Ella Veres sat down with filmmaker Marian Crişan to discuss his film Morgen.
In December of 2011, Marian Crişan’s film Morgen—Romania’s entry for the Academy Awards—opened the Romanian Film Festival at Lincoln Center. Crişan has won the 2006 Palme d’Or for his short film, Megatron, and the 2010 Special Jury Prize at the Locarno Film Festival for Morgen, his feature debut. Morgen is about the friendship that develops between aa simple man living on a farm in Romania and a Turkish man, an illegal trying to cross the border with Hungary in order to reach his son who is living in Germany.
Mr. Crişan is an amiable young man with DVDs spilling out of his black coat pockets. He speaks softly. He multitasks, constantly fiddling with his smartphone.
Ella Veres What gave you the idea for the film?
Marian Crişan In 2007, I spent my Christmas vacation in my hometown, Salonta. Salonta is a small town, situated on the border between Romania and Hungary. I remember it was very cold, and I sat at home and read. I tend to read the local newspapers when I’m there. I read a story that began with, “Two Turkish immigrants tried to cross the border illegally. They were caught by the police in the frozen canal.” This small paragraph saddened me, because in our town things like this don’t really happen, Salonta being a pretty quiet town. I began to imagine a story, in that exact place, between a migrant and a local. It’s just like the Italian Neorealism; they write their scripts using newspaper articles.
This type of situation happens everywhere, not only on our border. Also, I wanted to look at the weird way people meet each other.
EV What seems original and minimalist for those watching the film abroad is actually due to a lack of money.
MC The matter is very complex. One facet is indeed that when you have a small budget you can’t make big things, it’s as simple as that. It’s poverty, it’s realism. It is minimalism and a mixture between the power of film production, and a craving for telling real stories, about reality, not like those from the ’80s, which they were only saying were realistic—“the socialist reality.” Now we can talk about “true” realism, which other people had stopped making. It’s a time period that I liken to Italian Neorealism.
Our movies seem striking abroad because they are close to people, are made simply, are “down to earth.” This strikes people because they have forgotten about that style, have passed that stage.
EV What’s up with Diego? It all happens because of him. He abandons the Turkish refugee in the middle of nowhere, because he doesn’t have enough money.
MC Well, yes. The Turk is of no interest to him. No pay, no bother. That character is a real person. He is a cousin of mine. His nickname is Diego because he was a big fan of Diego Maradona, and he had curly hair, so people called him Diego! I said, “Let’s have a Diego in the film.” He stayed behind in Salonta, I moved to Bucharest, but he really lived through situations involving illegal border crossing. People lived through this, especially in the ’90s. He went through much, and he saw much. He was a symbol for us. He had to be in the movie: he made me believe in what I was doing. He told me a lot of stories. He blew my mind.
EV I remember the early ’90s at the Hungarian border: the black marketeers’ buses; waiting to cross at the border for even as long as a day, until the bribable border guards came on shift. The humiliation. That’s all gone now. It’s a breeze to cross the border now.
MC Yes, incredible things were going on with the gasoline, with cigarettes, with people. Like everywhere else, border zones are active places. Every year something happens. One year sugar is cheaper in Hungary. Everybody goes to buy sugar in Hungary, bring it to Romania. Then gasoline gets cheaper in Romania than in Hungary. They go back and take it to Hungary. Unbelievable, the things that go on there! One could make many movies on this subject. It’s a pity no one was on top of it and made documentaries because it is part of Eastern European history. At one point there was a man’s house that was filled with tons of sugar in Salonta!
EV He was waiting for the prices to fluctuate?
MC No, he already had clients coming from Hungary to buy sacks of sugar. The price difference was double! It was not long ago, three or four years ago. Then it was gasoline; before Romania entered the EU the gasoline was half the price. Hungary was already in the EU, so their prices were aligned to the EU prices. There it was two lei, here one leu. If you took gasoline over there to sell, you could make loads of money
EV You were saying that this film is a western of sorts?
MC I like westerns. One of my favorite movies is Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon. I like to think that my main character is a somewhat Western character. He doesn’t have a gun, but . . .
EV Why do you call it a western? He’s certainly not a macho sex symbol. He’s rather asexual, the way kids see their parents. He doesn’t smoke cigars or drink, doesn’t quick draw his gun, doesn’t fight— well, apart from a good soccer brawl. What kind of cowboy is this?
MC He is a loner, uncommunicative, but he jumps to help you when you need it, exactly the type of person you meet in those places of Romania. He is the perfect blend of my family and friends there. I wanted him to give me the feeling that he was from my hometown. Also, the relationship with his wife is specific to that place: the wife is somehow the boss at home.
EV Indeed he helps her with the dish washing, does the rinsing, helps her around the house. It’s endearing, even feminist, outlandish. His mantra seems to be: The family sticks together. He thus understands the Turk fugitive, who has to go to his son in Germany.
MC Yes, the major theme is family.
EV You said you wanted actors from Salonta. There is life away from the big city, the capital, the sinful, corroding, alienating, pestilential agglomeration. Do these words ring a bell?
MC No, no. Each film has its own story. This film was written and conceived to be in Salonta. My next movie is set in an urban area with 300,000 inhabitants, in Oradea, a city. The truth is that it was more comfortable for me to write Morgen because I knew the people I was talking about. I’ll write other stories in other settings. It depends on how important those stories seem at the moment, to make you sit down and write them. There has to be a grain of truth, artistic truth, otherwise you can’t write it. And then after you write it, convince I don’t know how many tens of people to film it, and to give you money.
EV Are you saying it’s time to go back home, to our humble source, away from the city where we ventured to make our fortunes? We can do that now. The Internet and mobile phones put the world at our fingertips.
MC No, but it’s a rule older than time that you should write about what you know. It’s essential for an artist. Of course I’d be delighted to make a genre movie, a thriller, that demands you follow a set structure while making it, but when you make an auteur film, it’s rather like writing a novel. You’re looking for an essence that’s hard to explain. So you stick to things that you know best. Porumboiu went back to Vaslui. Cristi Puiu’s first two films were made in the neighborhood where he grew up. Scorsese filmed in the Bronx and in Little Italy, where he knew the stories. He lived with those stories. I filmed in Salonta because I knew the details of that world, more than I know Bucharest, where I lived for less time. The Coen brothers returned to their hometown too, to make Fargo. Also, I like very much to work with amateurs. Some characters in the film are real people from my hometown; I thought they would fit very well in the setting.
EV How did they receive the film in Salonta?
MC Salonta is a city like any other in Romania: nothing special. If you walk the streets, you have the feeling that nothing is happening or that nothing will happen. But like any place, Salonta has its own stories.
EV Is this a fairytale? A parable? An imagination? Salonta is like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, the town where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Oradea, Salonta, Sarkad . . . If the film was negative you’d never mention these places by their real name, never ever. Or would you? You’re the Beloved Son of your hometown. The mayor awarded you the key to the city. What do you do with the key to the city?
MC Well, evidently I’m at home there, me and my family. We have many relatives, many friends. We’ve lived there, Romanians and Hungarians, since I don’t know when—the ’50s. We’re Salontans, and evidently when you start a commotion like this, when you need the support, well . . . Things have changed a lot in regard to the authorities, especially after the internal EU borders disappeared. Everything is more permissible, people are more open. I had all the support in the world. And though I wasn’t critical, still I opened a few drawers in which things weren’t alright. But that was not a problem because people already knew about them.
I didn’t say anything new, everybody knew it, from the lower to the top strata of society. People are not naïve, especially about what goes on there. I think it’s important for them, and for the authorities, to show how we live. In the end it’s not a secret. It should not be taboo. Yes, there are problems, there are illegal crossings, there are people who need help, but why should we hide it? It’s not just me saying it. The chief police in New York can easily say the same thing. We don’t live in the old times when we had to hide things. People evolve. But the borderlands by Ukraine are still filled with security to the teeth.
EV So you had no problems, like after Borat, when an entire village sued him?
MC Oh, no! but Borat was slanderous. Rightly so they sued him.
EV But you know what I’m saying, you descend on a community that is not used to filming. They imagine you make millions. Did you have to deal with that?
MC No, no, people were delighted. They gave us full support. They came to see the movie in extraordinary huge numbers. We scheduled it for three days of screening. We had about 2,000 viewers in a town of 20,000. They came and bought tickets to see the movie. We reopened the cinema for three evenings. They were delighted and moved. Many didn’t see the comical side but rather the dramatic aspects of their lives. We are in touch with the authorities there for the next project we film in Oradea and partly in Salonta, and we have their support. It is important for communities to get exposure. Why not see other geographical zones on screen? People are open and intelligent enough to welcome this.
EV The film doesn’t end when it ends on the screen. You embed border stories around your story. You’re now a receptacle of your audience’s stories. What happens when a woman at the Lincoln Center Film Festival opening party comes to you and says, You know, I’m from your county. They come tell you small town stories. They have shy pride in their humble place of birth. They’re not from the capital. How does that feel? How does it feel to have now people come pitch their story ideas?
MC I’m curious to hear stories. One of my short movies started from an encounter on a train with a high school friend, from ten years earlier. She told me she took the Salonta kids on weekends to Oradea, 40 kilometers away, to McDonald’s. She said, “McDonald’s is one of our little moments of happiness.” This stuck in my head. It took me two years until I managed to write it—fictionalized, sure—and now it’s a movie. But there has to be that primary moment, so the impression is strong enough to make you write for months and months. You take your vows with the story to finish it. If you finish it. You might not finish it. You start it, and maybe you finish it, maybe you don’t finish it.
EV There is an absence in the movie. The absence, the memories of the years before, of how it used to be before the EU, before the revolution, are embedded in the film. Where are the young people in the village landscape? Missing. Some, a few, go to the soccer game. The son is away attending college. Where are the Gypsies? Gone too! They’re mentioned all the time but absent on the screen. The Kurd becomes the town’s Gypsy. One of the characters says, “I don’t know why I’m doing this, driving along the border with a Turk in my car. We should get him Romanian citizenship, as if we don’t have enough Gypsies as it is.” The absence was interesting to me.
MC Well, this is part of the film, but also part of our reality. That’s how it is, the youngest generations leave to Cluj, Oradea, Bucharest, to university, then they stay there. From amongst my friends, out of ten, just one or two went back to Salonta.
But about the Gypsies, well, the Gypsies don’t live on these farms. The film has mainly this landscape of fields, ravines, empty endless spaces. The Gypsies of Salonta live in a small neighborhood, in Cigán Város, and they are quite interesting characters, but the film is not about them. It’s a bit rough and harsh that Gypsy slurs are thrown in the Turk’s face, but this is what goes on. It is what it is, I can’t change it with a film.
And let me add, they are Gypsies not Rroms, and proud about it. They’re a very interesting culture.
Ella Veres is a writer/performer/image maker living in New York City.