Behind the Scenes of The Hoia-Baciu Documentary with Laura Călugăr

Laura Călugăr is one of the newest members of the Publishing team, having joined us last October after 10 years of field activity with different TV channels. Shortly after arriving here, we discovered that she’s been working on a side project aimed at increasing the city’s visibility among tourists. Of course, we were curious. The project, the ever-more notorious The Hoia-Baciu Forest – Truth or Legend documentary, stems from her love for Cluj and nature and was released in December having Peter Baker (BBC) and Eric Gordon (CNN International) as narrators.

The Hoia-Baciu forest is a quite popular Transylvanian attraction, veiled in a mysterious aura that captivates scientists and tourists alike, allured by the unexplainable happenings taking place here of supposedly alien origins. Until now, however, no one has ever made a professional travel documentary about the place, even though it’s been on the radar of UFO connoisseurs since 1968. But what do you know, things have changed.

Why did you get involved in this subject and what was your part? Why the Baciu-Hoia forest?
I got involved because I was sick of simply saying “It’s such a pity we don’t take advantage of the tremendous touristic treasure we live in.” Thus, when a friend of mine—a talented videographer—came to me one day and said he wanted to promote sights near Cluj-Napoca, I said “yes” without hesitation. I was in charge of the documentation part, but also the script and the interviews.

We have all been around the world, visiting touristic spots, and saw how well organized things can be, from entrance to exit. Yet, the best part of the Hoia-Baciu forest is that it is still barely touched by human action and this attracts nature lovers from all over the world. At the end of their tour in the woods, tourists usually ask to see the souvenir shop. Obviously, there’s no such thing. So we figured this was a perfect niche for us. We hope the documentary will become the most wished-for souvenir of this well-known forest. It includes images of the forest in all seasons, but also explanations from different researchers. The techniques used are similar to those of an artistic documentary, with no embellishment, mystification or manipulation. The final aim of the project is to create a professional touristic documentary that can be compared to documentaries abroad.

Were you ever frightened by the legends of the woods?
Fear is something most of us experience when entering a forest, any forest by night, so this one was no different for me. It’s only natural that the legends of these woods give you shivers up and down your spine. For instance, people say they feel like they are being followed or watched. This is the same feeling I get whenever I go into the woods after sunset. But during daytime, I only notice the beautiful scenery nature offers-bended trees, intriguing paths, raw meadows and relaxing bird chirping.

Who came up with the idea? Was the team difficult to gather?
Cosmin Giurgiu is a videographer with 20 years of experience in the industry. He came up with the idea and turned to me for help with the script. We then contacted the RYLEx Association (known for their landmark project called “The Hoia-Baciu Project”), a non-governmental organization which, for the last few years, has been arranging tours in the forest, by day and by night. They know the forest, they know all the fascinating places, the twisted trees and most of the legends, so they helped us a lot during the documentation process.

Could you elaborate on the documentary-making process?
We worked for one whole year (January – December 2016) in order to capture the forest in all seasons. We usually went there during weekends, during full moons or whenever we needed to interview researchers or reconstruct people’s spooky stories in images. Given my media background, I especially loved taking the interviews. People revealed things they never had the courage to say to anyone, so hearing peculiar stories in premiere was truly captivating. It motivated us and made us continue despite the financial obstacles we encountered sometimes, as this project had only a few sponsors. Most of the money we needed came from our pockets and we can’t wait to see if our bet is a winning one.

We picked our shooting days carefully because we needed to capture as many aspects of the weather as possible: rain, sun, snow, wind, etc. We were really lucky that Cosmin owns an SUV, so it was effortless for us to get to different areas of the forest regardless of weather conditions.

All team members worked very hard to keep our promises to people who love the forest and who became our Facebook fans. Besides the documentary itself, we committed to deliver two trailers and so we did. Peter Baker (BBC narrator) and Eric Gordon (CNN voiceover) both agreed to join the project because they heard about the legends and wanted to find out more. So it was kind of easy for us to convince them to offer us substantial discounts.

So you’ve basically visited the forest in each season. When did you like it best?
Yes, I visited the forest in each season. We all spent hours documenting every story and became really enthusiastic as we saw the scenery change completely every season. My favorite time in the forest was during autumn because the colors are mesmerizing, especially the aerial shots. The forest truly is a maze if you don’t pay attention to your surroundings

How long did it take to complete?
It took one year to complete de 45-minute documentary. I spent more than 3 weeks reviewing the interviews and writing the script, while my colleague spent one whole month video editing. It was pretty hard towards the end as we were beginning to feel the exhaustion, but seeing the result made us all agree that it paid off.

Were there any scary moments, perhaps at nightfall, in the woods, with all those creepy stories and unsettling sounds the legends talk about?
I am amongst the most skeptical people who have ever entered the forest. I have always been down-to-earth and nothing out of the ordinary happened to me while filming. I must admit though that there were two moments when I said to myself “There’s something fishy about this”. One full moon night, we went into the woods to shoot some time-lapses. We shot four during the same night, but one of them was totally ruined and we had no technical explanation for the mishap. Cosmin is an experienced cameraman and we both had our eyes on the camera the whole time. The other thing that made me question my beliefs was when we captured a flying object on the drone camera. There was this fast flying object that couldn’t be confused with a bird because of its staggering speed. Besides these two moments, I did not experience anything inexplicable. Of course I was scared during night shootings, but I guess that happens to everyone in all forests.

What about the happiest moment of the entire production?
The happiest moment I can recall was when we launched the second trailer at the end of May 2016. We created a Facebook event and almost 100 people came into the woods by night to watch the trailer. It was so encouraging to see that people were curious about our work and wanted to feel the forest. We decided to launch the second trailer in the woods because the weather was warm even by night and the feelings one gets while watching the trailer in the forest cannot be compared to anything else. So we brought a giant screen, an HD movie projector, a power generator and loud speakers. People were fascinated and that was enough for us.

What are you trying to achieve through this project?
We are trying to cope with this forest’s notoriety while combining what we love with what needs to be done. The forest was included in a top of the scariest places on earth, made by The Guardian. This spot was also included in Travel and Leisure’s top of the most haunted places in the world. Even BBC included the place in a top 5 of the most haunted forests in the world, together with the Wychwood Forest in England, The Black Forest in Germany and the Japanese Aokigahara Forest (known as the Suicide Forest). As the Hoia-Baciu forest is as renowned as any of these forests, we want to give something back to tourists who come here. There is no souvenir shop and, besides a small branch, people have nothing to take with them as a reminder of this whimsical place.

What’s next in line for you? Sequel, some other project maybe?
The project will not stop here. So far, we launched the documentary in a cinema and we were sold out during both projections. We are currently working on the translation part (the documentary will have Romanian, Hungarian and German subtitles, besides the English voice-over) and also on the authorization process that we need to go through in order to be able to sell the movie. We hope it will be available by June 2017. At the same time, we are working on gathering other intriguing stories for a sequel–The Hoia-Baciu Forest 2–which will most probably be released only next year.

During my trips to different Romanian sites, I saw lots of low-quality touristic materials and it made me want to get involved. Tourists deserve to be treated with respect as they pump loads of money into a city’s economy. The least we could do for them is value their good intentions (we all know that some tourists consider our state a third world country and fear coming here) and respond with consideration. The documentary is a form of appreciation towards them.

I am also planning another touristic project involving “Ţara Călatei”, an ethnographical region in Transylvania defined by the historical relationship between Romanians and Hungarians. But that is another story.