“The godfather of the Romanian New Wave” is probably the most frequently used phrase to describe Cristi Puiu, the director who seemed to start this whole new aesthetic with his Un Certain Regard winning film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005). Beginning his career with Stuff and Dough (2001), he has established himself as an auteur of grand finesse with a radical style. His latest film, Sieranevada, premiered at Cannes and was Romania’s nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. The movie focuses on a rambunctious, argumentative family that gathers around a traditional commemorative meal for the patriarch of the family, who had died forty days before. Portrayed with a lot of humour, the film centres on Lary, the son of the deceased. The trivial arguments, the bickering and the lack of moral boundaries are at the core of this micro universe that mirrors the entire Romanian society. Charting the fallout from an event that doesn’t go as planned, Puiu constructs an incisive film about family relationships and human connections. I met up with the director at the 2016 Sarajevo Film Festival on a sunny summer day at the end of the festival. A regular at this event, either on the festival jury or presenting one of his films, I benefited from a carefree talk in the old town. The director didn’t restrict our conversation to film technique, but included current examples and his own personal experiences to illustrate his close relationship with cinema. If in his previous film Aurora (2010) the rising narrative action is almost unnoticeable while the conflict burns inside the protagonist, in Sieranevada the climax is adorned with many overt comic revelations through the range of sub-plots. The conversation was a passionate confession of the dialectic of communication and about the difficulty and almost impossibility of being precisely understood by his audiences. Although the Romanian New Wave is marked by realism and socially aware subject matters, Puiu rejects any devotion or commitment to a form of cinema canon, and challenges the processes of inspiring empathy in an audience. To him, cinema is almost a mystical experience, a very personal one which happens to reach a select few who feel the same. Just as his films point out the deficiency of language, Puiu himself measured his words carefully and deliberately. His direction leaves nothing to chance. Neither does his philosophy.
You write your own projects. How do you start to develop a story?
I reflect… about two weeks I don’t do anything. I just watch the ceiling, I watch movies, I read, listen to music. And I write down random things that come up through my mind during this time, mostly to concentrate… because afterwards when I start writing the script, these little notes are useless. Then I sit down at my computer and I write for about two weeks. If I don’t have the title of the movie at this stage, I can’t get to work. I need the title. I need to find the name of the characters, to envision their age, their profile.
Why did you choose these ardent debates in Sieranevada between the characters regarding 9/11 and the Charlie Hebdo massacre; events not necessarily close to Romania?
I actually think they’re very close. We live in a time in which communication is made through many channels and the internet plays an important role. YouTube gets us closer, the 9/11 story is very much looked at through the internet. I think it has something to do with mysteries of any kind, with questions that can be somehow integrated in a wider search for the meaning of life. I mean, you can ask yourself “What is the meaning of life?” like in Monty Python, and you keep searching. “Why, why? Is it God? No, it’s not. Is it the Big Bang? What are the black holes?” So at this point, it’s very easy to lose track on the internet. Because it allows you to…slide to the occult zone where the information is here and there, very superficial, without a real foundation, yet convenient because it justifies our failure. If you didn’t fulfil your dreams, you didn’t succeed, that is because some occult forces keep dragging you down. This is one aspect. And the other, is that the talented, the smart ones don’t succeed; only the villains, the bad people do, the dishonest and the corrupt ones. That’s what YouTube is for, to justify your failures. Of course, there is valid information too, but it’s hard to find and not everybody knows how to look for it. We prefer to do our therapy; the world is ruled by the bankers, everybody is corrupt. Is the world ruled by bankers? I think not. Is the world ruled by Jews? I don’t think so. We need a scapegoat to justify our failures and the internet is providing all sort of explanations. There are many conspiracies, but the truth is, it’s very hard to understand what history is made of. We know very little about the Romanian Revolution. If the same people who were involved then are still ruling, of course they’d hide the truth. The big revealing of what happened in December ’89 in Romania or 11th September in USA might never take place.
I was wondering if you have read Lucian Boia. I remember his discourse about this search for a scapegoat specific to the Romanians…
Yes, but… he’s not the only one condemning it. I remember that year at Cannes when they made a joke with Cristian Mungiu as a beggar, asking for money from Steven Spielberg to make a movie. They were both in the jury that year and there was a small script, comic-like, about what was happening in the jury. So it was that stereotype of that poor Romanian asking for money. It’s not only a Romanian way of behaving, to blame others. But I understand Boia’s way of thinking, because we criticise the ones we love. If I hate someone, I’m not even interested in what he or she does. But if I love them, I am going to be hurt. I understand this discourse like some kind of undeclared patriotism.
I thought that also happened in Emil Cioran’s The Transfiguration of Romania, even though it’s a book often associated with hatred of his homeland.
Of course. You cannot be saddened, brought to despair by a person that you don’t love, who doesn’t exist for you. But it hurts when the one you care about loses the encounter with the world, because cutting things short, that’s what we can say about Romania and Romanians.
What do you think about these rituals in Sieranevada that are carried on to the point of absurdity sometimes, like the one with the suit?
For us who live in a world where God has been thrown away, man thinks the Universe revolves around him. In this movie, this aspect is absurd because we lost the meaning of things. Sieranevada is also a movie about the loss of substance, not only a film about betrayal, about approximations, about speculation. It’s also a film about a world that killed God. Nobody told us to stay away from the people that give unsolicited advice or those who flaunt their opinions. Stay away from the people that claim to know what the world is and what it’s made of. These are the false prophets. Once in a while we happen to resonate with something or someone, it’s hard to tell if it’s an object, a phenomena or a person, that is above us. I don’t approach subjects. My films are some personal confessions about what’s happening in my life. I cannot tell the story of someone else. And I’m not interested in the spectator’s expectations. My films have an interlocutor, they have a destination and I don’t make any efforts to adapt. I know very clearly that the path I took is followed by other people too, who are the addressees of my films. I start a conversation that is kept in silence at great distance with abstract interlocutors. But I know that they exist. Sometimes they send signs. Sometimes I discover an article which reveals he or she understood. This is something very delicate. If someone loved it, it doesn’t mean they understood. But we think that if we use labels all the time, we do. We don’t actually. The science of etymology looks for the meaning of things. Many things had another destination and the meaning has been modified.
Is this related to the meaning of Sieranevada?
I don’t give a significance, I’ve only put a title and it already has a meaning. What does Sieranevada mean? That it takes place in Sierranevada? The one from Spain, or America? But it isn’t spelled like that…(but) yes, it is, in Romanian you write it the way you hear it. What we believe we know about this world could be summed up in a word like Sieranevada… this is labelling. Unfortunately we live in a world where people stay at a certain distance from the events they are describing. For instance, in my opinion, a film critic should film. Not that he has to make movies, but to try to shoot something, to edit a little bit. He or she should set themselves up to obtain a coherent product so that they can understand how cinema is made. The same happens with eating at a Michelin star restaurant. Someone who’s not familiarised with it would feel betrayed instead of trying to figure out the process; what is in that weird dish and how is it made? Most of the times it doesn’t happen like this and that is why the distance between parents and children begins. The parents take care of their children from their position as parents and they should make the effort to remember how they were at that age. They should remember how the world was looking from that height, even the simple things, like being little and looking up at people. This already changes the perspective. That’s why it is important to know how things are made, how movies are made.
And we reach out to that theory that Ernst von Glasersfeld, a radical constructivist developed. A dialogue between two people cannot take place unless they agree on a common ground and they both reshape their beliefs and convictions. While each one of us adjusts our expectations, it’s an agreement of half-truths. Because if we want to have a conversation, we have to agree on the language we are going to share and what does this or that object mean and I have to make some compromises. You have to make some compromises too and this way, by adjusting each person’s understanding we will have to meet halfway, but with half-truths permanently. So we have to calm down our expectations. This has something to do with the relation that could be created between the audience and the author through cinema. You can even fall in love, in a very abstract mode. It can happen, and even more when the author is dead, and I confess: my favourite director was Cassavetes. When I started to learn about cinema, I didn’t even know his work. Others were my inspiration, the classics: Fellini, Kurosawa. It’s like what René Girard once said, it’s better to choose your idols from the dead or those you’ll never meet. Because you will want to kill them in order to replace them. The mimetic desire transforms in a mimetic rivalry and at some point you will need to annihilate the other…
The decision to shoot almost entirely in the apartment was a bit restrictive. You’ve filmed from the hallway, framing with the door cases or windows. Why have you chosen this composition, keeping a certain distance from the characters?
What is the door? The door becomes a character. The distance is the same, it’s just that a door comes between and I achieve a frame within a frame. It’s a type of framing that I discovered in Aurora and I still get really excited about it. An apartment described through special means, through its configuration of an approximate labyrinth with rooms separated by all kinds of tools, curtains and doors, could evoke the entire description of cinema. I am especially referring to the narrative cinema. In the narrative cinema there is a main story that branches into supporting stories that could become main ones depending on what the author decides… It’s difficult to find the position of the camera, but when you have found it, you have found everything inside the image. The windows and doors separate this apartment from the exterior world. But the windows are transparent, you might complain, these filters alter it in some way, even if it is imperceptible; if you have a reflection in a window, the window becomes very present, the same with some curtains or blinds and so on. And the same can be said about us. You are looking at me through these glasses. It doesn’t even have to be glasses, my entire education and life experience compel me to look at you in a certain way. Then again, the person in front of me responds in a certain way so I have to adapt.
These type of constraints determine my choice where to put the camera. Hitchcock said at some point that love scenes should be filmed like murders and murders like love scenes. An apartment can be filmed like a landscape and the distance that separates you from the landscape again can be adjusted. Just as you can choose to shoot in a very closed space so that from the window you can see only another block of flats. Then there’s a life beyond this apartment that I cannot control. For instance, at some point, before the priest arrives, the clouds approach the sun and the light diminishes. I got very excited about this. In the kitchen before the service starts, Lary talks with Seby (about) all kind of things and some birds appear at the window and then fly away. The same happens when they go out and that scandal in the parking lot takes place, they go back to the apartment and two trailers carrying some excavators pass by, like a premonition of a catastrophe that’s about to happen. People say they are sick of seeing this, but I don’t honestly believe they see it. The same happens when they look away from a beggar. People are very insincere. I was raised in the suburbs, in Balta Albă, I cannot legitimately tell a story about things I don’t know. Then that is why what I have to say is important, in the way that every testimony is important. My mind cannot accept any artifice to get to the audience, I don’t like the idea of an author as a performer. The only things that matter to me are confessions. My goal is to frame up the aggressive continuity of the events that overwhelm us… But not everybody watches films like this. You have to have the courage to let yourself (be) carried away by the proposed fiction, then you can go back and disassemble it. Another thing I find important is when I see some critics at Cannes whose livelihood is writing and they are pressured to hand in a review that day and take notes during the film. They don’t actually watch the movie. It’s like taking notes while making love.
For me, the real commemoration takes place in the car, when Lary remembers his father and turns his back to the audience. Why have you chosen this framing, mediated by the rear-view-mirror?
The thing is that every time we talk about us, about our own life… we look retrospectively at our past. Every time we imagine stories and reflect upon the world we’re not looking directly at it. And in this case, not particularly because the father is dead, Lary’s wife is very much alive, but the lines allude to the past. Lary says: “As you know I’m lying when I’m lying to you”. He speaks about events that took place. Even if she replies: “Let’s go upstairs, those people are waiting for us”. She has in her mind the people she left there in the apartment. If I mention to you the word telephone, you go back to something that exists in your memory. All the conversations about what is happening now are conversations with our gaze in a rear-view-mirror. So it was compulsory for the dialogue to take place this way, so that we can see Lary the way he is… in retrospect.
Even if Sieranevada is a little bit more lively than Aurora, you stay true to an observational style. Can you explain your choice to shoot some scenes in real time?
Real time filming affects our perception like any other choice, even if it’s a fast cut or a sequence shot. The human eye can’t pan. The vision jumps from a point to another. And this is why cinema works, because of the editing. If we have a slow panning, the eye will focus on the objects inner to the image, but we cannot follow the actual panning movement without the camera. All these means of expression come from our minds, the cinema is tailored to our needs. Then as a director you can feel the urge to caress or to punch someone in your story. But this already exists in your own life, in the way you express yourself in the real world. The way you choose as an author to deliver how you feel about an event will be conditioned by your comprehension of the sentence, by how you express yourself. If one chooses to edit it in an Eisenstein style or in real time sequence, the emotions they convey are different. Like when Godard said that “every edit is a lie”. For me the sequence shot is important because I hope that in between cuts I can reach the truth. So I let the events happen and I record them and this helps me to move this weight off my shoulders as an author to the story I’m telling. I am important only in the context of that story. I find obnoxious the tendency of some directors to point always at themselves. That doesn’t interest me, I am interested in your stories, about what the world outside your window looks like, not about how smart you are when you look through the window. That doesn’t interest me, I am interested in the people’s stories and the way they tell them. Talk to me about the other, because I am the other. And this is what I do, I try to tell people about themselves, about how they look from my window. It’s not very glorious; most of the people dealing with cinema, painting, poetry are doing that.
That’s why you have chosen to present both opinions through the neighbour and Lary’s sister argument? It’s interesting how, apart from the fictional debate, the reactions towards the movie revolving around that scene are replicated in real life.
I had a fight with Madam Evelina in real life. I am Sandra. Madam Evelina was present at my father’s commemoration and she told me: “You have become a great director thanks to the communists. You shouldn’t curse them!” I went bananas. I don’t know why it got to other people, I know why it bothered me. I hate flagmen and she is one. Sandra is the same, even if she has another theory about royalty. The moment you try to impose something on somebody, the other will resist. The same happens with democracy as with communists. If you want change you have to start with yourself. If you want to sell something, material or abstract, you don’t have to show what you’re selling. I made this mistake with my students, trying to protect them. The painting is beyond drawing and cinema is beyond the narrative. And in a movie we don’t have cinema permanently. We have an incredible amount of useless material and 3-7 hidden treasures. These are the ineffable moments that you cannot control, they just happen. And if you are there to push the record button, that is cinema. Everything else is worthless. It’s your directed structure. Those people who look into each other’s eyes will deliver you the truth about this world. Through mysterious channels the audience will discover that this world is for real. It’s the same when two people make love and look into each other’s eyes and it’s not about the action itself, but something higher and impossible to define. When two actors look at each other and greet one another, it doesn’t even have to be the grand gestures, crying, banging your head against the walls; it’s enough to have a relationship so that the audience can feel the authenticity of it. Not the intention, nor the philosophical meaning of the monologue counts, but the life within the person that says those lines. The light is set so that the gazes won’t meet, because if they do, they can fall in love and forget the lines. It doesn’t have a sexual component. I can lose myself and recognise myself in you, as my authentic peer. There are all kinds of tricks actors do in order to protect themselves. You shoot a lot of takes: it’s terrible, it’s some kind of dehumanisation, of annulment of one’s identity for the simple reason that you play a character, you aren’t yourself from real life.
So how is the process, how do you make it real?
It happens that all the people involved in the process of making a film bring their own baggage to the movie. But somehow you get to that mysterious point, at the 275th or the 23rd take, when all these elements breathe together and you can’t redo them. Everybody’s excited, you get goose bumps, you feel like trembling. If I want to repeat it, it doesn’t work out. I even argued with Andi Vasluianu (a Romanian actor) once because he claimed it went well because he understood what I wanted. It’s not true, he didn’t. Had he understood, it’d mean that he is at the core of it and we should get the same result the second time. For the transcendental to happen, an actor should understand he has to fail some takes. Not because he wants to, he will fail either way. And he shouldn’t be upset about it because that’s the process. It’s like when two people are making love and it’s so painful when the true emotional encounter doesn’t take place. The same (thing) happens with the actors on set. They complain about lots of things, that the director doesn’t seem to know what he wants, that they did that before and so on… but they don’t learn their lines. We are very tolerant with ourselves, yet very harsh on others, like 20th century philosopher Hermann Keyserling says in Europe (Das Spektrum Europas). I used this book as an inspiration for a short film. We ask of others to do what we don’t do, we ask of them to be what we aren’t. And then we feel betrayed. When you come to terms with your own downfalls, you can accept others’. People will say: this is a Christian discourse: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” and they will avoid it. It’s a sort of barrier when something is labelled as Christian.
Is this lack of Christian morality at the core of tension in Sieranevada?
In a bizarre way the Christian discourse is one about love and people rush to throw stones at it. I don’t dare to talk about the institution. That is out of my depth. Of course I can say there are a lot of things I don’t like, but who am I to judge? But I feel we live in a troubled world, we are living the times of Dostoievski and Soloviov’s prophecies: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted”. Every time I speak about this, I feel like a fraud, because I am a sinner myself, I am not a monument of virtue, like Toni. I’ve put this story in my film because I cannot ignore it. You notice there is a repetitiveness of the word “story”. “Sure, she should say she didn’t see, I didn’t make her to invent some kind of story” said Toni during that conversation in the kitchen. The priest says: “And then I realised that the whole story was a temptation.” Lary tells his mother: “We are waiting for you because of this story of yours with the costume”. The story doesn’t cover – the words can’t cover – the reality. To experience something is one thing, the story of that experience is another, yet we keep confusing them. Alfred Korzybski made that famous statement: “The map is not the territory”. That’s what’s going on: the events, the territory are different from their description, which is the map. We live in a world where the articulate discourse is overrated. People think that for a movie to exist, the script is fundamental. Cinema is beyond words. But we are still tied to language. Better said, this is the root of tension between the characters.
But of course the nonverbal also matters… There’s this joke that you shoot the backs of the actors’ heads.
[Laughs] That’s why I’m saying that words are overrated. Paul Watzlawick made a good analysis on how people engage. He’s an interesting American psychologist, from the Palo Alto school, a constructivist who wrote a very cool book The Situation is Hopeless, but Not Serious. Anyway, in one of his books, he describes one of his experiments. He went to a psychotherapist and told him that one of his schizophrenic patients thinks he is a psychoanalyst. And then he went to the psychoanalyst and told him the same about the psychotherapist. And then he arranged their encounter. While each one of them took his role more and more seriously, the alienation between the two grew higher. And each one thought the other one was crazy. At some point the gag stopped because there were some red flags about them being the victims of a set-up. What I wanted to emphasise is that behind this obstacle to an authentic communication, lies the fact that each one of us humans uses his own dictionary. Our personal history impedes us to establish a relation with the world. We remain distrustful.
Do you think the same happens with the reception of your work?
Of course. Moreover, no person enters a theatre virgin. The encounter with a film takes place on an existent ground. You already know about the existence of cinema, sometimes you’ve already seen the poster of the movie, you’ve heard about some of the actors. And even if those things don’t interest you, you already know about this type of being seated in front of a screen. I mean, you’ve read a review before, or saw the trailer, you already have some ideas where it’s heading. This type of conditioning influences you and contributes to your opinion. This is something we can never escape. We shouldn’t be deceived by our previous knowledge before entering the theatre, we shouldn’t hold on too tight to our convictions, but believe that guy, give him a chance. At the end you can draw your own conclusion, but you should let the accused defend himself. It’s a duty, but it’s not imposed. We are not prepared for any kind of movie any time. But you cannot judge the film by that. You might not be prepared to see it today. We are not ready for any kind of encounter with a book or movie every day. It’s somehow the unspoken suffering of the author. Some people rush to answer the letter I’ve sent without reading it to the end.