Interview with Cristian Mungiu at the New York Film Festival

By Emily Buder for No Film School

Mungiu’s latest film, Graduation, is less gut-wrenching but just as morally complex. When a Romanian high schooler is sexually assaulted right before her most important final exam, her mediocre test scores jeopardize a scholarship to Cambridge. But no one is as distraught as the girl’s father, Romeo, who would do anything to deliver his daughter to a better life abroad, free of the perils of corruption and poverty that plague modern Romania. Finding that the bureaucracy has no empathy for his daughter’s situation, Romeo makes a Faustian bargain.

NFS: This film has many layers—from guilt to corruption to parenting to disillusionment in life and in love. How did all of the elements come together in the writing process?

Cristian Mungiu: I knew I wanted to do something not so much about corruption, but about the way in which corruption influences you on a very personal level. I knew I wanted to do something about education. I saw a lot of articles about both those things because I read a lot of press. I started asking myself if there is not a connection between these two things in society. [In Romania,] we have a habit of educating children the same way we were educated. This, if it doesn’t encourage, then at least won’t stop corruption.

I thought a lot about parenting because I have children myself. I feel a great responsibility as a parent, especially because I live in a society that is not perfectly balanced. It’s not the same kind of education for children if you prepare them to be survivors in the unbalanced society, or if you think that they will go someplace else [to escape it].

Then I really wanted to make a portrait of my age…. I see that people are very depressed, and I was wondering why. Is it because their expectations were very high? I thought of a portrait of this guy reaching this age, looking back, glancing forwards, and asking, “Okay, as a result of all the decisions that I have made, what am I going to do next?”

I found a way of putting these ideas together through some short stories that I read in the press. I started designing the screenplay; I wrote five different developments of relationships that he’s having with his mother, his wife, his daughter, his mistress, and his friend, and then I started putting them together and blending everything. It’s a complicated screenplay. People understand that, even if it’s somebody else’s story onscreen, the film speaks a lot about them.

When you notice that your society is not fair, you feel disappointed. It’s not fair when you feel that it’s not based on merit. This is why so many people send their children away instead of fighting back. Fighting back is easy to encourage, but is very difficult to do, because it takes a long time, it’s a lot of energy, and people just feel they are too small to change things. I think the film speaks also about the individual solution versus collective solution in society today.

NFS: Like your main character, most people make decisions that will impact their immediate future without considering the more abstract implications.

Mungiu: But this is what people do. Everybody wants the best for their children. You want your children to be happy in this life, not some other time. Especially if you decided to make a sacrifice about your life, you don’t want your children to make the same kind of sacrifice. It may be selfish, but it’s the way things are, and it’s very difficult to judge.

NFS: I’m not a parent myself, but I can imagine how it must be to have a child who really makes you look at yourself in a way that nobody else ever did or could.

Mungiu: Making a child is the only thing that changes your life completely and for good. When it comes to your child, you put everything aside. But the story is about a parent for whom it was really important to try and educate this child outside of compromise. Because he understood the [consequences] of compromise in his life. Unfortunately, you don’t get this perspective when you’re 18. You need the distance. When you understand, it’s too late already; there’s nothing you can do. You understand that you lost your freedom the moment when you compromised for the first time. The only thing you can do is to try to protect your child from this path in life. Is this naïve? Is this possible? I don’t know.

In the end, I hope that I’m not being judgmental with any the characters in the film. Because it’s really difficult to say. What I like to do in cinema is to preserve the complexity and ambiguity that I see in life. Things don’t come with an interpretation. They just happen. All decisions that we make are the result of a lot of impulses which can be very murky and unclear. It’s not like in mainstream cinema, when the childhood trauma explains everything. That’s very funny to me.

NFS: In life, the context isn’t always delivered to you. You have to create it—fill in the blanks.

Mungiu: Yes, and people don’t know precisely why they acted like that, or why they decided [something].

NFS: Would you call yourself a realist when it comes to cinema theory?

Mungiu: That’s a very complicated conversation, to be honest, because, what is realistic in film? On a scale of realism, yes, my films are more realistic than mainstream cinema, that’s for sure. But cinema is forced to work with portions of reality. There’s always a process of selection. There’s a reason behind all these decisions that I make in not using anything [extra], like not using music. I decided that if I wanted to make films inspired by small events everyday life, I needed to respect the way reality exists. There is no editing in reality. You have to live every small little miserable moment of your life. I’m sorry, but this is the way it goes.

There’s something about delivering these moments continuously. I won’t cut out of a shot at any moment and say, “But actually this is not important, I will just get back to this close-up.” You have to respect the continuity of these moments, and you have to respect this idea that, whenever you feel emotion in life, you feel it just from what happens to you. There’s no music. So why should we be using music in films?

I like feelings, of course. But [I challenge myself] to create this with the actors. Can you encourage actors to go there? Will they feel this, and will you feel it just by watching them?

In a movie theater, they [shut off] the lights, and at some point, there’s a moment when the story exists. That’s cinema. When you’re inside; you’re not in the theater, you are with these characters. To get to that moment, I think that it’s good to make the film as realistic as you can.

I’m not saying this is the only way possible. It’s stupid to say that about cinema. There are a lot of possibilities; this one works for me. What I’m saying is that it’s important to have a position on cinema. If you are a filmmaker—if you are not just a director doing a job—you need to have a stance.

I think it’s fairer, in a way, to work with fiction than with documentary. Because documentary is not made the way people imagine. It’s not like you have this surveillance camera up there and things are happening. In a way, you are being more manipulative in a documentary, because you stage situations. You encourage people to do things. At least in fiction, it’s clear cut. These are actors. I wrote the dialogue. This is it. But it looks like life sometimes. There are moments when you feel after you do 30 takes that the scene is finally truthful.


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