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The Man Who Changed Oscar’s Rules

"Beyond the Hills" director Cristian Mungiu had an impact on the Oscars long before he was selected by its voters for the shortlist


Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu has landed on the Academy's foreign-language shortlist with his new film "Beyond the Hills," but the director had an impact on the Oscars long before he was selected by its voters.

In 2007, his film "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and finished atop numerous critics' lists — but it didn't even make the Oscar shortlist, prompting a huge outcry from fans of international cinema.

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"4 Months" was the most notable of a number of acclaimed but snubbed films that led to the Academy's Board of Governors demanding changes in the all-volunteer voting process.

The controversy led to the establishment of an executive committee that "saves" challenging films that might otherwise be overlooked by the more conservative general voters — a fate that likely happened this year with "Beyond the Hills," a stark, slow film about a young girl who travels to an Orthodox religious community where her best friend has taken up residence.

The film will be released in the U.S. in spring 2013 by Sundance Selects.

Were you following the controversy when "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" didn't make the shortlist, and the Oscar foreign-language process was changed?
I was aware that the rules were changed, yes. People were very disappointed in Romania, to be honest.

A lot of people were disappointed in America, too.
Some of them were very nice and helpful and wrote about this, and it was a comfort for all of us. But I had to explain to people in Romania that you have to accept the rules of the game, and you have to accept that people have different tastes for film. Our way of understanding film is not necessarily close to what is appreciated here, and we have to accept this. You can't argue about taste. And if some day we do something that is closer to their taste, they will appreciate it.

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What is your way of “understanding film?"
It's something we take very seriously in Romania. We really think a lot about your responsibility as a filmmaker, and we're trying not to be manipulative. We're trying to have an ethics in our work and our understanding of what cinema is about.

So what is the essence of cinema? This is what kids need to be taught at university. And it's very difficult to give a firm answer. It's not about storytelling, which is in writing also. It's not about images, because you also have photography. It's not about light, it's not about painting, it's not about music. It's about a lot of things, but for me primarily it's about understanding how time flows. There's no other art that can portray how time flows.

I developed a way of storytelling while working as a journalist and writing short stories, which evolved later on into my style of writing screenplays. It's a way of structuring information, and it's turned into a way of shooting. I don't use editing. I'm just shooting one shot per scene, even if this is awfully complicated to have everything in just one shot. I want to avoid showing myself in the film. I don't see anybody in life pointing out to me, "This is more important than that," therefore I don't want to do this to the spectator.

Also read: Changes in the Controversial Oscar Foreign-Language Process? Don't Hold Your Breath

Did the success of "4 Months" make it difficult to choose a follow-up?
Yes. That's a very powerful film, and it was wonderfully received. I had to figure out what to do next, and all of a sudden it's more complicated because people will always compare your next film with the one before.

I couldn't radically change the way I understand cinema. But I wanted to set my next film in the present times, not in the Communist times. I moved on from 24 hours, a portion of time which is very easy to handle with long takes, to several days, which is much more complicated in terms of storytelling.

You chose the story of a teenage girl who goes into hysterics while visiting a friend in a convent and ends up undergoing an exorcism of sorts at the hand of the priest and nuns in a conservative Orthodox community.
It's a true story that everybody in Romania was aware of because it was very popular in the press. All the Romanian directors and some foreign directors wanted to make a film of it. Polanski wanted to make a film of it. It was very popular, even if the press completely massacrated [sic] the story. They said the priest crucified a girl. Come on, it's not crucifying. It's a lot of ignorange, incompetence, povery, superstitition and bad circumstances. And I decided to make the film when years had passed and nobody had tackled the subject.

But you fictionalized it.
I needed to free myself from the real story. At some point I realized I didn't have any responsibilty to the real story. I preserved the core of it, but I needed it to become fictional because the film needed to speak about general values of mankind and not about a very specific situation.

What is your religious background?
We are all baptized as Orthodox, so technically that's what I am. But I was not given a religious education. I discovered things more or less on my own. And I wanted to make a film not for or against religion, but maybe about religion.

For me, religion is the background of what happens. The real story is the people, their everyday life, and how they experience such a complex situation. And it's aobut the need to make decisions for yourself. In this community you are told that it's all right not to question anything. But at the end you realize that responsibility and guilt are personal, and it's better to make your own decisions.

The toughest thing on the set was to handle the different degrees of religious beliefs of the crew and actors. That is why I build the whole [church] set. I wanted to avoid people thinking we were playing with things that are sacred to them. But it was still very difficult, and there was a lot of adrenaline on the set at some points.

And now you're representing Romania at the Oscars once again.
What we expect from the Oscars, and from being part of this, is that a curiosity is being raised from this competition. People care a lot about the Oscars. It’s the most popular award in the world. So I hope that people will be curious to watch the film because of this. At the end of the day, that is the award that is the more substantial: the award of having people coming to watch the film.


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