A Lawyer-Turned-Filmmaker Left Romania, but Returns There in His Work
In 2001, Bogdan George Apetri, a Romanian lawyer, moved to New York, where he attended the School of the Arts’ Film Program. In 2006, he graduated with an MFA degree in Film Directing. His student films screened and won awards at prominent short festivals across the world, and he was a national finalist at the Student Academy Awards in 2006.
Things have come full circle for Apetri, who is now a film professor at School of the Arts, where he runs the Directing Concentration in the film program. In 2010, he directed and wrote his first feature film, Outbound, which was shown at top international festivals (including Toronto and New Directors/New Films in New York) and won numerous awards. In 2020 came his second movie, Unidentified, followed, in 2021, by Miracle, which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival.
Columbia News caught up with Apetri recently to discuss the demands of both teaching filmmaking and directing films, along with his trajectory from Romania to New York, and what guidance he can offer to those interested in the film profession.
How did you transition from a criminal defense attorney in Romania to a film director and film professor at Columbia?
I get this question a lot. People assume there was a momentous change earlier in my life, or a major shift in my life goals. Quite the contrary: I knew before even passing the exam to enter law school that I wanted to be a film director. However, I was 18 years old at the time, and I thought it was way too early to enter film school. What stories could I possibly tell? What life experiences could I draw upon to make my work interesting? I worried that I could only imitate other filmmakers I was a fan of, so I decided the best thing would be to give myself time to grow up. I earned a law degree, and practiced for a year as a criminal defense attorney before finally entering film school when I was 24 years old.
In retrospect, I realize that practicing law was the perfect training for becoming a filmmaker, because neither a criminal defense attorney nor a screenwriter can afford to judge a client or a film character. We have to see everyone as a three-dimensional human being, and realize that almost everyone is capable of great things, but also abominable things, depending on where one is in life, or on things often out of our control. Like a pendulum, we swing between the two extreme poles. So in the end, it wasn’t a sudden change of course, but a meticulously pre-designed path, and I was lucky enough to see my plan come to fruition.
What was it like to arrive in New York two weeks before 9/11, and then be in the World Trade Towers two days before they fell?
It felt strangely akin to living through the Romanian Revolution with deposed dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu back in December of 1989, when the country’s communist regime collapsed. I was 14 years old at the time, having lived my entire childhood under communism. To this day, I feel that that event separates my life into two perfectly equal halves—my life during the dictatorship, and my life lived in freedom. December 22, 1989 was so momentous in my life, and in the lives of all those around me.
I felt the same thing when the September 11 attacks happened. I instantly knew that nothing would ever be the same, and that there would be life before 9/11, and life after 9/11. Yes, I visited the Towers just two days before they were brought down. I remember that on my way out, I stopped, put my two palms on one of the towers, and looked up, awed by their size and by what humans are able to build. Ironically, I distinctly remember thinking, how much longer will they stand? One hundred, two hundred, five hundred years?
Your most recent film, Miracle, has been hailed as a masterpiece and has won awards. Why did you set it in the Romanian town of Piatra Neamt, where you grew up?
There is a cliché going around, that a filmmaker (or writer) should talk about the things he or she knows best. I don’t only know the world of my town, obviously, but it’s certainly a world I know inside out. In Piatra Neamt, I know every street corner, every apartment block, every back alley. More importantly, I have a deep knowledge of the people there—how they dress, how they talk, how they joke, how they drink their morning coffee, how they park their cars, how they love, how they hate.
All this made it easy to write the script at my desk in New York, even though the story is set more than 4,500 miles away. At the same time, it doesn’t matter if a good story is set in Tokyo, New York, a small town in Romania, or a hamlet in Iceland. Every place is an infinite microcosmos if you explore it profoundly enough. Every story is universal if you know what you are actually talking about in your film. Even though my film is set in such a specific place in northeastern Romania, I was lucky enough to see the film work and touch people in the same ways, whether they were in Los Angeles, Cairo, Paris, Bucharest, or London. This is what makes cinema and art work.
Miracle is the second in a trilogy of films (the first was Unidentified). Do they all take place in the same town, and how are they linked? Are the same characters in all three films?
The three films take place in and around the same town, but from the outset, I followed a more unconventional approach. I created a loose trilogy rather than the typical kind, where all the movies trace the same storyline chronologically, and build on top of each other toward what is essentially a single plot construction. I got the idea for this by thinking about Balzac, and how some of his novels intertwine and connect to each other.
In the same way, my stories are separate, self-contained: You can understand and appreciate one film without having seen the others, but the places and settings are the same, and, more significantly, the larger constellation of characters is the same. Secondary characters from one film become principal characters in another; sometimes, subplots and minor storylines travel beyond the limits of a single film—threads that start or end far beyond the moment when they reach their maximum significance. I hope audiences will find this approach interesting when they watch the three films relatively close together.
When will the third film be released?
We will be shooting it in 2023, so if all goes well, the film will probably premiere at film festivals in 2024, and be released theatrically in 2024 or 2025. As a frame of reference, we shot Unidentified and Miracle simultaneously in the summer of 2019. Unidentified premiered at film festivals in 2020, and Miracle in 2021, and both were released theatrically in 2022.
What else are you working on now?
Besides the third film in my Romanian trilogy, I am currently writing a one-hour movie that will be part of a project based in France. It’s a collection of films written and directed by international filmmakers, all linked by a common theme. As a director, I am also developing two feature film ideas based in the U.S. Finally, as a producer, I am working on three projects, one that will be directed in the U.S., and two in Romania, where I also have a production company with my trusted producing partner.
What are you teaching this semester?
Three classes: Directing (a workshop for first-year students in the graduate film program), Directing Thesis Advisement (a class serving research arts/advanced students who are writing, shooting, and editing their thesis graduation films, and who chose directing as their concentration), and Portfolio Film Workshop for Screenwriters (a similar course, but serving students who chose TV writing or screenwriting as their concentration, and still want to direct a film).
Advice for anyone pursuing a career in filmmaking?
We all know it’s very hard to break into the film business—besides talent and hard work, you need luck as well. My advice would be: Make your own luck. Drive, determination, and a hunger to succeed in such a competitive field are all just as important as talent. Knock on hundreds of doors, and one will eventually open. If you look at people who succeeded, that fortunate connection, providential break, timely recommendation was not luck at all: It’s usually the result of trying everything and anything until finally something happens. I am a firm believer that when you truly want something, and if you pursue it assiduously, the world will conspire with you, and help you achieve it.
That being said, I would also advise anyone who wants to be in this business to make sure that it’s what they truly want. This is a hard life even when you make it, so be certain that you want to spend the rest of your life as a filmmaker.
What's the best part of teaching at the School of the Arts?
As with anything in life (including making movies and teaching), it’s the people who make a place or an endeavor worthwhile, or not. I enjoy teaching at the School of the Arts because of the wonderful people we have here—my brilliant colleagues whom I love and respect, and the students, who, coming from all corners of the world, make our department one of the top film schools in the country, if not the best.