Film written by York graduate student wins award at Cannes

In the days leading up to the screening of California Dreamin’ at the Cannes festival in France this May, the film’s scriptwriter, Tudor Voican, spent a few restless nights worrying about how the movie would be received. “Cannes audiences, if they don’t like a film, don’t simply walk out; they booed Sofia Coppola’s movie last year,” says the York screenwriting graduate student.

Voican needn’t have stressed. California Dreaminwon first prize in the festival’s Un Certain Regard series, and the audience gave it a sustained standing ovation.

“It was incredible,” says Voican of the experience. But, it was also tinged with deep sadness as it underlined the absence of the film’s director and co-writer, Cristian Nemescu, who was awarded the prize posthumously. Nemescu died in a car accident in Bucharest less than a year ago at the age of 27.

Left: Tudor Voican, York graduate student and co-screenwriter of California Dreamin’

Former classmates at the Romanian National Film School, Voican and Nemescu were, at the time of the accident, just finishing up the production of California Dreamin’, and corresponding over the Internet as Voican was in Canada, studying for an MFA in screenwriting on a scholarship as a foreign student at York.

Inspired by a real incident in 1999 involving NATO troops during the war in Kosovo, California Dreamin’ tells the story of a group of American soldiers who are transporting, by train, a radar system headed for Yugoslavia via Romania. At a small Romanian village, the railway station master, a local thug named Doiaru, detains them because they lack the requisite customs documents. Held up for five days, the Americans, led by Captain Jones (Armand Assante), interact with the villagers, some of whom exploit the situation for their own ends. One of the soldiers even has a steamy romance with Doiaru’s beautiful teenaged daughter Monica. (The film’s title comes from the song of the same name by the 1960’s band, The Mamas and the Papas, that Monica recites in the film.)

At the end of the film, the Americans leave unscathed, after having stirred up a violent conflict in the village and raised expectations that they do not fulfill.

Right: Romanian teenager Monica (Maria Dinulescu) with American soldier (Jamie Elman) in a scene from California Dreamin

The movie in some ways reflects attitudes towards the Americans historically held by Romanians, says the 32-year-old Voican. “After the Second World War, the Russians came, and Romania became a communist country. Our parents and grandparents listened to Radio Free Europe, waiting and hoping for the Americans to come and save us, first from the Russians, then the Communists, then [dictator] Ceausescu – not doing anything, just waiting for help from the outside,” he says.

While it was their first full-length feature film, Voican and Nemescu had collaborated on five other film projects set in Romania, including Marilena de la P7 (Marilena from P7), a 45-minute drama about a 13-year-old boy who steals a trolley bus to impress a prostitute he has fallen in love with. Shown at Cannes last year, the film scooped up many awards at other festivals, garnering the Best Short Film prize at the 36th Annual Molodist Film Festival in Kyiv, Best Feature at the 11th Milano Film Festival in Italy and the Peoples’ Choice Award at the 2007 Paris Tout Court International Film Festival in France.

But the recent win for California Dreamin’ at the prestigious Cannes festival is the most significant accolade by far as it secures Voican’s place as an internationally recognized screenwriter. “For me, it means I can now open doors in the film industry,” he says.

Evidence of his new stature came at the Cannes festival parties where he became a centre of attention for aspiring film people. He has also been inundated, he says, by e-mails from directors and producers from around the world who want to work with him.

Left: American soldiers confront the station master who detains them, in a scene from California Dreamin’

In the face of these new-found opportunities, is he thinking of abandoning his MFA studies? Definitely not, says Voican. “It’s a must,” he says about defending his thesis, a script about a retired Romanian veteran who mistakenly receives a war medal.

Voican says that during his studies at York he has gained valuable life experience. “I also met good professors, had important discussions with them, and they offered me guidance,” he says.

They also helped with finances. Thanks to John Greyson and Amnon Buchbinder, both of the Department of Film, Faculty of Fine Arts, who organized a fundraiser, Voican was able to purchase an airline ticket to Cannes last month. The fundraiser was held at the Camera Bar, a trendy Toronto cocktail lounge, with a film screening room. Its proprietor, Academy-award-nominated film director Atom Egoyan, offered the premises for the event.

After he graduates from York, Voican says he intends to return to Romania and wants to work on a film project based on his stay in Toronto. “My theme for the Canadian script,” he says, “is that everybody is in the same situation, fighting for a better life, no matter what age, sex, colour of skin. In my opinion the Canadian society is not divided by differences, but somehow united by this everyday struggle.”

It is safe to bet that when he turns his efforts to this next project, the main struggle facing most new film school graduates – to get one’s work noticed by industry professionals – is one that Voican will no longer have to lose any sleep over.

Story by Olena Wawryshyn, York communications officer.