Cristian Mungiu is a Romanian filmmaker who works in a precise, realism driven aesthetic across each of his critically acclaimed films, including the Palme d’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) and Beyond the Hills (2012), which won two prizes at Cannes.

His latest film, Graduation (2016), explores the intersection of corruption, family, education, generational ideals when a father attempts to secure the best academic future for his daughter through ethically compromised means in an tense narrative structure that calls to mind 4 Months. The film had its world premiere at TIFF 2016, where Cristian discussed the production of the film with Christopher Heron.

What was the origin of the film’s story?

It came from different places, but first of all it comes from my preoccupation with parenting and education. I have children, I spend a lot of time thinking about what would be best for them. Another layer was that I really wanted to make a film from watching people who are so displeased with what they are seeing in society nowadays, next to them. They feel frustrated, somehow, that there’s a lot of corruption and I wanted to make a film about compromise. Then there was another layer: I thought it’s interesting to make a portrait of this age, where you reach – I don’t know – fifty and you look back and forward into your life. You understand that you are a result of all the decisions that you made, there’s nothing much you can change, but you always hope that you can change something for your children. For me, it’s also a film about family, about truth, about the way life looks at this age – this is the general background. But also writing the screenplay, I discovered some day that I was preoccupied by a lot of things that I had been reading in the newspapers, either about education or about corruption. I thought there is a link, there’s a connection. So I placed together two, three, four stories about this and came up with the screenplay, which I think is very layered and hopefully speaks about life, finally, about human nature, I would say.

One of the layers is the genre it’s operating within, as a bit of a thriller or detective story, but with a main character that’s not a detective, but trying to explore in this way. I was wondering what appeals to you about that genre?

My influences are not so much in cinema or in films, in particular, because the kind of cinema I try to do is so much inspired by life and reality – this is the aim. But there is something in life, you can experience this kind of stress and tension in your own life, even with very small incidents. At some point I wanted to make this portrait of this guy who feels guilty. You know when you feel guilty for not being truthful? There’s always this feeling that there’s someone following you, there’s somebody knowing what you do – that the truth is bigger than you. I like to have this layer in my films. I am pretty much always having this layer of tension, this mood of the thriller, because I think if you work the way we work – the way I work, with one shot per scene, plan-séquence – it’s complicated for the audience. They get this feeling that it’s very close to life and reality, and the film is very complex. Therefore, I want to have a level in it that’s simple, easygoing, that keeps spectators engaged; they are following something. To make sure that by the end of the film, they might have a lot of questions about what the film speaks about, but they followed something. I like to have this narrative that advances quite fast, which is easy to understand. This is why I am always looking for something that will come from the mind and the spirit of the characters in the film.

When you’re thinking of how that will look as a film, I know you don’t tend to put a lot of emphasis on the form or the aesthetic, but the film does look different than Beyond the Hills – it looks more like 4 Months. How did you work with Tudor Vladimir Panduru as a DP?
I think that the story and the sets that you build shape the way that the film looks because the principles are the same: it’s a subjective perspective in the film, someone’s perspective, the camera is always straight on the eyes, the camera is never moving unless there’s a movement in the shot, and it’s still one shot per scene. The differences come from the sets and from the action itself. The film is as dynamic as the thing the camera follows. You know Tudor was the assistant of my former cinematographer [Oleg Mutu], so I decided to work with him because he knew how I work.

He graduated.

He graduated, yes. I don’t think you can tell it’s a different cinematographer. But it’s to say that the looks are important for us, it’s just that I won’t be shooting beauty shots in the film, everything needs to serve a narrative purpose and once you start shooting like this – one shot for scene – you need to have a lot of choreography in the shot. Everything is so precise. After the actors know what to do, you bring the camera in, you bring the sound in… Of course, there are a lot of problems, as you can imagine, on the set, but the feeling at the end needs to be that it’s a continuous flow that you don’t really flow; it’s really smooth. I think this is quite well accomplished in this film. But the looks are quite important for us, as well. For example, we spent a lot of time thinking of the colours in the film, matching the colours of what they use as characters and matching the colours of the backgrounds – try to have a specific way to how things look. I never forget that the film shouldn’t be too beautiful, that’s part of our philosophy. The film should fill this purpose of advancing with the narrative and looking very close to life.

One shot that I thought had a bit of symbolism was when Romeo and his police officer friend are on the mountain. They’re literally talking about how they used to look up the mountain, but now he’s looking down it, and the camera is doing neither, it’s perpendicular.

That is a moment that has an extra significance for me, so it’s not so much about what they talk about but what it means. I think I was thinking about this idea that, you know when you’re younger, things are clearer for you in life. After a certain age, they start getting fuzzy. What they’re talking about then, when they were there twenty years ago, things looked very clear. As you advance in life and make lots of decisions, things are not so clear any longer. You reach this age and you realize family is not what you imagined, children are not the way you imagined, your life is not what you imagined, so what will you do? There’s nothing much you can do, you have to live with yourself and the decisions you made. The film speaks about this very difficult day in the life of a parent when children are about to leave. What are you going to do afterwards? I don’t know. Hopefully, your life was rich enough to find something to do after this moment.

In interviews you’ve talked a lot about Romeo’s relationship with his daughter, the generations that they signify, but I’m interested in his daughter’s relationship with her grandmother. It seems like that’s a very important scene to understand the other part of this generational trajectory.

I think she’s a very empathic character, the daughter. She’s also empathic with her father, in the film what she tries to do is try to free himself from all these chains of lies, even if this is painful. The only way of progressing is to acknowledge the truth, so this is what she’s doing in the film. For us, this relationship that passes a generation is very important. I think we are raised in such a way that we always feel very close to our grandparents, it’s her case in the film. It’s a way of characterizing her, as well, in the film: you see that she’s not that kind of adolescent, just caring about herself. She is also considering staying at home, despite this not being the best thing for her future because she likes her boyfriend. She’s a very warm character and it was important to portray her in such a way because the film is also about affection, it is also about what people do because of affection. It might seem a bit, I don’t know, cruel… for her to force her father to acknowledge the truth, but actually it’s not, this is also coming from affection. What he’s doing is also coming from affection, as well, even if he maybe asks the wrong thing, but parents do this. Parents try to do everything for you even if sometimes they don’t understand the only they can do is to let you be free to make your own decisions, make your own mistakes.

Would that be something that happened with Romeo and his parents?

That’s a very good question. I think we tend to have the same kind of education for our children that [there was] for us. At the same time, I think this film speaks about how at some point it’s important to step outside this chain. He tries to step outside, it’s the story of somebody who tries to educate his child in a different way because he knows that once you make this first compromise in your life, there’s no way out. You enter this forever, this world where there’s always going to be a complicity between you and the guy who helped you. You owe something to somebody and you will always have to pay back to somebody else. There’s nothing much you can do, you’re chained forever. You’re not free any longer, to speak out the truth or have a firm opinion. Therefore, what he’s trying to do in the film is to make his daughter not have to pass through this moment. This is what he hopes. I’m not sure this is realistic, to imagine that you can educate your child aside from a society in which this is how things go, because the education is not just coming from you as a parent and it’s not just coming from what you tell the children to do. They will see you solving practical situations. But at least it’s a parent who tries to do this. He tries to postpone as much as possible this first moment of compromise, but unfortunately things happen the way they happen in a film. So it just stays for us to imagine that maybe the girl will make the right decision.

And yet there’s the counterpoint of Matei [his mistress’ son]; the instruction Romeo gives him is different than the instruction that he gives his biological daughter.

Well, if you notice this it’s a good thing, because I hope that there is some progress with his character by the end of the film in the sense that once he’s forced to accept the truth about himself, he’s freed in a way. He can’t change anything about the education that he gave to his daughter, but he accepts this child up to the end. I hope that the only optimistic thing about the film is not so much the moral standpoint of the girl – I don’t see it like this. It’s rather the hope that [Romeo] will be able to tell this boy something different. He will be able to set a different example for this boy, so the boy stands in the film for that very radical position that children have at the beginning; they are not perverted by any… they just speak up the truth and this what the boy does. He is looking for a way in which people need to be punished, this was what he was told, this is what his mother told him, that if someone is guilty, he needs to be punished. He is so pure and innocent at the beginning of the film and I hope it stays up to the end. How he will turn out with all these people around, who knows.

What have you thought of the comparisons that have been made between the film and [Michael Haneke’s] Caché?

There are some [similar] formal elements and I noticed this. I wasn’t so much aware of this when I made the film, but it’s okay; Caché is a very good film and I think that what’s interesting is to see how people can use a certain formal element within their different films. Finally, the film that I made is about something quite different, but I think that there is something with this idea that people today feel somehow followed in the society. They feel a bit guilty, it’s all connected with truth. People need to create this image of themselves which is always better than the truth that they know about themselves. After a certain age, it’s difficult to live with yourself unless you try to claim that you are better than you are. It’s difficult to acknowledge that, “Maybe I’m not such a hero,” not for yourself, not for your children. But it’s difficult, you start feeling a bit guilty because it’s something that you made up. There is something difficult in making films, which is to render what the main character thinks about, what he feels. You always need external incident for this, even if you want the spectators to experience what he’s experiencing and this is why the film carries these events that are external; they will let you know how he feels in these situations.

When [vice mayor] Bulrai is referred to as someone who is kind and has helped people, I noticed that some viewers have read this ironically or is a euphemism for corruption. But it could be read honestly, that the characters do believe that they are starting out helping someone out and how that becomes corruption without it being the initial belief.

I can’t afford to be ironic to the characters because it’s not fair. You have to respect the truth of every character and I don’t want to use euphemism. I just make the film and quote how people speak about other people in such situations. Then it’s up to every other spectator to consider whether he’s just helping or that in this way of helping others, you also continue a chain of advancing in society not based on correctness, but based on this network of services – not on our own merits. And this is the problem, actually, that people feel frustrated when they can’t fulfill their destinies in society simply based on merit. There’s always a catch and when there’s always a catch, people feel disappointed. It’s not just up to them, it’s up to something else, and this is when they start looking for a solution for themselves, and not for a social solution for everybody. This is what parents do, they will look for a solution for their children, because they know that maybe they were trying to change things and they changed them as much as they could, but this is not good enough. What will they do with their children? Will you let them fight and spend their lives like this or will you – not save them – but give them a better life. This is what we’re all trying to do. So it’s natural in a way, but getting back to how characters act, I don’t want to have my comments in the film. I think it’s fair enough to present the situation. My characters in the film and in all the films I do say a lot of bullshit, but this is what people do. It’s up to you to detect which is the truth. I think that’s probably the character of Romeo, he’s being very, very manipulative in the film with the girl. I’m not sure if he does this consciously or not, if he does this because it’s easier for him to speak about what he wants to tell her. Maybe he’s just an affectionate parent who doesn’t know how to put this. Maybe he’s also thinking about himself, because if this girl stays his life is not going to be as he planned. But I don’t want to over interpret the film, it needs to be as ambiguous and complex as life is.