Alma Buhagiar: “I want my films to have therapeutical value”
Alma Buhagiar is a UNATC grad student now attending the Film Directing master program. She is nominated in the Young Hope category at this year’s Gopo Awards for the short film “Together” (2020), her graduation film that also won the Best Film Award at the CineMAiubit International Student Film Festival.
The film captures a moment in the life of a child whose parents are divorced – his mother comes with her new family to take him from his father to go on a vacation. The cast includes Bogdan Farcaş, Toma Lungu, Iulia Lumânare (who is also a co-writer), Adrian Titieni and Ecaterina Elena Lupu.
In 2020, Alma Buhagiar received the Cinematic Hopes Award at the Romanian Filmmakers Union (UCIN) Awards Gala, for the short documentary “The Last Priest” (2019), a portrait of the German-speaking pastor and writer Eginald Schlattner, former political prisoner and author of the novels “The Beheaded Rooster” and “Red Gloves”.
Another short film she made during film school (UNATC – Film directing, 2017-2020) is “Algae” (2019), the story of a love triangle, starring Iulia Lumânare, Radu Micu and Bogdan Albulescu. In 2020, she was in the Romanian short film competition of the Bucharest Fashion Film Festival, with “Simple Things”, starring Silvana Mihai and made in collaboration with DoP Teodora Roşu.
Born on November 17, 1998, in Bucharest, Alma Buhagiar is the daughter of art directors Irina Solomon and Dragoş Buhagiar.
You come from a family of artists working in theater. What made you turn to film?
Just because my parents are art designers that don’t mean they would carry me with them like a toy at every play. But when I was little, they would take me to the theater from time to time. I would spend time in the dressing rooms, play with the actors, or dress in all sorts of costumes. That period was somewhat like heaven.
But it came to a stop when I entered school. I grew apart from my family then. My parents divorced when I was 2; since then and until I was 14, I lived with my grandparents. As I started growing up and becoming my own person, there was a fracture, I don’t know why. I simply drifted apart from my parents and their world and went my own way, if you can even call it that at that age. I would spend time around the block, doing stuff like any normal kid, like hanging out with my classmates after classes, making prank calls and looking at all sorts of nonsense on the internet. School wasn’t really my thing, I was kind of a punk honestly. I had no idea what my father was working on. I was stoked about his job, but I didn’t know exactly what plays he was working on. But my mother wasn’t working in the theater anymore, that I knew for sure (laughs).
My father left Bucharest when I started high school, and that’s when I lost all contact. It’s as if I got on a carousel for four years, drifting farther and farther away from my parents. As if on purpose. I dismissed everything that was related to theater and found other things to do. Like going to all sorts of weird parties or traveling around (just a backpack and going incognito for a couple of days) with some friends who were a bit older than me. I was the very opposite of my parents. I’m pretty sure I disappointed them because I missed out on their most important events. I was the bad apple, if I might say so. People would ask them, “Is Alma okay? What is she doing? Is she coming, is she not coming?” Looking back, I regret acting this way, but that was my growth and I have to accept it and just let it be, after all.
Still, there were times when I would stay grounded, like the movie nights with my mom and her husband. Ever since I was little and until I was a teenager, the three of us would spend evenings at home, watching movies. He would come with all sorts of weird choices, or so I perceived them at the time. When I was 13 or 14, he showed me Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. I didn’t sleep at all that night, it scared me a lot. All these visual images burned into my retinas and that mattered. I recently found some storyboards, some comics I made when I was seven or eight. Just some short series with different characters. I would draw them and then write down what was happening. I saw now that there was even an attempt at some kind of framing.
When in high school did you decide to study film?
My mom pushed me to go to a different high school than the one I wanted to. And there I came across a group of children coming from different backgrounds. I didn’t get along with my colleagues, for whatever reasons. I had a different style, I would hang out at other places. I didn’t know exactly what I liked at the time, but I couldn’t find enough common ground to fit in. Still, the ninth grade was OK, we had fun, I managed to get used to it. But in the tenth grade, I realized that I didn’t belong there, that I wanted something else. I didn’t know exactly what. I started rebelling once again, and in the 11th grade, I ended up being expelled for having too many absences. It’s not that bad when you think about it, I mean there were colleagues from other high schools who had a lot more (laughs). I ended up at a private high school. My parents were convinced that I won’t graduate. Things were that bad.
One winter, I had a revelation: I realized that I wanted to be a film director. I don’t know why, it just simply came to mind. I had started writing a screenplay, but I had no idea what it meant to produce a film, no matter how small. I called some friends, some of them were in the high school theater group. We would meet and talk about this film, even though we didn’t know how to make it. Out of the blue.
Then, also in the 11th grade, I found out about Let’s Go Digital!, the workshop organized by Transilvania IFF. I started working on my portfolio, putting together a set of photographs, writing my letters of intent. In parallel, I started learning for my final exam, which I passed with a high grade.
But what movies were you watching at the time?
I started with Akira Kurosawa. I got obsessed with Rashomon. Then there was a short film by Paul Thomas Anderson, which he made when he was 18 – The Dirk Diggler Story (1988). It inspired me and gave me courage – Come on, you can do that too. Just take a camera and go for it. A mockumentary about a dying porn star. You watch movies, you like them, you understand them, you enjoy them, but it takes a lot more to decide that you want to make films. I don’t know how I got the courage – and here I mean that blind courage, when you just don’t stop to consider other things –, how I got to think about directing, without any sort of context. I had no friends in the field. I wasn’t in any movie club. I didn’t have any direct connections.
How important it was to participate in Let’s Go Digital! (LGD)?
It was very nice because it was the first time I met people in the field, my age. I must have come as a weirdo there, too, because I didn’t understand exactly what was going on and what we needed to do. I had a great time, but I hadn’t been able to fit in very well there either: I was this club kid who had just landed among other kids who had already done some things related to film. I was in awe of them, but I wasn’t sure I spoke the same language. We had some great mentors. There were some interesting meetings with Sorin Botoşăneanu, who taught us a couple of new things. Then there were Dana Bunescu, Neil Colţofeanu, and Melinda Boros, our coordinator. I understood then what I should look for in a mentor, in a teacher, in a professional. I was colleagues with Lucia Chicoş, Călin Boto, Teona Galgoţiu. It also felt like being on a camp.
Then, when you decided to apply to Directing, did you go to the training courses organized by UNATC?
To my shame, I didn’t.
Why do you say that?
Because that would have been the normal thing to do if I were to consider that organized and focused part of myself. After all, it was a good opportunity to learn some of the many things I didn’t know at the time and still don’t know today. There was no real reason for me not to go.
So then, why didn’t you go?
I would say negligence. I read the program, I talked to various people. LGD, too, played an important role, because they gave us a lot of tips regarding the admission exam to UNATC. The set of photographs is very important if you want to apply to Directing – the composition and the story you want to tell. We did that at LGD. The summer after the workshop, I kept practicing analog photography. Then there were the films we had to see. I got Death in Venice on my exam. My mother is a Luchino Visconti fan and had told me that he was a left-wing prince.
You graduated in 2020, so it’s all still very fresh to take good stock of this period in your life. Still, what was college like for you?
Just like with the high school years, I would compare it to a carousel, with ups and downs. I can’t think about one single thing or give out a general emotion. It was a mix of everything, emotionally speaking.
As a freshman, I was very confident. Then I had my first disappointment with my first-year exam when I made a portrait that everyone made fun of. In the second semester, I had another moment of anarchy – I wasn’t going to classes, I wasn’t really in touch with what was happening at school, or had any connection with the teachers. I was distracted. I was scared, I think. But Laurenţiu Damian, our headteacher, supported me: he kept insisting on me continuing, one way or another. Him, Iulia Mureșan and Ştefan Rucăreanu. They were all asking me when my next portrait was coming out (laughs).
In the summer between the first and the second year, on a vacation in Sibiu, I met this pastor, Eginald Schlattner, who lives in Roşia and has been holding his services pretty much alone for many years, because almost no one comes to his church anymore. I didn’t know he was a known writer. I simply felt a visceral need to make a documentary about him after our meeting. I was surprised there was still someone like him in this day and age. He was like something out of a fiction novel. The meeting with him made me think of starting to take myself seriously. To go to classes, to watch movies, in the sense that movies have the potential to nurture creativity. It gave me back the passion for cinema and the will to make films, because I had become quite stale.
How did you prepare for the documentary The Last Priest? How did you envision it?
There were two aspects that I factored in. His story as a writer who was also a political prisoner. I associated that with his house, which is like a museum, and there he is, like a wolf living in this beautiful cage but sentenced to loneliness. I’m talking about his current situation, as an elderly man, alone. His family is in Germany, while he is still a pastor in Roşia, serving in a church where no one comes anymore. My intention was to take the seven deadly sins and ask him a question about each – I was curious if his view, in terms of his political past, was any different from other men of the cloth. I was curious if he had a different opinion on the idea of sin. I wanted to combine that with some observational shots of him alone in the house and the church. That was the plan. Then, during editing, the film came out a little differently.
The film will also remain as a visual document about a prominent personality of Romanian culture and recent history. The important thing was that this meeting restored your appetite for cinema.
Honestly now, for a student, it does matter that someone appreciates what you do, validates you. Nothing extreme or glorifying. But someone needs to tell you that what you did is good. I was glad I was given that feedback when I made this documentary. Me, who was an absent, strange figure. I didn’t have a group of friends at school. I was not involved in college projects. I was an outsider. But I made this film and everyone suddenly became curious about what else I could do. And it helped me, even if just for the fact that other people came to see what I saw differently in this man, through the film and nothing else. After making The Last Priest, I gained some sort of confidence.
What other challenges did you encounter?
We had to make a black and white film on film stock. A different kind of pressure: a limited number of takes, since we only had three rolls of film, meaning 12 minutes. And as first-year students, we are tempted to write medium-length films. We want to express ourselves in a more consistent format (laughs).
I had the idea for the short film Algae, about this woman who denies her present self. My first steps into psychoanalysis. My then camera operator, Paul Soare, a dear friend, recommended Iulia Lumânare for the role. We clicked right away. We talked, she found the script interesting. We started with a chat and ended up having some sort of psychoanalysis sessions, but nothing too serious. We talked and got to all kinds of topics – the past, childhood, motivation, emotional baggage, the conscious mind, the subconscious.
Algae was like an analysis of a certain stage in my life. An analysis translated into film. I changed some roles, some names. It’s not exactly a masterpiece, but I don’t deny it either. It played an important role for me because it paved the way for me to write. Moreover, I enjoyed sectioning the emotional area, to see what I can find there and what I feel the need to talk about.
Here, Iulia helped me to verbalize certain thoughts that I didn’t know how to approach or make use of. It was chaos inside. She came and taught me how to lay the structure of a script over this chaos of emotions. And that led to us getting deeper into psychoanalysis and putting more or less vague ideas on paper, only to fictionalize them later. After we finished Algae, I could see that the film was not great, but rather mediocre, but the experience was extraordinary. I felt that I had stepped into another stage: “We can do that? How cool! Let’s do it again.”
Then you worked with her again on your graduation film, Together.
I had the idea for the script, I wanted to write something about the child’s condition concerning his fate, the one happening outside his own will and that is sometimes determined by the choices the parents need to make. Up to a certain point, the child is directly tied to what is happening around him. They are not an independent entity.
You seem to have further developed the experience from Algae – the need to look inside yourself, reach for your feelings and your past, and get something out in the light.
Yes, it was exactly that. I had the idea and started a draft. Then, at Christmas, I had an argument with my parents and saw myself entering a new tunnel. The first person I felt the need to call, even though we weren’t that close yet, was Iulia. I met with her and talked about what happened and what I was feeling. When I got back home, I took the draft I had and added this experience and everything that it entailed: emotions, observations, expectations.
Julia assisted me in this process. She helped me articulate my ideas in a coherent and correct manner in terms of the grammar of the film. Like a teacher. It was very cool. We had a relationship going both ways. The roles were interchanging. She was a teacher and a mentor, she taught me how to write a screenplay, to structure and articulate my thoughts, and to understand my motivations and impulses. At the same time, she was an actress in the film I was directing.
Did the fact that you are the daughter of a well-known set designer affect your time in college?
I think there was this label-type of assumption: that it must be easy for me, that I must have connections, that I’ll have an easy way in. When in fact I had not spoken to my father for a year. My parents had just found relief that I had passed the final exam. The reality behind this false perception was slightly different. Now I find it funny, it doesn’t affect me whatsoever. I’m grateful that I’ve been exposed to all sorts of things and discussions over time, but it’s not like I’ve worked hand-in-hand with my parents to become a director. That’s how I see it now. Maybe in a few years, I’ll see it differently. Looking back, I’m also grateful that they let me be and didn’t try to influence me with what they thought was best for me. It’s very important.
What would be your fears when you start a film project?
The next scenario really frightens me: we are on the set, everything has already been discussed, set up, organized, and I suddenly realize that I want to say something else, or that I could say it in a different way, or that it would be better if we do it differently altogether. I think it would be extremely difficult to suddenly have to voice and stand behind my idea, convince others of the change of plan, reorganize the mess. Up to a point, you are allowed to make changes, but after that, you are more or less forced to go with the decisions you have made.
Together is made in the realistic convention, using mainly long takes. How did you decide to work this way? Does this style feel closest to you right now?
I like the question because it’s directly related to how I felt when I thought about how I wanted to tell this story. I am extremely fascinated by people and I like to observe reality as it is, and then I try to do my own analysis, so to speak, of the objective bits, captured over time. I really like this formula in terms of cinematic language, because I think that it brings the viewer close to the character. Sometimes I even felt like I wanted to create a suffocating connection between the two. As in life. The realistic key seems to be the clearest and most direct way to analyze the emotions and drama of the person in front of the camera. Then it’s also about what moment you choose to examine. At Let’s Go Digital! we were asked to do observational exercises. To put aside any external thoughts, to put aside emotions or sensations, and to observe that little piece of reality. You look left and right, up and down, you look at the whole picture and you realize how many things the plot of life that is happening right there in front of you actually contains. And how much there is to learn about people, about ourselves, if we were to pay attention, at least for a bit, to what is happening in front of us, objectively, and not try to intervene. Just observe.
This is the classical school of cinematic realism and observational filmmaking, embraced by the New Romanian Cinema as well. But, of course, it’s not enough just to set the camera and observe, you need much more. It takes an accumulation, the right lines, a certain tension between the characters. That’s what you do in your short film Together.
Here, I had my teacher, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, because his films are infused with poetry of reality or poetic realism. Inside a seemingly unaltered reality by a director’s hand or, rather, by an actual action, he creates some epiphanies. He dilates time, as we perceive it, and brings to light the poetry of our everyday life, which goes unnoticed most times. For me, he is a complete author. I watch his films over and over again and I could never say I fully understood him.
What is the role of cinema in your opinion? Why are you making films?
If there is something that I really hope for, it’s that the films that I make have therapeutic value. I think it’s very important. Maybe it’s an emotion that you resonate with. Maybe it’s a question you come to ask yourself, which further changes your path, one way or another. Maybe it’s an answer. Maybe you see the world differently. Or maybe you just find it funny and you’re left in a good mood for a few hours.
But this therapeutic effect is primarily for you.
Yes, of course. You transcend some frustrations, some past trauma. One way or another, you heal some wounds. It would be nice if it weren’t just for me, though. At least, that is how I see it.
Do you think cinema can really do that?
I think films can sublimate some old wounds. “Old wounds” might sound heavy and far too new age, but it’s a real term. By simply talking about something and writing about it, you can become more aware of it and see it more clearly. As if someone took the veil off of your eyes, and the drama that always seemed to be only yours, completely and consuming, you can now see from an objective angle. That helps you heal. Break free. Take a step back and look at it as if it were a painting. Like a spectator looking back on their life.
You pretty much spent your first year in the master’s program during the pandemic. You are about to prepare your first master’s film. In the meantime, you also started working in the film industry, in production. How do you see the future? How do you feel as a young filmmaker who will have to enter the world of film and show what she can do and express herself?
It doesn’t necessarily scare me. I feel that there are a lot more opportunities for women in cinema, and I’m glad about that. I feel there is cooperation from people in my generation. Even if it might sound idealistic, I feel that we can unite, help each other grow. I believe there are opportunities for cooperation and I am very happy that people are receptive to student films and are becoming more and more interested in what is happening around the big names.
The important thing is there is more room for women to express themselves. I find that amazing because I strongly believe in the sensibility that a female filmmaker can bring. Women do have a special sensibility and aesthetic sense, a power to perceive and convey the emotion that is worth integrating into the flow of artistic creations, including into film.