearing, the evidence he intended to handle them, hundreds and hundreds of pages of printed Facebook posts and comments, interviews, articles etc. He tried to discuss this with them; he was told by the secretary of the Committee that the Committee could not gather before May 25, which would not stop it from coming thoroughly prepared, in possession of all the relevant facts, properly digested. This sounded ominous. The apprehension deepened when the Committee refused to examine a number of witnesses who had announced their willingness to testify on behalf of the young professor who stood trial. On the day of the hearing, Rus also had to argue with them for a long time before they accepted the presence of the lawyer he had brought with him, although being accompanied by a lawyer was entirely within his legal rights in such a matter. During the hearing, it became perfectly clear to Rus that the Ethics Committee, chaired by Professor Ștefan Velniciuc from the Theatre Faculty, was not a real Ethics Committee, but an execution squad. They kept asking him things like why he had chosen to go public in the first place with his discontent, when “the door of the Rector was always open”, although that was the same Rector who hadn’t deigned to answer two official requests for (first written, then oral) clarifications. More than that, echoes of Titieni’s own rhetoric were immediately recognizable in phrases like “the door is always open”, suggesting to Rus that all the briefing that the Ethics Committee had received came from Titieni. At a certain point, a member of the Committee, Mircea Gheorghiu, shared with Rus his worries about what he called “homosexual propaganda”. And that was that.

Two days later, the Ethics Committee announced its decision to the Senate: Rus was to be fired. This was unprecedented. Not long ago, a professor from the Theatre Faculty had hit a student; she had got away with a warning. And Rus was to be fired for publicly criticizing the University, after all his attempts at internal criticism had been smothered. (In 2012 I had also tried to notify the Ethics Committee, after a colleague had verbally abused me in front of several witnesses, in retaliation for my rejecting what appeared to me an attempt at influence-peddling. Nothing had happened. My complaint, perfectly official with registration number, signatures from witnesses and everything, had been blocked. Nobody had dignified me with an answer. The Rector then was the same – Adrian Titieni.)

At the same time that the Ethics Committee was presenting its verdict in the UNATC Senate (where only one professor contested it vehemently: former President of the Senate – and failed rebellion-crusher – Laurențiu Damian), I received my own summons. My own hearing, according to the e-mail I received, was to take place on June 8, 2015. Correction: it was to take place, according to the summons, on June 8, 2014. In order to be present at what I had every reason to suspect was going to be my own execution, I had to travel a year back in time. And that was not the only procedural vice; there were two others. First, the regulations said that such a hearing has to take place within 30 days after the filing of the original complaint; June 8 was long after the 30-day period had expired. Also, until September I was on a leave of absence from the University, during which work relations were suspended (for example, I received no salary); they had no right to summon me before then. It was as though they had totally stopped caring about forms and procedures – the very same forms and procedures used by Vice-Rector Nicolae Mandea to explain everything.

This was too much. When the news that Rus had been fired started to circulate, director Radu Jude wrote another public letter, denouncing an injustice which really topped everything. He was quickly joined by other filmmakers, by people working in the other arts, by journalists, academics and, of course, students. This time, the scandal erupted into the mainstream, with articles everywhere and TV crews filming the people who gathered on May 29 – two days after the Ethics Committee had announced its shocking verdict to a complacent Senate – at a sit-in on Matei Voievod Street, numbers 75-77, where the UNATC is located. On May 28, two of the eight members of the Ethics Committee – Professor Mircea Ciocâltei (from the Film Faculty) and secretary Mihaela Petre – resigned from the Committee, acknowledging through this gesture the injustice that had been done to Rus. It looks like Rector Titieni and his cronies are thoroughly discredited.

Still, the battle for a reformed UNATC has not been won yet. At the time of writing, Titieni is still in power. And journalist Cristian Tudor Popescu, who also teaches at the Faculty of Film, although he doesn’t yet have tenure, has just written an article excoriating both conservatives (“incompetents”) and reformers (“Bolshviks”, “reds”), but sparing Rector Titieni (“the only one I saw trying in good faith to change something”). What Cristian Tudor Popescu doesn’t mention is that, thanks in part to Rector Titieni, he is soon to become a tenured professor, through one of those “open competitions” – traditional not only in UNATC, but in the whole Romanian academic system – which are not really competitions, the coveted position being marked in advance for a certain beneficiary. It is the case of Cristian Tudor Popescu, who is already teaching for the UNATC the very courses that, according to the official announcement of the competition, the candidates should be prepared to teach; the fact that the requirements for that teaching position happen to be the very requirements that Cristian Tudor Popescu has already been fulfilling for the UNATC is a way a discouraging other possible candidates, signaling to them that the place is marked for him. In the same article, Cristian Tudor Popescu is describing the conflict as a matter of two groups who keep firing each other from their jobs, thus equating – odiously – a group which really has power, and has been using it to really fire a dissident from his job, with a group which has no other power except that of repeating again and again that the corrupt, the racists, the anti-Semites, the homophobes etc. should resign from their positions of power.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Responses to Turmoil in Bucharest’s National University of Theatre and Film: A step-by-step narrative of the events

  1. tara arde si baba se piaptana says:

    impostorul de cristian tudor popescu, care se pretinde doctor(and) in film
    vs
    impostorul de radu jude, absolvent la spiru haret (asta, media pro, ma scuzati), care, fara sa fi invatat o zi in viata lui in unatc, vine si opineaza viguros despre cum sta treaba in atf.

    fruntea sus, rus!
    prietenii tai pe care i-ai cantat in articole iti vor fi pavaza si scut

  2. teodor g. says:

    I don’t understand this remark of yours: “It is worth keeping in mind, given the playground quality of their gay-baiting, that Zamfirescu is 65 and Ana 61.”

    • Andrei Gorzo says:

      The account was written at great speed. The sentence you mentioned is – now that you made me look at it again – one that I would reformulate, maybe even cut. At the time of writing, it felt true to my experience of their gay-baiting – my horrified disbelief at these white-haired men giggling like schoolyard bullies over their own awful homophobic double-entendres. Now I see that I didn’t express this very well. Of course it’s irrelevant whether they’re 60 or 50 or 30.

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