Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema opens tonight with Tudor Giurgiu’s latest feature Of Snails and Men. We sat down with Giurgiu and actors Andi Vasluianu and Monica Bîrlădeanu to discuss the true events that inspired the film, balancing humor and drama, the Romanian film community, and sperm donation.
I’m curious about the title and whether John Steinbeck’s work influenced the film at all.
Tudor Giurgiu: For us it was a long process to reach the actual title. It wasn’t a direct influence. Initially the film was called Made in Romania. The scriptwriter and I hated it and we wanted the title to refer to the main problem of the film: How do you deal with an entire group of people facing post-Communist changes? How do you administer freedom? So having the snails in the film is a way to keep it present in every part of the story. I won’t say there’s a real strong connection between Steinbeck’s work and the film, but it’s a literary reference but that’s about it.
This story is based on true events, right?
TG: Yes, it actually happened in 2002, not 1992. This big factory existed that produced 4x4 cars, which were sold all over the world. The factory went into bankruptcy and there were a lot of people interested in buying it, but they wanted to buy it for nothing. In the real situation they sold the factory for $300,000 and the guys who bought it sold it about a year later for millions. That is one typical privatization story from Romania. This affected the entire city because most of the men in that town were employed there and the women were too. And the story goes that a sperm bank opened in 2002 and there were Romanian students making money by donating their sperm, so the worker came up with the idea that they could do that. They made the plan to donate sperm, announced it to the media—we found the archived footage of that—and everyone did laugh about it. The story was in the international press, Reuters and CNN, and in the end of 2002 Business 2.0 named it the seventh dumbest business idea in the world.
Dumbest? I thought it was a great idea!
TG: [Laughing] Well it is great, but it’s dumb. Our screenwriter came up with the idea that the 1,000 workers would actually go to donate. Why not? This was the starting point for the script.
It’s interesting that the event happened in 2002 because of the situation in the U.S., in Detroit, where it’s become an increasingly hard time for the working class. It seems to also be true in Romania.
TG: Many people have told me that they can relate. I was surprised that even in Sweden, in the far northern part of Europe, they could relate, and also in South America. I’ve really enjoyed how it is turning local and has meaning in different parts of the world.
Right. It’s a story that we’ve heard before in some ways, such as with Human Resources, the French film, or Made in Dagenham, the British film, but it was much more unique in a lot of ways. Maybe you could talk about Romanian filmmaking and how it contributes to that uniqueness.
TG: It’s pretty simple. Most of our projects are funded by the Romanian National Film Center, which is an organization like what the French have. We have the Film Center and then if more money is needed after the budget is given we look for additional private funding. And we also do co-productions. The climate in Romania is to do more co-productions because there is not as much funding as there was before 2007, which is how it is in much of Europe. And Andi could tell you more about the acting. There are many good actors.
Andi Vasluianu: Yeah, there are many good actors, but it’s hard to find work. There are those few actors who play more than the others. It’s a small community.
TG: Yes. If you look at the Romanian films of the past few years at Cannes or wherever, you see there are a couple of directors from the same production company. So it’s small like that, which is a nice feeling. You don’t feel pressure from a big studio, which allows the films to be very personal. The success of Romanian cinema is that they tell human stories, inspired by our way of life.
Director Tudor Giurgiu
Now that you say that, Andi, you were in Radu Gabrea’s films Red Gloves and Gruber’s Journey, and he has a film in this series at Film Society as well, so I can see that it’s a smaller community. Could you talk a little about the differences between working with these directors?
AV: I can’t say if Tudor was better than Gabrea or Gabrea was better than Tudor because it would be bad for me. [Laughing]
[Laughing] No, of course not. But maybe talk about their styles or what it’s like working with them.
AV: Laughing. Well, Gabrea’s a little older than Tudor.
Yes. He’s 75, I think.
AV: They are different, but Gabrea has a story and he wants to tell the story in a certain way and he asks me to play in a certain direction. With Tudor, he and I talk about the character a lot and the direction it should go. I think that's because we are in the same generation. We speak the same generational language.
It’s great that you’ve worked with so many directors.
AV: I am lucky. I have learned a lot from each one I work with.
In the film, there’s a genetic classism and racism that occurs. Do you see this actually happening?
AV: In the actual story that did not happen.
TG: Right. When the scriptwriter started the story he wanted to write a social drama. It was really important for him to talk about the poor workers in Romania who did not have a chance to escape that life. The post-Communist sharks did not want to help the worker. They were running things in the 90s and did not care at all about the people. We wanted to pay attention to the human details and how people were affected by the early years of post-Communism. While developing the story people told the scriptwriter that it had relevant social elements, but that it was really a comedy. So he stuck with the social elements, but wrote a comedy. I told him it would be good to have a comedy, but we can’t avoid the social issues either.
One thing that I really liked and appreciated was that many Romanian critics and journalists were praising the film because they said it was the first film where the working class was treated well, with sensitivity and without humiliation. During Communism there were propaganda films, but the worker, in particular, was shown as crazed and unintellectual. And then after the fall of Communism in 1990 workers disappeared from Romanian film almost completely, and if they were shown they were put in negative situations. So we wanted to look back at our recent past and analyze what really happened, but with a tender look because it was very dramatic for many families in those small communities.
I’m curious about what it was like for women just post-Communism. Manuela has a job. Was that frowned upon because she did not have a family and was not married yet?
Monica Bîrlădeanu: In 1992 I was 14 so I can’t say I lived Manuela’s life at all, but as a reference my cousins were older and they did have similar jobs. One of Manuela’s outfits was inspired by one of my cousins who was a secretary in a factory that made electronic pieces for radios. I remember her allure and demeanor, and she was frowned upon. She was living with her mother, she was 26, and she was not married. They would say she was a, what’s the word they say?
MB: Yes, a spinster. [Laughing] I’m 33 and not married, which is okay now. In those years having a job was definitely something you had to have to be respected, but if you were 30 and unmarried then it was assumed that something was wrong with you. So that’s why Manuela has a wall toward everyone. We don’t see her friends. She’s not very socially outgoing.
How are women culturally accepted in Romania today?
MB: For women it has opened up a lot. It’s pretty much the same as it is here. I’ve been living in Los Angeles for seven years now and it seems the same. I go back to Romania a lot and have a deep loyalty to Romanian cinema, and I see that in smaller communities there is a lot of inertia still—mostly in the Northeast, where I come from. Information, change, and trends get there slower. Time stands still some in those places.
And how does that town look today, 10 years after this happened?
AV: Oh bad.
TG: It’s a disaster. We went to the town where the factory was and nothing is happening there. They sold everything. The town is not living. Many of the former workers immigrated to Spain or Italy for work and it’s sad.
AV: When we had our premiere it became clear that it was happening in another town as well. A factory is closing under the same circumstances as what we showed in the movie.
TG: Yea, it’s crazy. We released the film in September and at that time this big chemical factory in Râmnicu Vâlcea was being privatized. A lot of people asked if I knew that was happening before we started filming. So it’s still relevant even 10 years later. In Europe similar things continue to happen and people don’t know what to do.
Monica and Andi, I’m curious about what initial thoughts you had for your characters. Andi, your character is very complex: He cheats on his wife regularly, but he’s likeable and is trying to do the right thing in his situation.
AV: For an actor, he’s a provocative character to play. Everything is in the script in front of me, but it’s still complex. I met the real guy who was the union representative, but I didn’t want to use method acting and become the real guy. So I stuck to the script, and it’s very nice to be able to follow the script closely because that means you have a good script. Sometimes it’s harder to play this realistic of a character, but it was fine because of that. It was also great because we had a lot of talented actors in the film.
TG: At the beginning Andi’s character, Gica, is being described as a cheater, and we felt challenged by how we would make the audience, specifically the female audience, really like this character. If the women do not like this character then we’re in trouble because no one wants to watch for 90 minutes when they don’t like the main character because he’s a damn cheater. That’s why I wanted to push the relationship with his son and the importance of that. Everything that happened in the factory was driven by that relationship.
MB: What attracted me to Manuela was that she is so flawed. She has a deep sense of loyalty to the man she has feelings for, but she is not ready to break up a marriage and fight for him, so she keeps him at a distance that is safe for him and for her. However, the projection of their relationship is grim. I love that there is one thing she believes in, and that is loyalty to Gica. I liked that when the chaos starts and everyone is walking on moving sand, her survival instinct kicks in. She’s a woman caught in the midst of change in Romania and she is trying to survive in these circumstances. If that means being nicer to the boss than you should be, or flirting with his business partner, or moving to a completely different country to try and make ends meet, then that’s what she would do.
Choice is the worst thing you can give a person. Choosing is very difficult, especially in a society that has been used to having choices made for them. Choices were predecided by the communist party. Your life projection was clear. So freedom of choice is difficult. Another important component is the lack of information. The borders were now open, but people didn’t have the funds to travel or see the world right away, but they also never had a reason to. This created a lack of information, but your survival instincts still kick in when you’re put in these extreme situations.
That reminds me of the scene between Gica and the boss when the boss says, “You were out there chanting ‘freedom’ and this is what freedom gave you.” Do or did a lot of Romanians feel that way about the revolution?
MB: This problem of the freedom of choice was very difficult for older generations, like my mother’s generation who had been living for 45 years in a world that was predecided for them. Adjusting to a new society was difficult. To even think about becoming entrepreneurial is tough. The older generations do or did resent that. All of the sudden you’re thrown into deep waters and at an older age. The younger generation adjusted quicker. It’s a generational problem.
I think Americans can be naïve about saying democracy is for everyone because, even though the power to vote or to choose is great, it can’t be forced into a society because every culture is different and has to find out how it will fit. I like that the film notices that.
MB: There are generations that would rather live in the predesigned future. It would be a better choice for them than fighting for a future to choose. We’re also talking about inertia and it’s all very interesting.
Definitely. And I don’t want to give anything away, but the end is interesting because Andi could confront an issue that comes up, but instead he accepts his situation and doesn’t fight it, but that’s still making a choice.
AV: This was Tudor’s decision. I like the ending a lot.
Me too. And I was surprised by it.
AV: If you were in this real situation, I think you’d understand more because you don’t want to give up your life.
It’s a wise ending.
TG: We had three options and one option was to confront the issue, one was to say nothing and the other was the one we went with, which captured the spirit of the film best. It’s a little more psychological. Overall, what was surprising for me was the film’s success in Romania and outside Romania. It’s been much much better than we imagined. We are the number one box office hit in Romania and people really like it, I think because it’s got that human sensibility.
Years ago some friends of mine who knew I was telling this story told me,"Oh, we’re going to see the sperm film." [Laughing] They didn’t go into it with a very serious attitude. So the biggest compliment you can get as a director is that the film is better than the script and that it’s not uncomfortable to watch, yet addresses social issues. One of my favorite scenes is when he goes to donate for the first time and there were some nice gestures and movements suggested by Andi, which I did not buy at first. But when he closes the curtain you can feel his plight. Here is a simple human being in a very awkward situation, but he has to do this for the greater good.
I also think the idea of donating sperm is talked about flippantly or laughed at, but it’s something people do for a reason. In the scene where Gica is asked if he wants any of his donation to be able to contact him one day, there is that element of sadness and seriousness, which makes the humorous situation more complex. I think the same thing happens in that scene when the young French businessman comes to Manuela’s house and we get the humorous study in language barriers.
MB: It’s funny because any Romanian can speak Spanish at any given moment because our first import was telenovelas. Even if you didn’t watch them you would come home from school and your mother and aunt were having coffee in the afternoon and watching them. You catch lots of it. At any moment a Romanian could say lines like, “Estoy embarazada (I’m pregnant)" or "ella es tu hermana (She’s your sister)." You know, those punch lines. What’s interesting to me is to see how the humor comes across in different countries with the language. I’m sure some things are lost in translation, but others stick because we use a lot of languages.