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"What counts is being here right now"

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Cristi Puiu • Director


- CANNES 2016: Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu sheds some light on his new film Sieranevada, which is being shown in the Palme d'Or competition

Cristi Puiu • Director
(© T Leibreich / Festival de Cannes)

Accompanied most notably by his lead actor Mimi Branescu, Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu gave the international press a few keys to understanding his latest opus, Sieranevada [+see also:
film review
film focus
Q&A: Cristi Puiu
film profile
, which is being shown in competition at the 69th Cannes Film Festival

What was the starting point for the film?
Cristi Puiu: It came from my past, with the dinner that followed the burial of my father. A few years later, in 2012, one of my co-producers asked me if I had any new projects and I had this idea to very subjectively portray what happened at the dinner that followed the burial. It also stemmed from my observation that the stories that make up our pasts are real pieces of fiction. Then it’s up to the viewer to build their own piece of fiction using that, as the story in Sieranevada could take place anywhere: I invite the viewer to work with me. Finally, I also wanted to go in a rather extreme direction.

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The film is strikingly realistic and gives us a flurry of points of view and various other snippets, like the pieces of a puzzle.
The subject of the truth is one that gnaws at me. It’s incidentally difficult to address in broad terms. I try to do my best to reproduce what I’ve experienced and been through with the precision of my subjectivity. You risk losing the attention of the viewer with, for example, the long discussions in the first part of the film that sparked a lot of debate amongst the project partners when we were working on the screenplay. But in life, we often talk about a lot of things, some things that make sense, others that don’t make sense, and others still that are just stupid. And ever since the manipulation of information during the Romanian revolution, I have been haunted by the subject of truth and lies. There’s a sort of confusion that I’m trying to portray honestly.

The subject of international terrorist attacks runs through the family’s discussions.
Just after production started on the film, we had the attack on Charlie Hebdo. It wasn’t in the screenplay, but I inserted it into the film, as in Romania, like elsewhere, people carry on living, wrapped up in their own lives. But the news acts as a trigger for one of the characters, who is extremely worried by the events of 11 September. The family has these discussions on the events that took place 14 years previously, when they aren’t even aware of what’s going on in the family itself. I tried to portray this sensation of losing your bearings whilst playing on it and allowing the viewer to do the same.

Does the natural stunningness of the film come from improvisation?
There was improvisation, but not in the sense that we left the camera rolling and the actors free to do what they wanted. For this film, I did things I’d never done before, like coming up with dialogues the same day and telling myself "I’ll check it all over during editing". I also introduced the character of the Croatian and the story of the traditional dress during filming. Giving myself this freedom to deviate from the screenplay was a real pleasure, and it worked as the film has meaning, but could have missed the mark completely. I also had very good actors, but that wasn’t enough, as what counts is being here right now, and not elsewhere, as it’s a very difficult exercise.

What were your intentions for the direction?
The camera takes the place of death, rather like how throughout the history of film it has been preferable to refer to it as the invisible man. The subject of the film gave me a further opportunity in this respect, as in orthodox tradition, the soul of the dead leaves the body and wanders for 40 days before leaving this world completely. It’s also true that death is a recurring subject in my films. But here, it was a case of acting as if death were watching those it was going to leave behind. So we needed tenderness, like how when you know you’re going to leave this world and you regret it.

What about the duration of the film at almost 3 hours?
It’s because I don’t belong to this category of directors who have the chance to make "distributable" films. It’s a duration that frightens distributors, but I never question my choice, as it’s the content that matters, just like in cookery: I put the dish in the oven and it comes out when it’s ready.

(Translated from French)

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