Mihai Mincan: Powerful, heavy stories are told better through cinema than through journalism

22 October, 2019

Mihai Mincan is one of the most promising Romanian filmmakers. A graduate of Philosophy and with over 10 years experience as a journalist, Mihai Mincan at one point took the plunge and entered the cinema world, after writing a screenplay that got him into two decisive, encouraging discussions, with Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu. After a few short films, he co-directed three documentaries – Bondoc (2015, with Cristian Delcea and Mihai Voinea), Emigrant Blues: A Road Movie in 2½ Chapters (2019, with Claudiu Mitcu) and The Man Who Would Be Free (2019, with George Chiper-Lillemark), and next year he plans to shoot his debut feature film, To the North, a very ambitious project.

Born in 1980 in Bucharest, Mihai Mincan studied Philosophy at the University of Bucharest, and did a master’s degree in the same field, half in Cluj-Napoca and half in France, in Poitiers, where he says he had a “very crappy” experience.

“At that time, studying Philosophy was very different from today. Today, if you study Philosophy, you can get in many professional areas. I know many people who have finished Philosophy and are doing anything but philosophy. When I finished, in 2002, the only alternative was to share flyers on the subway. No one looked at the fact that you graduated Philosophy, nobody was interested in that, you couldn’t find your place anywhere. Basically, we were forced to choose one of the two options: follow an academic career or hold on for some more time. That’s what I did, I kept stalling. I tried to do a master’s degree, just so I can make my decision. Financially, that whole year was very difficult, to maintain a subsistence level, ” he says.

In 2004 he entered the press, but three years ago, when his screenplay for his debut fiction feature film, To the North, got funding at the contest organized by the Romanian Film Center (CNC), he left journalism. It was a period of over a decade during which he combined the activity of reporter with the first attempts in cinema.

He says that he got to filmmaking completely random, but his old friendship with cinematographer and director George Chiper-Lillemark (DoP of Touch Me Not, the film with which Adina Pintilie won the Golden Bear at Berlinale 2018) played an important role on the way.

“I have known George for over 20 years. We met in 1997, at the Olympiad of Philosophy, the national stage, which was held in Targu Jiu. George also studied Philosophy. I don’t think he graduated. He dropped out somewhere through his third or fourth year. But that’s when we met. Then we lost touch. He started making film. He entered UNATC. I kept studying Philosophy. And we’ve met again, more or less accidentally, in Bucharest, after having no contact at all. We started hanging out again. One evening, he told me he had to make his graduation film, only that he wished to direct it as well, shooting it for somebody else wasn’t an idea he liked, and that he didn’t have a script for it. All the scripts he had received so far, he didn’t like any of them, didn’t bring him any satisfaction. We were both drunk and made a bet: I told him that in two days I would write him a screenplay that he liked and that we would make it a film. I wrote it in two days – talking about The Palm Lines (2009) – without having it before in my mind. I sat down and wrote it. I still remember. He was coming from his father from Focsani, he was on the train, he called me and told me he really liked it and that we should make it. And he did, ” recalls Mihai Mincan.

The Palm Lines didn’t go unnoticed – it reached several important festivals, including Locarno and Rotterdam. “Then we completely lost contact again. Not necessarily with him, but with this world. In the year following the release of The Palm Lines, I had my first child, my son. My life has completely changed. The financial issue had become much more important than before. I had a baby. I was thinking of film more as a hobby. I had to keep working in press. I had to make money, ” he says.

The collaboration with George Chiper-Lillemark would resume, and it continues to this day. The first short film directed by Mihai Mincan, Alaska, eventually included in the anthology Love Bus: Five Love Stories from Bucharest (2014), was filmed by George Chiper-Lillemark. And, after, the two of them co-directed another short film, The Comet (2017), based on an adaptation by Mihai Mincan of three short stories written by Alexandru Monciu-Sudinki.

However, he remembers that in that period, after The Palm Lines, a decisive role in his decision to keep making film had two meetings – one with Cristi Puiu and another with Corneliu Porumboiu.

“At that time, I was doing press, and at one point I came up with an idea for a feature film. But I didn’t have time to write it. I didn’t know anyone in the industry. I didn’t know any directors or screenwriters. While working in media, I was doing reportage, investigation, interviews. I had no connection with the cultural area. Nor am I the most sociable character. But I started writing the screenplay. My son was very little. I had two or three hours a day to write. I remember getting up at half past five in the morning to write. It’s a script that hasn’t been made until now and it will most probably stay like that. But it was passed around and through common friends it got to Puiu and Porumboiu. Corneliu liked it a lot. He even wanted to give it to someone to make it, but things didn’t work out. Puiu called me at one point to talk. We had a meeting that lasted about two hours. It wasn’t something in particular, but without this meeting I wouldn’t have chosen to go on. It was just encouraging, ” recalls Mihai Mincan.

He says that the mere fact that Puiu read his script was a meaningful thing: “He was given a script written by a man who is not even in the film industry. Just a guy who wrote something. He had read it carefully. He gave me some suggestions, what I could do with it. He also told me what he liked, what he didn’t like. He confirmed that I could write for film. The irony was that I didn’t go to any screenwriting school. I didn’t even know those key-words: Cut to, Interior / Exterior. I learned them from the screenplay of Aurora (2010, dir. Cristi Puiu – n.r.) ”.

He confesses that when it comes to screenwriting he was attracted to “the idea of fiction”, and that he made documentary rather by chance: “I made documentary because I am interested in the documentary, because I come from the media environment. But overall I prefer fiction. The school of realism I got by doing press, not necessarily because there was a calling for this area”.

In 2015, together with two colleagues from the editing staff, reporters Cristian Delcea and Mihai Voinea, he made Bondoc, a documentary about a charismatic old man, a chess master, followed during a chess tournament. The film started from an article written by Cristian Delcea and Mihai Voinea about the character. He remembers that the documentary was made during a very difficult period: “Adevărul stopped paying salaries. We were all employees of Adevărul. It was made in very poor conditions, terrible. We used to buy him bananas and use scotch-tape to fix the body-mics ”.

“For me, I don’t know if it actually is a movie. Documentary with capital D is definitely not. That’s for sure. Maybe it’s a documentary like the ones made today by Recorder. A press documentary. Journalism that occasionally steps into cinema, more by the length of the shots, the editing style, because it was edited like in cinema. But as topic approach, even this thing of following a character for a short time, during a well-defined event, which in this case was the chess tournament, is very close to the press, “ says Mihai Mincan.

During this time, the idea of directing attracted him more and more: “I’ve flirted with the idea of only writing screenplays for a long time. After that, I watched a lot of Romanian films and I started to pay attention, which I didn’t until then, at foreign films, where I saw good scripts turned into bad films. You could see there was something in the background story, but the result was unconvincing. I realized that I could never do this: give someone my script, watch the movie and say “oh, no”. I told myself that I would at least try, at the risk of making a bad movie, with the risk that the first movie I make ends up being horrible and then I will never make films again ”.

But it was clear that he couldn’t support himself yet by just doing that, so he continued to do journalism (“I was going to work every day”), and during his free time he worked on film stuff.

His most recent film, the feature-length documentary The Man Who Would Be Free, the first project he won with at CNC, is also made with George Chiper-Lillemark, is based on an older idea and was recently screened at festivals Astra in Sibiu and Les Films de Cannes a Bucarest.

“It’s the most personal film I’ve made so far. It’s the closest to what I like to do. It’s about an atypical character during communism – Cezar Mititelu. He wasn’t a dissident, although some saw him as a dissident. He was like a small leader of a group of people. What he preached did not have political content. The movie is about happiness. About how you can achieve happiness. How you can get out of hypocrisy and daily shit, out of everyday lies, of your falsehood as a human being, how to overcome it and transform into something else and, at the same time, to feel that even though you live on the outskirts, you’re at the edge of society, of history, as it was in that case, your life is authentic, ” he explains.

Meanwhile, he made another documentary, Emigrant Blues: A Road Movie in 2½ Chapters, together with Claudiu Mitcu, an experienced documentary director. “The film starts from the idea of another journalist, whom I’m friends with, and whom I spoke with many years ago about this idea – his name is Andrei Udisteanu. At one point he had made a material about funerals. And he had found the idea of funeral arrangers for repatriation. But he wanted to do something other than what’s in the film. He wanted to make a portrait of a funeral arranger in charge of repatriation, to stay with him, his family. Very close to the press material. Let’s call it ‘one day in the life of a repatriation funeral arranger’. From this idea we only kept the road trip, because that’s what we wanted to do from the beginning. When I first talked to Claudiu, I told him I would make the journey with the man brought home as an object. Like a parcel. I am very interested in the subject. And I wanted to see how it goes on camera, ” he recalls.

“At that time I couldn’t go, I wasn’t in Bucharest, so Claudiu went by himself to shoot the second part (with the two repatriation funeral arrangers in the car carrying a coffin, on the road from Spain to Romania – n.r.). And when we got back and edited that piece, we realized that it couldn’t be longer than half an hour, and because it was that long, at times it was horrible. At one point, the way the two protagonists were talking became very repetitive. We quickly realized it wasn’t OK and we decided that we need a counterbalance, ” he explains. So Mihai Mincan went on a bus full of Romanians from Romania to Spain, filmed them, and fragments from this road trip were edited in, and they became the first part of the documentary.

About the To the North screenplay, he says it’s the result of a shift in writing: “I’ve always tried to write visually. It came out quickly. It was written in three weeks. It was the first feature-length screenplay, if we don’t include the one I completely gave up on. It went well. It came out visually ”.

“In previous years, I discovered the Asian cinema. Until then, I grew up like any Romanian. Initially, with American B movies. When I got to college, that time when everyone wants to look intellectual, I turned to Tarkovsky, which doesn’t tell me much. I understand why it makes sense to others, but Tarkovsky never made sense to me. I don’t think he’s a director for people. He’s a director for directors. He makes films for other directors. After that, I started getting into American cinema and Asian cinema, the one you don’t get to normally” he explains.

He especially remembers the films by Bong Joon-ho, the South Korean director who won this year’s Palme d`Or with Parasite: “I saw Memories of Murder, which blew my mind out. I remember when I watched it, I said to myself that I was going to write something like that at some point. And I wrote: Dinti de lapte, which has recently got funding (in the Development section at the last CNC contest – n.r.) ”.

During the time he wrote the screenplay for To the North, he immersed in the films he watched and the books he read: “During the time I wrote this film, I remember what I was reading even now. I wanted to write it for a long time and I never found the trigger. At that time I re-read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. And then I read McCarthy again. Everything that was translated into Romanian and something in English. And you can see the influence ”.

To the North is the story of two Romanians who want to emigrate to America, hiding aboard a cargo ship leaving Spain, to cross the ocean. It is inspired by a real event from 1996, which was in the press at that time and which he found out about by chance, on Wikipedia.

In the real event, there were four Romanians, who left two at different times. The first two got illegally on the board of the ship, were discovered by the crew on the way and were thrown into the water, killed. The ship arrived in America, returned to Spain, at which point the other two Romanians boarded it, also to cross the ocean in secret. In fact, one was discovered and killed, apparently, by being stabbed. The other was hidden by a Filipino sailor and reached its destination. Mihai Mincan’s screenplay is based on the story of the latter two Romanians, except that their journey is slightly different, written in a dramatic way.

“I was attracted by the story. It’s a great story. The first thing I felt, without writing it, is the place. I thought I’d shoot everything on ship with a huge metal structure, and there would be this effect of maze, search, hiding. I went on scouting on a ship like that. Visually, everything is so blocked that you can do anything, including horror. The space is extraordinary. I felt there was something there. I read a lot. I tried to understand if this was a common practice, to kill people, and indeed it was a common practice. There have been many such cases, with immigrants on ships trying to cross to America who were eventually killed. It’s very easy. It’s the easiest way to get rid of them, because there is no well-regulated protocol. The boat leaves, you’re a captain, and once you get offshore you find him there, so you had two options. One was to put him to work on the deck and turn him over the moment you arrived. But, when you were turning him over, you were fined a large sum of money for violating security rules and  you were risking your job, you could be degraded. The second option was exactly like in a book I read: “make the problem go away”. That was the phrase. And there is no better place to “make the problem go away” than at sea, because you don’t have to resort to murder, you throw him in the water. That body is never found. There is no trace of it. There is no one to file a complaint. ”

Shootings will take place next year – decoupage and casting are ready, just waiting to get the entire budget. Due to logistical difficulties, the interiors will be filmed on a ship in Constanta, and the exteriors, fewer, on a ship in Greece.

Mihai Mincan says that he really wants to continue with cinema, to make films: “I have a lot of ideas that I want to write. Unfortunately, my writing pace is much faster than the pace at which movies are made. And it will be an endless problem. For me, this adjustment was the hardest thing. I can’t understand. I know people around me who work on films, are friends with many others in the industry, and I can’t understand how they get along so well and live so peacefully with the idea of dead time. Me, I come from media, where you have to give something every day. Okay, I’m not that desperate, but to have three or four year breaks until you decide to write a new script, begin a new story, without working on something else, a documentary, a short film or whatever…”

He confesses that cinema offers him many things that journalism couldn’t offer: “Journalism as an essence is restrictive. Only when you have this thing: maximum 8,000 characters, for example. A certain format, a certain style of writing. When you get hired somewhere, you can come up with new things, brought by you, but don’t tell me you can actually come with anything. It’s a certain style in which one writes in a certain place. Then, heavy stories, powerful stories, are treated much better visually than for press materials. And it’s also boring, why not admit it. I never wanted to do press. But I have friends who have this calling. I see them at the age of 80 or the day before they die writing on their bed their last report. It’s passion. I always wanted to write and then transform what I write. That was the order I went by. Not even the script, I don’t think of it as a script, but as a story. To see what comes out of it. Whether it does or not.“

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