Aferim!, Romania’s foreign film Oscar entry, is enjoyably challenging and hard to pin down.  Described by some critics as Shakespearean in style with a hard R-rating, the film actually evokes Sergio Leone  spaghetti westerns, however, this one is set in Eastern Europe circa 1835—a period that’s not often portrayed on the big screen.

aferim 2Aferim! follows a constable and his son as they travel across the wide landscape, attempting to track down a runaway gypsy slave named Carfin. A coproduction between Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic that was shot in 23 days for $1.5M (an incredibly low budget for a period piece with great production value), Radu Jude’s third feature won the Silver Bear award for Best Director at the Berlinale. What has stood out for most audiences is the film’s brusque depiction of slavery and racism in the region now known as Romania. Slavery existed there for 500 years, and the film takes place just 20 years before slavery was outlawed in the region.

At an Awardsline screening Q&A with Dominic Patten Tuesday night, producer Ada Solomon, accompanied by actor Cuzin Toma, spoke about the film’s impact in the Romanian community; a “phenomenon about the way the mentalities are inherited from one generation to another,” said Solomon.

'Aferim' Deadline Film Screening Series, Los Angeles, America - 01 Dec 2015The producer also attributes the film’s resonance with Romanian local audiences (the film has made close to $220K in its homeland), stems from the fact that the country’s slavery “is not really talked about—still not presented in the history books.”

Says Solomon, “What was the most surprising for me is that still, there is this kind of guilt, stigma, and even the Roma community is not facing this problem. They are not really appealing to the majority and saying, ‘Hey, you did this to us, and you owe us.’ It’s still something they are ashamed of—they are not trying to cure this.”

“Even though it’s a period piece, it’s a film about today, and about how we think, how we look into the world and how we judge each other, and how we were taught to judge each other. And how our perspective is directed through education, in fact,” adds the producer.

After extensive camera tests, Solomon agreed to let Jude shoot Aferim! in black and white. This decision was partly an homage to John Ford (one of the director’s favorite filmmakers), and partly an artistic statement. Says Solomon, “He’s not reconstructing reality. He’s building a story. He wanted this kind of distance that a black and white picture is giving you.” The film is also notable for its lack of score, influenced by artists of the Romanian New Wave and a refusal to reinforce emotion through music.

Ultimately, Aferim! is all about brutal, sometimes ugly honesty. Closing the Q&A, Solomon referred to a Chekov quote that ends the film: “We live as we can, not as we want.”

An audience member asked if members of the Roma community are treated as first-class citizens in 2015:

“Of course. Theoretically…Theoretically,” said the producer.