Teona Galgotiu: “When I make a film, I always think about the social or political dimension it carries”
Born on January 28, 1998, Teona Galgotiu is a film director, writer and cultural manager.
She graduated from the “George Coșbuc” National College in Bucharest and then studied film directing at UNATC (2016-2019), where she later pursued a master’s degree.
Since 2014, she has been co-manager of Super, the teenage art festival. In high school, she participated in the Let’s Go Digital film workshop for teenagers at TIFF (Transilvania International Film Festival)
In 2019, she co-founded Gura Mare (i.e. Out Loud), an online platform for poetry and visual art, and in 2020, she published her first volume of poetry “Mă uit înapoi şi dispare / I Look Back and It’s Gone” (OMG Publishing House).
Teona Galgotiu has directed several short films, mainly exploring the parent-child relationship: Brief Conversation About the D Word (2017), My Mother Is Just One (2018), I Look Back and It’s Gone (2019), Elephant Far Away (2020), Hidden Places (2021).
Her most recent work, I Want to Smash the Greenhouse (2022), her master’s graduation film, won the Gopo Award for Best Short Film this year. Previously, in 2021, she was nominated for the Young Hope Award.
I Want to Smash the Greenhouse follows Sara (Ioana Bugarin), a young woman facing the early signs of an illness she inherited from her father, which will eventually turn their bodies into plants. Sara needs a big change. But before that, she must confront the violent memories from her childhood by visiting her bedridden father and telling him everything she couldn’t say until now.
The short was selected in the Student Film Competition at this year’s Sarajevo Film Festival (August 11-18).
Teona Galgotiu is the daughter of actress Ioana Abur and theater director Dragoș Galgotiu.
In your acceptance speech at the Gopo Awards, you drew attention to domestic violence against women. Why was it important for you to convey this message?
When I make a film, I always think about the social or political dimension it carries. And because the film tackles this very topic, I felt it was necessary to talk about representation versus reality when receiving the award. For quite a long time, and I still feel it to some extent, I thought our films end up, at best, in the festival circuit and in front of people who probably share similar views or come from similar backgrounds as ours. But it’s a closed circle because we don’t actually know what’s happening with all these social and political issues. We tap each other on the shoulder. I felt that it’s not enough, and that’s why I considered it necessary to say something when I received the award.
What do you understand by the social or political dimension of a film?
When it tackles a topic related to social or political issues. In this case, domestic abuse. There are narratives that work on their own and don’t necessarily have a parallel in the real world, and there are films that serve as a pretext to discuss real-world issues.
Do you think about that when you start writing a script? How do you develop it?
I’m consumed by these thoughts and ideas, so it is very difficult to have projects that don’t deal with these kinds of topics. I don’t start by thinking that the film is about a certain social or political issue, but rather it comes naturally because that’s what interests me. It’s very difficult for me to explore stories that are told solely for the sake of a narrative. It has to be more than that, like a starting point for a discussion or an initiative.
Do you think this is not prevalent enough in Romanian cinema?
There are not many films that address issues such as violence against women or mental health, which I tackled in Brief Conversation About the D Word. Whereas communism continues to be a popular topic. I’m not saying it’s not important, that it has been exhausted and needs to be abandoned, but there are many other topics that seem urgent to me, especially given the situation in Romania, where progress is a bit slower. In other countries, these talks are much more advanced. Still, I’m glad that initiatives like the Mental Health Film Festival are starting to emerge and that there are events that host films made by female directors or talks with female directors or queer people. But it’s a marginal phenomenon. Although these discussions, which seem to be present only in certain bubbles, do exist, when you go to the Gopo Awards and talk about domestic violence on stage, it becomes this big thing. Like it happened last year when there was a comment on the abuse within the local film industry. It sparks some controversy in the media, which I think is good because it increases the visibility of the issue, but people mostly make fun of it, which shows how far behind we are.
But don’t you think things are starting to change in Romanian cinema? One proof is that there are more and more films made by female directors, which explore hitherto taboo subjects. And I believe that the young generation you are part of will discuss these matters even more.
It’s clear that things are changing and that there are a lot more female directors than there were a few years ago. In our class, we were mostly girls and we were more active both during and after film school. I’m sure that things will gradually change for the better, but action is needed from all parts, not just from female artists and directors, but also from our male peers. We should also see some systemic changes, and curators need to be mindful of this aspect. It should be a collective effort.
When did you start to realise that films should be a reflection on social issues?
Quite early. I was in the ninth grade when I attended Let’s Go Digital at TIFF, and the talks there were mainly focused on social issues, representation, going for a certain angle, a certain framing when shooting. I had been a film enthusiast since elementary school, but just like everybody else, I mostly watched popular movies, like Fight Club or Requiem for a Dream. Towards the end of elementary school, I also saw some Godard. But I wasn’t thinking at all about this dimension that I mentioned. The change started at Let’s Go Digital, but the major transformation came the following year when I was part of the High School Jury at One World Romania, a festival focused on the social and political dialogue. There I saw films that seemed like they could change the world or at least shift something in those who watched them. At that point, I realised that films couldn’t be any other way and that that’s the approach I want to pursue. I had gone to an extreme, then I found my balance.
Were you able to pursue this direction during film school? How much were you encouraged?
We were very lucky because we had great teachers who gave us a lot of freedom. As I was interested in these topics, they encouraged me. The discussions we had were rather focused on the technical and stylistic aspects. They never questioned my choice of topics. I could delve into the interests I already had in high school. That helped me a lot, especially compared to colleagues from other years or other professors, who couldn’t do that and had major issues with getting their scripts accepted and going into production. I often wondered what would have happened to me if I had been in a different class. There is a great difference whether you are in one class or another, and I think that’s a big problem at UNATC.
Also, the Film Menu cineclub and magazine, which I discovered in high school, had a great influence on me. Moreover, I spent a lot of time at UNATC. I was familiar with the atmosphere and knew many of the students. I don’t remember exactly, but I think I inquired about the future classes and teachers.
You mentioned in other interviews that for your student films, you drew inspiration from your childhood, adolescence, and your relationship with your parents.
Childhood and part of adolescence were very intense periods for me. I wanted to work on projects that I felt could help someone, that is, make them feel less alone or, if they weren’t familiar with the subject, see it from a different perspective. So it came naturally to talk about what caused me the most pain, what was most disturbing, or what changed me the most. It seemed that there was no other way. I often ask myself why I make a particular film and not another, as there are so many stories. Why do I choose this one? Because it was something that either turned my world upside down or changed my life.
How difficult is it for you to delve into autobiographical territory? Do you believe that films can be therapeutic?
The therapeutic effect has varied greatly in my case. Sometimes it worked the other way around. I ended up revisiting some traumas, some complicated moments. Even though there’s catharsis and a sense of release when you fictionalise something that happened, you still immerse yourself in those memories and situations. I felt this most with Hidden Places, but also with I Want to Smash the Greenhouse. Moreover, in the latter one, my best friend (i.e. actress Ioana Bugarin) played a version of myself, which made things even more autobiographical. In Hidden Places, the character of the mother was played by my real mother (i.e. actress Ioana Abur) and it feels like I’m going too far or into a dangerous area in terms of exposing myself. But I’m convinced it’s essential to do that because only then can I reach the deepest experiences and feelings I had and which other people have. However, I don’t think this is universally applicable, and not all films must be made this way. But it works for me, not just in filmmaking but also in my writing.
You have a very close relationship with your mother. But what was the director-actress relationship like, especially in the case of a film like Hidden Places, which you say is extremely personal and intimate, about a mother discovering the self-inflicted cuts on her teenage daughter’s legs?
It was especially difficult because it’s an autobiographical story. It was actually a reenactment of something that happened in reality, almost word for word. Some of the scenes were really hard to shoot. I remember sitting in front of the video assist and crying uncontrollably. So I asked myself: What are the limits? How much you can play God with things that happened? It felt like sadomasochism. I was making my mother relive something very traumatic for her. I was creating a reality that was traumatising for both her and me. It seemed like a sacrifice solely for the sake of the film. It felt a bit too much. But in our working relationship, she trusts me completely. We are so close that our communication goes beyond words. It’s based a lot on the experiences we’ve shared, on intuition, on how we feel about each other. That’s why I loved working with her so much, both on My Mother is Just One and Hidden Places. To communicate almost telepathically with the actor is something that probably every director wishes for.
I experienced something similar with Ioana on I Want to Smash the Greenhouse because we are very close. There were many unsaid things that she did in the film because she knew me and intuited them. And because I sensed certain sensitive points of hers, I could communicate with her other than through words, which I find incredible.
You finished film school two years ago and your graduation film I Want to Smash the Greenhouse won the Gopo Award. What inspires you now? What interests you? You mentioned that you’re working on a feature film script.
Now, it’s important for me to consider that the phase of digging into the family and the relationships with the parents is over, at least for the moment. I’m very interested in the limits of language, both in real life and how they are represented in film, stylistically. I’m working on a story about the encounter between some people living in the wilderness and some bourgeois individuals. I’m very interested in what it means to communicate if you haven’t been taught a certain type of language and how that translates into the language of film.
Are you, more than before, thinking about form and style?
Yes, until now, the form came rather from the subject. Now it’s a combination. The form would still come from the subject because it’s about language, but I’m already considering how I can translate that into the construction of the film.
What’s the screenwriting process like for you?
It’s quite complicated because it’s challenging to separate the roles of director and screenwriter. I think a lot about the shooting process and how the film will look, and that can sometimes make me a bit more hasty in the screenwriting stage. So, it can be harder for the people reading the script to understand what I have in mind. On the other hand, it’s difficult to stop the screenwriting process because I keep working on it until very close to the shooting. And sometimes even during shooting, I feel the urge to make changes. I don’t see it as a problem, just that it can take a lot of your focus. With I Want to Smash the Greenhouse, I tried to set some limits. I said: okay, I’ve written the script, and this is it, no more changes, and from now on, I need to focus on directing.
Speaking about I Want to Smash the Greenhouse, did you want to go into a fantastic area from the beginning?
Not from the very beginning. Originally, the idea was to have a birthday party for the father, and the daughter comes to visit him. The father is sick and bedridden, so the entire party happens around him but he is not able to participate. The girl has a monologue in front of him, where she recalls events from her childhood. But there was no fantastic element to it. Afterward, I became more and more interested in the non-human dimension and the relationship between non-human and human, and how plants, trees, and nature are constant witnesses to people’s lives. Although they are considered background, they are actually alive and very present. Then, I came up with the idea of having a split screen because it seemed very interesting to have this life that appears unmoving and non-existent. I wondered how it would be from the perspective of a plant witnessing Sara’s conversations with her boyfriend or her father. How would I perceive all the commotion and the human drama if I were not human?
The surreal element came along the way.
Yes. I wanted the father to be sick, but I was more drawn to the idea of a made-up illness, not a real one, that would allow room for something more, like another dimension.
How did the fact that your mother is an actress and your father a theater director influence your journey?
“Influence” would be an understatement (laughs). I was born into this world and there was nothing else. When I was little, I would go to my father’s plays whenever they were performed, so I saw all of them like 20-30 times. I knew the text by heart and corrected the actors had they got their lines wrong. I think some of them couldn’t stand me because of that. One of my father’s plays, which also starred my mother, was staged in several cathedrals and churches in France and Spain, and I went with them. I was 5 years old and it completely changed my life. There was an entire cast, and I was everybody’s child. Seeing so many foreign places at that age is a very powerful experience. Besides watching them perform, I saw the actors in moments of fragility, tension, and insecurity. It really gave me an insight into their world, which later made me very concerned about their experience on the set. I’m very mindful of that because I saw up close what it means to be an actor.
In your acceptance speech at the Gopo Awards, you also thanked your parents for the “atypical” and “interesting” way they raised you.
I’m glad that they didn’t sacrifice their careers to take care of me and that they took me everywhere with them. But I think it’s kind of weird and maybe disorienting for a kid to grow up in these artistic environments, because there is also something selfish about them. Perhaps “selfish” is not the right word. I mean, most artists, from my point of view, are very focused on themselves, and if you grow up in such an environment, you can easily feel alienated or lost. At the same time, you can develop excellent observational skills. That’s why I somehow developed two opposite personalities. One is extremely introspective and observes a lot of what is happening around. The other is much more extroverted.
I assume that at some point, you will use some of the experiences from your childhood, from this artistic environment in which you grew up, to turn them into films.
It seems like an inexhaustible source of inspiration. However, I’m trying to conclude this phase because I wouldn’t want to repeat myself. Even though self-exposure is something many people find difficult, you can get used to this exhibitionism.
When did you decide that you wanted to study directing and make films?
When I was little, I thought I wanted to be an actress, because I look a lot like my mother. They often cast both of us for commercials and films. At one point, I got the lead role in a soap opera and turned it down because I realised that I didn’t like being told what to do and how to do it. I was about ten years old.
Did they respect your decision?
Yes. I said that I didn’t want to do it anymore. Then I got more and more into writing. Both my Romanian teacher and my mother encouraged me a lot, and I went to competitions. I decided to be a screenwriter because I loved movies and enjoyed writing. It seemed only right.
When was this happening?
In elementary school. Then I went to Let’s Go Digital, where we had to work in a team and make a film together. I wrote the script and directed the film together with two other colleagues. That’s when I realised: wait a minute, how can I let someone else direct a script I wrote? (laughs) I was 15 years old. From then on, it was clear that I wanted to be a director, and I haven’t changed my mind since.
You said at one point that, through poetry, you try to transpose images into words that can eventually convey something to us, the readers, and help us access those images. How do poetry and directing influence each other?
Writing poetry makes me go into a more fantastic area with my films. Even if “poetic” may already sound cliché, I think it can be used to describe my films. It’s about a certain rhythm, a certain sensibility that you find more in poetry than in mainstream cinema. Writing makes me much more attentive to what lies behind the characters. Poetry, in particular, helps with creating the atmosphere of the film, which is always very important to me. “Poetic”, “poetry”, and “atmosphere” are words that have been used so much that they’ve lost their meaning, but for lack of anything else, I use these ones. When I say “atmosphere”, I mean rhythm, framing, the way the characters speak. I try to avoid making the dialogue or voice-over too realistic. I lean towards a more abstract area.
How would you introduce yourself, as a writer or a filmmaker?
I really like the English word “filmmaker” because it’s a general term, it doesn’t pertain to a specific department. So I would say filmmaker and poet or filmmaker and writer, because a few years ago, I started writing plays too. Now I’m also working on a collection of short stories, but it’s going slow.
Would you see yourself giving up literature in favor of filmmaking?
It’s all about the phase I’m in, that’s what I’ve come to realise. For example, now I’m writing a new play. And I can’t do anything else. I can’t work on a screenplay at the same time. But I can combine an organizational activity with an artistic one. Two artistic endeavors don’t go together. After writing the play, which is part of a project at Apollo 111, I want to make some more short films, even if I won’t have the money for them. I’ll make them in my room, with whatever equipment I can get from friends. I feel like I really need the practice. That’s the big difference between writing and making films. Writing means you can be in your room with a piece of paper and a pen, and you can practice as much as you want. But making films requires bringing many forces together. It’s been two years since I made I Want to Smash the Greenhouse, and in these two years, I haven’t made any other films, and I’m starting to get scared.
Afraid of what?
That I won’t know how to do it anymore. After each film, it’s like starting from scratch. Of course, experience helps me in some respects. But stylistically and thematically, with each new film, I start from scratch. That’s why I need to practice on a regular basis.
You are also manager of Super, the teenage art festival, and Gura Mare (i.e. Out Loud), which is an online poetry platform. Why do you feel the need to also do such things?
It’s related to the need for social and political involvement. Yeah, there’s the art I make, but it seems to have a limited reach. And there are more concrete things you can do, through events and accessibility to culture. Bringing people together. In the case of Super, it’s mainly about accessibility to culture and education for teenagers. However difficult it is to find funding, I think it’s a project that needs to exist. I want all the things that I discover and that inspire me to reach other people too, not just keep them to myself.
How do you feel as a young filmmaker who has finished school and is now stepping into the film industry?
Honestly, I would like to do another master’s degree, but in another country. For example, I found a one-year school in Vienna. It’s called Kubelka and is organized by artists. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can apply this year because I need to know German, but I’m in the process of learning it.
My fear is getting too caught up in the local scene here and starting to repeat myself or being limited by the only opportunities and initiatives available in Romania. That’s why last year I went to Berlin for six months with the Erasmus Plus program. The experience in Berlin was very helpful because I realised that the world is somewhat bigger than the Elvire Popesco Cinema and Eforie Cinematheque. It’s great that they exist, but it can be a bit alienating to move between these two cinemas and a few festivals, and that’s it.
Are you afraid of getting into a rut?
Definitely, especially since it seems like it can happen very early. It’s not something that only happens to people over 35 or 40. You can discover formulas that work for festivals or the public even when you’re young, and then keep using them and eventually fall into a pattern. That would be the relationship with family and traumas in my case. I don’t want to do that until I’m 70.
For me, having new human contact is very important. That doesn’t mean that I can’t watch all the films and read all the books that come out, but going to a new place opens a lot of doors for me. Although I’m not fond of this term, the atmosphere of a place is a source of a different kind of inspiration. I recently went to the Oberhausen Festival and came back with a lot of inspiration and a great desire to make films and write. That’s why I think it’s important for me to step out of my familiar environment. In my familiar environment, I tend to isolate myself and end up not feeling like searching for books and films anymore because I feel a bit caged. I realised that I need to step out of my comfort zone.