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The Dead Person Is the Camera: Talking with Cristi Puiu about "Sieranevada"

The Romanian director discusses how he translates perceiving the world into decisions concerning form and content of a film.
Cristi Puiu. Photo by Alexi Pelekanos, courtesy of the Viennale
Sieranevada, Cristi Puiu's latest fictional feature film is not only a fictional film, it is a film about fiction. It is about the fictions and lies we escape to in order to live on. Moreover, it is about the impotence when realizing that we are living in this net of fictions and lies. When asked about his viewing habits the Romanian director loves to stress that he prefers documentary to fictional cinema. Many of those who have written about Puiu focus on the so-called documentary qualities of his cinema, meaning his kind of realism, the way his camera and editing does not interfere too much with the action.  
Such observations are arguable to say the least because for Puiu, who has made some documentaries inspired by Raymond Depardon like 25.12.1995, București, Gara de Nord (1996)  or 13 - 19 iulie 1998, Craiova, Azilul de batrani (1998), the sole act of looking is bound to fiction. This is as political as it is personal. His cinema is deeply concerned with the simultaneity of reality and its construction. This is not only true for his narratives but also for his formal choices. Thus in Sieranevada the story of an orthodox commemoration inside a tiny apartment with a huge family and all kinds of personal and political conflicts offers huge possibilities for Puiu to jump into this ocean of constructed fictions and possibilities. Secrets and revelations exists at the same time and even if a secret is revealed it does not mean that it is revealed from all possible angles. This is true for family affairs and for bigger topics like 9/11 or the Romanian Revolution that are discussed among the family members in the film. The same ambivalence as the one happening between reality and fiction lies in the perception of this confusion. You can either laugh or feel the pain in a film by Cristi Puiu. Most of the time it is both simultaneously.     
Sitting down with the director during the Viennale, next to a cheap copy of a Klimt painting in a big hotel room, showed that Puiu’s filmmaking is closely connected to his thinking. Thus an answer to a question is not only an answer, it is a part of cinema, a way of perceiving the world and translating it into decisions concerning form and content of a film.
NOTEBOOK: In June I had the pleasure of being in Cluj at the Romanian premiere of Sieranevada, and I have to tell you that it was a completely different experience in the audience than watching it in Vienna. In Cluj, your film felt like a pure comedy, three or four times there was applause during the screening, it was hilarious, everyone was cheered up...
CRISTI PUIU: It was crazy.
NOTEBOOK: In Vienna there were also laughs, but the film came to me as something much more serious, ambivalent—it was a completely different experience. I wonder how you perceive those differences in an audience’s perception?
PUIU: Yes, I think this deserves an analysis. In my opinion there are different reasons. First of all, I had the feeling they sympathize with me there in Cluj at the Transylvania International Film Festival for different reasons that are mysterious to me. So, first Mihai Chirilov, the artistic director of the festival, asked me to come on stage and suddenly everyone was cheering... 
NOTEBOOK: But why even before the film?
PUIU: Well, first we have to differentiate between a regular audience and a festival audience. The level of tolerance is very high at a festival like in Cluj. You are going to these screenings to enjoy, you trust those who are making the selection. Only few make comments about the selection and those who do usually are people from the industry. The average cinema visitor will not make comments on the selection. Maybe he will prefer this film to another, but the event in itself puts the audience in a sort of mood, a mood of high tolerance. At least this is true for Cluj, I think. There is also a different reason. I have a personal theory about it because I was asking myself the same question as you did. I can understand such a reaction after a film, because the audience laughed a lot and appreciated the film. But before the film when I entered the stage this was very hard for me to put somewhere, to give a sense to it. I am not Michael Jackson, you know? So, I thought it might have to do with the music, not Michael Jackson, but still, with the music in Cannes. In Cannes for the red carpet and for the other carpet which is blue you have to choose a piece of music from your film. So for Sieranevada I chose a traditional, folkloric Romanian song from the film. As the red carpet premiere was televised in Romania everyone knew this and they got excited apparently. I don‘t have a Facebook page, but my daughters and some friends told me that me choosing this music was a very big thing for many people. It was a moment of national pride. This guy is there and he is presenting his identity as Romanian. 
NOTEBOOK: What piece of music is it? 
PUIU: “Marine la nunta ta,” it’s a folkloric song coming from the southern part of Romania by a singer, Liviu Vasilica, who was very much loved and has been dead for more than ten years now. I decided to have it in the film because my father loved his music and this is also the reason I wanted it on the red carpet. It is a quite melancholic song and it seemed fitting because many things happened with this film before coming to Cannes. First, in December the actor who plays Toni [Sorin Medeleni] died and then shortly before going to Cannes, a very ugly event took place as Valentin. the guy who was taking care of transportation in our company, got ill and after an odyssey like in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu he died. He was 33 years old. On May 4th we went to his funeral and on May 12th we were on the red carpet. I was wearing a mourning tie. So we were in a very strange mood. Of course, you won’t be crying on the red carpet. You try to do your best to get it done properly. Actually, some of us were crying but hopefully nobody saw it. The event was received with a great deal of enthusiasm in Romania. I think we were also the biggest crew on the red carpet. We tried to do our best to invite all the people working on this film to be there in Cannes. But this is very difficult. You have to find the money. The Romanian Cultural Institute gave us some money as well as the National Center for Cinema [Centrul National al Cinematografiei] and some private sponsors. Anyway, we put this money together and we managed to pay for transportation for many actors. For me, it would have been great to have really everybody on the red carpet. And this was received as quite something. You know, self-esteem in Romania is not that high. I don’t know much about those living in Italy, Germany or Spain, where there are big communities, for those it is different. However, the majority of the audience in Cluj on this evening was Romanian and they pushed this enthusiasm. They felt their self-esteem a bit restored due to that moment on the red carpet a few weeks before. At least this is my theory. So this is a long answer to a very short question.
NOTEBOOK: That’s perfectly fine. I would love to ask about the film now, a formal question about your use of camera. It’s an obvious question maybe, but for me it isn‘t that obvious at all. So, you take a position with the camera sometimes and then you don‘t allow yourself to change it, to move inside with the camera or a cut, for example when a door closes. You don‘t have any subjective point-of-view shots... 
PUIU: It‘s the same as in Aurora for me. The big difference is the number of actors, so I couldn‘t just superimpose this method from Aurora on Sieranevada. In Aurora, close to the end there is this sequence in an apartment where you have eight actors and from that sequence I somehow build up Sieranevada.  
NOTEBOOK: Why do you avoid point-of-view shots? 
PUIU: The point was to encapsulate a statement connected to the idea of point-of-view in the style of the film. We are condemned in life to have just one position regarding an event that is unfolding in front of our eyes. Even if you change your position you have the same point-of-view because it is not the physical position but your position is in your brain. The filters that allow you to decode the significance of an event that is unfolding in front of your eyes are in your brain. For example, when you go to a cinema to watch a film, you won‘t go there with a dictionary—no, it is all in your brain. And you don’t only bring the history of cinema but also your personal history, your experiences, your life, and they help you or don’t help you to decode what is happening on the screen. Often I hear objections from people that are otherwise present, intelligent and in resonance with the world, in relation with experiences they didn’t experience. They tell me that what they didn’t experience just doesn’t exist. But wait—life is long. You are going to experience this and then you are going to rethink the film or the book or whatever. It is funny how we are suppressing the infinite possibilities that life is offering us, is not offering us. The world is moving constantly and many different scenarios are being played every second on this planet. But we cannot enter in contact with all of them. So I experienced around fifty different scenarios and from this experience I have to assume that there are some other scenarios I didn’t experience. I am not talking about the writing of the script or the construction of the drama. You put many things in a film that have to be respected morally. You are making a sort of deal with the audience or the reader of your book. It wouldn‘t be moral to change the rules of the game during a film. So, I am not talking about those things, I am talking about things having to do with your own experience.  
NOTEBOOK: So is your cinema a cinema of abstraction or of representation?
PUIU: Of course, using life as a reference in cinema is not something I appreciate. I try to stay away from it because otherwise we stick to this mimesis, this representation that we are having in painting and people are feeling comfortable with landscapes and portraits and as soon as it gets abstract people feel uncomfortable and get aggressive. They say things like: My child can do it better than Picasso, and so on. The same is true for cinema. It is not about how often you come across this or that situation in a film. It is about the proposition that is built up by the author. So in this case, the camera, the visual has to find the right position in the story. The fact that the characters are swimming and trying to find a way out of a situation they are being confronted with, with numerous  opinions and superstitions regarding several events like 9/11 or the Romanian Revolution or communism or their own family, like when Lary is telling us something in the car at a certain moment in the film, the way the characters are trying to adjust to those events in order to feel comfortable, to integrate them in their personal history of the world...those things have to be reflected in the position and movement of the camera. Stating that some things you hear, some things you don‘t hear, some things you see, some others you don‘t see. Even if you see or hear: What are you going to do with this information? It doesn‘t really help you if you don‘t know what to do with this information. There is this line in the film: Gabi is telling Toni that his wife saw him hitting this man and Toni answers: “I don‘t know. It‘s debatable. What can you see through a key hole?“ This is it: What can you see? Toni is stating something very serious. We are being constrained by our own position or by the devices we are using. This is why I used the camera like I did in Aurora. I put it on a tripod and I can move the tripod like my head, that I can do. But I cannot do any travelings [shots], only if I am walking on the street but not at a commemoration. I don’t zoom, I don’t change the focal length. With the camera, we are using the same eyes as the eyes we are born with. We cannot use a tele-objective. That is why I try to stick to what is a normal lens in cinema. I did it in Stuff and Dough, I did it in Lazarescu and I did it in Aurora and now in Sieranevada. Still, in the beginning I was a bit afraid of this and I tried to change the focal length in order to see more. 
NOTEBOOK: To be something like a nitpicker:. I think in Stuff and Dough there is one point-of-view shot, right? In the beginning...
PUIU: Yes, when he is looking through the window, yes. This is a bit brutal for all these concrete reasons that you are confronted with when you are making a film. Even if you do your best, sometimes it is very hard. I couldn’t shoot this scene as I wanted to because when we entered the apartment the winter had already started and I needed one day to shoot this shot from the apartment quickly. The idea was to use Razvan Vasilescu, the actor, and to pan from him to the exterior and to state that this is not a subjective point-of-view. But Razvan couldn’‘t come. But I needed to see the car in the beginning of the film...so, well... 
NOTEBOOK: Concerning this whole complex of camera decisions and fictions of perspective in Sieranevada, there is also an idea of distance and not-distance in your film. I say it because here you really go into an apartment where quite naturally you are very close to the people you film. Yesterday someone in the audience commented that your film felt like a sitcom which, of course, it is not—but I think it‘s a perfectly understandable thing to say. Did you react to the space you filmed in, or were there ethical decisions involved in how close you can be, what you don’t want to see?
PUIU: It’s both. What can you do if you shoot in an apartment? You can come very close, of course, you can shoot faces like Cassavetes. In Aurora, I told the camera crew that the point-of-view of the camera is the one of the dead father who cannot intervene in what his boy is doing. It’s like a father watching his child learning how to walk. You can’t be relaxed because any moment the child can fall down. There is a different attention and there has to be this tension in the camera. It is very hard to translate this to the camerawork. You have to feel it. It’s on a very sensitive, emotional level. So you have to use words in order to tell the camera guy what you are expecting from him. And he is going to translate them to a rational level and he will be staying on this rational level. Leaving this rational level will be something he fears because going deeper is not comfortable, nobody wants to go there. So in Sieranevada my guiding motive for shouting on the set was: Watch these people. They are dying. Not that the characters are going to die but these actors are going to die. I told the camera guys: What you are shooting here is a moment in the life of these humans, for God’s sake. Camera people are having this tendency of paying attention to the composition, making nice images and so on. No, it has to be visceral, it has to come from the guts, you have to feel it while watching it. Most of the people are not comfortable with this and they even try their best to escape these kind of situations. The DOP asked me: “How do I know if I am really watching him?” It is very hard to answer this question. But once it happens you will know. I just can’t tell you how to get there. Just imagine his heartbeats synchronizing with your heartbeats. It is something very personal. You are going to blush. 
NOTEBOOK: What about the actors? They have to be ready, too. 
PUIU: For the actors it is very difficult if some asshole-DOP is not paying attention. What the actor is giving is a sort of declaration of love; he is giving a bit of everything and then maybe the DOP is paying attention to the plants in the background. He even will start discussing how to light these plants. But the actor is there, it’s the moment, the actor is giving something of himself. Sieranevada was an opportunity for me to install or at least try to install the camera in the position of the dead person. In classical cinema, the actor is allowed to look in all directions except into the camera. We can say that the camera is like an invisible or a dead person, in the sense of a phantom. Usually in traditional cinema it’s not good if actors look into the camera. Of course, from time to time you have this gaze, this breaking of the fourth wall like in The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque by Éric Rohmer in which Fabrice Luchini is looking at the lens from time to time. But in general it is not done. I said to myself that this is a good situation, because of the Orthodox Christian tradition. When you die you have forty days of traveling to say goodbye to your loved ones, you go through different steps, and on the fortieth day it’s the day of judgement for yourself. After forty days the spirit is free. You are never going to have the commemoration after the forty days have ended because you want to have the spirit of the dead one with you somehow. So you also have this idea of the ambassador of the dead person at the table, which you can see in the film. I wanted to have this dead person somewhere and the camera was perfect for this. I also had to choose when this commemoration takes place because there is one after forty days, after one year or after seven years. However, after seven years the dead person is only a name. So naturally I wanted the forty days. The dead person is the camera. So how is he going to watch what is happening inside his apartment, his home, his family? Here we are at the moral point-of-view. How to find the right tone, the right composition in order to state something about the dead one. At the same time, the question of our own looking back is important. But this is impossible. I don’t know if we are looking back, if there is such a thing as an afterlife. But let’s suppose that something like this exists. I was thinking of me dying and looking back and I put all the elements together and got to the point of thinking that I am going to look back with tenderness and love. Even for my enemies, people I profoundly dislike and disrespect. I think this looking back is full of love for everybody.
NOTEBOOK: But there is also a lot of confusion going on. The camera pans in wrong directions, different fictions are confronted...
PUIU: I do believe that one of the most important statements in the history of the culture is in the Bible when Christ is saying: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Today we are living in a world in which people don’t know what they are doing. We are not knowing what we are doing. You don’t have to look at the American elections to see this...I am just confused, I never saw these things before. I don’t know if there will be a war or a big cataclysm. Everybody seems to be pushing towards disaster. It is really strange. This is what I tried to do in Sieranevada. Of course, this is an exercise. I don’t expect spectators to recognize the camera as a dead person. There was somebody on the set telling me: Listen, this is a very good idea with the position of the camera. It would be very nice in the end to move the camera towards the window and have it fly out towards heaven... [laughs]

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