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Interview with Cristian Mungiu

After living through the Ceacescu dictatorship, Cristian Mungiu probably finds the stupidity of the Motion Picture Academy’s Foreign Language committee a minor nuisance. Nominated by Romania as its candidate for the Best Foreign Language film, his “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” a  stark, subtle and devastating depiction of the travails of two young women seeking a solution in a society in which abortion has been criminalized, was totally ignored by whoever the clowns are that make that determination. Maybe he felt vindicated by the film’s opening weekend in New York which took in some $25,000 a screen. But I’d be lying though if I said it wasn’t  on his mind when I talked to him on the phone long distance to Bucharest a couple of weeks ago.

PK:  How are things in Bucharest?

CM:  I just got back last night from a very long flight. It’s snowy.

PK:  Here in the United States, a lot of people are embarrassed and angry that your film not only wasn’t nominated but also wasn’t even on the short list for Best Foreign Language film. What are your feelings about it?

CM:  Well, we had this expectation because we had this wonderful response from the Cannes Film Festival. And because the film was very well received in festivals and because we got a lot of nominations and awards from different critical associations in the States, we had these expectations and we thought it was maybe likely that the voting members of the Academy would have the same opinion, so we’re disappointed, to be honest. It’s alright if these people have a different taste, there’s nothing to comment about this, if Academy members have different taste, it’s absolutely all right. The problem is that it’s not very fair if the group of people who vote for this don’t represent the taste of all the members of the Academy, and it’s frustrating not to know whether this is what they would chosen.

PK:  At least it will bring about reform in the voting system, one would hope. On the other hand, another film which is about a very similar subject – a young woman having an unwanted pregnancy,Juno,” - won tons of nominations. Do you have any thoughts about that?

CM:  Well honestly, I haven’t seen the film. And then, you you can’t really compare a film spoken in Englsh with a film spoken in some other language. It’s normal that in the U.S. most of the attention will be on English-spoken films, which is very understandable.

PK:  Do you plan to see “Juno?”

CM:  It’s not like I plan to see this movie more than some other movies. I plan to see all the movies that I hear a lot of good things about, but not necessarily this one. I don’t feel like we were competing or anything like that. And there’s no indication for me that the vote of the members of the Academy was connected with the subject, I don’t know. I have no idea about this. Who knows?

PK:  There have been a number of movies that have come out in the past year that have been comedies about women in that situation, which they almost never mention the word “abortion and nobody ever resorts to it. There’sJuno,there’sKnocked Up,” you may have heard of that, and “Waitress,” to name a few. Do you think Americans have a kind of unrealistic attitude toward this issue? And do you think a comedy is an appropriate genre for confronting it?

CM:  Well, honestly, I don’t think it’s okay to judge and generalize and say what kind of attitude Americans have on the basis of the vote of a few hundred people or some tens of people. You can’t really say this. It’s obvious this subject is difficult and polarizing, that’s clear for me. But what was really important for us all around doing the promotion of the film in the U.S. is that we finally thought it became clear that the film we screened doesn’t carry any kind of message, neither for or against abortion. It presents a story set in a very complex kind of environment and it invites you to have an opinion. So I don’t think it could be offending in any way, neither to people being pro or against abortion. But finally what I really felt was that the American audience will be curious enough to see how come the American press considered this film to be so good and so interesting, and the voting members considered it not to be interesting at all. I hope that we are going to reach our most important goal, which is to have as many people as possible see the film and have their own opinion.

I am absolutely content with the tone of my film. I don’t think this is an issue that I could have treated differently and I’ve made a lot of comedies in my life before this film, but it never occured to me, in connection with the story I was trying to tell, [to make it into a comedy]. It’s not about humor here, a comedy would not have been appropriate, to be honest. I wanted to be realistic and I thought that this is the way I want to speak about this now. And this should be generating and stimulating people to think about something important. For all of us to make up our own  minds and have our own opinion, this is what I want. It’s not like telling people what to do.

PK:  There are some funny moments in the movie, though.

CM:  Yes, yes, I don’t have anything against that. But you know, there’s a huge difference between humor and comedy. Comedy lacks from my perspective, comedy is something that creates laughter lacking realism and would place the discourse of the film from the beginning in a very different tone. My main concern was to be very believable, very honest to the story  and to present in a very realistic way both the society and the period in which this happened and this specific story.

PK:  A comedy also implies a happy ending, or at least an ending of some sort, and you don’t really have either one in your film.

CM:  Because I don’t have much to do with this kind of filmmaking, at least not for this project. So we never aimed to please the audience, we wanted to tell a very true story in a very direct and honest way. Assuming from the beginning that people might be displeased with what they considered to be the truth.

PK:  Most American films use rapid montage and sound effects and other ways of manipulating the audience for a particular response to the film whereas your film is completely devoid of any of that kind of cueing of the audience. Do you think American audiences will enjoy that change?

CM:  I think there is not just one American audience. It’s obvious that the film won’t be successful in a lot of small places in cinemas all across U.S. because it’s very very different and very difficult for most of the people that only enjoy and are used to mainstream cinema. But this was also the purpose of the film. I truly believe that the film achieves some of the important goals of an American film which is the tension, and this atmosphere of a thriller in the second part, but in a completely different way, trying not at all to appeal to these very manipulative things that you can do as a director. It’s very easy to impress people and make them cry if you use fast editing and music, but I think it’s not dignifying for you as a director. This is exactly what we wanted to avoid, because for us it’s important not only what story you tell but how you tell it. And we don’t make films only looking necessarily for what the profit is going to be. Our first and primary goal is to make sure the story is told in a very truthful way and we’re not being manipulative with our audience.

PK:  Actually there are times with the film goes out of its way to frustrate those expectations.

CM:  Yes, I have a point about this, I mean I allowed these things in the film on purpose because I see film narrative in a different way than the American mainstream. First of all, I’m trying to get the model of my narrative from life and not from film, and not from different kinds of films. Learning life, you realize that there are a lot of questions at the end of the day that don’t get an answer in your real life. And I’m trying to have this in the film. If I’m making a film about a couple of girls and only what happens for them in this day, I really try to be as close as possible to the truth, and the truth is that most of the things that happen to them are going to be solved but not all of them, and it’s my way of saying, “this is how life goes and this is just a fragment.” A film is not a whole story, and it’s up to you, the spectator, to make up and to imagine all the possible consequences, because obviously there’s going to be a next day for them. I hate this type of filmmaking, where all the questions in the film get an answer by the end of it, and everything is available for the subject. This is very fake, in a way. Things don’t go like this and life is not like this, and I’m trying to get this kind of truth to the story while also allowing some things that are not directly to the point.

PK:  I don’t think you’re going to enjoy “Juno” then if that’s your feeling about films.

CM:  Well, I can’t really say much you know when I go to the cinema, I develop my expectations in the first three minutes of the film. I have nothing against a good film and good laughter and eating popcorn on a Saturday evening, it’s just not the kind of film that I am making.

PK:  You said your film is trying to be honest to the experience, and the experience that occurs to this is similar to your own experience, I would assume, because you’ were the same age as those characters at that time in Bucharest, is that correct?

CM:  Well, it’s more than this it’s involving a lot of personal details. It’s a true story which I knew from somebody who is very close to me, and it involves a lot of things which are not necessarily autobiographical, but anyhow very close to me.

PK:  That birthday party dinner scene, I think people all over the world can recognize the stress and the absurdity of that particular scene. Was it drawn from your personal experience, because the details are so precisely…

CM:  Pretty much, pretty much, because I come from a family of doctors so I know what I’m talking about. But you know the best news that you get after people see this scene and you tell me it can be understood all over the world and I had the same feeling seeing this film screened in a lot of countries, is that if you are describing very truthfully an experience that you had and which is very generally human, then the context and the period won’t matter that much, and it’s going to be universal enough so that a lot of people can recognize themselves in the situation. And I got this comment from several people in the states watching the film, that “these could be my parents” despite the fact that they have never seen this place, in the 80s in Romania, and if you listen to the dialogue, they speak about a lot of specific things generated by that period, but it’s also about an attitude that you can get no matter where you are born. It’s an attitude, it’s a conflict between generations, it’s a conflict between social classes and you know it’s an important moment for me in terms of how you think about cinema. Cinema is mostly something where you need to hear people to know their thoughts, and you see things, while for me that moment transcends a little bit the limits of cinema. You watch that scene and you know what the main character thinks about. You kind of hear his thoughts and she’s always silent, but you know that she doesn’t want to be there, that she’s embarrassed, that she wants to be someplace else, and this is why that scene is so strong for me because it’s also very very layered.

Next: Altman, Kieslowski, Truffaut, Kents vs. Marlboros.

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