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Documentary Captures the Beauty and Loss of Romania's Mining Community

Picture of Cassam Looch
Film Editor
Updated: 23 June 2017
Following a successful debut at the recent Transylvania International Film Festival, Planeta Petrila is now available on HBO Romania and HBO Go. The documentary filmed over the course of three years won the audience prize at the Romanian festival.

‘Petrila, a world that doesn’t resemble any possible settlement, anything or anyone from anywhere…’

Director Andrei Dăscălescu took a quote written on a wall at the entrance of the town as his inspiration. As Petrila has fallen on hard times, Dăscălescu’s film follows two very different individuals: Ion Barbu, a former miner who is now an activist and artist, and brigadier-miner Cătălin Cenuşă.

Miners changing shifts, in Putul Centru ramp
Miners changing shifts, in Putul Centru ramp | © HBO Romania

Synopsis:

As miners in the Romanian town of Petrila go down the mine for the last time, artist and ex-miner Ion Barbu is working on his mission: preserving Petrila’s coal mine as cultural heritage. But in accordance with EU agreements on the closure of the mine, the authorities are committed to demolishing it completely. This would bring about an abrupt end to a piece of history with which the mining community still feels a deep affinity, but one that doesn’t appear to interest the politicians in the slightest.

The miners take a short break, about 1,000 metres underground
The miners take a short break, about 1,000 metres underground | © HBO Romania

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Barbu refuses to back down, doing all he can to keep the memories of the mine and the identity of his hometown alive. He covers the mine buildings in murals and organises performances, street protests, an underground theatre festival and a clandestine film. His resolve is a match for that of his opponents, and his art, which samples freely from art history, is charged with elements of the absurd well suited to the situation. Nonetheless, his actions prove to be more than just a frivolous protest; they become a channel for the collective mourning of a redundant industry.

Chinese sky lanterns with Romanian poems are launched in front of one of Petrila Mine’s historical buildings
Chinese sky lanterns with Romanian poems are launched in front of one of Petrila Mine’s historical buildings | © HBO Romania

Both Barbu and Cenuşă are desperately seen trying to save the buildings from being destroyed. Cenuşă is also trying to move his team to another, functioning mine.

‘I had met the artist Ion Barbu and heard about his “activism through art”, but neither the stories nor my imagination could have prepared me for the fascination that took over when I first visited the mining town of Petrila, in May 2013,’ says writer, director and director of photography Andrei Dăscălescu.

The garage is a social phenomenon in Petrila. Liviu, called Bibu, repairs, customises and builds motorcycles, raising money to move to the US
The garage is a social phenomenon in Petrila. Liviu, called Bibu, repairs, customises and builds motorcycles, raising money to move to the US | © HBO Romania

‘The overall atmosphere is grey, sinister, strange, ghostly; the decaying towers of the mine rise above the town. But if you take a closer look, you start to notice “islands” of colour: garage doors on which paintings were made, street signs with funny messages, a road crossing painted to look like a piano keyboard, a few buildings with cartoons drawn on all the walls… even one of the buildings of the mining complex was turned into a cultural space and painted in many colours. The contrast is astounding.’

Chief miner Marian Bancea came from Alba Iulia in 1994. He says Petrila is the most beautiful mine in the Vale
Chief miner Marian Bancea came from Alba Iulia in 1994. He says Petrila is the most beautiful mine in the Vale | © HBO Romania

Planeta Petrila is currently on HBO Romania and HBO GO