The opening film at the European Union Film Festival 2019 held in Singapore was Beside Me, directed by Tedy Necula from Romania.
Our editor Ram caught up with Tedy for a chat, while his close friend and filmmaking partner Ciprian Tudor sat listening.
I watched your TEDx Talk and I really liked it. You’re a filmmaker and a motivational speaker. What motivates you to do these things?
Since high school, I began to work on films about social issues for NGOs. For me, it’s not so important where I put the camera, but how I understand the subject that I talk about, and how open I am to understand more. That way, I can catch the essence of the subject, even if it’s a drama, and I can seek the positive side. I believe that we need to be surrounded by inspiration, positive stories. We’re too much into bad news these days. We need reminders that we’re alive and while we’re alive, we can do any good for ourselves and others. What motivates me is the change we see in people when they are surrounded by good things and good people. This is why I deliver good stories.
When did you decide that film is going to be your medium of expression?
When I met him! (Points to Ciprian and laughs)
I met him in ninth grade. We studied math together. I was an excellent C class student! I got maybe five out of ten in any subject that had to do with numbers. But we had a very good teacher who was developing an educational project. In our first year of high school, the teacher, out of nowhere, asked us to make two short films! When I was twelve, I’d had the biggest chance of my life to play a main character in a Romanian film. Since I had this background of working on a film, our teacher said, “You have to make these two films.”
I found out that it was nice to be a boss and avoid math classes. It was during the math classes that we had the best light to shoot! (laughs) I had a background with NGOs as a volunteer. Since then I started to make films for NGOs.
During that period in Romania social advertising focused on drug addiction and the like. They showed you drug abuse victims. There was also a campaign against car accidents. All of this messaging was based on shock value and focused on the bad things. I understood one point early… what if we don’t shock but surprise? It’s how you put across the big questions. I like to question myself on any subject: how would it be if the problem doesn’t exist? The answer to this question is the solution. We know the problem. If we make a story based on the problem, we can’t help change this society. If you focus on a possible solution, on a positive aspect of the subject, you give a chance for people to have a moment of enlightenment.
In an interview with Noizz magazine, Tedy shares how he came to be a motivational speaker quite by accident. In 2008, he was invited to a conference to discuss the discrimination of people with disabilities. Tedy says, “We heard long definitions of people with disabilities running to several paragraphs. I said, let me give you my definition. A person with disabilities is anyone who said at least once in their life, “I cannot.” Because that was their handicap then. Everyone applauded, everyone was happy, and so I became a motivational speaker. Simple.”
Who or what inspires you? Is there any one person who has influenced your view of life and what you do?
I don’t believe in models or role models. Why? Because as an inspirational speaker, many people tend to take me as a model. They come to me and say, “Wow! You’re a model to follow!” Why? Because they see the contrast between my handicap and what I do.
And I tell them, “No. You don’t know what I do in the night when you don’t see me.”
I don’t trust role models. People tend to take only the good part of you. So if you know that Michael Jackson molested children, then his music is not good anymore? I believe the only model that counts is in the mirror. Because it’s the only one you can modulate and build. If we choose mentors who know how to turn the mirror on us, they are the good ones—they make us believe in ourselves.
In the second year of my film direction course at Media University Bucharest, my colleagues were in love with European cinema—Fellini, Buñuel, you name it! There was a folder where they stored films by these famous directors, to be studied later. There were films like Scent of a Woman, Meet Joe Black, among others. I saw that they were all by the same director—Martin Brest. I was very inspired by this director. I wrote my thesis for my degree at film university on his films. I found them very inspirational. I wanted my movies to be like his.
It’s like in the book I like: The Little Prince. When you read it at different ages, you understand it differently. You have more layers to understand depending on which stage of life you are in. The films by Brest have many layers of understanding. You can say, “Oh, it’s just a Hollywood movie!” Or you can peer within and see deep insights.
Is there any Romanian filmmaker or artist you like?
There are many. In the past few years in Romania, very few films have come out each year. I can’t say if I like or dislike them. As a filmmaker, I try to watch all the Romanian movies. There are not more than twenty five films a year unfortunately. But you do see unique films, some auteurs. There are many. I can’t name all of them. There’s Nae Caranfil, son of Tudor Caranfil. Tudor Caranfil was the biggest film historian in Romania; he died a few months ago. Nae Caranfil does a very good job of making comedies with substance. Then there’s the Romanian New Wave with people like Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu.
There are some independent filmmakers as well, but I hate this term independent. My understanding is that an independent film is every film that doesn’t have marketing. It’s simple: if you have marketing, you have tickets.
“No, I’m independent!” Independent of what? Money? I would love to be independent of a producer who’s giving money!
My mentor was Radu Gabrea, the director who discovered me in a photo when I was twelve. I played the main character in his film Noro (2002). He passed away three years ago. He didn’t catch my film, but I know from up there he saw me on the sets. He stayed eighteen years in Germany because Ceaușescu, the Communist leader, didn’t like his first film. So Radu Gabrea enjoyed Germany and built his career there. I learned a lot from him when we started to make movies.
Tell me your observations Romanian cinema in recent times.
(Ciprian and Tedy exchange understanding smiles) Until four years ago, we were making only dramas. Why? Because Cannes Film Festival, Berlin Film Festival, all European Film Festivals were embracing this exotic thing called ex-communist stories. So each year you see four, five, six films with the same theme. In just one year, you get five films about communists. I don’t know how they managed to make these films, maybe they had state funds. Maybe there was a secret method to fund films about one particular subject. But in the past three years, Romanian cinema has developed a lot. You see positive stories, scary stories. It’s not just about shooting sequences with the camera on the shoulder. You see the development of a Romanian style in the way the films are being directed.
The current problem we have is the distribution of films. Of course, multiplexes want American films because they sell tickets. Why? Because we don’t do marketing. There are only very few Romanian producers who can invest one hundred thousand euros in marketing. Also, what irritates me is when a film’s total budget is eight hundred thousand euros, and you spend five thousand for marketing. You have to be really stupid to do this!
My film Beside Me had a budget of eighty thousand euros. I struggled with getting forty thousand more for the marketing. I knew this film would bring the audience to the cinemas. Independent cinema is growing more and the state is more willing to give funds for filmmaking. They’re changing the laws, and they have imposed a rule that theatres must give Romanian films at least three weeks. In this way, they support the growth of Romanian cinema.
Also, we’ve started making comedies, which are quite good. During the Communist era, we had many, many comedies. We were withheld from expressing certain ideas, so the comedies helped us escape these constraints. Now it’s very hard to write good comedy, but we have started to. What I like the most is that we are present in international cinemas in America, France, Europe and Asia. I understand that my film has the chance to be the first Romanian film to be distributed in Singapore. More films can be distributed all over the world if they have a universal story.
How was the reception to your film yesterday?
It was very good because we had Romanian red wine from a good winery. The audience enjoyed it! You can’t make films without good wine you see, you can’t create! (laughs) It was nice. It was an honour for me, for my film to open the European Union Film Festival’s 29th edition. In the audience were all the ambassadors from the EU Delegation to Singapore. They enjoyed the film a lot. It’s my chance now to follow up and try to distribute my film.
What I wanted to do with Beside Me was not to show my muscles, but to make a positive, emotional film. I asked my assistants on the set each day for each scene, “Is it emotional? Is it inspirational? Does it convey an emotion to you? When we see it in the cinema, will the people cry and laugh?” This was my only aim and I think we need these kind of stories.
How did you come up with the idea for this film?
When I was in high school and I was not lazy and we didn’t have Uber, I travelled by subway. I tried to make eye contact with the people in the subway and a lot of them would ignore me. This idea somehow followed me—of being a stranger among people. When in university, I was on the subway once, and I suddenly felt that this has to be the subject of my first feature. This subway is a metaphor for our jobs, our society, our family, our partner in bed. Everything is quite like this subway.
When you open up your eyes and see everyone else, you understand better. When you take the time to stop, to reflect about who you are, who you are with, and what you had to share with them, you cut the barriers, the borders, you understand more. It was a shame when I heard from Kenneth Tan (chairman of Singapore Film Society) and other journalists here that people in Singapore tend to not have contact with others in the subway. Only when you have contact, you understand more. The misconceptions wither. Otherwise you stay away because you heard he’s a gypsy or he’s a Muslim or he’s a handicap or he’s fat! When you make contact, you form your own ideas. So I believe in stories that encourage you to approach taboos.
[Jayanthi Sankar watched Beside Me at EUFF 2019 and painted a poster for it.]
This theme of making contact with the other resonates with Singapore, at least from my experience of living here. Is this your first time in Singapore?
Yes. Tomorrow I will take the subway and go to the suburbs to see the housing blocks. To watch, to see.
That was the question I wanted to ask—whether you took the subway in Singapore!
Tomorrow! If the subway stops like it happened last year, then I’ll make a sequel to my film with no money! (laughs) There’s an interesting story. Three days after I ended my shooting for Beside Me (laughs), the subway stopped. In the station in front of my house! I was not there. For forty five minutes! Where the hell was I? If I was there I could have filmed it for free! (laughs)
But I knew that my film was real. When I was in the Romanian airport and we were in the bus from the airport to the plane, we had to stop for forty minutes due to a breakdown. And I watched the interactions between the people. I didn’t film them but what I’m showing is true. At the core of our nature is the need to connect with others.
You’ve made an inspirational film and given motivational talks through TEDx and other avenues. Have you received any feedback on how your talk has moved or motivated people? Any that you cherish?
I don’t cherish feedback. I simply receive. I will tell you the most strange and surprising feedback I had after a speech. A young lady came to me and asked, “What kind of food do you eat? Are you vegan? Because you have great ideas.” And I said I eat pork! (laughs)
I have received good feedback but here’s the thing—people tend to listen to others more than they listen to themselves. My aim, Tedy Necula’s aim, as an inspirational speaker is to turn the mirror upon the listener. I only share my story. I only share those films that I believe could show you good things in you or around you. I’m not happier or richer if you take me as a model. If you’re a woman and you’re inspired to go with me then it’s okay! (laughs) We tend to listen too much to others.
This modern world of feeling depressed, feeling low, and seeking books for self-development and self-esteem, I think that’s not natural. Our parents, our grandparents, were developing by themselves, by doing things. I don’t trust the development you gain from books. Development comes from the actions you take. When I was low, I had to do things, not to read self-help books.
In your life, when there was a low point, or you felt completely hopeless, how did you pull yourself out?
Many, many, many, many! After my divorce, I was completely broken. One friend came to me and said we want you to make a commercial. That was my business, I make inspirational videos for brands. This brand asked me to make a video about happiness. They asked me to act in it as well. I told them they have chosen the best time to ask me about happiness. Somehow I made that video. I started to take lessons to drive a small airplane. When I got up on the plane, I felt I had control over my life. Sometimes you have to get up physically to get a full view of the map of your life. When you’re on earth and involved in your daily life, you can’t see the map. This was a big insight I had.
Apart from cinema, do you have plans to express yourself through other forms? Maybe writing a book?
When I was young, I wanted to be a football player. I’m joking! (laughs) When people ask me why I started to make films, I tell them, “Because I couldn’t be a football player!”
But not really. If I write a book or make some online courses, it’s because I believe in my personal branding and marketing. Ciprian asks me why don’t you get online. Because I’m lazy. I’m not angry, but I’m curious about these teenage vloggers who shoot everything they want to say. If I want to have a vlog I want it to be a director’s vlog. This is not the time for it. I’ll know when it’s the right time.
If I write a book, it won’t be about my life. I will write a book about inspirational video marketing. I think there is only one other book about this kind of video marketing. I think you have to do things when you feel it. Also there’s the question of what the big producers would say if I begin to teach at the age of thirty. The teenage vloggers don’t have such mental blocks or excuses. I hope I get international partners to express myself through films. That’s my job.
I also feel that if I start to do other things then I’m not good enough to do what I have to do.
What excites you the most in life?
Since I was fourteen, what excited me the most was the intense contacts I had in my life. Even if I try to be politically correct, for a man it’s important who you share your time with. I was in the first lesson of film directing class. My teacher was the famous film director: Alexa Visarion. He told us in the first lesson, “The creation energy comes from an erotic energy.” And I took it literally! (laughs)
I believe that if you’re good on the personal side, you have energy to deliver for the world. If you’re bad on the personal side, then it won’t work. This is a big part of modern psychology. I was married to a psychologist so I know! (laughs) They go to psychology school to solve problems, thinking that if they solve the problem of others, they will solve themselves. I think this approach is wrong. If I make films about my concerns, my depression, it would not solve my problems. I have to keep a good balance.
For the last fifteen years, I have been trying to have as much of a good time as possible. I’m not a workaholic. I can’t be. I’m not a focused person but I teach myself how to take opportunities and use them in a good way. I was so lucky to have people who support me and understand me. I’ve known Ciprian for sixteen years. These kind of relationships count, and they are revealed in each of my films. I believe we as creators—be it poetry, singing, carpentry, cinema—we have a spot in our soul that they say is the bottom of the bottom of the bottom. Residing there are things that we don’t want to reveal. But when we create something, these things are revealed in our creations. When I finished high school, I looked at the four short films that I made together with Ciprian. Even if it was a comedy or drama, every film had a human being who was somehow single. And I got scared because I didn’t know myself as being a lonely person. My inner self was laid bare in the script. So it’s important to see your creation as a mirror.
Special thanks to Shirlene Noordin and Deepika Shetty for making this interview happen.