By Paul Risker.
Ask the Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude how he views the place of his most recent feature AFERIM! within his body of work, and his response will be a modest one. “Well you know, when you say this important expression ‘body of work’, it makes me feel somehow like an imposter because I have made two other features and a handful of short films. So it’s not like I can say in my body of thirty feature films this has this place….” But in spite of his modesty AFERIM! (a Ottoman Turkish word for “Bravo!” used ironically in this film) attests to the skill of the filmmaker, which was acknowledged at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival when he was the recipient of the Silver Bear for Best Director and is Romania’s entry for the Academy Award for best foreign language picture. And if Jude dismisses this idea of ‘body of work’ as something pertaining to him, one cannot help but consider AFERIM! as as important work within this, the early stages of Jude’s career.
In an attempt to force the filmmaker to retreat onto more comfortable ground I expressed this point, and in his answer he transitioned to discussing the values the learning process and challenges of the creative process. “Well, what I can say is that it is a film from a technical, financial, artistic and intellectual point of view that I couldn’t have thought through if I hadn’t have done my previous films. I am absolutely sure that this is true,” he offered. “I cannot explain exactly why, but I felt that working on the previous films and having to solve those specific problems in the filmmaking process prompted me to make this film…. This is all I can say.”
So with a ‘body of work’ still in its infancy Jude at this year’s BFI London Film Festival spoke with Film International about his nineteenth-century set historical drama, which had its roots in the “idea of what’s the connection between the past and the present.” On one level a road movie, AFERIM! mixes history with cinematic genre to tell the story of a policeman and his son that are hired by an aristocratic boyar to track down a fugitive gypsy slave who has escaped his estate. Invariably the conversation spiraled outward from an insular discussion of AFERIM! to investigate Jude’s thoughts on the creative process that touched upon the limitations of cinema in contrast to painting, the nature of creation and spectatorship, as well as the rewarding challenges of shooting in black and white.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
It was a long time ago. In Romania in the eighties where I spent my childhood there was no idea about filmmaking or what filmmaking was. It was not like it was in America or in some other countries where people had Super 8 cameras and so on. My high school was one of computers and mathematics, but when I was sixteen years old I started to discover what we can call the humanities: literature, philosophy, theatre and film. I started to read and to go to the cinematheque and to the theatre, and I started to read. All of a sudden another world opened up for me and at some point within a few years I felt more of a desire to do this. It is a desire that has remained much more than the other desires have because at different points I have wanted to study history, philosophy and various other things. But this desire remained in spite of the fact that I tried two or three times to get into the national film school, but was rejected, and it remains still.
Looking back on this period, were there specific books, films or music that started to open up this other world that you would consider to be important encounters?
I saw very few films as a child, and the ones I did were either Romanian or communist propaganda films that were mostly shown on television. After the revolution in 1989, Hollywood films that were not that interesting to me were shown and my discovery of the Romanian cinematheque happened through a friend. I think this concept of friendship had a lot to do with it, at least in my case. So this started when a friend took me to the cinematheque where I discovered that films could be something else. I remember for instance what a shock it was when I first saw a Buñuel film or when I saw Taxi Driver (1976) or Tarkovsky. I think these were the first films that were a shock in spite of the fact that the cinematheque was showing black and white copies of these films. I have seen Apocalypse Now (1979), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Godfather (1972) and Death in Venice (1971) in black and white, and I believed then that these films were black and white. So this was the moment that I discovered film could be something else other than the typical Hollywood entertainment.
What was your impression when you discovered these films in colour?
Well, with these films my memories are still black and white, really. It is weird because I saw A Clockwork Orange (1971) ten times back then, and when I discovered on DVD that it is in colour, it was as if something was not right, you know.
As a filmmaker, do your experiences influence the way you watch films as a spectator?
I do not believe that the experience of a cultural product should be a naïve one. If I am reading a book, then while at the same time as I observe how it is written – the music of the language and so on – I am becoming immersed in it. And with film it is the same. I do not believe that this makes the experience less interesting – on the contrary I think it makes it richer than it used to be twenty years ago or more. Of course, I agree that something gets lost in that, but something is also gained. When you watch a film knowing how the film is done, whether you are a film critic, journalist, historian or a filmmaker, what happens is that you are less likely to be somehow fooled by hacks. And when you really discover a voice that is original and powerful, the impression is bigger. For example, the biggest discovery I made this year were the books of the German writer – who lived in England – W. G. Sebald. I recommend to you The Rings of Saturn (1995) first. It is a wonderful book with a wonderful mixture of history and literature. He’s a great writer and although I was very attentive to what he wrote and how he was doing it, the impression was still there and the emotion was very, very pure.
The way in which ideas or stories take shape are divided between those writers who write through images, and those writers who perceive that stories are thought out through words. How does the process work for you? Does the idea emerge through images or expressions and words?
It is difficult to answer because in the case of this film, the idea developed in a different manner. I actually started with an idea of what’s the connection between the past and the present because of my interest in Romanian history, which is something that interests me from a critical point of view. I wouldn’t be interested in Romanian history as it is taught in school – this king lived between these years and he did this and he did that. I am interested more in what we can call the history of everyday life and what you can find there that is relevant for today.
I was spending some time reading and at some point I decided, I mean I didn’t decide, but I had this thought that a film could be made based on this idea. I essentially found this other story and I wanted to make another historical film. So while researching and reading documents and history books about the nineteenth century, I discovered the things in this film that all of a sudden seemed more important to be spoken about. So in this case images are not words; it is just this idea and then with this I found the specific aspects that could be spoken about. I then started to research these specific aspects and at some point I got stuck. W.G. Sebald who I mentioned before, he was also a teacher of creative writing at Norwich University, and he had this idea that he taught to people in his courses. It was about how when they get stuck with their writing, it means that they didn’t have enough research. Whether it is about an historical or a contemporary subject it doesn’t matter because you have to know many, many things about it. And if you don’t have an idea of what you should talk about, then it means that you are not prepared enough. If you are prepared enough, if you have read more on that topic or you have seen films, and you have met people and asked them, or you have even asked yourself, then all of a sudden the creative crisis disappears. And this is what happened on this film – we started with a few ideas and then by doing more research we found out other things that somehow connected the dots together.
AFERIM! offers an impression of a filmmaker interested in human relationships, but an interest which here is explored through the context of the past. Would that be a fair impression of this film?
Yes, and when you speak about the past it is always impossible to do it from any other perspective than the present. When somebody says, “I put myself in the mind of ancient Rome” then he or she is lying, because in spite of the effort that must be made you cannot do this. And for me here it was the same because I tried to put myself in the mind of my nineteenth-century characters. Of course I failed, and the failure is that of the film. But it is not only speaking about some historical details because this is maybe the least interesting thing. The most important thing is as you say the human relationships and also the mentalities – the history of mentalities and how a set of ideas through language goes from one person to another, from one generation to another, and that’s the main topic of the film.
Speaking not so much in the context of the law or the legal system, which is intended to evolve, but as “people.” have we changed? There is a belief that we all reach a point of maturation, which of course is contradicted by the belief that life experiences create either a noticeable or gradual change. Having looked back into the past in contrast to the present with AFERIM! I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on whether we have changed as a society, or whether the change is more spatial and legal?
This is a very big question and I’m afraid I can only speculate in my answer to it. To be honest I do believe in change, and I believe in personal change as well. I think there are moments during the lifetime of a person that can make him or her change. Of course there are people who do not change, but then I think there are others that change for the better or for the worse. So I believe in change and I believe societies can also change you for the better or for the worse. I believe it is better now in a European society than it was two hundred years ago that’s for sure, but of course there are some aspects of the human being and human interactions that do not change. So it depends, and if you want to concentrate on the things that have not changed, then you can say nothing has changed, and things are as they were. If you concentrate on the things that have changed, then you can say that they have. I believe things are more mixed, but in this moment I prefer to believe in change.
Within contemporary cinema black and white films are a lonely child or rather child of the past that from a marketing perspective lack the commercial viability of colour cinema. AFERIM! however shows the aesthetic beauty held within the monochrome image. What challenges come with shooting in monochrome as opposed to colour?
I am unhappy with the way in which cinema is practiced and forces the makers to choose only one way of expression. This doesn’t happen in painting – you can paint in oil or watercolor or draw with charcoal. You have all of the techniques and if a new technique appears then you can choose whether or not to use it. But with film, if the technology changes and a new tool appears then everybody is more or less forced to use it. Cinema or the dream for cinema is if someone would like to make a silent film, then make a silent film. If somebody wants to make a colour film, then he should make a colour film. If he wants to make a black and white film, then he should make a black and white film. If he wants to shoot digitally, then he should shoot digitally, and if he wants to shoot on film, then he should shoot on film. If he wants 16mm, why not? If you want 8mm why not? I would love all the technology to exist and still imagine cinema in this way because, why not?
You asked me about the challenges of black and white. Of course there are things that I learned while doing this film, and I would be more prepared now to make a black and white film. First of all you don’t have the colours – you only have the contrasts, which you should be very careful with. We were shooting in the woods, and a lot of the time when you just looked with the eye you could see the actor in the background because there are the different colours. But when everything is in black and white the colours are the same, and so you wouldn’t see the actors because they were the same shade of grey as the background. So yeah, that was a challenge, but it was great to have that challenge and to start to try to express things through just black and white, through the contrast.
AFERIM! strikes me as a film that invites the audience not to judge the characters, but rather to observe and contemplate their actions. It returns us to your earlier point of the difference between the mindset of the past and the present, whereby as an audience we have to adjust our thinking to understand it within the appropriate context.
I don’t know how to answer this because it is not something that preoccupies me. Even when I am a viewer I am more interested in seeing and watching the film, thinking about the problems or whatever the film may depict than in engaging or not with a character. But of course this can happen because this is how people usually experience stories. But it was not my main concern.
It is an interesting dynamic of how the filmmaker is required to function on instinct, while the audience intellectualises because understandably as a filmmaker if you try to intellectualise every moment you would struggle to complete the film.
And so a film is created between the instinct of its filmmaker and that which is brought to the experience by the audience.
Yeah, it is true that part of the work must be done by the audience. But I think it is nice work that is to be done. The intellectual effort of any kind really is a wonderful thing and I really cannot understand members of the audience or those people who say: “Well, I don’t like this film, it is too complicated for me. I want something simple to relax.” I relax better if I make an effort to understand, to think or to experience something new.
Filmmakers often talk to me about how filmmaking is about learning to trust your instincts because so much of the craft is instinctive as you are working to bring together a finished product.
Well I wouldn’t call it instinct because it isn’t an instinct, rather it is a process of thinking. But at some point of course your mind cannot cover all the problems, and so you have to trust those instincts, the hazards and the chaos. And very interesting things happen without your intention. But there are some aspects that I am really strict about and I try to keep them in focus. Of course there are those things the other people that work on a film bring to it, or the nature or just the blind chance. And it is true that you have to be open to this, and you shouldn’t be too neurotic about it.
Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Would you agree and how has the experience of AFERIM! both impacted you personally and professionally, as well as having served to inform you moving forward?
Well, I wouldn’t see the things as simply as the filmmaker you mentioned because if this change appears you don’t notice it. What can I say that it has changed for me? Through the making of the film my taste for history is even bigger than it was before – this is true. And my taste for trying to spot in history the relevant things for today is bigger than it was, which prompts me to try and make some other films that have this historical background, which wasn’t there before making this one.