Short Talk with Ioana Mischie

Yellow Bread talked to the Romanian up-and-coming talent Ioana Mischie about her short film “237 Years” as well as the Romanian short film scene and short filmmaking, among other subjects.

Can you tell us about your background?

Ioana Mischie: My background progressively embraced storytelling through creative writing, philosophy, screenwriting, filmmaking and more recently, interactive concepts. Through storytelling, I aim to become what Buckminster Fuller used to call an “architect of the future”.

Apart of the international trainings that I have attended with an insatiable drive, I have graduated in Audio-Visual Communication BA and the Screenwriting MA program of UNATC, and I am currently enrolled in my PhD studies on trans-media storytelling. The last three research years completely reshaped the way I tend to perceive or imagine stories. If at first I couldn’t imagine a balance between art and research, now I cannot separate them anymore.

As part of my previous artistic praxis, I have written and co-written 15 student short scripts and have directed student films that have traveled around the world. I have then completed two documentary series, commissioned by Channel 4 and the first one had a record of views in the UK immediately after launching. Working in the UK was one of the most enriching, challenging and eye-opening experiences at that time and I feel I have evolved professionally ever since. More recently, I have launched interactive experiments, within the creative group Storyscapes that were furthermore selected for Cross Video Days, Doc Tank, i_Doc and The Steamer Salon.

Since 2011 I am officially in love with the cinematic universe entitled 237 years – it was my BA graduation thesis and after numerous development paths, after being selected at the Berlinale Talents – Script Station, Sundance Workshop Capalbio, Balkan Film Connection and Low Budget Film Forum it has now reached a tonic and compelling 5th draft. It started as a feature-length script and it has become now a multi-layered fictional universe.

During my studies, the premises of this story have been closely shaped with the help of outstanding professors, visionaries and film producers, to name just a few: Valeriu Dragusanu, Alby James, Marian Sanchez Carniglia, among many others. In the past 2 years, while presenting it at the International Screenwriters’ Pavilion in Cannes it has caught the attention of Vanessa Djian, the Head of Development of Légende Films, and Alain Goldman, the CEO of Légende Films, and with their support we have finalized the current prologue. Without their trust and support, this story would have followed a completely different route that would have been less personal and authentic. So, they became the spiritual parents of this journey.

I feel privileged and grateful for everything that has happened so far and even more privileged and grateful for everything that is about to happen.

“237 Years” is your 2nd short and it was inspired by real-life events, right? Can you talk about it?

I.M.: “237 years” is the first professional short fiction film after graduating my MA and it is conceived as a prologue for the homonymous feature-length film. It is inspired by real-life events collected from my region and from the surrounding Balkan countries and reimagined into a collective fictional universe.

In 2007, there were 8 million Romanians that were making a living out of the social aids income. The number grew every year, reaching almost half the population. In Greece, there was a remote island where everyone declared to be blind, although they had driving licenses. I have encountered similar situations in other European countries as well. After a detailed research, I have conceived an organic fictional universe that would open up valid questions and debates related to this matter.

What prompted you to make it?

 I.M.: The short film started as an experiment in many ways, as a hybrid film – it was initially a way to test and improve the wider script. It is an exploration, a search for rhythm, balance, dramatical correctness.

It turned out to be a prologue for the expanded fictional universe, as a teaser and an anticipation of it. I imagine this story universe as much wider, similar to a multi-layered trans-media universe, where the short film is only a fragment, a glimpse, a facet of a multi-faceted world.

When I began to work on the short script in detail, it started to gain its own autonomy. Moreover, when working with actors, the hierarchies within the script changed. The dialogues were shaped by improvisation. It started to take shape as a film, not only as a test. Moreover, there are elements that are slightly changed for the short film – the inspector has a more intensified presence, while in the expanded world the villagers are the main voice of the story. The short film obliged us to make decisions that would underline the story from a different perspective.

I am infinitely grateful to have collaborated with Légende Films in order to complete this cinematic piece. It is thanks to their support and investment that this independent short came to life and thanks to the outstanding crew that had faith in this cinematic journey.

How was the shooting process?

I.M.: The shooting process was of one of the most enriching learning processes I have faced. It was for the first time when a story, incubated for 5 years, fragmented and adjusted, took shape through improvisation with actors, through a careful production design, through all the intricate details it encompasses. With all its qualities and flaws, it turned out to be a revelatory process.

We shot the short film in 3 days – proudly without overtime – while having more than 20 characters and numerous locations in the rural and urban area. This would not have been possible without brilliant crew members who were highly supportive and efficient. I had the luck to collaborate with outstanding Romanian professionals such as Viorel Sergovici (RSC) for the directing of photography, with dedicated actors – Mircea Andreescu, Alexandru Georgescu, Iulia Lumanare, Cristian Bota, to name just the lead cast, with great executive producers on the local front – Alma Bacula being one of them. I had the luck to discover immensely talented non-professional actors such as Tomas Otto Ghela or Ion Sora.

Although Légende is the initiator of the production and the lead of it, on the local level Icon Films succeeded in creating an impeccable infrastructure for the short and Studioset completed the post-production. It turned out to be a meaningful French-Romanian collaboration.

If one day we expand this story world, I have gained many aspects to learn from, but also many aspects to improve. I would go for a more radical and personal cinematic grammar, for even more openness towards improvisation and for the discovery of more of the local picturesque characteristic that would reveal a documentary-driven feel.

It is made in the tradition of art-house film hits like for instance “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and “Tales from the Golden Age”. Can you comment on that?

 I.M.: I am a distant admirer of the philosophy in “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” for its authenticity and of Cristi Puiu in general whom I consider a bold philosopher of  Romanian cinema. In the same measure, I am fond of the compelling atmosphere of the “Tales from the Golden Age” that succeeds in combining powerful storytelling with playful directorial choices. These are only two examples out of an odyssey of films that have shaped or challenged my views that might seem contradictory at first but that are complementary to me.

Spirit-wise, with this project, I feel closer to “Tales from the Golden Age” for the bittersweet, playful tone it prolongs.

However, philosophically-wise, “237 Years” has its own expanded realism path. I like to call it a multi-realist film because it explores the different realities of each character, especially when confronted with the other-ness. The reality of the inspector does not coincide with the reality of the villagers.

It is an attempt to question the very concept of realism and to expand on it, but this will only happen in time. In other words, in the longer run, it aims to reframe “realism” and anticipate a distinct, much wider contemporary paradigm.

But, you also told Variety that it is “an intersection between the atmosphere of Emir Kusturica and the style of Wes Anderson”. Can you talk about that?

 I.M.: Sometimes, associating a film with already existing films might create false expectations; however, it may also help to root a familiar or inspirational tone.

The wider story universe is inspired by the vivid musical rural atmosphere of Kusturica’s universe and by the visual geometries of Anderson. However, it has a highly personal tone in reconciling the story with its local roots. As a specificity, I want to insist on creating an intimacy within the characters that is not often epitomized in contemporary cinema. Also, I would like to design a choreography for the filmic rhythm – the visual geometry would be absolutely unbalanced at first and would become more balanced towards the end. In shorter lines, I am searching for a balance between well-driven narrative and carefully-captured visuals that would not become tautological but separately meaningful.

Although the short film is deliberately going for a softer cinematic grammar, it contains seeds for a further cinematic work. In the short film, we have tried to maintain the story frame as a focal point, without decomposing it excessively and without over-personalizing it.

“237 Years” also has strong local roots but also a Balkanic touch…

 I.M.: It is a cinematic story that is deeply rooted in local characteristics. I grew up in the countryside, in the village of Arcani, and the film inherits much of the customs, gestures and multi-layered features encountered there. This is the most personal core of it. The mindsets, the dialogues, the practices are much inspired by some of the directly observed Romanian modus vivendi. So, it is first and foremost local. As local as it may be… More local than a region, locally connected to my inner self.

The Balkanic touch comes more from the research part – I have tried to discover if this phenomenon is wider than a strictly local story and I have discovered iterative patterns. The Balkanic is more an attempt to include the story in a collective consciousness rather than to maintain it isolated.

You also said that it is “a comedy about sorrow and a drama about happiness”. Can you elaborate on that?

I.M.: I find it hard to include this story into an axiomatic category or genre. Instead, I do feel it is conceived as a balance of contraries. It is a playground, after all. My challenge as a storyteller is to balance these contraries in order to find a rhythm.

Although told in a gentle humorous approach, “237 Years” tackles matters that can be equally dramatic and serious. Therefore, I aim to embrace this bivalence and to transpose it into the core of the film.

It is a comedy about sorrow because it depicts a rather unfortunate situation humorously and it is a drama about happiness because it portrays an illusory joie de vivre while revealing the sadness of its background. Moreover, within the film, the roles change constantly, so that there are no characters that are solely sorrowed or solely happy, but rather a perpetuum mobile of the two.

To me filmmaking remains a research process. And the main core of this research is how to balance contraries in a compelling way, how to embrace the multi-layered characteristic of being without reducing it to a tag. In the longer run – how to design non-reductionist juridical systems, societal systems, ethical systems? As any research, there are no immediate results; there is only a constant search. This short film is not an answer either; it is a set of questions that remain open and debatable.

 Your characters are not greedy and they don’t want to get rich but they behave like this because they need to survive. Do you think you have managed to create characters that convey empathy and solidarity? How would you characterize them?

I.M.: It is hard to measure the empathy level and it is even harder to measure the solidarity level. I feel they are not conveyed to their fullest, they are only portrayed as possibilities in the short film. It was a deliberate decision in order not to overload the viewer with information. If we had developed the villagers world in detail, it wouldn’t have fit a short work.

In the short film, the accent seems to be put more on the authorities, while the villagers are at first completely mysterious beings who are slowly unraveling their mystery towards the end. The Inspector is the one who takes the lead and we follow his route in order to explore the story. It is a more straight-forward route that might feel less poetic than the intricate rural world, but more suspenseful.

The background of the many characters can only become clearly noticeable in the expanded film. It is immensely challenging to fully convey their previous lifestyle, their panoply of beliefs or evolution under the time constrictions of a short. However, there is a key moment in the short film that anticipates the position of the villagers – the confession of the mayor that brings us closer to their inner reasons. It is the investigation itself when the Inspector questions the mayor. That moment is a window into the inner drives of the villagers. Apart of that moment of unpredictable truth, there are only remote puzzle pieces that might even mislead the spectator at times, before allowing him/her to discover to wider picture.

To me, personally, I feel their survival is the core of the story. Their jobs no longer exist, they are taxidermists, hunters, carpenters, which leads you into a neo-archaic world that has no formal place in a capitalist world. They are witnessing themselves in a “no man’s land”, geographically-wise, administratively-wise, legally-wise. To me, they are “the last of the Mohicans” of rural villages facing a globalized world. They fight for their rights, despite all the hold-ups of the system they live in – diminishing the retirements or the inexistence of working places. Of course, all these are layers that are hard to extract explicitly from the short film, but they still remain at the root of the cinematic project.

 “237 Years” is a short that satirizes the bureaucratic system. Why did you feel the need to tell this story? Do you think it will make an impact?

I.M.: Duchamp used to call cinema a “philosophical toy”. I feel, to a certain extent, that “237 Years” is a philosophical playground – it may address a myriad of questions, it may challenge attitudes and it may involve controversies as well. But what is the most important to me is that it opens up a debate; a debate about people versus the system, about moral decisions versus legal decisions, a debate about solidarity versus egocentrism, about leadership versus chaos.

I like to perceive it as an open satire that is not only inter-connected to the bureaucratic system but to whom we have become without noticing it. We are witnessing so many high-speed changes in our local societies that the wisest step is simply to stop from time to time to observe them and only afterwards make strategies for a longer term. In Romania, these hurried changes are still generating confusion and chaos that we need to overcome and we can overcome them only through honest, detailed debates.

The story-world portrays a multi-layered system where it becomes harder and harder to address guilt or to make justice. At first, the villagers would seem guilty for tricking the legal system. However, it then becomes a highly twisted situation when we discover their moral reasons. The aim, however, is not to address the guilt to one (state) or another (community) or to encourage manicheist judgments, but rather to try to create an in-depth understanding of a complex societal fresque. We are together in this and in order to reach a more open system, a more balanced system, we need  to listen to each other, to understand each other.

“237 Years” deals with a community of people who created their own moral rules in the lack of any state support. When they are confronted with the “legal society,” everything almost collapses.

One of the most present questions in my mind, when creating this story was: how can we balance the truths in a society, or more precisely, in a juridical system? How can we identify and quantify the legal truth, the moral truth, the spiritual truth? How can we evaluate them? Legally-wise, the villagers are tricksters; morally-wise the villagers are visionary heroes.

“237 Years” works as a metaphorical unity measure to question these layers – it means 237 years of arrest from a legal point of view and it might mean simultaneously 237 years of gratitude from a moral point of view, depending on the facet you choose to value.

Impact-wise, it will be very hard to measure the direct consequences. But if anyone watches the film and ends up with a question, instead of an answer, I would call that a constructive impact.

What is Balkan cinema to you? What is the difference with Romanian cinema? Is there any, according to you?

I.M.: I feel it is immensely hard to categorize films and it may even be something to be avoided, as it may fall into reductionist traps. However, if I am allowed to have a highly personal opinion, to me Balkan cinema is an attitude towards life. It is not necessarily rooted geographically in the Balkans, but it conserves a spirit, a pathos, a recognizable rhythm. I tend to identify the Balkan spirit through many layers: layered humor, bravery, poetry of the mundane, folklore, inventiveness…

Romanian cinema is even more personalized culturally, having at times a rare bittersweet profoundness, a gift of authentic, seldom sarcastic self-reflection. And moreover, as I come from the South of Romania, from a region called Oltenia, I feel that that region has a specific consciousness as well. This doesn’t mean, however, that all Romanian films are similar, but they tend to tackle with a more natural ease inherited in their cultural DNA some aspects than others.

As Carrière used to say, cinema is as specific for a country as its folklore. It would be interesting to research this matter in-depth. We would discover not only a more evocative cinema grammar, but a more evocative self.

 Romanian cinema is enjoying a big success worldwide. But, what about the Romanian short film scene?

I.M.: The Romanian short film scene is even more intriguing, as it is highly diversified and personal most of the times. Also, it is more equal-chances driven, encouraging both female and male voices, while the features playground remains rather conservative. Festivals-wise, Romanian short films are traveling, however, without as many media echoes as features. There was a short film selected in Cannes in the official shorts competition this year (“4:15 AM Sfarsitul Lumii”, directed by Catalin Rotaru and Gabi Virginia Sarga), an awarded short film in the Berlinale Generation Competition program (“O noapte in Tokoriki” directed by Roxana Stroe), just to name a few. Recently, when curating a short film selection, I was immensely proud to discover that young filmmakers are creating 3D films as well, interactive short films, a VR project, sci-fi attempts…

There are plenty of premieres in the short filmmaking field and it is much more dynamic than the features sector in a way, but with a decreased media visibility. I feel it is a great time to be part of the Romanian short film scene for the amount of energy it has and spreads. However, it would be vital to have a better financing infrastructure that would encourage this field on the basis of meritocracy. Most of the short films are independent productions and this creates many difficulties for the production and distribution process. When the infrastructures are fixed, I feel Romanian short filmmaking will have a more powerful and impactful voice.

In our case, “237 Years” is a short film independently produced by the French production company Légende Films.

 What is your opinion on short films? Do you see them as a showcase of talent and a pre-requisite for the jump to features? I am asking this because it was born, if I understood correctly, out of the feature film you have been preparing for the last five years…

 I.M.: “237 Years” is a hybrid; it is not a pure short film that was envisaged like this from the beginning. It is an anticipation of the feature-length film. It was conceived as a prologue for the feature, as a fragment of a much wider fictional universe. It is not an apology for pure short filmmaking, but rather for serial filmmaking. It is an exception in many ways and it is hard to fit it in a category. It started as a cinematic experiment and you can feel this path throughout the cinematic journey.

However, in the same measure, it was not conceived solely as a formal pre-requisite for the feature either. It has a round autonomy, a tone of its own, a direction of its own that might be or might not be encountered in the wider work.

Although the financial system might value more short films as pre-requisite for features, I feel it is up to us to decide how we perceive, conceive and picture short films. It is up to us to educate short filmmaking, to practice it and to discover its core.

To me, short films are what Jean Renoir used to call a “state of mind”. That state of mind might reflect compelling stories, might reflect a bold directorial vision, might reflect complexity…

If cinema were a human being, short or long, comedies or dramas could feel as discriminatory attempts to categorize it. I feel cinema shouldn’t be discriminated. Well-crafted cinema will find its voice and should find its voice.

What are your next projects – apart from the feature film?

I.M.: A personal project is to take more time to observe, to question, to discover what surrounds me. Short filmmaking-wise, we have a short film in post-production, “Goya”, that was recently made during Mon Film Fest, in Casale Monferrato, Italy.

In the upcoming months, I aim to focus on finishing my PhD thesis on trans-media storytelling, on its ethical implications and to reserve more time for research and writing in general. I am recently collaborating with CINETic, a first Romanian research institute in the audio-visual field, that explores the interaction between neuroscience, VR, AR, MR and expanded audio-visual forms. Furthermore, we have in development an interactive documentary – Who are we made of? Investigating the inspirational DNA made by our personal heroes. The project has won The Interactive Project Award at The Steamer Salon and I am looking forward to completing the project with the help of Raconter professionals.

Will come back to shorts once you have made your debut feature?

I.M.: Filmmaking has its own irreplaceable charm, meaning and impact, regardless of its length, format or configuration. If we analyze it extensively, the length of a film, after all, is mostly relevant to distributors. I consider that short filmmaking or feature filmmaking can become in the same measure the root of pure cinema, as long as you have a meaningful story. The answer is an absolute yes, I would not make a hierarchy in which a debut feature would top everything, but I would rather aim to have a meaningful question to address with every film.

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