To the North: a discussion with Mihai Mincan and George Chiper-Lillemark

14 March, 2023

Mihai Mincan and George Chiper-Lillemark discuss their second feature film together, To The North, which will be released in Romanian cinemas on 17 March.


In the last three years, one of the young filmmakers who have made a splash in post-New Wave Romania is Mihai Mincan – whose feature fiction debut (he has co-authored three documentaries in the past: Bondoc, 2015, Emigrant Blues and The Man Who Wanted to Be Free, both released in 2019), To the North, is one of the most hotly anticipated Romanian films of the year, having haf its premiere last year at the Venice Film Festival, in the Orizzonti section.

The film’s avant-premiere in Bucharest will take place today, which was an occasion for George Chiper-Lillemark, the film’s director of photography and a long-time collaborator of Mincan’s, who is also known for the films he made with directors Monica Stan (Immaculate) and Adina Pintilie (Touch Me Not), to come to Bucharest from Denmark, which is where he is based, in order to join the film’s promotional tour.

Inspired by real events, the film tells the parallel stories of two men who are stuck on a cargo ship: Dumitru (Niko Becker), a young Romanian stowaway who snuck onto the vessel in the hopes of illegally crossing the border into the United States, and Joel (Soliman Cruz), a Filipino worker who decides to hide Dumitru from the ship’s Taiwanese captains, who would sentence him to death in the case that they discovered him. It’s a film with a scope rarely seen in modern Romanian cinema – with a large international cast and with dialogues spoken in (at least!) five languages, while also putting forward a narrative whose political stakes go far beyond the country’s borders, To the North is equally a film about morality and faith, themes that naturally intertwine in Mincan’s script, who speaks dearly of not just his documentary and literary inspirations, but also of his cinematic ones: directors such as Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock and Jia Zhang-Ke.

We spoke to the film’s director and cinematographer about the various political themes the film touches upon, his choice of fiction over documentary, along with the various histories that it references – from the years of post-communist transition to the modern legacy of colonialism.

Part of the crew behind To The North: Radu Stancu (producer), Mihai Mincan (director), Iulia Negoescu Fulicea (set designer), George Chiper-Lillemark (DOP), Niko Becker (actor) and Potamian Sandra (Hair & Make-up).


I’d like to start by dscussing a scene that is placed at the beginning of the film, because it particularly caught my attention: the scene in which Dumitru and the Bulgarian man, Georgi, right before boarding the ship, discuss the things they expect from their lives in the United States. It caught my attention not so much because it sorts hints upon what their ultimate fate will be, but rather, it’s because I feel that this scene announces the film’s larger aesthetic strategy: in the sense that it’s not a sugar-coated, Hollywood-esque film, where the dreams and hopes of the main characters will come true. It’s a rather realistic film, despite certain extradiegetic interventions. How did you work on the construction of the film, and especially of these two characters, meaning the Eastern European migrants?

Mihai Mincan: Technically speaking, it was pretty much classical – I wrote the script that I knew we were going to shoot, and then I made a list of shots that was very detailed. We didn’t work with a storyboard, at all. Then I gave the script to George, who is always the first person to read what I write, then I went through it once more with Dragoș Apetri, the editor of the film, and then once more when we were in pre-production, when we were joined by producer Radu Stancu. I clearly knew that I didn’t want to make a film that was in the style of Hollywood. I knew it would be a very dark film, that it would undermine me, somehow, and that its rather harsh ending would undermine the film.

As for the characters, from the get-go, I wanted none of them to be perfect. Which partly came to me from the original story. When I started reading about it, I realized that neither the Romanian man nor the Filipino workers who tried to save him were immaculate people that held very clear moral principles. So what happens when the character who wants to help you finally wakes up and realizes what he and the crew are drawing upon themselves, the consequences of their actions? It’s something that truly happened in the real event, and it helped me avoid going into an area of storytelling that is cozier.

You two have worked on a documentary in the past [ed.: The Man Who Wanted to Be Free, 2019]. To the North is based on a true story and, if I understand correctly, the original intention wasn’t for the film to be a fiction feature, but this idea sort of came up somewhere along the way.

Mihai Mincan: It wasn’t like that.

George Chiper-Lillemark: But I think it was.

Mihai Mincan: I don’t remember that.

George Chiper-Lillemark: I remember hearing about the original story on the radio. When I told you about it – and maybe it was also because I had heard about it in the form of a documentary reportage on the BBC Romanian Service, about the real case – but it seemed impossible to do. I don’t even like documentaries that contain re-enactments, or docu-dramas. But that’s where it started. But the film is based on a real case, and in that sense, yes, Mihai wrote it as a script, which from the very beginning was fictional.

Mihai Mincan: The real case has a kind of happy ending to it. When they arrived at their destination, an investigation was started by the authorities, because the Filipino workers filed a testimony or, I should say, a complaint against the ship’s leadership, which was Taiwanese. A sort of mini-trial ensued, but nothing happened as a result: nobody was charged, bribes were given out, and so, the situation was “solved”. And I knew that I didn’t want that kind of happy ending.

George Chiper-Lillemark: It wasn’t a proper happy ending, anyways, because one of those people was killed. Or, at the very least, he disappeared – there was no evidence. Or at least that is what I remember. Mihai read an entire book about the real case.

Mihai Mican: I started reading quite a lot of other things besides this book about the case at the time, and I came across similar cases, which were very varied. One of them ended exactly like the story in the movie does. Another case, which was more recent, was about two African men who had been thrown into the water after being tied to a makeshift raft. Personally, however, I never intended for the film to be a documentary, as the first draft of the script had the same ending that it has today.

The film’s clapping board.

What I wanted to ask, rather, given your background as a journalist, as well as the fact that you’ve worked on non-fiction films in the past, is whether, in your view, a fictional approach to a story like this has some advantages over a non-fictional one. I don’t necessarily mean reportages, but rather, in general, any sort of non-fictional strategy.

Mihai Mincan: I’ve never seen the news as simply just news. I was always thinking about the event, what it led me to, what it spoke to me, and the way I could “catch” it. Events in the news always have a deeper layer of meaning, something that is not necessarily hidden, but rather, it’s something you don’t catch at first sight, and it’s something that can give you a certain opening. That interested me quite a bit, as did the concept of representation.

But I wouldn’t know to say how fiction helped me in writing the script. When I read about the case, I was scared. I’ve said this before in interviews – for me, fear was the central concept of those years. I was living with a sort of fear that came from many different places, including finances, I was experiencing panic attacks, and I had become very anxious. It was the end of a rather difficult period in Romania, economically speaking, and, at the same time, it seemed to me that what I was seeing around me was not right at all: terrorist attacks, a general precariousness of life. So when I realized that this event spoke to me about something that interested and affected me, I wrote about it.

We thought a lot about the card at the beginning, where we came up with the formula “inspired by real events”, since the film is inspired by several stories and, so, we underlined the idea of inspiration. Now a lot of people are asking us about the actual, true story. My feeling is that people can no longer look at fiction without having something to hold onto, which could be described as factual. As if the story, or the idea of fiction itself, is no longer enough, and what matters more is the fact that it happened in one form or another.

The film has this very prominent thematic side that discusses exploitation, along with the implicit fact that the two immigrants from Eastern Europe will probably have low-quality jobs in the United States, should they arrive there. Given that the characters in the film come from countries that have had very difficult pasts, I’m curious how you constructed this side of the film, which discusses the exploitation of people from countries that are either marginalized or have suffered from imperialism or colonialism at various points in their history.

Mihai Mincan: Regarding the Romanians, it was very easy for me. I was 16 when the story in the film happened, so I was younger than the character in the film, who is played by Niko Becker.  It was a super wild period in Romania, between 1996-2000, during the presidency of Emil Constantinescu, which coincided with the economic crisis. I was living in Târgu Mureș at the time. And those were days when we were struggling with the very basics because inflation at the time was simply explosive. I remember that in ’96 or ’97, I started smoking (Viceroys!) and from one day to the other, a pack got five times more expensive. So you just didn’t have anything that you could hold on to, that could make you say “OK, this is a certainty, and this is what I’m going to do for the next few years”.

With regard to the other characters [ed.: those of Filipino and Taiwanese origin], we relied a lot on the real event. The crew was split in two – the Taiwanese and the Filipinos – and the discussions that appear in the film actually took place. Their decision to hide and rescue a man came out of a kind of anger that they held, a wave of personal anger at what they (rightfully) felt was a situation in which they had very poor working conditions. There was also a kind of authority, especially a financial one, that hung over them at all times. In addition to that, I have some childhood friends who went to America during that period and I remember that they were dreamers. I never heard any of them say they were going off to work somewhere – everyone just said they were going to get rich. Although they probably knew that they were going to go and wash dishes somewhere.

George Chiper-Lillemark: There were different categories of people… we were “illegals” back then, ‘cause we were outside Europe, right? Just like these two guys on the boat. Who, in the end, they ask themselves, “Am I not a person, too?”. This is what happens nowadays: if you’re from outside Europe, you’re not regarded as a person. There are very clear categories that operate there, on the ship, but also in society, at large. Nowadays, we’re on the “right” side of the world, we’re starting to be worth something. (smiling sarcastically)

Actors Soliman Cruz (left), Alexandre Nguyen, and Bart Guingona, together with director Mihai Mincan.

Speaking of how you play with the audience’s expectations, I wanted to ask you about the character of Joel, who at one point, contrary to the expectation that the main character would be Dumitru, becomes the central figure of the film. Given all these political themes that the film touches upon, I find it interesting that, from the moment the film focuses more on Joel, the political theme doesn’t so much disappear inasmuch as it becomes less prominent in comparison to the theological crisis that his character is facing. 

Mihai Mincan: Yes. Let’s call it a moral crisis.

How did you decide to take the discourse of the film into this area of morality, even of metaphysics?

Mihai Mincan: I think that morality is intertwined with politics, at least in what concerns me. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m abandoning one theme, the political one, and going for the moral one instead. It seems to me that they are very connected because, with Joel, moral decisions are caused by a fracture between what he believes about truth, between his religious conception, and the concrete reality that appears in the film. “Concrete”, as in, he’s going to lose his job. Much of his moral decision is built onto that, too. What attracted me when I first read about the case, and implicitly to Joel, is that he’s a flawed character. I could tell he had second thoughts, that he wanted to give up and get rid of the Romanian at one point. I liked this “shadowy side” of his. Which also overlapped with what I was reading at the time, and which helped me build him up: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian – which, I remember, simply blew me away, because it had a perfect combination of the poetic and the violent, with a very mystical side to it as well. Then one volume that really mattered was by an American poet, Stephen Crane, The Black Riders and Other Lines, which has some poems that go to a very dark, mystical, violent area. I liked two of the poems so much that I inserted them into the film, into Joel’s monologues.

In a sense, it seemed to me that his insistence on the moral aspects of his situation also sublimates his rebellion against this political and economic status quo.

Mihai Mincan: Yes, but I think at some point, it goes beyond that and becomes a full-blown moral crisis. But on the other hand, if I were to give as an example any given contemporary political crisis that’s happening in the world, I would also say that it is simultaneously a moral crisis. I don’t things as being simply isolated in terms of economic problems, which are always somehow a consequence of things. But rather, you are dealing with a moral dysfunction of a certain society.

George Chiper-Lillemark: What makes Joel great as a character is his decision to do something that doesn’t make sense, pragmatically speaking. I mean it’s somehow obvious that what he’s doing is not going do him any good, from a political or economic sense. He’s practically opening a sort of Pandora’s box from which one could hardly rationalize as bringing about better wages or rights for him. The fact that his character decides to do something that has no pragmatic end opens up an ideological, moral, or religious motivation for his action. I think it’s rare to find a character who acts like this. You don’t find that many idealists in the world!

It’s also a revolt against that central tenet of late capitalism: efficiency. His gesture is not efficient, in any sense of the term.

Mihai Mincan: But it’s also, in the end, a revolt against himself. He is a character who, throughout his life, has received something from God. I’m not the most faithful man in the world, quite the contrary – but Joel feels that God has protected him, that God has given him something throughout his life and he feels the need to repay him. To say “You’ve given me so much, so maybe this is the time I can do something for You”. But in doing so, he goes against exactly what George described, against the concrete, the economic.

George Chiper-Lillemark: It’s this conflict between principles and reality. Which is emotional, it’s not at all calculated.

Mihai Mincan: When I started writing the script, it was already the end of the Romanian New Wave. I didn’t want it to be a sort of reaction against the New Wave, that wasn’t the idea, because, after all, I grew up with those films, and they influenced me the most. But I had a reaction to this kind of super-realistic, very matter-of-factly character who speaks in easily recognizable ways. If I were to say that I had some form of internal propulsion, then that was it – the fact that I trying to play around with different things, whether I could get away with it or not.

George Chiper-Lillemark: (smiling) We still need poetry in this world.

Mihai Mincan: Poetry, always. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.

George Chiper-Lillemark on set.

I would talk a little bit about the film’s cinematography. George, what was it like to shoot in this rather claustrophobic environment of the ship? It seems to me that there are a lot of shots where you use the various elements that are present there to “cut” inside of the frame, to create lines and geometric shapes. But I’d also like to talk about how you worked with lighting, especially in those scenes where Dumitru’s character is locked in that room that is next to the boiler.

George Chiper-Lillemark: Basically, I first went prospecting. All these elements came from the script, all this stuff was written in there – the things about light, especially. The writing had a very strong visual quality to it. Plus, there was also this rather scary thing from a cinematic point of view – that is, a character who is locked in a room with no light. But at the same time, it’s very visually compelling, because you’re basically dealing with a sort of darkness wherein the value of light becomes essential because it basically doesn’t exist. So however little of it you have, it instantly elevates things, it transcends the real, and it acquires a conceptual, symbolic value. Not that I’m the kind that goes for that kind of symbolism, but it’s there, given the nature of the situation – of light deprivation. Given that Dumitru is locked in there, suddenly, light becomes valuable: it acquires a symbolic value, but also a very concrete one.

Mihai Mincan: George had a brilliant idea – to film the scenes with a single light source, which was outside of the room, itself. We had long wondered about how we were going to shoot inside that room. I wanted it to be dark, but you can’t shoot like that forever. We needed a light source, and we toyed for a long time with the idea of having a light source that was activated from outside, but we gave up on that. George came up with the idea of leaving everything in the dark, that the only light source would be there in the scenes where Joel visits Dumitru, and that it would come through the open door.

George Chiper-Lillemark: I think I had some concepts there that I’ve sort of forgotten in the meantime, but somehow, outside, on the deck, I wanted everything to simply be bathed in light. With the sun reflecting off the water and everything. Joel leads Dumitru out of this realm of the real, the deck, into one that becomes more poetic, even in terms of dialogue. Dumitru is like a kind of fetus in the womb of the ship, where all these dark things, all these ghosts come to the surface, not just because he is deprived of light, but also of the notion of time. What does it mean to sit in a small room, locked in for 24 hours a day without knowing when someone will come, and everything becomes blurry? And in a way, that also justifies his final gesture.

Mihai Mincan: You framed the shots too well, too geometrically, too perfectly. And that annoys me. (laughs)

George Chiper-Lillemark: Is it visible? (laughs)

Mihai Mincan: Yes, of course.

George Chiper-Lillemark: I don’t know, yeah… It’s a thing if you’re in this visual area and you explore this vessel all the way to the bottom… It’s like in a candy store. You can place the camera anywhere and you discover all kinds of frames. It’s very easy to work with lines, I mean it’s almost impossible to get out of that once you fall into it, into this kind of aestheticism. But it was also an attempt to make a film that was pretty stylized. It’s something that I usually reject, on an instinctual level, so I really tried hard not to slip into a sort of visual onanism, into an area where it’s too visually constructed because I’m afraid of that. And generally, it’s something that I’m concerned about. And by this, I mean the visual language that was created in the 70s and 80s, based on a fluid camera, on steady-cams, that has practically become accessible to everyone nowadays because of technology. It’s a world where you watch Netflix and they all kind of end up looking the same. The same type of film stock is taken as an aesthetic Bible, you know. Which leads to oversaturation. And then it seems to me that you need an area of imperfection that makes things believable, that prevents you from falling into a kind of aesthetic that’s endlessly repeated, that sort of becomes the standard. So I like the camera movements to have a kind of tension between the intentional and the haphazard. And because I feel safe with Mihai and Radu, the producer, I was able to access this area more freely. I felt like I found an environment where there was a lot of trust and freedom.

A photo taken during the shooting of To The North.

Did you find it risky to construct a narrative about Southeast Asian characters, given this very strong political charge of the script, which includes a relationship of subordination? To me, this is also reflected in the linguistic construction of the film, in the power relations between the languages they use with each other – even when Dumitru is talking to Joel, they have to resort to these “foreign” codes. Did you ever feel that there was a risk there, or did you discuss it with a script consultant or with the actors in the film?

Mihai Mincan: When I wrote it, I didn’t think about it. I re-read the script after a couple of years and realized that I did have a problem, but it wasn’t related to either politics or geopolitics – it was more that it’s somehow not fair to the Taiwanese characters, like you only have one side of the story and you go with it forever. What I had to rewrite, and incidentally, it’s also the most difficult sequence in the film, is the confrontation between Joel and the Taiwanese captain. I always had this thing in my head – that one should also get to see the captain’s perspective. You may not agree with him, which is fair enough, but he’s got a crew to take care of, he’s got to protect some people, and he may be right in his way of thinking. I think, ultimately, the way the sequence has been rewritten and the way Alexandre [n.r.: Nguyen] plays it brings a much-needed balance to the film. That’s what I felt was important, and it’s important to see it late in the film. It’s like the mother in Psycho – you hear her, you sense her, and she is there, but you also have to see her at a certain point in the film.

Otherwise, I don’t think that after my experience with To the North, I’ll ever work with a script consultant. The only thing that I got as input was to “add a female character”. Like, to simply throw her into the plot, which, to me, isn’t real input. But initially, I listened to that and it was the stupidest thing I did. I wrote a sequence with a female character, and it was even shot, but later I realized it was simply a background scene for the male character’s story. In the end, what remains in the film is a photo of that woman. It’s not even a real presence or a voice, it’s a picture – like a final memory. I liked it much better this way because it also turns the film into an indirect study of a certain type of masculinity as well.

You said in a previous interview that, because you didn’t speak the same languages as the characters did in certain scenes, the fact that you couldn’t understand their words allowed you to focus more on the pure quality of the(ir) image. Could you elaborate on that observation?

Mihai Mincan: In general, when I do casting, I look at how that person looks like – even in extreme close-ups – at the details of their faces, at their eyes. I thought Sol had a great face – I like his eyes, the fact that his teeth are not perfect, and the color of his skin, it just totally absorbs me. When I did rehearsals in Bucharest with him and Bart, I remember that they had a sequence where they only spoke Tagalog. I was following the script, which was printed in English on one half of the page, and Tagalog on the other, and at one point I got lost. I realized that they understood very well what the script was about, that they were there and I said to myself “fuck it, I’ll just look at their faces, I’ll figure out if they’re in the moment”. Actually, what I wanted was for the sequence to give me a certain feeling, which it did. And luckily, they were also saying their precise lines from the script. (laughs)

George Chiper Lillemark: And did you confirm that?

Mihai Mincan: Yes, it’s good. I think I’ve always paid a lot of attention to a lot of other things when I’m working, which nowadays don’t seem so important to me anymore. I understand Radu Jude when he says that he’s not so interested in acting. I think it’s something that comes from the great films of the New Wave – from Cristi Puiu, perhaps. The first time I saw The Death of Mr. Lazarescu I thought that everything in that film was perfect: people speak as they should speak, and they have a certain intonation and accent. Then I saw a lot of New Wave films that were focused on very precise forms of acting, of speaking, rather than of feeling. But, for me, it was very liberating to watch someone who manages to convey something emotional to me. Maybe if I spoke Tagalog, I don’t know how the script would sound to me, but for me, that feeling worked very well in the film too.

Niko Becker, during a break on the set of To The North.

What was it like working with Niko Becker, who I believe is an excellent theatre actor – and who is quite underused in local cinema?

Mihai Mincan: Niko is extraordinary. He is a very good actor, with extraordinary physicality. The casting for his role took a long time because we had this challenge to find someone young. So I had to make them go into an area of acting that was still untested by the actors who came to audition, who maybe had never acted in a film before. It took so long because the biggest problem I had in auditioning – which is normal – is that most of them come from a theater background, and so, they tend to overplay things.

Our casting also involved a particular exercise – to sit and do nothing for a period of time. Most of them ended up making a gesture, like scratching. Niko just stood there and I was absolutely mesmerized by this image of a man doing nothing. He left the place where we did the audition – he had come from Cluj since he was still a student back then – about ten minutes before I did, and when I also left, I found him three blocks away. He was sitting down on the curbside, waiting for some friends that were going to host him that night. He looked like a kid who was far away from home, and all that he has is a backpack. Seeing him like this made me realize that he was the one.

George Chiper-Lillemark: Niko also has fantastic concentration and self-discipline. Soliman was the same. Sol would come in an hour before the shooting began and walk around the deck, back and forth. The set is a very social place: there are a lot of people around – some sitting, some cracking jokes, you have lots of waiting times and it’s very easy to lose focus, lose your sense, somehow, and maybe even end up feeling fragile. Then you need interactions and gratification, to have a kind of exchange of compliments and trust.

Mihai Mincan: I think Niko was also helped by Soliman. Soliman is very relaxed. We didn’t even talk much about his role, we didn’t have any long discussions about his sequences. If there was a very difficult sequence on a particular day of shooting, we would talk for 15 minutes beforehand. But what he always asked me for was to give him one word every day, which would describe the day’s work. And the words were usually very abstract, like poetry or guilt. Maybe Niko was a bit more uptight in the beginning, but it went on, maybe also because of the interactions between him and Soliman during the shooting, it seemed to me that he got into an area…

George Chiper-Lillemark: Of freedom.

Mihai Mincan and George Chiper-Lillemark on set.

Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short film festival - BIEFF, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. At Films in Frame, she writes the monthly editorial - The State of Cinema and is the magazine's main festival reporter.


Director/ Screenwriter