in conversation with Cristi Puiu
Where do you put the camera to get a glimpse of our imminent extinction? Critically-acclaimed Romanian director Cristi Puiu talks to four by three magazine about cinema as entertainment and art, the responsibility of an artist, reality and fiction, truth and being, his fascination with death and Albert Camus, asking what makes life worth living?
The great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky once said that the purpose of art is to prepare man for death and dying. It was also Tarkovsky who was the first to point out that when a film is shot, beyond the actors and set, the seconds recorded are not only part of history, but steel seconds of actual time-space. Films are part of the infinite puzzle of the universe, our existence within it and our inevitable departure. Many directors have followed the quest of capturing the ineffable, yet few contemporary directors have offered as much depth to a meditation on our mortality like critically-acclaimed and award-winning Romanian director and screenwriter Cristi Puiu.
Puiu is often labeled as one of the founders of the Romanian New Wave, even though he rejects this label. His first feature film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu has won him the Un Certain Regard Award at the Cannes Film Festival 2005. After his next film Aurora (2010), Puiu’s latest film Sieranevada was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival 2016.
We talked with Puiu about cinema, reality and death on an early morning, which seemed to particularly warrant a conversation on our mortality as he started off by explaining: ‘The problem is that I have really bad sleep and usually only go to bed around 3am. Not wanting to go to sleep is maybe an expression of the unconscious of not wanting to die, at least if you understand sleep as death in homeopathic doses. Maybe those of us who are afraid of dying are also afraid of going to sleep….’
What made you become a director?
Cristi Puiu: I started out by studying painting in Geneva, where they had two departments, one for the traditional visual arts and one for cinema and video. After my first year at university I realised that I had nothing to learn anymore in this formalised setting, because you learn most through experiencing life. Instead of being in school, I spent time in my studio painting, realizing that I wanted to learn something that I was thoroughly curious but didn’t know anything about. Cinema captured exactly that for me.
Studying cinema worked out pretty well for me and my graduation film was awarded some prizes and selected in the short film section at Locarno, which reinforced my belief that it was a good decision to swap disciplines. Even though I am not a cinephile, it was my curiosity which was driving me. I actually think that cinema is extremely overrated. We are living in a world of showbiz and everything having to do with the showbiz already occupies most parts of our lives. On one extreme you find politics and politicians and on the other extreme you have celebrities, footballers, musicians and so on. But basically we are living in a spectacle, which it is very important to be aware of. Awards in cinema are highly publicised, but in other domains we aren’t actually that knowledgeable about what sorts of awards are out there, such as for doctors, researchers and so on. But we spent our precious time in front of the TV, in order to find out who wins an Oscar, in order to talk about it the next day, share our options and agree or disagree with others. I guess what I am saying is that I am not into cinema. I am into nothing. I don’t like labels and I don’t like business cards. You might say that I have become little by little a misanthrope. I am a human being born into a very specific culture, very attached to my roots and my family and an extreme sceptic when it comes to all these labels that have to do with our social status.
We are living in a dangerous situation and not enough people are using their brains. I have actually noticed that I am getting much more precious observations from people who aren’t into cinema than the opinions from those who work in the industry, because they have all those pre-determined filters in place. This doesn’t mean that they are either stupid or limited, but this is the condition of those who subscribe to -- and most of the time without questioning -- a certain definition of life in general or a particular domain. Let’s say a doctor doesn’t feel he can give his opinion regarding literature, because he is a doctor. But this is false! He can because he is a human! Little by little society is become ever more compartmentalized. We are talking a lot about interdisciplinarity, yet everyone is doing his/her best to defend his/her domain, wanting to be an authority trumping others. People seem to take this pretty seriously, which appears to be the consequence of a certain development and the choices we have made. All these creations are a product of the human brain, but we shouldn’t forget that we can still change them. Yet we don’t do it because it is too comfortable to remain in the status quo. At least this is what we tell ourselves and others.
You’ve touched on cinema in terms of being part of a show business, but what about the cinema that lies outside of this, which your own films are a part of? What is the purpose of that cinema?
CP: Maybe this is a linguistic problem, as we are using the same term to define pretty different objects, which are only held together by having images and sounds. Cinema is used to describe entertainment, as well as cinema d’auteur. So we should really use different terms and if we were to do so, it would be much easier to differentiate. I have said it before and I will say it time and again, I consider cinema overall to be more like an instrument than just the camera. For me it is an anthropological instrument. The camera is defined by two ends: one where you put your eye to look through a lens at the world and one from which the world looks back at you. You are using cinema as a filter between you and the world, which needs to be analysed by people much more clever than me, who can analyse the relationship between the author and the world. For me there is just one cinema, one which establishes the relation between the world outside our head and the world lying inside of us. For me there are only two types of authors: the one who is living inside his own mind and the one who is relying on the external world – roughly speaking at least, as this isn’t an absolute.
When critics and academics started to label Romanian cinema as ‘Realism’, that wasn’t proper. It is a term we have introduced and are only using because we need to put some books in some libraries. But art is always and already realism and it’s impossible to escape this! I believe that the theory that everything is realism started at some point in the 20th century. If you define the term realism or reality--which is pretty hard in philosophical terms, almost impossible and carries with it a long debate-- but if you are going to crudely simplify it as that which exists as a whole, it is almost impossible to imagine things that are not present in the whole of existence. The world inside your head is part of this existence and doesn’t belong some other dimension. But if you can get in touch with a different dimension, should this exist-- which is only a speculation-- you are going to be forced to translate it for others to understand, because otherwise it wouldn’t exist. Once you’ve done this translation it becomes part of our shared reality. This also points to another tension, namely that between the dictionary you are using as an author and the one the audience is using. This is the game we are all playing, but if you are trying your best at being genuinely honest, you might get to a certain level of awakening. But if there is no honesty involved you are just cheating yourself and others.
There is cinema as entertainment, but then there is cinema d’auteur, which is characterised by people who are trying to understand what cinema is, what our relationship is with the world, what the world inside our heads is and what life is all about. But are we not cheating ourselves by creating a reality parallel to the one we already live in? Then again, we are already living in a parallel reality if you are thinking about Plato’s cave, which shows the different distances we are creating from the truth. In auteur cinema you are pretty much forced into these conditions.
This reminds me of the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth’s work One and Three Chairs (1965). In order to frame your own personal experience, you have to get rid of all this conceptual and philosophical thinking, thereby relying on something that is essentially you. It is impossible to define this ‘you’, while assuming there is no tomorrow. If you assume that you are going to die then you can put all or nothing on the table, but you will have to be true to yourself. The fact that there is a tomorrow makes you control everything and come up with a story that suits you and leave behind another image of yourself. You are going to die, but during your lifetime you feel that you have to deliver these images of yourself to yourself and others. If you are interested in cinema or art more broadly speaking, you have to assume the condition of the witness. I am purposefully not saying whistleblower, but one of the witness. Artists have a duty to tell the story of what it means to be human.
The slogan for our production company Mandragora is ‘Tell the tale’. Talking about narrative cinema, this is the author’s duty - to tell the tale of your journey through life. At first you are the witness and then the one who is warning others. People might not be listening to what you are saying, but you have to do your job. One extreme is being the witness and the other is being the tyrant or the dictator. This is the condition of the artist / author. There is the author of the artwork and the author of the crime, which is actually an expression in Romanian used by the judicious system and which is no accident. The condition of the author is to make soft interventions in the history of humanity. Soft only because it is impossible to establish the consequences of a certain intervention in advance.
Propaganda art is extremely dangerous. Films from Nazi Germany and Communist Russia really muddled our conscience. It isn’t just propaganda, it is very serious. Take contemporary American cinema, which, to a huge extent, is propaganda. If you aren’t a witness to life, the times you live in, and your own experiences, then you will find yourself captive in this very serious temptation, which has to do with the power relationship established between the artist and the audience through manipulation, resulting in normative cinema and propaganda. When you are stepping inside the parameters of artistic creation and when you are starting to use your creativity, you have to be aware of the fact that you are going to confront yourself. This temptation to proclaim is something I believe to be a professional malady. Artists can get very pompous when they start talking about what they are doing and why it is so important. But it really isn’t that important and there are people who are doing far more important things.
Speaking about dying, your films often feature death in prominent ways. What is it about death that fascinates you and what does death mean to you?
CP: It is a part of the mechanics of cheating on ourselves. I don’t believe in eternal life and there isn’t much I can say about the afterlife either. I am very Cartesian and need to be able to verify. It’s in fact difficult to know in absolute terms because you continuously learn new things, gain new perspectives and have to reconsider your apparent knowledge.
Death is by far the most important thing there is. It is something all of us have to encounter at some point and all of us are more or less conscious of it. Obviously, there are different ways of leaving this world. If you are conscious when the last moments of your life happen it will be the most important event that will happen in your life. The other moment is when you are born, though you aren’t conscious of that moment.
As a fellow director once put it: the director has to know two things: what to tell the actors and where to put the camera. But how do you choose the position of the camera? which is a very serious question, not just in relation to a particular scene, but where do I put the camera in this film? What are the criteria I am going to use to find the right position for the camera in this film overall? I put the camera from where death is visible. This might sound pompous, but it isn't far from the truth. Where do I put the camera to capture life, which is quite abstract, not just in relation to the narrative, the acting or scene? Where do you put the camera to get a glimpse of our imminent extinction? There is no such thing and all you can do is to rely on your intuition. There is no recipe for it, but it is very important to be in the present and to be attached to what is happening now, while not thinking of tomorrow. You have to stay in contact with life and if you manage to do so, you should realise that you are in contact with what we call death. This is the most serious thing you can bet on when making your film. Otherwise you can be sure to lose everything.
The title of one of your previous films is The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, suggesting that the film will be about a moment of death. Yet we don’t actually see Mr. Lazarescu die in the film. It appears as though you are thereby proposing that death is not the end of life but a continuous process unfolding.
CP: American cinema has taught us that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. But that’s when we think about our lives as a project overall, we imagine the things we will accomplish, while life and death will turn out differently. This will confront you with very serious questions and you will ask yourself: what was my life really like? Those who will be able to reflect on their entire life in their last moments are very lucky. Usually people die in a very unpredictable circumstances. It is only granted to a few analyse life in its entirety and confess to those who you are leaving behind what you got out of life. I have asked myself: when I die, as who will I die? As the man who dreamed to become a director? I think I am going to die as a sort of voyeuristic character in the films of Michael Curtis.
Being hospitalized is a very strange experience, because in a very short period of time you will encounter a lot of people who you didn’t previously know and who you will probably never see again, but whose stories you get to know. If you die in a hospital, you somehow die in their stories. I think it is very common to leave the world through a story, which isn’t yours. When you are dying in a car crash, you might be dying alone or not, you might be listening to music or not, but you are most likely to have thoughts about what you have to do today or tomorrow, while these thoughts are only provisional and not the quintessential thoughts about your life. Or maybe you are going to follow a woman like the character in François Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women (1977) and be struck by a car, then hospitalised and die while trying to touch the legs of a nurse. Your initial life project has nothing to do with your end.
Your latest film Sieranavada takes place around a ritual of death, while the film revolves much more around the notions of truth and certainty, which is exemplified by the various ‘conspiracy theories’ that are being discussed, so that death almost falls in the background. How do you see the relationship between death, truth and certainty?
CP: Of course there is a relationship because we are living in our own fiction. What we are calling ‘conspiracy theories’ are stories that the establishment does not allow. Out of the fictions, we are creating about the world, we live in and about our lives, we are going to accept some while rejecting others.
Some historians write stories about World War II, an event that is quite abstract for those who have been born after the war. I think we are constructing this story by and large through the images provided by films, most of which are American. But for those of us who were born in Romania like myself, Bulgaria, Hungary or somewhere else in the Eastern bloc, we know about the war through Russian films and their narrative of how they saved the planet. It’s very different narratives about the same event. Histories of families are not superimposing on the history of humanity, but they are similar in nature and structure, as both of them are fictions. Here I don’t mean fiction as a lie, but the use of language in a particular way. We construct through language a specific reality. We have ideas about Ancient Egypt, despite none of us ever having been there, so we have to accept the agreed upon stories. Take Romania for example: who are we? We have long and complicated debates about our national identity. To me this is an expression of our impotence to find the right narrative. However, what we are able to say about the history of humanity is that it is full of suffering.
As a society, we rely on these provisional truths of the stories we tell, in order to achieve a certain level of comfort even though we aren’t able to verify them. Even those who search for the truth feel comfortable in their own quest, as they believe that they are choosing a fight over comfort when they really aren’t. The most dangerous thing, and it is happening right under our very eyes, is that we need to rely on a complete story about our lives and about the world. Some people are saying that at the beginning was a Big Bang, while others claim that at the beginning was god and both sides are just so convinced about their story. Some things you create yourself while others are just given to you. When I am making a film, I am driven by all these thoughts, as well as with my preoccupation with me, myself and I, my family and those close to me, my own desires and my fear of death. But the thought of the death of those I love is far more excruciating than my own death.
Thinking of all these things, I am going fishing. At first, you work on the script, organise the shooting, position the camera, direct the actors, make some changes, but once you have everything, you are going to wait, because something will happen and you might say a miracle. The most important things in my own films, as well as in the films of other directors, are those that you didn’t plan for and didn’t put in. This happens due to some secret and mysterious chemistry between actors, lines, camerawork, something you may want to call the ineffable, which happens independently of me as the director. Believe me, I am simply amazed by this. Relationships between humans can be magical. This doesn’t happen because of some words, but because something ineffable can happen once you open yourself up to the other and build a connection. It’s impossible to define it and we tend to reject it because it cannot be proven. I don’t believe in words, as for them to have significance you have to first believe in the words. If I am going to tell you that I love you, you have to believe me. But if you are truly in love with someone, you aren’t using these words, because you are communicating on a different level, such as through your eyes, your gestures or your touch.
For me believing that the world is nothing more than that which you experience is just rubbish. I watched this video of a priest coming to a university in Budapest and he asked how much the most intelligent person can know about the entirety of recorded knowledge. They agreed that an Einstein of an Einstein can know no more than 5%. So the priest went on to ask whether we can then imagine that god is hiding in the other 95% or even in that which we haven’t recorded. I thought he made a good point, as the unknown is just so vast and we know just so little. Not thinking about the afterlife, but death is part of a different dimension, which is why I am interested in it.
The philosopher Albert Camus once said: “The only serious question in life is whether to kill yourself or not.” What is it that makes life worth living?
CP: It has less to do with finding the answer to a question and more to do with the choices you are making. The choice you are making is between thinking that you came to this world accidentally or that you came to this world with a mission. If you believe that you were born by accident then that is your choice. But if you believe that you were born with a mission then you don’t need anything else to add and don’t need to find an answer to Camus’ question, because you will have your mission. Yet you don’t know what this mission of yours is. All you can do is to discover life and your mission within it. This is something you simply have to do and you will find out sooner or later.
Most fairy tales have some form of happy ending. You read these stories at a very early age and you end up believing that this is how life is. Hence, right from the start of your life you will have wrong assumptions. With growing age, you will see and experience that this is not how it will turn out, so will feel deceived. In Aurora the protagonist isn’t actually killing himself or his wife, but all those around him and her, who he believes destroyed his fairytale of a happy end. So he found himself trapped in a fictional paranoia. What happened to the character in Aurora is happening in fact to most authors, as they are living in convictions and believes, often quite divorced from real life, which might or might not lead to the question Camus was asking.
I think people go to the theater or cinema, in order to appreciate something which they don’t understand. You don’t go to see Shakespeare because you are only interested in the work of a genius, the drama or socio-historical context etc, you go because something extraordinary is happening in front of you when the actors on stage or on screen are truly in the present moment. When someone is true to himself or herself, even and often for only a few milliseconds, then something special is happening. You might ask: but what is happening? Often the audience is expressing satisfaction by saying things like: ‘Oh, I have been very moved’ or ‘it was well performed’. But it is not this that is at stake, but an actor, a human being in flesh and blood, is making a gesture, having a particular gaze, something which puts you on a different level of consciousness. For a very very short time you are going to encounter the condition of being. Shakespeare’s question of 'whether to be or not to be' doesn’t only have something to do with some philosophical or ontological thinking, but it has something to do with an event that is taking place in front of your eyes on stage, on screen or in life. Some people might think that this is happening all the time, but fuck them, it really isn’t true – in ‘real’ life everyone is lying. We are wearing masks, change our voices, act a certain way, you name it, in order to help tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. We behave like investors in our own life and don’t dare to face the present. Talking about this might sound like a speculation, but let’s consider what Fritz Lang was saying about violence – namely that it is sometimes very important because this is the way people understand good and evil. If you put it philosophically, they will understand it, of course, but they are not going to be disturbed by it. When physical violence is present, the audience understands very quickly that this is bad.
You know, people buy a train ticket to the mountains, but then get out at the sea, complaining that it is all god’s fault! Just get the right train and then you are going to see! People either spend too much time debating the question of god or in order to get an understanding of the physical world they build places like CERN to observe the smallest physical parts of the world. Whether the world is round or square or purple, it doesn’t affect my life, but we have to put money into it. I get it, it advances knowledge of this and that, but at the same time we aren’t ready to accept any findings. You have to respect a certain path in life, in order to get in touch with some idea of god. I understand that in order to have knowledge about the smallest forms of matter we need this kind of investment, but why not accept that there is a certain very precise route to god? You take a train and then don’t find yourself where you thought you were going and then complain that god doesn’t exist. Sure, everyone defends his own field and it is normal for you to assume that you are right, even if you are not, rather then to try and get in touch with truth. You have all the elements that are telling you something, some things which even prove certain things to be true, but you are still going to force your own view into it, no matter what.
Some scientist discovered that the center for love and the center for sex are extremely close within the brain. I am obviously no specialist on this matter, but what I have noticed is that people are pretty quick in understanding when I am telling them the following: we lie, not because we are liars, but because we will do whatever it takes to protect ourselves and don’t want to suffer. Even if you aren’t always able to identify when someone is lying to you, you are pretty quick to realize that someone is lying to you in bed. It is a very important moment when two people meet and they are in love, but one of them isn’t actually really there. This is very painful and it is hard to prove to the other that s/he was not there and is going to take advantage of the situation. When this happens it is like the big bang. Precisely these ineffable moments of being can happen on stage or in front of the camera. People need those moments. We go to the theater or cinema to experience these brief moments when someone is present and you are thrown into a moment when you understand that this world is real and is true. It is like you are chanting an oath to life itself. People understand that being truly present is very powerful. We are surrounded by people not living in the present and we ourselves aren’t either. It is very hard and trying to be with someone else can be very dangerous, because we have a tendency to exploit or abuse the other. Maybe that’s the reason why god or the big bang designed the world as such, so that these moments are very short, as you would otherwise drown in them. If you are true to yourself and you are living in the moment, people will be attracted to you because you are living truth through being itself.
If you are attracted to someone, you are attracted to him or her, because of a creative passion. I'll tell you, I'm not into stamps, but when I met someone who loved stamps a lot, he radiated a creative passion that was infectious. I think that this drives any form of research. We are all driven by creativity, it just manifests and expresses itself in different ways with each one of us. Everyone has to decide what is important for him or her. Everyone realizes at some point and in some capacity that there is something bigger than just our everyday existence and what we are told about life. Even if you are focused on the quotidian, you will realize that there are things which you simply cannot explain or fully grasp. I don’t want to get mystical about this, but I think everyone experiences things that s/he is unable to explain through ordinary language.
When you are making a film, you have all these different elements, the script, the set, the actors, the sound, the camera and so on. But the final film is more than just adding all these elements together – you have something that is alive and organic with its own chemistry, something which is somewhat mysterious. When you have the final film and it is true – to use a very strong word – it is the result of the activation of the creative passion of everyone involved. You, as the director, are just like the policeman at a crossing directing the traffic – or, in the case of the director – the different creative passions around him/her. You have the signs that say go left, go straight, you have priority, you have to wait, you have to slow down and so on. This is all you can do. You are like a conductor – you are not going to play the violin, but tell the violin whether to go faster, or louder, or pause, and so on. But, most importantly: you have to allow everyone to be. You have to do whatever it takes to help them to be. When I was working on Aurora, I was driven by this need to be part of a community. It’s like Jonas, the protagonist in Camus’ short story "The Artist at Work" from Exile and the Kingdom, who is leaving behind his painting, a blank canvas with a word in the middle which couldn’t be made out whether it reads either solitary or solidary. You are driven towards a certain isolation. You need to be solitary, but also to be solidary – alone, yet part of a community, which is a very serious conflict! As a director what you have to learn and do is to let being emerge and show itself to you.