Cristina Groşan: “I don’t want to make films just for myself”

7 December, 2021

“Things Worth Weeping For” (2021), the debut feature by Romanian-Hungarian director Cristina Groşan, had its world premiere this year at the Sarajevo Festival and will have its theatrical release in Romania in 2022.

A Hungarian production shot in Hungary, where the filmmaker has lived for many years, the film is a dramedy about the insecurities and fears of the 30-40-year-old generation.

Written together with actress Nóra Rainer-Micsinya, who also plays the lead role, “Things Worth Weeping For” follows a young woman who is about to move with her boyfriend in a new apartment, but whose life is taking a surprising turn when she ends up spending a night with a dead relative.

The director is currently in post-production with her second feature film, a Czech Republic-Hungary-Italy-Slovakia co-production shot in the Czech Republic – “Ordinary Failures”, the story of three women whose lives intersect one day and are turned upside down by a series of mysterious explosions that rock the city they live in.

Cristina Groşan has previously made several short films, both in Romania and Hungary, most notably “Holiday at the Seaside” (2014, a Romania-Bosnia co-production), which explores the mother-daughter relationship within a family in crisis. Her most recent short film is “Along Came a Prince” (2020, a Romania-Czech Republic co-production), about the dangerous encounter between a teenager and a slightly older girl at a theater workshop for young people.

Born on July 26, 1987, in Arad, in a Hungarian-Romanian family, Cristina Groşan has been interested in visual arts and theater ever since she was a teenager.

“Arad is a small town. In the early 2000s, there weren’t that many things to do as a teenager. You either went to parties or did theater (laughs). I’m grateful to my English and French teachers because, thanks to them, I joined this theater movement that existed at the time among high school kids. I met a lot of young people from all over the country who were doing theater and would come to this festival in Arad. That’s where I met, for example, Anda Ionescu (film producer), Andreea Borţun (filmmaker), and actors Alexandru Ion, Silvana Mihai and Adrian Nicolae. Many teenagers who were searching for their calling started doing theater. Some have pursued this profession. Besides the theater, I was also passionate about writing and photography. I was looking for ways to express myself,” remembers Cristina Groşan.

After high school, she went to study Cinematography and Media at the Faculty of Theater and Film, at the “Babeş-Bolyai” University in Cluj.

“I was 19, and like many people that age, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was into writing and photography, but I couldn’t see how I could make a living from that. I grew up in a small town close to the borders of Romania, where we had very little contact with arthouse cinema. We would download movies on torrents and borrow CDs from one another, without reflecting a certain taste in cinema. I was watching everything that would come out on the Internet. I didn’t know anyone who had any connection to this world and knew very little about European cinema. I thought that making movies was limited only to the American industry, never imagined that other people could do that. That is why going to the UNATC in Bucharest didn’t even cross my mind. It seemed so far away, a different world, a different language, a different way of life. My parents didn’t encourage me either to go in this direction. They actually hoped to quit this “nonsense” and think about something more serious. Eventually, I went to Cluj. It was the middle way,” recalls the director.

She says it’s hard to describe the whole college experience: “In the first two years, we did a bit of everything and every teacher was trying to push us in their own direction: television, screenwriting, directing. In the third and fourth years, I decided to focus solely on film. Still, it seemed folly. There was no film industry in Cluj, although now there are people working in this field. But at the time it was very difficult. I decided to go with the flow and not think ahead, because you can go mad if you try to make plans in this area of activity.”

“We were free to do whatever we wanted. I learned and worked hard. I tried a lot of genres. In our fourth year, for example, me and my colleagues shot a ten-episode soap opera, each of us directed an episode,” she adds.

During college, she reconnected with the Hungarian language and culture, which she had become alienated from in her school years in Arad where she attended a Romanian class.

And because neither staying in Cluj nor moving to Bucharest seemed like great options, she went to art school in Budapest for a MA in Media Design.

“I went to Istanbul with an Erasmus scholarship for six months and it was a great experience for me. I learned a lot more about us, Romanians, than about Turks. And I very much wanted to go abroad for a master’s program. At that time, I had a Hungarian friend and I tried to apply to college in Budapest, which is closer to Arad than Bucharest. They didn’t have a master’s in Directing that year. I didn’t want to wait, so I went to their art school which is similar to the UNArte in Bucharest. I was not very fluent in Hungarian when I took the admission exam. Teachers made fun of me: «OK, your portfolio looks good, and you’re lucky that this is the visual arts section and you don’t need to do much talking.» I even took some exams in English because I didn’t have the Hungarian vocabulary to express myself in writing, for example, on media philosophy,” says Cristina Groşan.

“Even after two years of master’s, we couldn’t define what Media Design really is. You had a lot of options – video installation, performance, film. I had two years of experiments, the best in terms of education. It was fantastic. I finished my master’s program with a short film, like I did when I graduated college in Cluj,” adds the filmmaker.

“Afterwards, I stayed in Budapest. Returning to Arad wasn’t an option. Nor was Bucharest, I don’t know the film industry very well. I don’t have many connections there for now. I come every two years for a few days”.

In 2011, she participated in the Berlinale Talents program where she met several Romanian filmmakers. She was then selected in the same program for young talent at the Sarajevo Festival: “I wanted to meet German producers who could help me make a short film in co-production. But at the time, I didn’t even have a producer in Hungary. I had no understanding of how film production works. But I ended up meeting emerging filmmakers from Romania and Hungary and we bonded over our desire to work, to make films. Holiday at the Seaside was actually made in Bosnia, with the help of the Sarajevo Festival, with an international team. We had Romanian actors – there I met Andreea Vasile, with whom I had a great collaboration –, the DoP was Hungarian, and the crew consisted of Serbs, Croats and Bosnians. I really liked this cultural diversity. In fact, this is how I grew up, surrounded by several different languages”.

Moreover, she got used to working in different countries and in different languages. She recently finished shootings for her second feature film, Ordinary Failures, made in the Czech Republic with local actors and spoken in Czech.

When asked how she finds her voice in such an international production, she says that everything “comes from this urge to say something, a need that makes you overcome the difficulties which arise when working in a new cultural context.”

She also explains that for her films, regardless of the country in which they are made, she is inspired by the things she sees around her and which preoccupy her: “I don’t stop at the first idea that comes to mind. There’s plenty of stimuli around me that can be turned into interesting stories. I write them down, leave them there and return to them eventually, see if they’re still of interest to me but also to others, see how they feel about a certain topic. On a project, I try to work with people who are interested in that particular topic. Since I’m going to invest at least four years in making this film, it has to be something that we deeply care about, a topic complex enough to be worth exploring for so long.”

She admits that there is no guarantee that the chosen topic will work for the others too: “But I can see if it stands the test of time. If, after writing an extended three- to four-page synopsis and a few months pass, I find it just as valid and I even come up with new ideas after talking with other people about the matter at hand, that’s a good sign.”

She says she’d rather collaborate with someone on writing the script than do it all by herself. Thus, on her first short films, she worked with the lead actor, Things Worth Weeping For was co-written with the lead actress, and for her latest film, she collaborated with a screenwriter, Klára Vlasáková.

“I like having access to a dialogue. When developing a script, there are times when you get stuck or you might get wrong about an idea you find great but then you get the opposite feedback from someone else. I feel very lucky that so far I have found my ideal conversation partners and that I have never been short of ideas, no matter what issues may have arisen during writing. Maybe there are times when all our ideas suck, but at least we never come to a dead stop.”

Although her films revolve around female protagonists, she says that it’s not her intention to tell stories that focus only on women. “I made a short film about getting your first period, an intimate moment in a girl’s life, but that was not the actual theme of the film, rather how lonely we sometimes feel in our family, how hard it is to communicate with each other. I am also interested in technology and the impact of AI on our lives, as well as global warming, an issue which in one way or another will appear in the film we made in the Czech Republic. If I had to identify a matter of common concern, then it would be exploring the way we live now compared to the previous generations,” mentions Cristina Groşan.

Her debut feature, Things Worth Weeping For, is also a film that discusses the struggles of the 30-40-year-old generation, from the perspective of a female protagonist.

“There was a lot of talk around me about the fact that once in their 30s, people feel compelled to show what they have accomplished. And if they haven’t gotten where they wanted or where they thought they should have, they feel ashamed, as if they’ve done something wrong. And this feeling of shame also leads to a feeling of helplessness. All these discussions on this topic are quite funny, especially when we fall into self-pity. After all, there are no guarantees in life. No one can decide for you what steps to take. Even our parents didn’t know if the decisions they made were the best. But they didn’t have many options. Unlike us. We live in a completely different world from our parents’, and it’s normal to feel so confused. The next generation will have far more answers than we do. We barely managed to come up with some questions. I thought that all these questions and situations that I saw at myself and those around me were worth exploring. And Nóra Rainer-Micsinyei (the lead actress and co-writer), who wanted to write something on this matter, felt the same way,” says the director.

In regards to the fact that she chose to address such a topic through a hybrid of comedy and drama, she says that “humor is vital”: “And it’s very helpful when you want to feel sorry for yourself (laughs). It’s better to do that by making fun of yourself. The Czech film is much more serious and it is an experiment for me to see, after making a dramedy, how a true drama works, although it has its ironic and lyrical moments. I can’t make something that is all tragedy. I think that this mixture of comedy and drama is a way of seeing life. And I find it very resourceful as a filmmaker. It’s hard to find that balance, but the harder it is, the more interesting it is to work on it. The Hungarian distributor found himself in a difficult situation because Things Worth Weeping For is difficult to place and promote since it’s a crossover between drama and comedy. You can’t say it’s a comedy through and through, because people will buy a ticket and expect that blunt humor meant to lighten things up, whereas we want to create some discomfort. You can’t say it’s a drama either because, although the explored topic is a serious one, the tone of the narrative is light on the surface.”

As for the public, she says she is interested in open-minded people who care about the same issues she does: “I don’t expect them to come up with the same solutions I thought about, but to observe the way I addressed an issue, and afterwards, we can have a conversation where they can share their own standpoints. This way I feel they got my point, that we communicated with each other. I feel less alone and surrounded by like-minded people.”

The filmmaker also explains how she visually develops her films: “Very often, I am preoccupied with a certain topic and keep it in my pocket for a while. But at the same time, I become much more observant and sensitive to the things around me that are related to that topic. Sometimes an idea comes up or I can actually see a scene playing in my mind, starting from something that happened around me. I can visualize a moment in a story. Not all the details are clear, but I can see how the scene would go, its tone and rhythm, the actors that could help me tell the story. It’s quite complex. If the scene is strong enough or interesting enough, I build around it until it becomes a story that dramatizes a topic I want to explore.”

She says that it’s difficult for her to assess her status as a young filmmaker in the Hungarian film industry: “I care more about understanding how the world works by looking out from within, what I want to say and how I can deliver that, instead of looking at myself from the outside. I leave that to others.”

“I feel that there is not enough talk about gender equality. Or that it’s always the same discussion but never translates into facts. Still, I’m glad to see that emerging voices get more opportunities. There is Inkubátor, a support platform that offers low-budget funding to five projects every year. The program supports Hungarian film production connected to the pulse of the younger generations. That is pretty much the only way to enter the industry,” states Cristina Groşan.

She believes that “cinema is such a complex and refined form of expression that it’s a great challenge to use so many tools to convey something that lives in your head in a way that can be understood as such by someone else.”

“I think it’s very difficult to work with, full of challenges. It requires a lot of skills. It’s an endless source of life lessons, on all levels: creative, organizational, human, psychological, financial. There is no risk of being too good in too short a time, with minimal effort. Working in this field is difficult, but it also gives you satisfaction and joy. There is something magical about working side by side with so many people in tandem, all in the service of the film,” says the director.

“I often see filmmaking as a luxury. It involves great costs, long periods of time, a great number of people, which can only lead to critical issues and great responsibility. Obviously, we use public funds, and most of the time, investors cannot recover their money from the proceeds. I think you have a responsibility when your project is also supported with public money, even if you received it in an extremely competitive contest. I would never want to make films thinking exclusively about how many tickets we’re going to sell. But, at the same time, I don’t want to make films just for myself, without being interested in who will watch them,” concludes Cristina Groşan.

Photos by Lukáš Havlena, Petr Salaba, György Stalter.

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