By Pamela Cohn
Romanian filmmaker Mihaela Popescu’s feature film debut, Yet to Rule, had its world premiere at this year’s Woche der Kritik – Berlin Critics’ Week, a program founded four years ago by the German Film Critics Association (Verband der deutschen Filmkritik) that resides alongside the Berlinale festival with its own distinct cinema program and international roster of guests. Yet to Rule was written, directed, and edited by Popescu and is a beautifully realized surrealist drama, a work with an exceedingly high level of ambition and mystery that stews in the brain many days after watching it. There’s something about being ensconced in such a claustrophobic atmosphere on a big screen. I found the whole thing mesmerizing even though I was disoriented much of the time, even after I felt I had figured out the rules of the game. But from the first 360 shot in the courtroom, a location that was the genesis for the film, I was able to trust that the director was going to take me somewhere fascinating.
Popescu currently lives and works in London, where she is developing a documentary feature. After having worked in various capacities for other directors, she helmed her first short fiction film in 2013 called The Walk. While attending school in Chicago in 2014, she was awarded production funding from the Romanian National Cinema Center for her script for Yet to Rule. Whilst there, she also produced, directed, shot and edited a short documentary on gun violence in Chicago called On Another Corner, which world premiered at the 60th edition of DOK Leipzig this past October.
I spoke with her at the Hebbel am Ufer theater a few days ago, where she was participating as a member of this year’s Berlinale Talents to talk further about her stunning achievement:
Pamela Cohn (Desistfilm): How was it to have your world premiere in the context of the Woche der Kritik? The debate and discussion around the film called “A Sense of Structures” was very particular. As well, they set you up in dialogue about the film with two extraordinary women in their fields, French cinematographer Agnès Godard, and German film scholar and theorist, Marie-Luise Angerer. How did their critiques and approaches to the film affect you?
Mihaela Popescu: The three of us were given the opportunity to start this conversation the day before so I knew a bit about how they had seen and felt about it. The public debate was this conversation in motion and it was strange for me in some ways. The film is structured using different layers and in the context of this particular conversation, I really appreciated that both guests had watched the film several times, including in the cinema that night. This was the intention of the critics’ week moderator [Frédéric Jaeger], to structure the conversation also around his own impressions of the film. I was very curious about the reactions and I didn’t want to influence those thoughts. I also wanted the spectators to have their own opinions about it, of course.
Desistfilm: Why was this aspect of creating a role where two actors play essentially one interconnected human being, male and female, so important for the narrative you wanted to investigate, specifically about the power structures that exist in Romania?
Mihaela Popescu: The genesis of this binomial character came out of a very concrete experience of going into a Bucharest courtroom. I came to be there by accident, really, as a spectator. It had a very deep impact on me and I knew I should go back to see more. It really drew me in. That never went away. What was it that was so powerful for me? Why did it affect me so much? The very first draft of the script was based in realism, really unrecognizable from what it became.
Desistfilm: Do you mean based more in documentary practice?
Mihaela Popescu: Exactly. But I had written that first draft and I wasn’t satisfied because I knew I had to dig deeper so I kept going. When you continue to dig deeper, you start thinking about yourself eventually and how you translate what you see around you to your own experience. The characters emerged like a flash at some point. When you think about your own point of view, you see yourself as a judge in everyday life. You are judging other people as well as being able to see yourself as the victim, let’s say. You can inhabit all these roles. This is how this started to emerge.
Desistfilm: What were the risks inherent in moving towards a more surrealistic aspect of the drama as it unfolds? You did find two exceedingly strong actors, Cuzin Toma who plays Andi and Dorotheea Petre who plays K. They were so well matched, making it totally believable that they are aspects of the same person, manifestations of an individual’s id and ego.
Mihaela Popescu: We did have casting sessions because I didn’t write the script with certain actors in mind. Romania is a rather small country so the options are fairly limited. I started with people I knew or who were in my circle. It seemed somewhat simpler to find the right person for the male role. There’s much that is concrete there, based on the senses. And when Cuzim came, it was immediately apparent that he was perfect and I wanted him exactly the way he was, with the big beard, like he is in his everyday life. He also had an instant connection with the script. He really understood it. For the female protagonist, I had many different options and I kind of struggled a bit. And then I saw Cuzim and Dorotheea together and knew I had found the perfect pair.
Desistfilm: Can you talk a bit about how you began to work with them, specifically how they would be framed together throughout most of the film? The transformations of the power struggle between them are very subtle.
Mihaela Popescu: It was very difficult to deal with that because the approach was psychological more than it was physical. It’s not something you can show through daily experience necessarily. It takes us a lifetime to understand ourselves. This is what I needed to pull out of K, this trial of understanding herself. There is some detachment that is necessary to see and understand what you’re doing and why. This is something that we developed during the rehearsal period. For K, in terms of studying actions, we could go back to the courtroom and study the judge’s behavior and borrow from that.
Desistfilm: Then there is the domestic sphere where three people inhabit this space where things are very tense, quite antagonistic between K and Andi as well as with Andi and his wife. It’s a very alienating space, even more so than when Andi and K are out in the city together. We never see the wife leave the apartment; it’s as if she’s held hostage by Andi and K. In the courtroom, we have this feeling that everyone is numb to everything around them – the judges, the criminals, the people giving testimony. But in the domestic sphere there is a lot of aggression.
MP: We can find these realities as well, the numbness of the courtroom and then everything exploding at home. Why don’t we see them smile or see them playful and all the other facets of life? It’s a story limited by time. In a film you can never pretend to encompass everything. So this is a certain moment in these characters’ lives, with the realization of this disassociation and fragmentation, thus causing the impossibility of communication. That’s what creates tension. I wish I could have found them in a more pleasant moment but I found that impossible.
Desistfilm: I think what works so beautifully are these very purposeful restricted areas, particularly the inside of the car. Even the judge’s bench, where the two are sitting side-by-side, acts as a catalyst for barely contained violence between them.
Mihaela Popescu: Absolutely. It’s always easy when you can get to a personal level. That’s why I didn’t have to communicate that much once we were shooting. The DoP, Marius Panduru, and I could have this short hand way of communicating because he had invested himself in the script the same way the actors did. It was easy on an abstract level [laughs]. On the technical level, of course we did many tests so that the actors could try different things, and we had the freedom on the set to see which camera angles and positions worked best. I left a lot of freedom in the script for everyone and that, in turn, freed me up as a director.
Desistfilm: Bucharest also is a fascinating character as backdrop to this drama, both interiorly and exteriorly. But it’s mostly used as a city of the night when we’re with Andi and K.
Mihaela Popescu: Yes, the city is a pretty important character here. I had the opportunity to detach myself from that place. I come from a small town by the seaside but I lived for about ten years in Bucharest. You do become imbued with a kind of heavy atmosphere that exists there and that we can also see in many other Romanian films. When I started developing this project, I was living in Chicago, a completely different place. I had to come back to Bucharest repeatedly to develop this project. I always could see it with fresh eyes and that’s what I try to convey in the film. I’m glad it happened like this because what I heard from Romanian viewers is that they re-found a Bucharest that they had forgotten about, rediscovering something they knew so well. That was my experience too while writing the script. The city at night is when we see all the unknown people, the people we don’t see in the daytime. In terms of the interior of the car, that’s how I see that space, a very common space, but also a very unusual one. Being in a car can bring the worst out of us [laughs]. You’re trapped in this capsule with all your emotions and it can be an environment of conflict.
Desistfilm: Andi and K reflect all kinds of relationships. At some moments, we might think they’re a married couple, or brother and sister, or even a dominatrix and her charge. At any rate, from the first scene, we know that something strange is going on. This adds to the feeling of fragmentation since we might inhabit different aspects of ourselves in one relationship.
MP: It was difficult but there is a certain chemistry built into that relationship even though you see them as concretely separate entities. They are interconnected like conjoined twins. So there was a lot of reliance on nonverbal communication between them.
Desistfilm: The penultimate scene with Andi and K is very powerful and while it’s not completely shocking that there would be this resolution, the way it’s shot is deeply effecting.
Mihaela Popescu: We were pretty advanced in the shooting when we shot that. So all I needed to do was give them concrete actions – him tripping on the stairs, etc. The chemistry was already there. Aesthetically, there is this dream-like aspect to it and that’s how I wrote it, with no cuts, just continuous and fluid movement.
Desistfilm: Why did you decide to edit the film yourself? Were you always set on being the editor?
Mihaela Popescu: No, actually I wasn’t. I was open to the challenge of working with someone to realize the vision of the film. It’s not that I had any problem working with an editor and I was expecting to do so. But for financial reasons on the part of the producer, the project was put on hold. I didn’t want to wait so I started working on my own. When I had a rough cut, I did ask for opinions and feedback from editors I knew. I needed that. Reality has its certain ways of working but in the end, I’m glad it happened that way. I mean it’s a film with many long takes and so the options were somewhat limited but that was intentional. It was another constraint that ended up making the film as strong as it is.
Desistfilm: Constrictions are oftentimes beneficial. It’s figuring out how to use them to your advantage.
Mihaela Popescu: I agree. You can’t stop. You just have to keep on going.
Desistfilm: Let’s talk about the final scene when we break free from Andi and K and go out into the streets of Bucharest. The whole atmosphere of the film breaks wide open. Stylistically and otherwise, you take us to a parallel universe – same city but a completely different way of looking at it and its inhabitants. In the debate, Agnès felt you had stolen these images while I found a lot of poignancy in these shots and a distinct tenderness that is not in the rest of the film.
Mihaela Popescu: You said to me earlier that when you watched this scene, you felt this kind of liberation after all the oppression of the night spent with Andi and K, all the closed spaces you found yourself in throughout the film. There’s a weight on your soul. And then you need to breathe again. I can understand why Agnès could have felt that these images were stolen because they were taken without people realizing they were being filmed. But this street scene was in the script. Marius and I had chosen locations and extras and so on, so everything was in place. But we then decided that we needed something more precise from an aesthetic point of view. We decided that we would take documentary footage instead. And as in documentary practice, after we took the shots, someone from the production company approached the people to tell them they had been filmed. We would not have used something that wasn’t approved by the subjects. We only see the people who agreed in the end that we could use their images. It was too intentional to think otherwise, to be able to see, even within closed spaces, an expansive frame. I didn’t want to have this aspect of tunnel vision at all for this film. This was the first screening with an audience and I really enjoyed it. I’m also glad that this film ended up playing here as part of the Woche der Kritik. I felt like the audience understood the film and were affected by it.