(Rowan University) - Growing up in Communist-controlled Romania, Associate Professor Diana Nicolae was amazed by the quiet, dignified, and technically illegal lifestyle of monks and nuns in a 16th century abbey just outside her town.
As an adult, Nicolae returned to her hometown to revisit the ancient walled monastery, Sucevita, to interview the shy nuns still residing there, and to make a movie about it.
Her film, Not Even the Mountain Stays the Same, will screen next month at the Ukrainian Independent International Film Festival.
“I have been working on this film for over 5 years,” said Nicolae, who teaches documentary filmmaking in Rowan’s Department of Radio, Television & Film within the College of Communication & Creative Arts. “I’ve travelled summers to Romania, at first to build trust with the very suspicious sisters, and later to film and try to capture their less guarded moments.”
Just under 25 minutes long, the film, written, directed and shot by Nicolae, portrays the changing agrarian lifestyle of the Carpathia Mountains surrounding Sucevita, an Eastern Orthodox convent in northeastern Romania. Haunting, gentle, monastic music carries viewers from scene to scene while the nuns of Sucevita work, cook, dine and pray as they’ve done there for centuries.
Nicolae films the nuns as they work to preserve murals that are more than 400 years old, as they beat the toaca, an ancient wood plank used to call the faithful to prayers, and as they reflect on life and death in the monastery.
A slightly different version of the film is now shown at a museum in the monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Romania’s most popular tourist destinations, which draws more than 50,000 visitors each year.
This spring Nicolae screened a longer version of her film at the Ethnografilm Film Festival in Paris, a prestigious international event featuring the works of filmmakers from nearly 100 countries.
Nicolae, whose spring Documentary Film Production course produced three intriguing movies, prods her students to tell strong stories and to always remember that, as in narrative filmmaking, characters in documentaries must be believable and compelling too.
Her students’ films, one about a father-son quest to find two soldiers who saved the man during the Vietnam War, one about legendary animator Tex Avery, and a very personal story about seeking recovery from addiction, premiered on campus May 11.
“Documentary filmmaking can often be more difficult than narrative filmmaking because you have to take chaotic reality and fit it into a dramatic story,” Nicolae said this spring. “When filmmakers connect with their characters, their audiences do too.”
She is presently at work on a film inspired by a mother’s 1998 loss of her son in a campus arson at Murray State University in Kentucky. Titled The 10th Door, the film details the mother’s harrowing search for answers into her son’s death nearly 20 years after the fire.
A former BBC journalist, Nicolae said her passion to tell strong stories informs her classroom presence and she believes her students respond to it.
“I can be very critical because sometimes students need to hear the unvarnished truth,” she said. “I love this work and ultimately my goal is to motivate students to tell great stories that they’re passionate about too.”