Cristian Mungiu: “As a filmmaker, you’re first an observer and then a storyteller.”

1 June, 2022

I arrived in Cannes late Sunday night. My adventure at the 75th edition of the film festival was due to start early next morning with the screening of R.M.N – the latest film by director Cristian Mungiu (long-awaited for over 6 years) which was nominated in the Official Competition. The Press Office would open at 9am, exactly when the film would start so there wasn’t any chance of picking up my accreditation beforehand, especially when the screening was outside of the city center and far away from all the cinemas. I was lucky with some friends who arrived from the beginning and picked up my badge. But my adventures continued the following days. I was actually (almost) certain that this interview won’t happen anymore because of our busy schedule – I was staying in Cannes for only 4 days, while Cristian had dozens of interviews and meetings to attend. However, we have known each other for three years already. I have always admired him as a mentor from whom you always have something to learn and he has always appreciated my determination to do things within our little film industry. 

We met on my last day at the festival on one of the organized beaches on the Riviera. As usual, Cristian came dressed in a very modest manner – wearing his all-time favorite black T-shirt and shoes. Initially he said we have only 15-minutes but we ended up talking for almost an hour. I remembered I appreciate him for his clarity, coherence and depth and I was surprised by his honesty when I asked personal questions he didn’t rush to answer superficially. I enjoyed our meeting and it surely made me understand him more – mainly as an artist, but also as a human being.

I know that you had wanted to return to film directing for quite some time, but you are a jack of many trades, and so you couldn’t fully focus on a new project. When did you start writing this script?

I must say something about all of these trades – nobody is forcing me to work in all of them and I think that, in fact, I’m actually self-sabotaging at times, because I don’t feel capable enough to focus on a film, I am too demanding of myself. From the moment I say “enough” and I start writing something, to the moment when I actually start writing, it’s a long and complicated time. There’s weeks, even entire months in which I just analyze and analyze. Last year, after two years of staying home and writing all sorts of things, I decided that it’s imperative to do something, anything – I always have a small list of projects and most are based on real cases. I started writing a script (not this one, though) as I was eyeing the CNC’s call for projects deadline – that’s the way I always write. Meanwhile, I started to make some suggestions on another project that I was working on with a few young directors, who were documenting this case. As I was giving them feedback, I realized that I was much more interested in this, I saw its great potential in discussing what is happening nowadays. It was capable of doing so much more than my initial script did, so I switched projects 2-3 weeks before the CNC deadline and that’s about how much time it took me to finish it. Of course, then I had a period of rewriting after doing some fact checking on the ground to see if what I had imagined did indeed correspond to reality.

The story of the bakers from Sri-Lanka is relatively new, it happened in 2020. What did you find interesting about it?

Xenophobia and rasism are everywhere and there aren’t always newsworthy, but this story took place in a region where, even though the Hungarian comunity is the biggest, they still are a minority between Romanians, but also a majority when it comes to other smaller ethnic groups. The beauty of this story is that it allows you to talk about the uneven logic we all have when we relate to the things surrounding us that we like, or not like. I thought it highlights so well the way we relate to one another, our lack of integrity, logic and ethics when a situation doesn’t suit us well. Through this small community of Hungarians [and the story of the bakers from Sri-Lanka] I felt I could talk about what’s happening in the world today. And when I realized how to transform the potential of this story into a universal one, I found the tools needed to set in order the narrative needs of the film. 

Last year, when I was part of the Semaine de la Critique Jury, I pitched the project [R.M.N] and it helped me a lot – I had to give  so many contextual details that I realized I should revisit and rewrite all the connotations recounted in the story, so that you would find them not in the dialogue, but in happenings, throughout the film. That’s how I ended up having so many layers of the story which are not deductible after a first look at the film, but they’re all in there. For someone who lives in Transylvania and understands both languages it is a very different film. Nothing is happening by chance. I sold the film in 20 territories just after the pitch, last year.

Have you ever been a victim of xenophobia?

I wouldn’t call it that way but there was a scandal a few years ago. In 2013 when I was a member of the official jury here, in Cannes, a caricature appeared on Canal + which depicted me begging for iron like the gypsies from Paris and right behind me it was a drawing of the Palme D’or award. When it happened, everyone back home was telling me to sue the French state, or at least the cable. I don’t think these things can be edified or amended after their effect took place. I refused to give too much public attention to this, but I wrote a letter to everyone back home emphasizing on how the stereotypes we were accustomed to come from somewhere and we should first ask ourselves if we don’t have anything to do with their existence.  I believe my latest film [R.M.N] addresses this problem, too – our need to over-simplify the human interrelationships and to look at the world using such insulting stereotypes. 

After the 2013 event I have meditated a lot about the way we, as Romanians, always try to make this distinction between us and the Roma people. In France you are doomed if you even try because from the start they consider it politically incorrect. Probably because most of the Roma people [gypsies] begging and stealing in France come from Romania, so they don’t get it why we feel offended when they call us like that. And why do we make this distinction in the first place. And when we feel offended, we are actually associating a stereotype and that’s the core of the problem. You wouldn’t feel offended if I called you a Bulgarian, or a German – you don’t associate anything negative with that. 

You worked with Marin Grigore and Judith State which star alongside actors discovered by yourself with this film or previous ones. What convinces you during a casting call so that you’re certain about your final decision?

I go through all the headshots once I start a new film. I always have casting calls for my films,  so no actor should worry about not having the chance to work with me. Most of the times I have some information about the actors that interest me – with Marin Grigore I worked on some illustrious DIY commercials but it wasn enough for me to figure out he’s a very good actor. With Judith I never worked before as a director, but I produced some of the films she starred in, such as 6.9 on the Richter Scale (d. Nae Caranfil) or The Father who Moved Mountains (d. Daniel Sandu), so I knew her somehow. Macrina I discovered in a very unexpected way, when my good friend Adrian Titieni asked me to work with his students during the pandemic, via Zoom. I needed only two hours to acknowledge Macrina’s potential, she has this embedded genuineness, it’s very easy to work with her.

For the roles of Matthias and Csilla I have seen more than 4.000 headshots of actors and actresses that were close in age with my characters. I always have a clear image of the way my characters should look, not just physically. And I am convinced by two things: how close they are, from the start, to the characters (in terms of biological data) and how well they infer the logic of the dialogue I wrote. Any dialogue has its logic and if you understand from the beginning what I wanted to say with a line then we can work together. And that’s what I always do during casting calls, after we become friends. We go through the dialogue. I have recordings with everyone and sometimes I watch them a dozen times. 

For RMN it was easier in the case of Judith. When you need bi-lingual actors, the list is shorter. In the case of Marin it was way more complicated because at first, I was looking for a native German speaker that could also speak Romanian. I couldn’t find one, so I had to change my strategy. I ended embedding Marin’s biography into that of the character. 

I am fond of your feminine characters. They are complex, strong and in almost all of your films, females have main roles. Csilla is also a strong character with values and principles she protects with a lot of courage. Ana is also a dignified and brave character, even if she has a supporting role. I find there is a lot of interest in female protagonists in your work and I’m curious to know why you choose to tell stories from a feminine point of view and how you see the battle between the two sexes?

I never see my characters in black and white, neither the world – not in my films, nor in life. I think when you have a good intuition and you understand human beings, what makes us think or act in a certain way, it doesn’t matter so much to get inside a woman’s or a man’s head. I was asked before how I am so close to the way women think and I always answered I’m not even trying. If you’re empathetic, you’ll understand. As a filmmaker, you’re first an observer and then a storyteller. 

But you’re aware actresses have less opportunities than men do, in Romanian cinema.

I don’t think I’m one of the people who should be preoccupied with this. I believe I have always contributed to a fair balance and I have always done it in a natural way, taking into account the stories I’m telling. I don’t give myself credit for that.

With R.M.N it’s the first time – since 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, when the story is not told from the perspective of only one character. There’s a balance. I finally decided to not give the whole script to any of the actors. It was important that with a scene like the final one, no one knows what happened right before, from the last time they met. The ambiguity of the dialogue to remain one also for the characters. 

It’s not the first time you have your world premiere during the Festival de Cannes. However, this is a festival where appearances truly matter and your film highlights, among other things, how deceiving appearances could be. How do you think the Cannes public reacts to the Romanian society you always show in your films, and in the case of R.M.N, to all these flaws of human beings?

Appearances matter everywhere, I suppose. What Cannes does in a phenomenal way is to turn all spotlights on worldwide cinema for ten days. For ten days cinema is regarded here as the number one priority and you can feel how important it is, thanks to all the journalists, the juries and the audiences that attend. The films are highly regarded after screening at Cannes. When you come from a country that doesn’t give two cents on its cinema, it’s colossal to have the chance to start your distribution journey here. 

I always try to signal through all the interviews I give that I don’t do films about Romania, even if they’re placed there. Of course I set the action in a place where I know all about human interactions and social connotations but I always try to up-scale and discuss the human condition, our intrinsic character as human beings, and the state of today’s world.

What’s unpleasant is that this character of ours doesn’t look great when you put a mirror in front of it. But this is cinema’s mission – to loudly say things and to respect the ambiguity and complexity of the real world. I never try to find the guilty through my stories, not even through R.M.N, it’s not my place to do that. The first screening of the film in Romania will be exactly where it all happened, so that I could tell those people they don’t have any other fault than being too naive to think that when you speak for yourself in public, you don’t speak for everyone else. 

Regarding the western audiences, I have a feeling that many times it is easier for them to think I talk about a far away, small world, from the wild East. That’s why I always take the time to come here and give all these interviews so I can tell them that „i’m sorry but it is not okay to exclude yourself of this values rationality that doesn’t condemn you in any way, rather it urges you to take an honest look into the mirror, after the screening ends”.

How do you see yourself, who is the man Cristian Mungiu?

I don’t have systematic introspections for mental cleaning or detoxification. I’m extremely self-critical. I find it difficult to stand myself and I have never managed to reach in-depth the level of professional training I wished I would have in neither of the fields I work in. I feel forced to improvise now, as it is quite late for me, with all the things I did. I’m always unsatisfied with myself, it takes me ages to decide what project I want to start on because I always believe none is good enough and I question my ethical decisions all the time. I have never been as principal as I would have wanted but there comes a time in life when you realize you should live with yourself and that’s already a compromise. I can hardly accept the things I don’t like about me and I make a huge effort to admit it – and here intervene all the things you can’t admit in public even though you know the truth and it kills you because it turns you into someone very dual. However, I try to admit all of it in public but I make no pretense at always succeeding. 

What do you think it’s humanity’s biggest flaw? Or at least, the one that upsets you the most.

Because we talk about this today, when there’s a war happening at our borders, I think one of the most awful things we should be aware of about us, as a species, is that we are extremely violent and we lack any empathy and logic whatsoever. We pretend to be these luminous and genuine creatures, superior to any kind of animal – and that’s why we believe we have the right to kill any, but in the same time, look how we are capable to rape, torture and kill people that – in their case, speak the same language so they might as well be a part of the same tribe. We have been so touched about the 70 years of peace after the Second World War, but nothing really changed, in a profound way, in how we treat each other. We are capable of the worst atrocities. I have acknowledged that our tendency to identify the other as a potential enemy comes from a very-well embedded idea throughout our evolution. In the millions of years in which you tried to survive as a species and as an individual, you have developed your survival instinct and you will always choose to save yourself first. 

I often think about how an accident suspends all the things we have learned in our life, in terms of education, in relationship with others.  And I often think – with a lot of pain, at the moment when that fire erupted in Colectiv and why some people lived, and others didn’t. And how would I have reacted being there with my kids. It describes very well your relationship with yourself, as a species and with the others.

Cinema can make you think, it can tag your sleeve to make a decision being aware of your education and the position you find yourself in. Otherwise, I don’t know what cinema’s role is.  

The stories you potray in your films are personal, but they are always told from a very objective point of view, they don’t say much about yourself.

I think they tell a lot about me just because the choices I make tell something about me. The only thing I never do is to take somebody’s part. Even the fact that I like to have an objective point of view, that I want to listen to the other one, tells something about myself. In the end, it’s impossible to not be a little subjective as a filmmaker, no matter how much you hope you’re not. I’m very attached to my subjects and passionate about what I do, but what I try to be more passionate about is my characters’ arguments and point of view. To understand him/her and protect his opinion with the same passion he/her has when he/she’s protecting his/her opinion. I believe this is my duty. 

Would you be tempted to try a more subjective point of view in one of your future projects?

I don’t think that kind of cinema interests me, it would be too ideological. I would use all the tools this art has to protect a personal point of view. Filmmaking is a very manipulative art, I can easily tell you what to think, select just the most favorable points of view. I don’t feel the need to do that, it’s too propagandist. My neutrality and my attempts in recovering someone’s truth feels closer to the mental state and ethics I have now. That doesn’t mean that cinema can’t be in many other ways, nor that the artists who adopt a profound ideological point of view in their films are wrong. The beauty and joy of cinema is its diversity. 

In the end I would mention that every year you had a film in competition at Cannes you left with an award. Have you watched the other films this year and do you have any expectations?

I always see a lot of movies while in Cannes, when I’m on a jury. However, when I come with a film of my own I never find the time to watch other films, so I cannot predict anything based on that. However, I know how contextualized a jury can be. It’s impossible to predict, you can never estimate correctly. You can just have an idea of who might win based on the critics opinion and the audiences’. For me, the most wonderful opinions come from the people who stop me on the street, I love that about Cannes.

Has anyone stopped you this year?

Of course. I cannot walk from one place to the other without somebody stopping me to share an opinion. It doesn’t really matter what awards you win, or not, when everyone around you has an opinion and they tell you how they spent their night talking with their friends about bears, the forest, the long 17-minute scene and how it was shot. In the end this is what remains in 10-15 years from now when no one will know if you won something. For me, the most important thing is that the film is being appreciated by the people.

R.M.N will hit Romanian cinemas on 3rd of June.


Director/ Screenwriter





Film producer and founder of ADFR, she dreamed since she was little of having a magazine one day. Alongside her job as editor-in-chief, she writes the interview of the month. She loves animals, jazz music and films festivals.