Miruna Minculescu: “I feel the need to tell stories about women”
Miruna Minculescu’s short film “Fragmentations” (2021), which she made during the master’s programme in directing at the National University of Theatre and Film “I.L. Caragiale” in Bucharest, won prizes in several festivals and was nominated this year for the Gopo Awards and the UCIN Awards. The film follows the story of two sisters (aged 14 and 6) who live with their grandmother and are waiting for their parents, who went to work abroad, to come home.
Miruna Minculescu is currently working on her short film for her master’s degree and writing her first feature film.
Born on July 31, 1988, in Curtea de Argeş, Miruna Minculescu first studied Political Science (2007-2010) at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies SNSPA in Bucharest, then worked for several years as a photographer and had a photo studio in Bucharest. At some point, she gave up photography and succeeded in fulfilling an older dream: studying directing at the UNATC (2016-2021). During film school, she made ten short films and became the mother of a little girl.
She is one of the most promising young filmmakers, so it was natural to invite her for an interview for our Emerging Voices column.
Your short film has been selected and awarded in festivals. What do these achievements mean to you at this point in your career, when you have just graduated from film school?
It’s something I struggle with. I really wish this context, where we share personal stuff only to be compared to each other and judged, did not exist. I’m a competitive person, but when it comes to film, I don’t seem to agree with the idea of competition. I think the things we are talking about are different, they have different motivations, all equally strong and valid. It’s very weird to compare interests and values. Sure, you can compare the craft, but it’s more than that, it’s a topic that you approach in your own way and it’s something vulnerable, especially for those who are just starting out. I don’t know what it’s like when you’ve gained more experience and you can distance yourself more easily from the product of your work. But, when it comes to student films, where we have the freedom to do what we want and express ourselves, I find it difficult for them to be compared.
This last year, I approached the topic on how you manage rejections, failures, awards with many of my generational colleagues, meaning those who are at the beginning of their career, like me, and I found that most of us are a bit disheartened by the idea of competition and the fact that every time someone else’s film wins, you feel like yours is invalidated, which is not the case.
I, for one, found it very helpful talking to other colleagues about it, I felt better knowing that I’m not alone, that in fact many of them are struggling and feel discouraged from time to time, and I think it would help others as well, knowing that they are not the only ones who have a bit of an issue with the notion of competition. I hope we will be able to accept rejections more easily as part of the job and continue to do what we love, without constantly wondering if our work will be validated later. Moreover, I noticed there are several short films this year that have been selected at the same festivals and it often varied which one got an award. Maybe competitions are meant to teach us that there is a market we all have to find a place in. But it’s one thing to try to find your place, to get an audience, and another to fight for a statuette.
At the same time, it’s a form of recognition. A way to help you further.
I understand that it’s a form of validation and may open new doors and new opportunities. But, at the same time, I think we should also be aware that this thing happens for a certain reason and start treating it differently. For example, being selected at a festival should be enough. If you’ve been selected, if you’re there, if your film fits those norms, it means it’s good.
But, in this context, what did the recognition you got by winning awards mean to you? Do you need it?
Yes, of course. Which makes it all the more baffling. It gives you the motivation to continue and work on other projects as well. For me, the recognition I got in festivals was more of a personal thing, to show the people who help me that their support is not for nothing. I’m talking about my family, close friends, all the people who help me with my daughter, and all the people I worked with. But ego-wise, I think it rather creates a pressure.
The pressure that you have to keep proving yourself.
The irony is that I feel it’s never enough. Yes, you win an award here, but not there. You weren’t selected at that festival, although you got this award. So it feels like every success comes with something that is not a success, and I try as much as possible to ignore that part, but I have times when I leave the scene. And it’s very harmful, I’ve missed out on many festival entries because of it. It’s something I’m working on.
And there is also the fact that almost none of us is fully satisfied with what we achieved.
Clearly. I’m not very kind to myself. I’m obviously never going to be happy with myself, but lately, I’ve been trying to be a bit more realistic and assess what I could have done in that situation and what I actually did, where I went wrong, and where it was beyond my control. I started to stop blaming myself for all the things that went wrong and take responsibility only for my own mistakes, and learn from them.
Where does this insecurity come from? Didn’t film school help you overcome it and become more confident?
The school did help me. In fact, I owe it all. I’m very pleased with my experience there. Maybe also because I’m comparing it with the faculty I attended before, which was rather colder and distant (i.e. Political Sciences). There was nothing personal about it, only a bunch of students going to classes and then going home. But not here. When I applied to film school, I had been a photographer for several years and had reached a point where I felt that I was doing the same thing over and over again and that it was of no use, it had no purpose. Commercial stuff, which only helps someone sell a product.
But I didn’t understand what directing entailed, although I was thinking about it since high school. It was rather vague, including when I gave the admission exam. My story of how I came to choose this field must be a bit weird, in the sense that I always thought it was a place with very interesting, creative people. And I also noticed that there is this drive to tell stories, not necessarily for the story itself, but because you can’t keep silent. I found that very interesting, which is why I wanted to be in such a field. I only chose directing because I thought I fit the criteria – I’m creative, I like working with people, I’m a good team worker, as well as a good team leader. I had experience, but no background in film education. It was all instinctive. I thought I was right for it, even though I didn’t have even the most basic knowledge.
Did that discourage you in any way? Did you find it a disadvantage?
I wasn’t discouraged by that, but by the fact that I was older than my colleagues, who already had a foundation. It’s true, unlike them, I had the know-how, I could work with people, I knew how cameras and lights worked, I could organize a shooting. What I needed to figure out was what film actually was and why I was there, which was very intense for me in the first year, because I felt like I was behind everyone, like I was running last in a marathon that I didn’t even know if I was going to finish, let alone catch up. And it didn’t help either that the following year, when I felt I had gotten a bit closer, I got pregnant and had to take care of a baby while still doing this marathon. If I had been a bit more aware of what directing entailed, I would never have had the courage to do it, not even to want it, but luckily I didn’t know what it entailed. Film school has been a reconfiguration of my path, of all the things I knew, of what art meant to me. It was a place where I asked questions, received answers and guidance, and had some very dedicated teachers and some very talented colleagues, whom I admired and sometimes envied because they seemed much more advanced knowledge-wise, so I was motivated to catch up. I feel that I’ve run and rushed so much that now, when I finished school, I’m still going at the same pace and I can’t stop.
Ironically, I’m glad it was my first year of master’s when the pandemic hit. Therefore, Fragmentations, although it’s my first-year film, was shot in the second year. And then I shot my second-year film as well. I had to choose one of them to show at festivals this year. So the second one is still in editing, meaning I’m still going to school to work on it. I’m trying to prolong this stage as much as possible. I haven’t cut ties with the school or with my colleagues. I still see it as a safe place where I can find the help I need. I also managed to write a feature film this year, which is already on the second draft. I was in a few development workshops with it. And I also have a treatment for a second feature.
So you’re looking ahead as well.
Yes, because I’m still running, I have to see what the next step is. I found it very challenging to make short films because I could never be succinct enough. I always had some stories that didn’t really fit within the limits of the short film. Now that festivals are more permissive and don’t limit you to a 30-minute length anymore, I can go as far as I want. But after making ten short films in school, I find it difficult to re-learn everything that a feature film entails – pace, plot development, a different approach to keeping the audience engaged.
You said in an interview early this year that you don’t get along very well with screenwriting, that this is the hardest part. You seem to have overcome this challenge in the meantime.
Yes, I guess I had some weird mental block. After that interview came out, several screenwriters wrote to me. I even met with two of them, we had good chemistry and decided to work on an idea I had. I would write a first draft, so they would understand what I’m looking for. But then all sorts of things came up – deadlines, workshops, etc., and I never had time to meet with them. So I ended up writing it by myself and even got to a second draft. Iulia Lumânare, who was the easiest to talk to because she already had an idea about the universe and the topic I was exploring, helped me with feedback. I worked with her on the last short film and it was amazing. It was also my only experience of writing with someone else, so it felt very natural to show her a draft. Then, another friend helped me – I was writing and afterwards, he would tell me what it was actually about. So I never got to work with the two writers that I talked to and was really looking forward to working with, but hopefully, it will happen soon.
Tell me a bit about your journey, how you got from making simple formal exercises in school to more mature films such as Fragmentations. I know it takes time to find the right tone and produce a strong emotional effect.
Well, I had a background in photography, I had worked with images, which told stories on their own, so at first, everything I was making was formal and aesthetic-oriented. Because that’s how I knew to communicate, through images. It took me a while to grasp how the story works and its specifics. That was actually the hardest thing for me – figuring out the level of subtlety at which things work in the film.
Hence your fear of screenwriting.
Exactly, because it wasn’t a tool I was used to working with.
Your films revolve around female characters and their stories. In an interview, you said that writing helped you realize how difficult it is to build male characters, to get into their minds, and that this may explain why films made by men have less complex female characters.
I understand that now. Yes, I prefer to avoid male characters or to show them as little as possible, rather than create something superficial and very subjective. This feature film I’m working on has a female protagonist as well, but there are also a few guys. Though sometimes, even I don’t understand their presence and motivation. I realize that they are inspired by some men I know or have met, but they’re based on my perception of them. It is much more difficult for me to understand the “whys” behind their actions than when it comes to women. If you go to a woman and ask her “Why?”, she will be able to explain in a few words. If you go to a man and ask him “Why?”, he will say: “Why are you asking me?”. And we are stuck in this place… In this script, I want to make those men real, not some projection of what I understood about men up to this point in my life. I didn’t understand anything, anyway (laughs).
Do you think that in cinema there is a purely female and a purely male perspective?
I have two arguments here. First of all, I believe that you have to write about the things that you are interested in, that you know, that you would like to see, that you would like to be told about. Secondly, yes, it’s something I want to do – to tell stories about women because I feel like there is still a lack of dialogue from that point of view. Especially since films often present us topics and themes that we become more familiar with through them, rather than through our everyday reality. Therefore, I think women’s reality and those conflicts and situations that are purely feminine represent an important topic that should be included in this great variety of information that films offer us.
Do you feel this lack is more visible in Romanian cinema?
I don’t know what to say. I hardly found any complex female characters in Romanian films. I always felt they are incomplete. Obviously, in the history of cinema, there are examples of extraordinary films starring female protagonists, but there is still a great lack. There are still so many topics to cover.
But do you feel that women have a harder time starting out, that they encounter certain obstacles, for the simple fact that they are women? I might add that you also became a mother while in film school.
If we’re talking about filmmaking, yes, they do. And it’s often just because you are a woman. If you also have a child, it’s impossible to describe. I wouldn’t be able to paint a picture of what my universe looks like with all the running and juggling that I do. Therefore I realize that I’m actually a somewhat absent mother and a somewhat absent director. I would be a hypocrite if I would assume that I’m acing any of these jobs. I can only try to keep up. That’s what this feature that I’m writing is about. There is a lot to talk about on this topic. I’d have many things to say. As much as we would like to think of ourselves as autonomous, we’re all influenced or affected by society. You always hit a wall when you least expect it. I am an advocate for equality, so I see other women who give up on their dreams and goals and accept the place offered by society. I struggle a lot to control this anger in my writing and the message I want to put out. I know that sometimes it can be unjustified, precisely because I carry a lot of it, and that it can go beyond the real problem, which is my problem, my mother’s, my grandmother’s, my great-grandmother’s, and all the women who couldn’t have the place they wanted.
And that is an area you want to explore?
Yes, at least for now. I think many of my films tackle the topic of mothers, children, parents. And just recently, I’ve felt like I am nothing but a director who, by chance, is also a mother and tells this story. But I remembered that in my freshman year I made a film on the same theme, and at that time, I had no plans to have a child. And even before that, I used to get angry when I would see everywhere only mothers pushing strollers. And I would wonder: “Okay, don’t these children also have fathers? When are they going to show up?”
How hard was the transition from commercial photography to film school, which meant giving up a photo studio and the financial security it brought?
At first, I thought I could do them in parallel, and support myself this way. But the studio work became incredibly boring. I didn’t want to do those things anymore. So the transition wasn’t hard, it came naturally, without any regrets or feeling forced to do that. I simply had other priorities and interests. It was so easy for me to give up almost ten years of work.
You first studied Political Science. Then you became more and more interested in film. As you said in an interview, you worked as a photographer at the Gopo Awards several times and you felt attracted to the world of cinema, even though it was rather an unknown territory. Where did this strong attraction come from?
I only went to Political Science because I had to pick a college to go to after finishing high school. Those were the times, that’s what was expected of you. I actually wanted to go to Architecture, but you had to go to Bucharest weekly for their training classes, and I didn’t have the financial possibilities to do that. So if there wasn’t money for something like that, going to film was out of the question.
It seemed totally inaccessible. I learned from someone that there were only four budgeted places and the fee was absurd. At that time, there was also the Media University, which was a bit easier to get in, but even here, the fee was too high for what I could afford. Film school seemed like an elite thing, for which you needed massive talent and huge financial support. So I decided to do something else.
Another reason why I picked Political Science was that I wanted to be socially involved, and at that moment, it seemed like the right place to go. A lot of opportunities appeared very quickly. In the first year, I worked on three electoral campaigns. Then again, it was an intense electoral year. After getting into certain situations and seeing some things, I realized that this world is not for me. So I started to think of ways to get into film. I started working in journalism, but I quickly saw that it doesn’t open any doors. So I veered to photography, which got me hooked for a few years. It was all an attempt to enter this universe. The same year I went to Political Science, I also applied to Acting, but without any kind of training. It was absolutely embarrassing and sinister, something I don’t want to remember.
If you Google your name, there is also an article that says something like: “Miruna Minculescu, finalist in a beauty contest in Italy”. Could you expand on this event?
Thank you for asking! I was wondering when this question would come (laughs). It was one of those doors through which I tried to get into film. I thought that since I was a pretty girl, I might have a chance to go into acting. It seemed like you only needed to be beautiful and say a line from time to time to be an actress. That’s because I was only exposed to Hollywood-type movies. We didn’t have cinemas in Curtea de Argeş, there were no initiatives or efforts in that direction. I used to watch movies on the TV, and the female characters were usually played by beautiful actresses, who didn’t seem very smart. I thought I fit the pattern (laughs).
When was this happening?
I was in my first year at Political Science. While I was working on electoral campaigns, I also participated in beauty contests. There you have it (laughs).
After all, it was part of your searches.
Definitely. You can imagine how disoriented I was. Sometimes, when I’m frustrated with myself, I look back and I’m amazed that I got this far, that I got the gist in the end. It’s a miracle (laughs).
But did you get into that world of modeling? It would be interesting to make a film about it.
The first short film I made in school is about that. There were some really crazy stories. I was in the 12th grade and I was lying to my parents that I was going to some extra classes at school when, in fact, I was going to Bucharest to fashion shows or castings. I did it for about two or three years. I was more into it in high school. When I arrived in Bucharest, I realized that there were a lot of beautiful girls everywhere, that there was a lot of competition and that it was not what I thought. Little by little, I got discouraged. The auditions for commercials contributed to that, too. I was very confident at first, thinking that they would definitely pick me. I didn’t even consider that most of the other girls were actresses. But it was an interesting experience overall. I think all these things helped me to adapt very easily to different situations and people, and to understand their drive, what is expected of me. I often feel bad that it took me so long to get here, to filmmaking. But at the same time, I feel like I gathered some things along the way that I can use now and that I’ve reached this place with a different background and different stories.
Now you are making another transition, from the safe haven you found at school to the film industry and market, where you have to find a producer in order to make films. You enter another world.
I started writing this feature film with the mindset that I would make it myself. I don’t know how, but I thought it would be easy. I’m a bit scared of the idea of working with a producer. After working as an assistant on other projects, I came to believe the relationship between the producer and the director is difficult. I would like someone who cares about the film as much as I do and it’s clear that it’s quite difficult to find that person. It’s like looking for a relationship. It needs to come naturally. I don’t know how. I don’t really have a background that can help me make that decision, but I’ll have to make it soon. I’ve thrown myself into impulsive decisions before or gone with my gut. In some cases, it worked, in others, it didn’t. So I’m not really sure how impulsively I should make this decision, because it’s a long-term project. I hope life will give me some answers. Usually, when I have questions, the answers come eventually.
What is it about filmmaking that you like? What does it offer you?
I’ve been in this industry for some years now and managed to support myself. We often forget how privileged we are that we can do what we like. Yes, sometimes it sucks, it doesn’t come out as you wanted, you don’t have the proper conditions. Still, there are people during this time who work eight hours a day at an office and can’t wait to get home and go on vacation for two weeks in the summer. Compared to this alternative, I feel like where I am and what I do is a privilege.
Then I try to focus less on what I want to say and what I have to say because I see it as an ego thing. Yes, I want to say some things, I hope they are relevant, but I don’t want to rely on that. My hope is that there is someone else interested in that as well. And I think I have a lot to learn from people and I met some talented, interesting and determined ones. Film is definitely a more intense and dynamic environment than other fields. And I tried a few, so I know (laughs). At this moment, I feel that it’s a place where, no matter how lost I feel every now and then, I can find support and guiding lines and I can function much better than I did in my past lives.
For the first time ever, I feel that I belong, that I’m not an alien. Ever since I got into film school, I’ve had the feeling that this is a place where there is actually nothing wrong with me and that it’s okay to be different, that everyone is different, and that is very cool. This is what I need right now.