Romania's film industry tells a story of rags to riches that has caught Hollywood's attention -- starring fresh talent who have been galvanized by the nation's struggle with communism and its shift to democracy.
"Borat" was filmed partially in Romania and residents filed a lawsuit after its release
US director Francis Ford Coppola visited Romania last year to make his first film in a decade, while parts of "Borat" the mockumentary by British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen, supposedly set in Kazakhstan, was actually shot in Romania.
Since the release of "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" a $30-million (23-million-euro) lawsuit was filed by locals who were used in the filming and agreed to take part, after allegedly being told it was a documentary about Romanian poverty, the trade journal Variety reported.
But it was a relatively isolated, if high-profile incident. In the meantime, Romanian actors, directors and screenwriters have started to rake in prizes from Cannes to Copenhagen and from Thailand to Turkey and the United States.
Among those most recently honored at Cannes were Dorotheea Petre who won the "Un Certain Regard" best actress award in 2006 for "The Way I Spent the End of the World" and director Cristi Puiu, who won in the same competition a year earlier for "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu."
Coppola rediscovers himself
The movie industry "is one of Romania's finest ambassadors," a representative for the National Center for Cinematography (CNC) told AFP.
Further, New York Times critic Stephen Holden has rated "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" among the top 10 films of 2006.
A scene from "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" -- one of Stephen Holden's top 10 films of 2006
Coppola has since finished filming but not yet released his personal, low-profile film, "Youth without Youth," based on the work of Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade and with an almost exclusively Romanian crew.
Local media quoted Coppola as telling a university audience: "I have come here to rediscover myself as an artist."
Puiu told AFP that Coppola choosing so many local technicians "means a lot more than any film school exam."
Corruption still rife
But cinema is not complete without controversy, and Puiu also sharply criticized national shortcomings, adding that "corruption in Romania has reached unbelievable heights."
Personally, he said, when compromise and concessions were taken into account, "I had to pay, in a way, for the right to make films."
Andrei Boncea of MediaPro Pictures tempered that view, saying that regular contracts with international companies meant "we work to certain rules and standards" and competition for national subsidies was another issue.
Media Pro and Castel Film Studios are Romania's world-class private production companies, with movies like "Amen" by Costa-Gavras, "Cold Mountain" with Nicole Kidman and more than 150 other feature films between them since 1998.
Much of their work is contract production, but Media Pro also makes its own films and television series. Both groups together have more than two dozen soundstages along with water tanks, lakes, forests, post-production facilities and an army of multilingual contractors for everything from low-cost set construction to high-tech special effects.
Castel claims the biggest single studio in continental Europe at 3,274 square meters (35,241 square feet), which is available for 10,000 euros per week.
Production costs are about half those in Britain and 30 percent lower than in the Czech Republic, and a cutting-edge Kodak lab now provides film processing.
Bogdan Moncea of Castel Films called Romania "a one-stop shop for foreign productions" offering unblemished rural to bleak industrial landscapes, and architectural styles from "German Gothic in Transylvania to French Art Nouveau or 21st Century in Bucharest."
Romania offers filmmakers unique scenery, such as Bran Castle in Transylvania
The executed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's megalomaniac People's Palace has served as a shooting location as well.
In 1992, French assistant director Olivier Jacquet was on his first Romanian shoot when "the prop master showed up with his hands in his pockets and a tool belt that held a hammer and some nails, and that's it."
With creation and production back on track, Romanian film distribution must now be brought up to speed, and ways found to fill seats in theatres.
"We are one of the countries with the lowest rate of admission in central and eastern Europe," said Boncea of Media Pro.
But, "that's definitely going to change," he vowed, adding that the media group had renovated a historic movie palace and was also building multiplex theatres.
Whether that happens remains to be seen, as does Coppola's film, which production director Doina Dragnea suggested might lead to more work given the positive chemistry between the US director and Romanian crew.
"He says he will come back soon," she said.