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Cristian Mungiu on the Poetics of the Camera, Being Inspired by Life Rather than Cinema, and ‘Graduation’

Written by on April 7, 2017 


Despite winning Best Director at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Cristian Mungiu‘s approach in Graduation will feel safe to many already familiar with the Romanian New Wave, for which he broke major ground when winning the Palme d’Or with 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. But look past the fact that, yes, this is another moral- and social-crisis drama consisting primarily of extended two-shot conversations and a knottier, more rewarding movie is waiting for you.

Mungiu will be the first to say as much, though not in an especially declarative manner — I was simply lucky enough to have a long, winding conversation about Graduation‘s finer aesthetic and thematic points, as well as the many times in which they meet head-on. Have you ever wondered if a movie could perfectly harness the look, sound, and feeling of a school year’s final days? And what is the benefit of editing a visually rigid film as it’s being shot? If Graduation‘s final effect is determined by its accumulation of small parts, how fitting that the film’s construction is the result of seemingly minor decisions and careful process.

The Film Stage: In an interview with The Guardian, you expressed concern about imparting proper values to the next generation — which is a key element of this film. Because of this story and your concerns, do you make a conscious effort to impart values through the work itself?

Cristian Mungiu: I think cinema should just stay cinema — which is to say it shouldn’t have any practical purpose whatsoever. So the only important thing is to make sure it’s truthful and it works as a work of art, somehow. Of course, I hope something: that there is a polemic aspect, sometimes, in my films, and that that will work. But not precisely through the film — but by the kind of conversation in society, and debate, that the film might trigger. Sometimes, very funny things might happen. I hoped that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days would have this very polemical impact on the society, but because it won the Palme d’Or, that was completely lost. People were just so happy that we won something — like an Olympic medal, or whatever — and that part of the film was kind of lost. For this one, there’s something funny happening as well, in a way: people don’t associate too much what happens in the film with their own life and experience, even if they should. I’m releasing my own films back home, because we have very few theaters back at home, we have to plan with all the equipment and plan screenings and stuff. We happened to be doing this right before the local elections in Romania.

So, at some point, we were organizing screenings of Graduation in May or June in places where I had to meet, all the time, the candidates for the mayor’s office; I even went to shoot the film in this small town of Victoria, where we shot. People were very nice with us, and we were very well-received and so on — but, at some point, when the film was playing, I was next to this guy who was the mayor, and the film was about him. He was the guy in the film, but he never took it like this. He never saw any problem with this. I mean, the film stays fictional for him and his life is his life, and even if he could enjoy, that he could use the film as part of promotion he was doing to be reelected. I mean, nothing troubled him whatsoever, which is a problem for me.

But, at the same time, people in the audience know this. So I like when this is happening, and it’s happening quite often with this film: people feel that they watch onscreen somebody else’s story, but the film speaks about them. What’s good for me is that I was having this feeling not only in Romania, but in several other places. I think there’s a level in the film which travels to people on different levels. On one side, even the story about corruption and compromise is not only a local story. It applies to a lot of countries where society is not precisely settled and people feel that this would have happened there as well, and they feel the same level of frustration towards something that doesn’t go well in their society. And then there’s a very personal level in the film which travels: about aging, about family, about proof, and about this huge difference between how life looks at 50 and how you imagined it when you were 20. And this speaks to people on a different level, and my feeling is that they feel more emotional when they watch the film not from the screen, but from what these scenes trigger from their own memories. I think I’m very far away from what you asked. Actually, what was your question?

Do you try to impart values through the work?

Yes, I see. No, I don’t have a solution in the film or with the film, but I think that what I should do as a filmmaker is: I speak about something that I consider to be important — for me, for people of my generation, for society in general. I think that people should relate to that, and that most of the films are just an attempt of encouraging people to watch themselves in the mirror at some point and to acknowledge something about themselves. But no more than this. There are no solutions associated. Sometimes people ask me, “Okay, we already got it in real life. So what’s the solution to this?” I don’t know. Sometimes there is no easy solution for something like this, and it’s neither your job to have a solution, nor to have a very clear judgmental position about what you present in the film. That’s a very strange conversation that we have back home. People feel, at some point, my position is — I don’t know, as a person, as a director, towards the facts which are being presented in the film — not clear. But I’m not sure it should be clear. I think that’s my position: that I am choosing a situation which is very complex to speak about how complex things are, really, in life. It’s not easy when you live in a society like this, to understand when this solidarity of helping the others is acceptable and when you step on the other side and it’s not acceptable any longer. It’s not that easy. You have to judge situation-by-situation, and therefore I don’t think I should be judging within the film.


The movies have their immediate reaction. Because people keep watching the films, could your concerns be negated over time? Ten years from now, somebody will watch Occident and the movie will, by that point, be 25 years old, but still seem new to them. Do you see what I mean?

I see what you mean, but I don’t see what is the question.

Maybe there isn’t a question.

It’s a comment. Ah. But, first of all, there’s something important associated with what you say, which is that… I think that cinema should be associated with a specific moment in time, and I think this is the most difficult thing to do: to do something which would, I don’t know, be still okay to watch when it grows old. And this is also connected with your first question. I don’t think films should be connected so much with a small thing — which is the issue today — but this is how I think, and how I think most of the Romanian directors think. I think that we are a film community thinking a lot about [lowers voice] the history of cinema. Whatever that means. But you understand. We do not tackle very specific subjects connected with something in reality nowadays, and I think we are a lot preoccupied by how these films will bee watched 20 years from now.

Is there something important in this kind of filmmaking 50 years from now? Who knows. But at least we think about it, and we understand that, more importantly, the topic of the film, the content, is to have a point of view about cinema, and in order to have a point of view about cinema, and to think about these things — to think about what are your means as a filmmaker, what is your position? Are there things which are more truthful, more honest for an artist? Can you be closer to life in reality? Can we extract the essence of your films directly from life and not through other films?

Cinema is already an application of life, so maybe you shouldn’t be taking cinema as inspiration for films. But in order to fake life, you have to understand how life goes. So are there narrative principles in life? I don’t know. It’s not so easy, because sometimes the problem with films is that you have to organize reality, so cinema, in the end, is as honest as you want to be. You want to organize portions of reality, but you can be more organized or less organized. You can allow some care, some ambiguity, and some complexity from life just to get infiltrated in your films, and that’s what I’m trying to do here. It’s not just the formal decision not to use, I don’t know, editing and music; it’s part of this judgement of saying, “Well, you know, it’s not just fair to cut off the moments which are irrelevant to a scene and to just introduce the audience to a selection of small moments which are ‘relevant.’”

And I decided this; I won’t be deciding this for you. I will just make the effort of staging all the situations in this one continuous moment because I trust you are as intelligent as me, and you should be witnessing the situations and decide for yourself what’s more important. So what I do as a filmmaker: I try to stage them in such a way in which I won’t introduce my comments into the scene, and I won’t be present as much as I can. Of course, you are present as a filmmaker already because you made the choice of the subject and so on, but at least I shouldn’t be present in having a close-up now or having some music now to tell me what to feel. I will, you know, make this step behind and let you just witness the situations.


There is still a very deliberate structuring of the scenes: a two-shot of people talking. Watching it, I found myself wondering how you realistically, believably construct a sequence where it is two people talking. When people speak, it’s in this close-quarters manner as people face each other and the world is passing behind them.

First of all, I made this conscious effort all along, while staging the situations, to create different patterns for these scenes. If you watch not only this film, but the ones before, I try to encourage as much variations and patterns in these people talking as I can — in the sense that, actually, the most common mode in life, when people talk, is that they will just face each other. If you watch these films, I try to find a lot of different models in which this wouldn’t be the model that I followed: just two people facing each other like this. They will be doing other things; they will be having a lot of different actions. I won’t be following both of them all the time. Sometimes the most radical decision you can do is to just follow one of them and just forget about the other one either completely or for a while, so it all comes from this decision of using just one shot per scene. This is what shapes all the other decisions about style. What I feel is that, sometimes, as much as I advance staging situations like this, I notice that, for the spectators, it becomes natural, in a way — they don’t notice the style any longer. So this tells me that I manage, sometimes, to find a way of staging situations in which you won’t notice how they are shot, and what I do all the time: I try to have it as natural as I can.

There are also a set of rules connected to the poetics of the camera. We won’t move the camera unless there’s a movement triggered by an action in the shot, so this also shapes the way you face the situations. Sometimes you need to move from here to there, but unless you are capable of inventing something coming from the situation, I can’t do this — so I need to use some time before shooting to understand what happens with all the characters. How shall I move them from one place to the other? There’s a lot of thinking before doing each scene, and I place myself in the situation of every other character because I need to make sure that things develop in a natural way. What I ask them to do is not only to speak and deliver what they need to say, but to continue doing things at the same time.

That’s not easy for an actor. It involves splitting the mind into two and not being so much focused on what you say because this guy gave me a million other things to take care of — but it helps a lot, and they are only free to focus on what they feel and to the truth of the situation, when they forgot all the routine. In order to do this, we rehearse a lot and I shoot a lot of takes. By the end of these takes, if you watch it at the end and the beginning, you see that most of the clumsiness and this awkward situation — that they’re still actors in the beginning saying somebody else’s words — by the end of it, it feels organic, in a way. So that’s why we do it as often as we can, understanding at the same time that, of course, there are limits to staging situations in a way like this, but I think it’s more acceptable to stage them like this than to just cut in this traditional way, showing people talking like… that’s okay, but I see this happening too often already.

I was truly impressed by his visit to the police commander’s office, because I didn’t even notice until the shot’s end that the camera had moved. The fluidity and envelopment of that sequence created this sort of “mental cut.”

That’s very complicated, actually. You just follow what happens, but imagine that technically, because film has this technical part as well. Technically, that’s very difficult to shoot. And there’s another scene in the film which is very complicated: it’s this last scene when he gets to the boy at the hospital and he lets the boy get into his room. That’s a scene in which we start with him in the hallway, and then we see the hallway with all the people moving. The boy exits the left, and we get the camera to the right and see another’s face. Then we get back and follow him again in the corridor. There is another scene, and then we follow him into this other space, which is a third one, and he speaks with the prosecutors. When we get back, we get back backwards — so we see the other part of the corridor — and then we continue like this. This is just one shot. So nobody from the crew can be there apart from the cinematographer and the focus-puller. So sound people, the light, everything needs to be from somewhere else, but there’s something coming from this which I like with a lot of films: whenever a spectator watches 360 degrees of the set, he doesn’t feel it’s not natural, but there is a feeling of reality.

Normally, in the film, you won’t be watching what’s behind the camera because there are people behind. Whenever you can do this in a film, there’s something coming with it — a force that comes with it. Of course, the level of precision is difficult to get, because it’s one shot. It needs to work for everything; for acting as well. Sometimes it’s difficult. We even had, in Beyond the Hills, action scenes in just one shot. That’s very difficult because it’s like performing a stunt in just one shot. There are no tricks. We had a scene where there was this curtain set on fire and it started inside, with the fire, and he was getting out, followed by the camera, getting to put the fire away. It was a very long scene and just happening like this. It’s a difficult way of shooting.

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