An Interview with Justin Blair, co-producer of the documentary Across the Forest

by Brent Raynes

Justin Blair, an American filmmaker, along with his colleague Matthew Vincent, traveled to the tiny villages of the Carpathians, in the mountains of Transylvania, to interview Romananian villagers about their beliefs, stories, and even their alleged experiences with vampires, werewolves, and forest spirits.

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Brent Raynes: The video documentary entitled Across the Forest, done by yourself and your colleague and friend Matthew Vincent, in the land of Transylvania no less, was an incredible production. You genuinely captured the people, their land, their culture, their lifestyles, and their mind-boggling stories of encounters with supernatural forces and beings. How on earth did the two of you gentlemen come upon the idea of doing this to begin with? What drew you to this particular assignment?

Justin Blair: I went to the University of Florida for a B.A. in History and during that time I traveled to Romania to participate in an archaeological dig. I spent about a month and a half there and became entranced with the culture and people. Growing up I was always reading horror, speculative fiction and enjoyed sci-fi films. Of course, Transylvania is closely associated with the vampire so I wanted to actually go there and see what people who lived in Transylvania thought about that.

I stumbled upon an article before going back to shoot the documentary about how some villagers had been arrested for disinterring a corpse, cutting the heart out and drinking a potion made from the ashes. When I read that I thought, well it seems there probably are still people who can share some pretty strange stories.

The reality is I was just going to go and try to write a book. Matthew Vincent was a friend of mine and he suggested actually shooting the interviews. Neither of us really knew if we would have enough material. I had a few friends and contacts from doing archeology there and they agreed to help, so we bought the ticket and said, let's see what happens. We ended up with 40+ hours of footage and interviews, so it worked out.

Brent Raynes: What sort of research or preparation was necessary?

Justin Blair: It's interesting because the very fact that I couldn't find a documentary on vampires that was actually set in Transylvania, is the reason I went to make a documentary on vampires set in Transylvania. I just thought, well of course someone will have done this before. But they hadn't, so I did it.

There are books written about supernatural and folklore beliefs of the area, but most of them are academic and not written for a broad audience. I read as many as I could find in pre-production.

Other than that, we had passports, we saved a little bit of money up, and we just showed up with the camera equipment. The Romanian people are kind and the few contacts I had were a little surprised I think that we actually showed up. But if you put a little effort into something kind of difficult, you will be surprised how many people will try to help you along the way.

Now, I had a questionnaire prepared and all of that. When we actually got into the field all that paperwork was put aside. I realized we just needed to have a conversation, not an interview. We just wanted to let the camera roll and put ourselves into the role of someone listening to a story. We never wanted to push people in this direction or that. We let people talk about Communism, the war, farming if they wanted to; we let people drift if they wanted to towards other subjects.

Brent Raynes: What kind of difficulties, challenges and hardships did you guys encounter in traveling to this distant land and making contacts, in addition to overcoming the obvious cultural and language barriers. Do you speak Romanian, or did you hire an interpreter?

Justin Blair: We really didn't have much money to make this film. So, we literally walked from village to village at times. We would hitchhike and sometimes hire a car or catch a local bus. The roads can be dangerous in that part of the world. You will be flying down a dirt road and over a mountain pass, and then all of a sudden almost plow into a herd of sheep, or hit a horse and carriage. You just have to kind of accept that part of it. I would just try to relax and think about how weird it would be to get killed in Transylvania, and then laugh to myself--at least I would have a better chance coming back from the dead as a vampire.

We got stranded in the middle of nowhere one night when the gas line got severed in a car we were in. I mean, the guide we were with didn't even know where we were, which was funny because he was local to the area. And you know, this is the first time I've thought about it, but it's also strange because we recorded several stories of people who had seen strange lights, and been transported from place to place without memory of how they got there. We actually put a little montage of that break down in the film. But the driver was very resourceful and somehow he managed to get the line fixed in the middle of the night when it was literally freezing outside, and we made it back.

But really Romania is a safe place, the people are kind. It's a poor place and you have to be careful here and there, as you would anywhere. The cities are modern and it's not like everyone is going around with stakes trying to slay vampires.

You have to be wary of the local moonshine, which everybody wants you to try. One, because it will kick your ass and two because if they mess up the distillation you can go blind or die. But that is rare, and you really have to imbibe to get on with the villagers. A man who won't have a shot of palinca isn't entirely to be trusted, it's that kind of thing.

I spoke some Romanian at the time, I speak and read it better now, but we traveled with a friend and interpreter Marius Ardeleanu. He was great. He grew up in the countryside and understood the mindset. He was someone I met through a contact at the history Museum in Cluj. I am forever indebted to those people. When we got there, a professor there simply told me and Matthew, "When you are here in my country, you are like my sons. I'm looking out for you." You don't run into people like that every day, but I've noticed in my travels that people will really try to help you if they know you are genuine about what you are attempting to do.

Brent Raynes: As I watched your amazing film with great fascination I was intrigued by the parallels in the stories that these people shared regarding "little people", tales of the living dead, vampires, werewolves, and mysterious supernatural lights, with stories told by other people throughout the world. What accounts or aspects of those stories impressed you personally the most?

Justin Blair: If there was one interview that was the most stunning, it was with a lady who told us of how she stabbed a strigoi (vampire) through the heart when she was a young girl. To hear someone explain how that happens is a bit of a shock. I knew it did occur, but to actually get the story on film is something I am not sure anyone has done at this point.

A lot of the stories in Across the Forest are bizarre and make you think. But beyond the content of the stories, it was just the fact that people were so willing to simply tell their stories that surprised me. They weren't self-conscious about it, they were just talking about what they consider the natural order of things, a disturbing episode in their life, or at times something really traumatic that happened to them.

I'm a student of history and as a student of history you are always looking for patterns and similarities across cultures. So, that is something I have studied a lot. In this instance, you see how a lot of these creatures share characteristics with other mythological/supernatural entities around the world. There isn't room here to even discuss all the similarities. It's amazing really.

Brent Raynes: While you were on-site in that distant and foreign land, did either of you have any unusual personal experiences?

Justin Blair: I have to be honest, I'm a huge skeptic when it comes to the supernatural. I didn't have any personal experiences of the paranormal while in Transylvania. I get asked that a lot in interviews, and I would love to be able to say differently, but I just didn't. Maybe our film would be more popular if I said I battled Count Chocula to the death in the hills of Transylvania, but that's just not possible for me.

Matthew is a different case, but I never like to speak for other people. Maybe he is more in tune with the spirit world than I am.

I say I'm a skeptic, but at the same time that doesn't mean I discount other people's experiences. A person owns their own experience. I just listen. I leave it up to the viewer of the film to decide what they think. That's why we chose to put no narration in the film. We didn't want a filter between the stories of these villagers and the viewer. To me, you respect your audience and let them figure it out and come to their own conclusions.

I will say, I don't believe you are ever going to take a camera and record a supernatural entity, but that is another discussion. I don't think you can probably ever "prove" these things exist, but what you can do is record people's experiences and compare them over time and place. That might be the best avenue in terms of study. Well, people will disagree and that's perfectly alright with me.

Brent Raynes: So how would you describe your overall interpretation of the gentle and friendly story-tellers you met and interviewed in the mountains of Transylvania? Do you perceive them as superstitious people isolated in remote locations with deep roots into their ancient customs and traditions, which ultimately color their beliefs, worldview, and imagination, or do you have the sense that something truly paranormal or supernatural may indeed be transpiring in their lives?

Justin Blair: This final question is really tough, because it is essentially a philosophical concern. It's a great question.

Just because someone grows up in a place without access to certain modern amenities doesn't mean their opinions are less valid when it comes to these matters. Now, are their opinions less valid when it comes to building a jet, programming a computer or something like that? Yes, to be fair they are. Just like I wouldn't want someone who grew up in an urban environment trying to grow food, take care of farm animals or dig a well. The point is, the countryside and the people who live in it have a skill-set that differs from the urban. That doesn't make them lesser people, lesser souls.

In fact, you could make the case that living in a very remote place might even make people more sensitive to the supernatural, more attuned to it, because they are more in tune with the natural world itself. That is, if you assume that the supernatural is really only a hidden aspect of the natural world it then stands to reason those who live closest to nature might provide some deeper insight. I'm not going to try to make that case, but it could be argued.

Maybe I'm biased. I grew up on a small tobacco farm in rural Kentucky with a population of about 500 people, so I feel comfortable in the country. Then again, I've spent time in New York, Beijing, Shanghai, Dublin, London, Edinburgh, Budapest, Frankfurt, San Jose...etc. I've lived in both rural and urban worlds.

As a filmmaker you can either direct others or you can direct yourself to shut up, sit back and listen. The hardest thing to do sometimes is to not do anything.

The film is a collection of stories about supernatural experiences in a place that writers of fiction have used over and over for their own ends–Transylvania. We simply decided to hear out the people of Transylvania on the subject of the supernatural. A strangely radical and simple idea, I guess.

I hope I made a little contribution to the field of folklore, the paranormal and ethnography. To me, the film is something different, something you won't see on television. For those who are interested in the paranormal, it's a chance to actually see and listen to people in a very different country talk about some bizarre experiences that have rarely if ever been caught on film before.