P.O.V. No.25

An interview with Adrian Sitaru

Anca Mitroi

You have made many short films, and you're here at Sundance with Waves, which is also a short. Do you have a preference for short films?

Well, when I applied at the Romanian National Council for Cinema for funds for another short film, somebody said: "Short again? Come on boy, it's time to move on, it's time to make a feature film". But to me, this aspect is not relevant: I just want to film interesting stories, and if they take one minute, or ninety minutes, or five hundred minutes, this does not matter to me. What I am interested in, as director, is to tell a nice story. Now, of course, there is the financial aspect, but this a catch 22: you can make a short with little money, but a short film will not attract a huge crowd, it's not a "money maker" as feature films can be. So it's a choice you make from the start. Fortunately one can make short films relatively easy, and we know that there are some really great shorts out there. But one knows that you can't make money with that. I just hope I'll do both shorts and feature films, and I'll enjoy making both, if I like the story.

Well, you like the story, but do the Romanians like these stories? Do they like the new Romanian movies that everybody has been talking about? Aren't they too much into all the Hollywood kind of movies?

I think that's the case everywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the Romanian general public had a very vague, lukewarm reaction to all of these Romanian movies receiving prestigious prizes at international film festivals. Maybe it would be an exaggeration to say it's just a lack of interest. There are other aspects too: there is no decent distribution network. I was told that in Romania there are only 34 real and functional cinemas (excluding the Cineplex movie theaters). I am from Deva, which is a small town. It has one cinema, but it's worse than if we were in some village in the middle of nowhere: you can't understand what the actors are saying because the sound is bad, and that matters, of course, for the Romanian audience. I've seen Mungiu's film in France, and in Sarajevo, and I could hear perfectly and understand the dialogues. But in Deva, you couldn't understand a thing. The image quality was also bad, and the movie theatre was stinky…. One can't attract viewers with such conditions. In a way, it's not just their fault if they seem to ignore the new Romanian movies. It would actually be interesting to see, statistically, how many Romanians have watched such Romanian films, not just in movie theaters, but from the internet, even as pirated copies, or on DVDs.

Would you be interested in making a crowd-pleasing movie? That's not something you seem to be into.

I would never say no to a project if I like the story and I think the viewers may like it too. We make movies so that people see them. That's why we go to festivals, that's why we're here. I was also very happy in France, where I went with my feature film. I had a great audience there…

We talk about how accessible all the new Romanian films are. People say that it is hard to find the new Romanian films on DVD: you can still find the old ones, like those made in the 70's and in the 80's, but not that many of the recent films of this new generation of filmmakers.

It is true that the new ones that got recognized at international film festivals are not easy to find, but it's because generally they don't come out right away: they need to go through all the distribution process, and that takes about one year. And then, there is another aspect: in Romania, most of the people don't have this idea, that "I really have to see this movie now!"- they just think "Why bother? I'll see it later, when they show it on TV."

Talking about TV, some say that many of the recent Romanian movies, including yours, have grim, gory, or depressing topics, recalling in some way the Romanian media, of the 5:00 TV news that seem to look for anything that may shock: accidents, abortions, murders, drug addiction, domestic abuse or death bleak hospitals. What do you think about that?

I think it is true that the media are looking for horrors and anything that may scandalize and shock, because this is what sells well nowadays in Romania. That is probably the case in many countries. I don't know exactly what it is like in the US, but in Romania, unfortunately, these kinds of topics sell very well. But I don't think that in my movies or in other new Romanian movies we have this gross and grotesque way of insisting on horrors or accidents. It is true that, for instance, my short, Waves, involves an accident, and so does my feature film, and that the plot of my other short films is rather somber. But I think one needs to see beyond the mere facts. I am trying to say something more complex, more profound, and that's why one should not stop at the surface, at the anecdotal level.

But this need to "decode" means that the movie is, in a way, metaphorical - and this idea seems to go against what most of the critics in Romania and in the US seem to agree upon: that is, the new Romanian movies, unlike those of the communist period, are very direct and as non-metaphorical as they can be. How can you explain that?

Well, I think that to a certain extent, any good story that carries a meaning going beyond the "plot" can be seen as a metaphor. Even a good joke can be a metaphor. At the same time, it's not like the films before 1990, when everything was built around metaphors. Now, the metaphor is there, but more discretely and definitely not central.

The movies before 1990 were often built around a metaphor because of censorship, and that's something we can see in many Eastern European productions of the communist era. However, several Romanian writers said that in a way, censorship was a productive challenge for them. We may even think of Alexandre Dumas the son, who, after all the trouble and trials and scandals he had because of his La Dame aux camélias, still praised the positive role censorship had for a writer. Now, you were not directly affected by the communist censorship, since you're too young. However, since you were born in 1971, you know about censorship at least as a spectator, and you know about the movies made in Romania during that time. What do you think of the effect of the lack of censorship on the new Romanian films?

Actually, there are various ways of seeing censorship, not just as a mechanism proper to a totalitarian regime.

That is true: Kieslowski talks about the different kinds of limitations that he experienced both in Poland and in France.

Right. And seeing censorship as somehow beneficial is not a paradox. If we see it as some sort of limitation, then any restriction, whether it is a technical or thematic limitation, makes you think more about what you want to say and how you can say it. So this way it becomes something productive.

We talked about the stories of your films. While it is true that sometimes they involve rather violent or disturbing incidents, most of them also examine couples: Waves, I Want to Feel, The Liar, Love Sick, Wake Up, they are all about couples that seem functional and happy but are falling apart, that seem well balanced but are deeply dysfunctional. Or, in your feature film, you have this surface that seems so neat and then there comes an element that triggers a crisis, and reveals all the troubles beneath this appearance. Isn't this a lot like in Polanski's Knife in Water. What's the reason for the omnipresence of this theme?

Actually, I don't know. I've never deliberately intended to film stories about couples, but maybe I'm sort of unconsciously obsesssed with that. I've also read many ethology books that study human and animal behavior and, of course, couples. Human beings are animals too, and we live in couples, and as we are not perfect, couples are not perfect either, so in these stories we try to understand human nature through the problems within couples.

Now, some of these stories, by violence of the characters' feeling, by an quasi-pathological psychology, remind of naturalism, like Zola's naturalism (I'm thinking of The Human Beast, for instance), or-to give a Romanian example - like in Rebreanu's novels. Are they among your favorite writers?

No, unfortunately neither Zola, nor Rebreanu are among my favorite writers. At a certain point, a few years ago, I liked Cochinescu, a Romanian contemporary author. But lately, I've been influenced a lot, I would say, by an American writer, Raymond Carver. I found in Carver's prose a way of talking about people that I liked very much, and that deeply resonated with what I was interested in and with what I was trying to say in my movies. There is something fascinating in the way he makes the reader perceive the mystery of human behavior, and it's also interesting that it's a kind of story where you don't have a regular "plot".

That's true: we can't say that there's a lot going on in Carver's story, but actually, there are small things that trigger tragedies, and yet everything remains so subtle…

Yes, he doesn't make a big drama out of it. You have to look for small details. And I think, in a way, that's what I'm trying to do in my stories. I'm trying to bring forth the fact that the difference between good and evil, between various human beings, lies in small details, in small things, and not in obvious, dramatic differences. You can't just say: this is a good guy and this is a bad guy. And you see that in Carver too. There's something definitely Chekhov-like in Carver. Chekhov has the same approach.

You sound like a big Chekhov fan. What plays do you have in mind?

I was mainly thinking of his short stories, all of them…

Since you talked about the writers who have influenced you, the Romanian film critics have pointed out that another difference between the new Romanian productions and those made before 1990 is that now, there are no more films based on literary works. Why is that?

I think my generation has tried to talk about our current problems and issues, and for that, we tell our own stories. Not that this may always exclude the possibility of basing a film on a literary work. But there are few texts that say "our stories". At the same time, we're still at the beginning, and I assume there will be some new short stories that may be more meaningful to us. The Romanian classics, I think they had to say other things that are not so pertinent for us. There are definitely some gaps between our generation and older generations. I guess that's the case everywhere. But then, who knows?... I think at a certain point our generation may make movies based on literary works. But for now, there is also another aspect: in Romania, we make about 10 to 12 feature films a year. That's way fewer than in other countries, so this may be another reason.

Now let's talk about filmmakers that have influenced you: any prominent Romanian or foreign directors?

There are many who have influenced me. Those who have truly affected me, about 15 or 16 years ago when I knew I wanted to be a film director, are the classical trio, that may seem like a cliché to many: Tarkovsky (I'm thinking mainly of Solaris and Stalker), Bergman, Fellini… Then, I think I was deeply influenced by Lars von Trier, I could say Lars von Trier opened my eyes and made me realize that one could make film without any money, without fancy equipment. One just needed a good idea, a good story. I also like Mike Leigh, the British director, and Gus Van Sant. There are many others, of course.

How about Romanian filmmakers?

I like Mungiu, and I like Cristi Puiu very much and I think he is the one who started this "transfiguration" of the Romanian cinema, with his peculiar way of seeing the world in his The Dough and the Stuff.

No older Romanian directors?

Well, I like Pintilie, and Daneliuc…

No directors from the "beginnings" of Romanian cinema?

Not really: I think there are many other directors who had a stronger impact on me before we get to somebody like Jean Mihail or Jean Georgescu…

Now, to get back to your work, what do you think is your most important accomplishment?

The fact that around 2003-2004 I decided to make an independent feature film basically on my own, and I did it. I got this idea from the fact that I had already made some short films with my parents, my friends. The idea was not an accomplishment in itself, of course. But I was able to find some production houses to help me with the camera, with the sound, so that I didn't have to pay, and then I found some friends and actors who liked the script, and we actually had to shoot in just seven days. That was really hard. A film takes longer than that, but we were able to it in ten days, which is still good. After that, I hoped I could find a real producer who would like my movie and who would invest money and passion in my work. And this happened: when I showed my movie in Paris a French producer liked it very much. Things didn't happen very quickly, but in 2007 I got the necessary funds to put it on 35 mm, and I guess sometime it will be ready. Once again, it is not a commercial film, it will not be a blockbuster, but I would be happy if we just could recuperate the money we invested in it, and if after that there is still enough so that can buy ourselves a beer, that would be great! It's a great challenge for us, it is also a great hope, because it means, once again, that one can make movies in Romania, even without lots of characters, even without special effects.
Then, of course, another accomplishement for me is the fact that I am here, at the Sundance Festival with my Waves, which is the only East-European short film in this category.

Now this is something that everybody has been talking about, that is, to paraphrase Porumboiu's original title (A fost sau nu a fost): is there or isn't there a new generation, a consistent new trend in Romanian cinema? Do you all have something in common, you and Radu Jude, and Corneliu Porumboiu, and Mungiu, and Puiu, and others?

Yes and no. To see myself in the same category as Cristi Puiu or Mungiu, that's too much, I still have to prove that I can accomplish something that can compare with what they have done. Maybe I can compare with Radu Jude, I've worked with him, we were even classmates, and we've done some good things together. But I think one can talk about us as a coherent group or generation because we do have something in common. Maybe not much, but something that has to do with our way of relating to stories, producers, material problems of moviemaking. But, once again, I would be happy if Radu Jude and I could prove that we can belong to the same category as Puiu and Mungiu. We also belong to a generation who has realized that, thanks to current technology, it is relatively easy to make a movie. It's almost unbelievable, compared to the way things were in the past. All you really need is a good story that talks about life…

Well, isn't that's what Aristotle said a while ago?

And I guess he was right, the good old guy…Even now, in 2008, when you can make amazing things so easily, you still need a good story.

Park City, Sundance Film Festival,
19 January 2008

to the top of the page