Filmmaking as a conversation – interview with Cristina Groșan
Cristina Groșan is a tremendously talented visual artist and film director. Her award-winning shorts have been screened at over 70 festivals and events worldwide. Most recently, Cristina was granted production funding for her debut feature “Things Worth Weeping For” by the Hungarian Film Fund and will start shooting in the spring of 2019.
I wanted to know more about Cristina and her film career and what you’re about to read is a part of a conversation we had a while ago. Enjoy!
Cristina, I first discovered you through your photography. Are you still making photos?
I used to photograph a lot during my high school and college years, when I had considerably more time than I have now. Afterwards I took a really big break during which I began disliking a lot of everything I’ve done up to that point and I came back to it a year ago. I initially began with painting and drawing, well painting mostly. Last year I had this month and a half when I painted every day and it felt therapeutic, useful and intense. It also felt like a return to the old me. I’d like to make photographs again and when that time comes, it must be in a completely new way, I’d have to surprise myself.
How is it different for you to express things through film than through photography?
Photography and film are very different for me. If my time is limited and I have to chose, I’ll go with film because it encompasses all the things I love about photography – working with images.
I don’t believe film has limitations except the fact that you project it to spectators in a limited time. But it can also be projected anytime for different people, it’s not like a theatre play which takes place once and that’s it. It’s true the show can be re-staged but it’s not going to be the same. I believe film includes many things, and it’s so complex that it has no limits. Only our imagination and craft are limited.
How do you decide to turn an idea into a film?
I have this imaginary drawer where I put many things in, some are new, others have been there for many years.
During high school I used to write monograms under an alias. I never gave any personal information about me so I was deeply shocked when, somewhere in 2000, I was looking with a friend through a recording with him and other colleagues on a theatre scene and realized they were acting one of my texts. They had no idea I was the author and I had no idea that someone ever saw that text. It was the shock of my life and it was excellent.
I have many things set aside that I want to use maybe in a photograph or a film, but what I do with most of these ideas is to let them be and wait and see if they hold on or not. I generally try to convince myself they’re not necessary, that they’re bad and those who pass the time test are the ones that are worth a try but they claim their own form to be brought up to life, I am just a medium.
I often think of filmmaking as of a conversation. I wish very much that what I do is not an end point, something only for me and the team so see; it’s essential to me for it to be a conversation.
How was it the first time you received recognition for your films and how did you image it would be like before it happened?
I went to university thinking I’ll become a cinematographer. In my third year, we were forced to write and direct our own films and it was only then that I began considering it. It was such a great experience and I loved it so much that I fully switched to it. In my 4th year I applied to workshops because I felt the need to open myself to the outside world and see what others were doing. I didn’t know exactly what the Berlinale was but I applied for a workshop with them with my only film, which at that time was active in festivals, and they accepted me. The following year I went to Berlin and I had a reality check. I’ve met a lot of people my own age who were making films, I’ve met producers and I began to understand how the industry works. But I wasn’t aware of it back then. I was too curious and my head spinned 360 continuously and I wanted the others to be interested in my films, the ideas, images and feelings I wished to express.
Did you have any misconceptions about the industry before you started working?
I come from a family of engineers and people involved in science, so for them art seemed more like a pleasant hobby than a real career option. But in spite or perhaps, because of that, all I ever took interest was the arts, from painting to photography, theatre and then film, as means of expression and experiment. Growing up I also believed working in arts can’t be a “real” job, but before I noticed I grew up and, as of yet, I still haven’t got a “real” job.
In an interview you gave about your experience of moving to Hungary you talk about your comfort zone. How do you feel about stepping out of one’s comfort zone?
It’s good to put yourself in new situations, to look upon yourself from the outside, to learn things, to recognize you don’t know. When you’re comfortable you try new things less, you tend to let yourself get better less. Maybe we lose something by not trying new things.
I believe it has become harder and harder to get out of our comfort zones because if we pay attention to the algorithm used by Facebook, Twitter, Spotify most of the people our age spend their online time on a constellation of new things which are not that far away from the things they’ve chosen by this time. I mean my recommendations playlist on Spotify is based on things I previously liked or listened to or liked on various occasions. It won’t distract me with anything.
Can you give me an example of a work related situation when you got out of your comfort zone and had much to learn from it? Can you tell me about something that you learned by getting out of your comfort zone?
I was on my way to check with a client for a design job when my former teacher, Janos Szirtes, from the Moholy-Nagy University of Arts called me and asked whether I had any plans for the upcoming month, because the department wanted to send me to Africa for a shoot with the United Nations. One month later, I packed my bags and left for two months to East Africa along with two cinematographers who worked alternatively on the project: Ákos Nyoszoli and Kristóf Pajor. We followed a small team of the UN Agency for Refugees and documented their activities. Because our schedule and budget were tight, I found myself tackling issues of production, figuring out what vaccines we needed before travel, solving insurance issues in countries where no company offers coverage, getting shooting permits and making sure we had enough power supply for the camera, as we were going to spend a lot of time away from electricity. I was attracted by the story we were documenting there, but I also dove deep into production management on a continent I had never been to before. It helped me get closer to understanding a little bit about East Africa, so ultimately, a deeper understanding of our story.
What part is your least favorite when working on a film?
There are times I fear – working with people means there will be moments of misunderstandings and conflicts which are important to be addressed and when they happen I try really hard to adopt a firm position without hurting people and I by that I don’t mean creative things but crew management.
Have you ever stumbled over big egos in the film industry?
Oh, god, yes, especially as a woman. I have colleagues who say there is no sexism in film but I stumble over it every time. Many times as a relatively young woman I felt I wasn’t being fully taken seriously or that my decisions were questioned easier and in a subtle way by older men with more experience.
And how did you react to that?
There weren’t obvious things but they did happen on a regular basis and I turn less and less patient when that happens. So I began to negociate less and insist harder on doing what I want to do.
Let’s talk a bit about your work. Is there a small audience for short films?
Yes, short films are by default niched, you don’t have much access to artistic shorts for example. You get access to these films either online on websites like Short of the week / Vimeo or at festivals.
It’s a vicious circle but I believe it’s dictated by the market. Sometimes in Budapest in art cinemas they project shorts before a feature film, but my current short has almost 22 minutes and with a film that lasts two hours you get to a runtime of two and a half hours and I believe the distributors, the cinemas and the televisions don’t manage to get their money back.
Public television, at least in Hungary, airs shorts and we were lucky having this film on a Sunday at 23:00, which is excellent compared with a Tuesday at 3am. The public is not generally interested in fiction short films which, most of the time are innovative in theme, break the rules in execution and don’t have famous actors. We basically associate short films with school. Maybe they’re not perfect from start to finish but they have something excellent, something new and different and the public doesn’t usually have patience to watch something like that, instead looks for entertainment, thrillers or comedies and so on. For this reason I believe short films are not necessarily for everyone.
In Sputnik there’s the idea that by the time you get to 30 you know what you want to do with your life and there’s a certain path for us to take. What are your thoughts now, when you’re 30 yourself?
It’s interesting you mention that, I don’t remember this part from the film. Today, actually, I went to see a doctor and during my visit he kept hinting in various ways that I’m 30, I am healthy and there’s no reason for me not to have a baby now. He laughed trying to make it a joke and I laughed to myself thinking that right now I’m writing a screenplay with a women aged 30 who on one hand refuses all the roles the society is expecting from her and believes are mandatory and in the same time recognizes she has no clue about what to do with her life but that thought is also a conclusion.
I believe it’s a beautiful thing because yes I am concerned about looking back and reflecting on what had happened in a constant and constructive way but without putting pressure on yourself, something I believe happens so frequently. We easily accept to compare ourselves with one another or to have goals and objectives set to us which might not necessarily be our own.
How do you cope with this pressure?
I try to figure out if when I’m feeling pressure it’s something that comes from my own goals and aspirations or if it’s something imposed by others. I look back and think on everything I’ve done up to this point. Is it good or bad compared to what and who is it that I own to take these steps? Is it worth it to put so much pressure on myself? What do I win and what do I lose?
I think the most important thing to do is to be aware of all these influences to look at your decisions as objectively as possible. And as long as you’re aware of the nature of these influences, you can then figure out what you have to do.
Do you ever feel self doubt in your work?
I wouldn’t call it self doubt, but a constant preoccupation towards what I’m doing. Is it the right angle, can I dig deeper, is this the way to get as closest as possible to an audience, because ultimately, it’s about making a connection with the viewer, that’s what I’m seeking badly from what I do. I could sit here and be numbed by self doubt, but that’s not very constructive, nobody would ever get anything done. I’m more into doing it and judging after.
– Cristina’s film “Holiday at the Seaside” has toured the world in more than 30 festivals, picking up 7 awards and nominations, along with international TV broadcasting. –
What have you learned about yourself in all the years you’ve been making films?
With every shooting I realize how much I still have to learn and how challenging it is to be a director on the set. On Sputnik for example I had little money to work with and I made it with some left over money from my Erasmus scholarship. I invested all in transportation and food for the crew and my favorite thing then was for me to do everything in that film. I even had moments when I took the camera off the director’s hands and used it myself because, of course I knew better than him what to do. I wouldn’t do that now.
I remember having long shooting days, although not 12 hours as I have now, and I insisted, being a starting driver myself, to drive the crew through the city. I even managed to hit the car that day as a final alarm signal that I shouldn’t try to do everything myself.
So I’ve learned that and also that is tremendously important to communicate because filmmaking is a team effort all the time: when you start, during it and after it’s done, at festivals when you receive awards or nominations. I don’t find it right to say it’s a film by x or z because it’s a collective effort and it belongs to everyone who worked at it.
What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting up in filmmaking?
I don’t feel in the position of spreading piece of advice left and right, ask me again in 60 years from now, that could be more relevant . What I can say, though, is one should not stop doing what they like. At all costs, for as long as it’s possible. That’s what I’m trying to do.