Cecilia Felméri: “I like making films because I have to be prepared one hundred percent – both emotionally and intellectually”

4 May, 2021

“Spiral” (2020), the feature film debut of director Cecilia Felméri, was selected last year at several festivals such as Warsaw, Thessaloniki and Cairo, and is now pending to premiere in Romania sometime this year. A Hungarian-Romanian co-production shot in Hungary, “Spiral” stars Bogdan Dumitrache, dubbed in Hungarian, and two well-known young Hungarian actresses, Alexandra Borbély and Diána Magdolna Kiss, and follows a man who lives happily with his wife by a lake and whose life takes a dramatic turn in a moment of negligence. The film is described as a psychological drama about letting go and the connection between the cycles of life and nature.

Born on November 30, 1978 in Cluj-Napoca, where she still lives, Cecilia Felméri first attended the Faculty of Law at Babes-Bolyai University (1997-2002). Between 2003 and 2008 she studied film and TV directing at Sapientia University, where she currently teaches film directing. Between 2009 and 2011 she followed a master’s degree in film directing, under the direction of Radu Gabrea, at the National University of Theatre and Film “I.L. Caragiale” in Bucharest.

Before “Spiral”, she made several short films like “Cuckoo” (2008), her graduate film from Sapientia, “Mátyás, Mátyás” (2010), an animated documentary, “Infinite Minutes” (2011), and “The Pill of Happiness” (2012 ), her thesis film for her master’s at UNATC.

Why did you choose to make your debut in feature film with a love story placed in such a natural setting that ends so dramatically?

It was the most rounded idea I felt that could work on. And the story was built while writing the script. I came to this result step by step.

How easy is the writing process for you?

It’s very difficult for me to write. To imagine all the scenes from scratch, to build a story, and then take a step back to see what came out. Then rewrite and take a step back again. Writing consumes a lot of my time. I would be cool to have a script that is already written, which I could adjust in a way that I’d want to shoot.

How did you come up with the visual style of the film, which is largely determined by the space where you shot and the transition from one season to another?

Initially, we wanted to show the story from each character’s point of view. Each scene was written from the perspective of one of the characters. The concept was that every man or woman lives in their own world and doesn’t know what the next person thinks. This visual style was conceived right from the script stage. But when we had to implement it, to decide on the camera movement and its station point, there were a lot of discussions with the DoP, György Réder. It was hard to find a version that you could watch without being distracted by the aesthetics. We had to think about the viewer and still maintain this difference between the ways the characters perceive the world. I don’t know if we fully achieved that in the end. But that was the direction. I didn’t want the visual style to be parallel to the story.

Why was it important for you to shoot in such a setting?

That’s how the story made sense. At first there were several other locations, but they just didn’t work out. Maybe so that the characters can be isolated from the world, like in a laboratory. But it wasn’t a conscious decision to have one single location and it wouldn’t be fair to look for an explanation now.

The characters’ relationship with nature plays a special role.

It’s the place that the main character knows best, all of its details. He perceives it as something familiar. Instead, the two girls perceive nature as something foreign, sometimes repellant or dangerous.

What was it like working with a Romanian actor and two Hungarian actresses?

It went great. Language was a barrier only in the sense that Bogdan had to learn the text very accurately and could not change it. If he came up with a new idea and wanted to say something different or have a different reaction on the spot, he couldn’t. That was a disadvantage. Then, post-sync was another disadvantage. I really like Bogdan’s voice, and he spoke Hungarian very well, even if it was with an accent. I fought until the very last moment not to dub him, but we had to do that in the end, because everyone said that when the film comes into cinemas in Hungary, his accent will be too distracting for the Hungarian viewers. Nonetheless, I’m glad that I got to work with Bogdan.

As for the actors, they understood each other in English. I could also translate when necessary. Bogdan came to Hungary one week before each stage of shooting, he would rehearse the text, we would discuss the scenes. It was a great experience working with him. It was the first time I had the chance to work on a character with an actor, because you don’t have much time when you’re making a short film.

Why do you think that ​​alternating the perspectives of the characters is such an inviting idea? Where does it come from?

It’s just like life. I can’t see what goes in your head, and you can’t see what goes in my head. We don’t know what the end of the story will be. We try to communicate, to be on the same page, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we will succeed. It’s an enigma. We live side by side, still we don’t know how well we know one another. This is what I’m interested in. I find it interesting how you can show that in a film. Films have a limited story. In two hours you find out how it ends. It’s not how it goes in real life, you don’t find out the result of a story in two hours. You hardly find it out in a few months or a few years our you never find it at all.

As a Hungarian filmmaker in Romania, how do you relate to the New Romanian Cinema and the Hungarian cinema? Which one do you feel you pertain to?

When it comes to the New Romanian Cinema, I find it very cool how credible the scenes can look and how real the characters are. I find that fascinating and very difficult to do. I try to do that too, even if my way of telling stories is different from the New Wave. Hungarian cinema seems more diverse to me. It does have realistic films as well, but not as many. And maybe the performances aren’t always that realistic. In some ways, I think I’m somewhere in between.

Do you remember when you decided you wanted to make films?

It happened quite late. Before Sapientia and before even thinking that I would like to make films, I was an actress at the Puppet Theater in Cluj. I was still working there when I applied to Sapientia. The Department of Film had just been founded, so I thought maybe I would do journalism, or television. I was probably aware about film directing as a profession, but I wasn’t thinking about it. At first I made animated films. It felt closer to the puppet theater. I thought that this is what I was going to do, especially since I had won some awards with one of the animations. But I didn’t know how to draw, and that frustrated me.

It wasn’t until I made my graduate film, Cuckoo, which was my first short film ever, that I realized that I liked working with actors. If I hadn’t had this chance, which appeared through a teacher – Robert Lakatos – who had received money for a short film that he couldn’t make anymore, I would’ve probably stuck to animation.

What about your college years at Sapientia? What was it like?

It was interesting. The Department of Film was created that very year. We had teachers coming from Hungary and Bucharest. I learned a lot of stuff there. Compared to how things are going now, maybe it was a little more chaotic then. But there was a lot of enthusiasm. People were professionals. I went to every class.

And after college you made another animated film, Mátyás, Mátyás, which was very well received. What do you really like about animation?

You have more freedom. You can do what you want, whatever ideas or funny stories may come to mind. But it’s not easy. It’s you who draws, who builds the whole animated world, all the movements. It’s complex. You need to know exactly what you want. You have to prepare everything beforehand. An extra half minute means a ton of work.

It’s a funny film. In fact, all your short films have a comic side. What role does humor play in cinema, for you?

I think humor is just as important in life. You need to have a sense of humor and laugh about things so as to not take life so seriously. I like having humor in my films, but I don’t know if it would turn out well if I did it on purpose. I’m not good at telling jokes, no matter the language. I just don’t have that talent. But if there’s something funny about a situation and I’m aware of it, then I leave it like that.

There is some dark humor about The Pill of Happiness, too. How was the transition from Sapientia to UNATC, where you did the master’s degree in directing? Why did you want to do this master’s too?

I was interested to see what it’s like at UNATC, too. In Cluj, I had Florin Mihailescu as one of my teachers, and he encouraged me to apply to UNATC, because I made Cuckoo, which won an award at CineMAiubit, the student film festival in Bucharest. I passed the admission exam, which was very cool. What attracted me to doing a master’s degree at UNATC was the opportunity to make a film on film stock, since I hadn’t done that before. At first I didn’t know anyone, but then I had to gather a team. I met some really cool people. The shootings for The Pill of Happiness went great, I worked with very good actors. Going to UNATC turned out to be a very good experience.

How did you come to make Infinite Minutes? I think it’s an excellent, playful and stylistically ambitious film.

I applied in Hungary to their funding program for short films, with the producer I worked with practically from the beginning, since Cuckoo. Infinite Minutes was the first film I made with a professional team, divided into departments. I finally didn’t have to do everything myself. I think you need to make several short films before working on your debut feature so you can learn your craft.

And gain experience.

Exactly, although I wasn’t that aware of it at the time. But somehow, it made sense. Anyway, I wouldn’t have been ready to make a feature film if I hadn’t made the shorts before.

It seems that you like to experiment stylistically from one film to another, to play with and try different formulas.

After I made Cuckoo, I wanted to see if I could make a film that was more about feeling than storytelling. This is how Infinite Minutes came to be. With The Pill of Happiness I wanted to do something more in the style of the New Romanian Wave, but it didn’t come out that well. The story wasn’t exactly a realistic one either. I wanted to try a combination between an action movie and a film from the New Romanian Wave (laughs).

You’ve been teaching at Sapientia for a few years now. How do you feel in this position?

I teach directing. Students come up with their own projects, I try to figure out what they want or expect and assist in their development, in conveying them in a cinematic language that benefits the story. I like this part the most.

Are there people who have stories to tell and can become filmmakers among the students?

There’s always someone who has stories to tell. At the same time, they are very young. We hope they will continue and become filmmakers. In any case, we want that film school to be an important stage in their personal development.

You studied directing after graduating from a different college. Do you think it’s too early to enter a film school at 18-19?

It depends on each case. But at the end of your studies, you have to take this profession seriously, which is a difficult one. You need patience and perseverance. And you have to apply for funding or get money for your projects. It’s complicated. We don’t know what they will become. Some went to study in Budapest or Bucharest, where there’s a film industry. But even if you go and study in Bucharest or Budapest, that doesn’t make things easier afterwards either. And it’s even harder if you go to film school in Cluj.

Have you ever felt the need to go study in Budapest or even settle there?

A need, no. And not in Bucharest either. I often thought that it would be easier to live there, because it’s tiring to be traveling all the time. Perhaps, from a professional point of view, it would be easier for me to live either in Budapest or in Bucharest. But so far I haven’t decided in any direction. After all, I teach here in Cluj, this is where I have a steady job. Not to mention that I do not fully belong to either of the two film cultures. Maybe it’s harder to make films from Cluj, but I can make them in co-production, either in Hungary or in Romania. For now, I wouldn’t go anywhere else.

Why do you make films? What does cinema mean to you?

I don’t know what cinema means to me. Why do I make films? Because I have to be prepared one hundred percent when I make a film. I’ve never felt that way with other things before. I have to prepare emotionally, intellectually and in terms of being organized. Get out of all my comfort zones. I like being on the set the most, because I have to act quickly. The pre-production stage, when I have to make long-term decisions and I don’t know how everything will turn out, stresses me out. When we start shooting and I’m on the set, I have all the facts and I have to get the most out of it. I have to be one hundred percent present.

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