Bogdan Mureșanu: After the success with “The Christmas Gift”, I want to keep a clear mind and stay honest

17 December, 2019

Having won more then 50 awards at festivals and galas all around the world in 2018 and 2019, including Clermont-Ferrand and, at the beginning of December, at the European Film Academy Awards Ceremony, Bogdan Mureşanu‘s The Christmas Gift became the most successful Romanian short film in history. On December 17, it was announced among the ten short films selected for the Oscar race. Depicting an event that takes place just before the 1989 Romanian Revolution, the film highlights the absurdity and paranoia of that period, through a simple story, with both comic and dramatic nuances: the letter written to Santa by a boy (Luca Toma) transforms the parents’ evening (Ioana Flora and Adrian Văncică) into a nightmare. I spoke with Bogdan Mureşanu about his short film project and the unexpected wave of awards that came after, but also about his beginnings as a filmmaker and future projects.


Born on August 10, 1974 in Bucharest, Bogdan Mureşanu studied at the prestigious “Sfântul Sava” National College. Next, he studied Political Science, in English, at the University of Bucharest, and he majored in History of International Relations. Later he worked as a journalist, but especially as a copywriter in advertising agencies. He remembers a well known advertising campaign, where he wrote the scripts for the three commercials – Afacereza, a word he invented. He wrote prose, and in 2006 he published a book of short stories, Erata.

“In a way, it also came natural for me to become a screenwriter. But I expected it to be much easier than with literature. That’s how I imagined, because there is not much public for literature. I hoped that films have a much wider audience,” says Bogdan Mureşanu.

He has taken a serious approach to cinema in 2007, when he wrote a screenplay, The Human Torch, awarded at a TIFF-HBO contest. The script was turned by HBO into a short film, but he didn’t like it. So a few years over, in 2016, he directed it as well and was released as Spid, but he’s not satisfied with his version either.

The award he won at that time gave him the courage and confidence to continue writing for film. In 2007-2008, he had attended screenwriting courses at London Film Academy for several months. Later, in 2011, he was admitted to the National Film and Television School (NFTS) in the UK, the screenwriting section, but he eventually dropped out. It was very expensive and, moreover, at that time he had won with a feature-length script, Where is Sofia?, the big prize at the Oaxaca Film Fest, in Mexico, where he went with the firm belief that that was his breakthrough. However, he sold the script in Romania and no film was made after it.

He didn’t necessarily think he would become a director, let alone a successful one. “I don’t think there is an unwavering line between arts. As proof, I try different things. Now I’m working on an animation. I also made Negruzzi 14, which is an art documentary. I also worked on Sandals / Opinci, the animation made by Anton and Damian Groves, which has a mixed technique. Cinema is an art that integrates a lot of information from other arts. It’s a medium of expression. Some ideas are better suited to this area. In the beginning, while I was only writing screenplays, I didn’t meditate on this art itself. It was instinctual. Later, after I directed Half Shaved (2012), with Victor Rebengiuc, I really began to meditate on cinema as an art and on the differences between this area and the others”, he says. The action from his first short film as a director takes place at the beginning of 1991, after the Romanian Revolution, when an old barber meets by chance his former torturer who came in for a shave. Quickly, the parts are inverted though the client refuses to acknowledge that he has been recognized. He says that it is a mistake but to no avail because the barber is convinced he is right.

Although writing screenplays came natural to him, he admits that being a director didn’t feel the same: “It’s a pretty funny event. I wrote the script for Half Shaved with Victor Rebengiuc in mind. It was inspired by Sequences, by Alexandru Tatos, but also by a story by Nabokov. I was in negotiations with some directors, friends of mine, who couldn’t take the project at that time. They had something else scheduled. Victor Rebengiuc told me he wants to play no matter what, with only one condition which was related to his schedule. We had to shoot before he had started the shootings on The Japanese Dog. As a result, I looked for an experienced DOP, which was Barbu Bălăşoiu, and we made it. Out of pure instinct. Now I see many mistakes in it. But the film got  to Montreal and I realized that this allows me to move on.”

He admits that his interest in the past, for communism, as shown by Half Shaved and The Christmas Gift, is first and foremost a personal one, since he lived through Ceaușescu’s dictatorship as a child and adolescent. “Moreover, I see it like an obligation. I’m an explorer of that past. I still remember. I experienced a situation similar to the one in The Christmas Gift. There’s something there that reminds me of a part of my biography. That past, as I experienced it or those around me, is no longer available. So I need to show my version of those things, as well. And, also, I don’t think the past is buried for good. I think it’s circular and at some point you get to relive some similar parts to that kind of society,” says the director.

“I am also interested in power relations in general. We are enjoying a lot of freedom now, but if society is not aware of the risks, they can at any time become reality. It’s enough for a group to gain power, and that group becomes very difficult to remove. It’s enough for three corporations to make a deal under wraps and set up a monopoly. Dystopias is also something I’ve always been attracted to, as a literary genre and, further, as a film genre,” adds Bogdan Mureşanu.

But The Christmas Gift is not just about the past, he says: “There is a dose of absurdity within the social experiment, which in my opinion makes it quite contemporary. Maybe even something that can happen in the future. This absurdity characteristic to certain types of social organization where the power is held by a madman might just be something recurrent. In the film, it’s more about allegorical events, rather than some historical and completely classified ones. Maybe there’s still some current truth in them. I imagined that the same story can be adapted to nowadays: let’s say a child sends an email to a CEO of a company in which he rats his father out, by writing how his father wants to see that CEO dead. The father would be just as desperate to talk to the IT guy so that the email doesn’t reach the destination overnight. This film is rather about a paranoia triggered by an incident, the naivety of a child, who sees things just as they are.”

While traveling with the film in festivals, one thing he was interested in was to see how the public in each country perceives it: “I was surprised that they understood it really well and that no explanation was needed. And that made me think they were very informed on the subject. There is enough knowledge on the history of Romania out there and probably on that period, which can only facilitate such a story and remove props out of the equation, props we didn’t even want in the film, with all the risks involved. We didn’t want to give any kind of explanation. Thus, you don’t even get to see Ceauşescu. There is a theoretical motivation for this: I didn’t want Ceauşescu as a character in the film, because he embodies the wrongdoing in a society. I wanted to be absent, if possible, though he is still there, at least in the letter. In the archive footage he is only seen from behind. And only appears for a few seconds on TV. I didn’t insist on him as a character, because I was more interested in what happens when you are afraid. A fear that becomes animal, paranoid. You start to hear voices, to suspect everyone. In fact, that’s pretty much what happened then. And I hope it doesn’t happen again.”

He also explains that although the film is funny, it wasn’t treated in a humorous way, and this is what he discussed with the actors: “The convention was that they act as they are not in a comedy. They act as if it were a drama. Of course, we know it’s a comedy, and so we laugh at the paranoid journey of this father trying to flood a mailbox, in an effort to destroy all the evidence on the denunciation. I even found it funny myself, when I wrote it. On the other hand, while watching it so many times, I’m surprised each time the audience laughs at moments that in my opinion are not funny.”

He admits that, when it comes to the mise-en-scène, there was a risk that the film would turn out theatrical, because almost the entire action takes place in an apartment, with a small number of characters. “I learned this from Half Shaved, which also happened inside. Watching it over and over again, I realized there was something unnatural to the interpretation and cutting. It seemed a little theatrical, artificial. So then, for The Christmas Gift, in order not to repeat the same mistake, we thought about making the camera vibrate, as in a documentary. To make it part of the story, make it look like the invisible eye of the Big Brother. But there had to be one condition: the camera had to operate at the pace of the story. Tudor Platon, the DOP, who knew the script well, picked up on these things. The camera would fill up with what it saw there and would became more unbalanced, more chaotic. And then would calm down. And so on. What we wanted to do in that room, on the set where we filmed, was to create so much tension so that the camera becomes part of the story,” explains Bogdan Mureșanu.

Regarding the casting, he says that he had only a few options for the roles of mother and father, while for the few supporting characters he had “a lot of wonderful actors”, of whom he could select only some. One of the rules for the actors was “to enter this game, to be able to improvise on set within set limits”: “I mean gestures, even text. If small things changed, it was not a problem, as long as they were internalized. The film doesn’t have a detailed decoupage. It’s very hard to set a shot list, with this chaotic camera. So we shot it by directions and sequences, piece by piece. There was no way we could’ve done a one-shot, because that would have driven the actors crazy, it would’ve been physically exhausting. We got lucky with the location. We found an apartment that looks a bit like the one in Sieranevada. It was a mere coincidence, I didn’t actually plan it, it would’ve been impossible. Also by chance, the apartment is in Berceni, the place where the action in the script takes place. The apartment had the topography of a honeycomb. We placed the camera in the hall and could watch as the characters passed one way or the other. It looked very natural. So, in the end, it depended on the characters’ choreography, meaning the actors had to know when to enter the kitchen, when to come out. We worked a lot on rehearsals, right on site. Having some clever actors, who could invent small gestures, helped a lot. I even played with them at times. I forced them to improvise. For example, I hid the backpack from Văncică, so he searched it for real.”

He says that, after the huge and unexpected success of the film, he wants to keep a clear mind and not think so much about it. He is aware that such success happens once in life.

“The film came out a little longer than we thought. It came out at 23 minutes, which seems quite long for a short film. But I didn’t want to make it shorter, because I felt that was its rhythm. When we sent it to festivals, we thought we would hit a wall and receive a lot of negative responses, because of the length, at least. To our surprise, there has been no festival so far to reject it because it’s too long, which should give those people who shorten their films for festivals something to think about. What I did notice was that in catalogs they enlist it as a bit shorter, less than 20 minutes, probably not to discourage the audience. When the film started having success, I questioned the author in relation with the artistic product. Might be the same issue with a band that suddenly releases a hit, and that one hit can kill the band, take hold of it,” he admits.

“I try not to think so much about the success of the film, to free myself of it. I’m thankful for the animation I now work on and which is a full-time job – The Magician, about a day in the life of a conjurer from Sulina in 1910. I know this is a one-time thing, that it’s impossible to repeat. I don’t think I’ll ever live this again. And I don’t want to think that this is the way. I want to keep a dose of lucidity and honesty. I want to keep that feeling that I’m doing something because I feel so. Even at the risk of not having this success again, of being condemned, of being asked why I make films about communism, for example,” adds the director.

The Christmas Gift is actually part of a series of ridiculous stories that happen on the same day. He received funding to film them, only he couldn’t get a start so far, since everything that happened to him in the last two years has kept him away. He still needs to decide on whether to include them in a feature film with three or four such stories, one of which will be The Christmas Gift, or release them separately as short films. He is also preparing a feature film about the demolitions in Bucharest during communism in 1985. “And when I finish this project, I will move to another,” concludes Bogdan Mureșanu.

Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.