'Caisa’ (in English, Apricot), directed by Alexandru Mavrodineanu, screened for the first time at the Transylvania International Film Festival in 2018, last year won the first prize for best film in the Romanian section of the Astra Film Festival. It also won an award at the Gopo Awards Gala, where it was designated the best documentary film made in 2018. “The film projects a troubling picture of Romanian society, placing at its centre a man who manages to stay free of the all-encompassing cynicism and provides a group of young people with a shelter and an opportunity”, reads the motivation of the jury of the Astra Film Festival. At the same time, the film depicts in a very captivating manner both the unpredictable relationship between a boxing coach and his best trainee, and the fighting outside the boxing ring.
In a gym on the outskirts of Bucharest, a coach (Dumitru Dobre), a man at the end of his career, is working hard to turn a group of underprivileged children into the next junior champions. Disillusioned, but resilient, coach Dobre pins all his hopes on a 13 year old boy nicknamed ‘Apricot’. We talked with director Alexandru Mavrodineanu about how he came about this humane and touching story, about what it was like to make a documentary from scratch, with no team and no funds, and about how the story of some people that you got to know by accident becomes your own story.
Alexandru Mavrodineanu told us how his film was received: “It did get several readings, in the sense that, for instance, there were spectators who spotted the social drama first, but I am happy that many saw it as a human story, as I thought it out myself. A sort of tribute paid to the unsung, anonymous heroes, who live around us and who do their job day after day. To me, these people are a source of inspiration, and every time I think of making a film, this is the direction I take. One such hero is for me master Dobre, the main character in the film.”
Alexandru Mavrodineanu started working on the documentary back in 2013, when he had just finished ‘Bird Man’, a story about ‘Mami’ Mihaita Nicolae, who wants to win the national hang gliding championship for the tenth time. At the time, the director had no plans for a new film, but when changing the gym he was going to, he met coach Dobre and his trainee, ‘Apricot’. At first, Mavrodineanu built the story around ‘Apricot’. He wanted to tell a story about rising above one’s social status. He filmed more than 350 hours and edited for half a year, and then he realized he was looking in the wrong direction, and that the true protagonist of the film was the coach. He is the one who gets emotionally involved every time and risks losing everything that he’s built, as ‘Apricot’ was not the first of his trainees who suddenly decided to give up boxing.
Here is Alexandru Mavrodineanu again: “I met Dobre and Caisa on the first day I started going to a different gym. And the two of them mesmerized me, tricked me and had me throw myself into this adventure, without knowing how to get the money or a team to make the film. But I was so fascinated by the relationship between the two of them, which was so beautiful, that I decided to take the camera and start filming. After the first days I realized the camera loved them too, and that is a must for any documentary. I mean, you can have a wonderful story, but, if the characters are unable to convey certain emotions, it’s not enough. It was hard sometimes, because I had to be around them for a very long time and many times I had the feeling it was useless, that I would not use those shots in the film, but it gradually became like an obsession to me. The film is built on a cinematographic structure that is usually characteristic of fiction movies, and that is one more reason, I think, why the audience liked it. I built it like that because, even if it’s a documentary, presenting the characters and their story is not enough. You can have the most powerful characters, but it is the plot that attracts the audience.”
Alexandru Mavrodineanu has directed several documentaries and short reels, but none of them has been received like ‘Caisa’: “This film was received like none of the other films that I’ve made. All those reactions were generated by various aspects depicted in the film. I realised that the documentary had the capacity to impress people and bring to light what is the most beautiful in them. And that is fulfilment to me. We, film-makers, are always happy when we get good reviews, when people talk about our good film, and the chance to make another one, but the real reason why we decide to make a film is to touch the audience, to have an impact.”