You only need one person. Just one. One person who will say “no” when others insist he gives up. Just one person who refuses to acknowledge “that’s just the way it is”.
His small victories won’t be documented anywhere. He walks on the road of seemingly lost causes, much like a post-apocalyptic hero who sees the faintest light of revival.
The man we are speaking of is Victor Purice, the director of the “Dacia” cinema house in Piatra Neamț, one of the few state cinemas still standing in Romania.
When the “Great Destruction” began in the 1990s, Victor Purice told himself that the cinema would see its end only when he was ready to go too. During the hardest of times, Victor Purice projected films even when there was only one spectator in the Dacia cinema.
For years, he would eat there, sleep on the office couch and cry for hours after speaking with his wife and daughter living in Italy. They would beg him to give up the madness. But that would mean leaving the place in which he felt more alive than anywhere else in the world.
Victor Purice discovered the world of film when he was in the sixth grade. The movies were played at the cultural center in his grandparents’ village. One time, he got sick while the Black Tulip was playing and an ambulance was called halfway through the film. He was crying uncontrollably. The assistant took him aside and asked him what was hurting. “I didn’t catch the end” – responded the boy.
During Ceaușescu’s time, at 16 years old, Victor was hired at one of the three cinema houses in Piatra Neamț. He became an operator and made peace with the fact that his life would forever be bound to cinematography.
From the privileged position of the projection room, he gleefully anticipated the audience’s reaction to moments of drama. During “Gypsies are Found Near Heaven”, the love story between the irresistible Rada and the horse thief, Zobar, there was an erotic scene that was controversial for the ’70s-‘80s. After taking a bath, Rada uncovered her breasts while Zobar gave her a lustful gaze.
The audience heaved a long sigh when the actress demonstrated an unbelievable amount of cheekiness by taking off her skirts. One, two, three, four, off they came… an agonizing amount of titillation for the male public.
Victor laughed in the cabin knowing that their expectations would not be fulfilled. In the dim light of the “Dacia” cinema, the men were slowly leaning forward and drawing their faces closer to the screen with every skirt that dropped to the floor.
“Come on, dummies, they’re not going to show that!” grinned Victor slyly. When the tease ended, the spectators would lean back into their seats with obvious protest.
In 1970, the Dacia cinema house opened with the premiere of Swan Lake on the big screen. Victor was among the 30-40 spectators and was quick to get hired.
His responsibility was to bring movies from larger cinemas in Galați, Brăila or Iași. He still has the backpack which he used to transport the film. A three-and-a-half hour film had four rolls and weighed “80 kilograms, the same as a priest.”
Hundreds of people would wait for him to arrive in front of the cinema in Piatra Neamț. “I was welcomed like King Mihai. Victor has arrived, Victor has arrived!”
People would go crazy and fight to get in line at one of the three ticket booths. In those times, the windows of the ticket booths would fall victim to the chaos and have to be repaired twice a week.
During the movie “Green Ice“, a film from the ‘80s featuring Anne Archer, Ryan O’Neal and Omar Sharif, it was absolute pandemonium trying to get a ticket .
A few years later, around 1,000 spectators crammed into the cinema house to watch Titanic. The cashier would throw the money on the floor because there wasn’t enough space to fit it all into the cashbox.
“In the times of Ceaușescu, film was one of the few outlets. Somehow, in the darkness of the cinema rooms, you felt that no one was supervising you, that you could take a break from the outside world, from that grey reality.”
The “Great Destruction”
The “Great Destruction” is Victor’s term for the post-Communist period when the government stopped functioning, crooks and bandits stole everything they could get their hands on, and private sector investment was non-existent.
After the Revolution, the first meeting for the reorganization of the cinema houses took place in the “Cozla” cinema house, which has since fallen to ruins.
Art critic, Valentin Ciucă, invited Purice to the board meeting. It gave him great satisfaction to look around the room at the people who, overnight, had to learn how to get by without the help of “Daddy Ceasca.” (nickname for Ceaușescu).
In the ‘90s, stealing was more abundant that ever. Purice remained in the projection cabin while in the main hall, the ticket booth became a den of thieves.
“Tickets that were sold to spectators on the street were sold once again at the ticket booths. Lots of dirty money was being made.” says Purice.
One of the Cinema administrators had a heart attack when the police caught him. His successor was also caught stealing and was forced into retirement.
Be careful what you wish for
In 1996, Victor became the Director of the Dacia Cinema. He gathered all 18 employees and laid down a new set of rules:
– Starting today, the stealing is going to stop. An already sold ticket isn’t going to circulate once again through here.
– What, boss, we can’t even take a packet of cigarettes?
– No, nothing!
After a week, Purice found himself the lone employee. He was the operator, cashier and janitor.
He hired his brother and then God provided an angel named Cornelia to handle the accounting.
That’s when the battle began. It took Victor another 20 years to be proud of his cinema house once again.
Fighting the Cold
Even though the 3 Dacia employees often got paid months behind schedule, the biggest challenge was having money to pay the heating bills.
The winters in Piatra Neamț are not mild. Victor handed out blankets and hot tea to keep his audience warm. He also gathered the audience in the front row so they could be warmed by a hot air blower. On many days, he would look out the window waiting for “the humanity”, as he liked to call it, to arrive. But humanity had forgotten the way to the theatre.
“I said –Lord, do something, help me! I was suffering in the cold. The radiator did nothing for me. But most of all, I was suffering for the spectators. When I would go sit in the theatre, I’d think – Man, it’s still this cold? I asked God to not let there be any more freezing weather.” (Victor Purice)
“At the beginning of the ‘90s there were approximately 450 cinema houses in Romania. In the last twenty years, these places have disappeared from the cultural map of Romania. They are now bingo halls, money exchange offices, construction material storage sites, church buildings, clubs, discos, restaurants, clothing stores and supermarkets, or they were deliberately abandoned and left to degradation.”
This is the conclusion of Save the Big Screen interactive platform, which created a map in 2014 showing all the cinema houses that were still owned by the state. About 80% of Romanian cities no longer have these buildings.
In 2003, Victor’s only child, Alina, left to work in Italy. She was very young and Victor was devastated. When he found out she was a cleaning lady, Victor sold his car and went straight to Italy with the intention to bring her home.
“Alina, dad loves you, you’re my only child. Come home, baby! Let me stay, let me stay a little while longer and you’ll see that everything will be OK, she kept repeating. I would leave her apartment and go sit on the stairs of a cathedral, crying. Man, how do you leave your child here? The next day, the whole process would start all over. Finally, I let her stay, and after two years, Victor’s wife, Tamara, went to Italy as well. They called me to invite me to the wedding. That’s another story.”
On the way to the wedding in Viterbo, 65 kilometers from Rome, the bus driver warned Purice:
“Hey, Mr. Victore! I’ve seen a lot in my day. Italian men after young ladies. Your son-in-law will probably be around your age, Mr. Victore! I think you two will get along splendidly!”
“Get out of here, my Alina?” said Victor, although the thought had already crept into his mind.
When they arrived, Alina was waiting for him in the bus station with an older man. The bus driver braked suddenly. “Yo, Mr. Victore, I told you, now look at him. Actually, he seems a lot older than you!
Purice’s heart became as small as his name.
Purice got out of the car, fuming, ready to welcome his son-in-law with a couple of blows. “Don’t call me daddy, don’t call me daddy. Put the bags in the car and leave me alone,” said Victor angrily to his daughter as he got in the driver’s seat. While he stared with vengeance at the man he was supposed to welcome into his family, Alina said. “Dad, calm down, that’s not Claudio, that’s his father, my future father-in-law.”
Victor burst out laughing and took them both in his arms, shouting for joy.
Time to give up?
After the wedding, Victor’s wife, Tamara moved to Italy to care for the two new grandchildren.
Victor missed his family and was depressed. He wondered if he had been negligent in this absurd battle to save the cinema. Maybe he should heed his
“Dad, the cinema house is going to crumble down on you. You’re fighting with windmills. We’re not going to force you, but at least try something else.”
In 2011, he left for Italy with the intention of staying. He took a month off and then asked for another 60 days off without pay: “I didn’t tell anyone about my intentions because I risked discovering that my cinema would be turned into a night club, if and when, I returned home.”
He got a job as a driver. In reality, he was the poor Romanian who did everything. He drove, carried, lifted to the point of complete exhaustion and utter meaninglessness.
30 days later he cashed his paycheck and carried out this dialogue with his boss:
– Gentlemen, thank you from the bottom of my heart for what you did for me, but I’m going to return to my little home.
– What do you do in Romania? You’re leaving… but how much do you make there? People are dying of hunger in Romania.
– In my country, I create culture. I’m the director of a cinema.
– What do you mean?
– That’s what I mean.
– So then why did you come here?
– I came here to scope you out, to see how you treat Romanians.
After one month away, Victor returned home and swore that he’d never leave Romania again.
Cinema, Mon Amour
Shortly after returning from Italy, a film production team led by the young director Alexandru Belc sought out Purice to create a documentary about the remaining cinema houses in Romania.
The filmmakers decided to base the documentary on a single story, the story of Victor and his three employees – Lorena (“a chameleon-actress, because she has had red hair, blonde hair, long hair and short hair”), Cornelia, and Gheorghe, Victor’s older brother.
Alexandru’s team filmed for almost three years.
“I asked them to depict reality, to show us the way we are, nothing false, no stunt doubles. If you manage to film it when it happens – long live your family, if you don’t, too bad!”
Ultimately, Alexandru Belc created a gem, a documentary called “Cinema, Mon Amour” or “Cinema, My Love”. The film first appeared in a short version in 2014 and then in the final format in 2016, circulating in film festivals all over the world.
Thanks to the documentary “Cinema, Mon Amour”, Purice escaped anonymity. In the last few months, he has received guests from all over the world.
His fame has begun to open new doors. A few years earlier, his desperate cries for help landed on deaf ears. Now, “that crazy Moldovean guy” has turned into “Ah, I greet you with respect, Mr. Purice”.
Victor Purice was convinced that the digitalization and modernization of the cinema house would bring the people of Piatra Neamț back to “Dacia”. Using his new connections, he managed to acquire the 3D technology system from the cinema house “Patria” in Bucharest. The 3D system was just lying there, unused, in a cinema that had been closed down years ago due to a potential seismic hazard.
He repaired the 3D system and in March 2016 brought Star Wars to Piatra Neamț. On a wall at the entrance of the cinema house, these words were written: “The force is within, deeply hidden”.
This force had also awoken “the humanity,” who was once again pouring into the cinema, filling its hall. There were 500 people, the largest group since Titanic.
Among them was Tamara, Victor’s wife. She took him into her arms and kissed him. “Finally! I never thought that you’d one day succeed. You didn’t fight in vain, look, your dreams have come true!”
Victor locked himself in his office for five minutes and had a good cry. He returned, all smiles. He had won!
The Young Generation
After Victor’s return from Italy, another surprise awaited him. Young people in Piatra Neamț began to join his cause.
Andrei Dăscălescu, the organizer of the local summer film festival “Filmul de Piatră,” helped him create a sponsorship with Ardealul Pharmacy to purchase a $200 video-projector.
Later, a group of 16-year old girls created a Save Dacia! Facebook campaign. The teenagers organized a four day festival of Romanian films at the Dacia that raised $2500 to purchase building materials for renovations. Of course, Victor was the skilled labor.
“I never spoke against the younger generation. On the contrary, I criticized those who speak against them and called them crazy. Crazy? In reality, the older folks have no idea how to interact with them.
I was completely surprised when we created this movement to save the cinema house. When I saw these teenagers cleaning the room, how hard they were working, I said: this can’t be real!
Hey, do you ever do this at home? No, only mom and dad clean. So why are you doing it here? Because I like it and I want to work with you to accomplish your dream to have a cinema house.
They’re my protégés. They get things done on Facebook. Now, they want to create a campaign to get personalized chairs. Each one wants a chair with their names on it. It’s theirs when they come to the cinema. When they don’t come, someone else can use it. It sounds promising.
The Director of “Dacia” smiles, sure of himself, and says that he wouldn’t abandon his work of 30 years for all the money in the world.
Purice says that he still has a lot of crazy ideas. He wants to transform the cinema into a real cultural center where theatre productions and classical music concerts are held.
Something tells us he’s going to make it. He’s only one man, but a man who knows his place in the world and is committed to his calling. That’s all it takes.
“The best day for me in the cinema is when I have a full house. I’ve had so many and I know I’ll have more… For years, this cinema hall was dead, there was nothing to do. You should see it on the weekends now, it’s hustling and bustling.
This is an instrument for socialization. You meet people in flesh and bone. There are people who haven’t been to a cinema house in 20-30 years. Now they come and rediscover a world that they believed was lost. People come back after so long, thank me, and take me into their arms. I consider myself a very lucky man.
But wait, I’m not going to stop here. I have to ensure that all the right conditions are in place. I have to do everything, step by step. The real fight actually starts now.