Skip to main content

Oppression and Abortion in Mungiu's '4 Months'

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a new film about a young woman's illegal abortion in Ceausescu's Romania, won the top prize at Cannes and has just opened in the U.S. It's a fierce and unsentimental film; Terry Gross talks to Mungiu about growing up in a totalitarian state, and why he wanted to make the movie.

50:51

Transcript

DATE February 7, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Cristian Mungiu, director of the film "4 Months, 3
Weeks and 2 Days," on Ceausescu's Romania and the film
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

One of the most praised films that opens in the US this year comes from
Romania and won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It's called "4
Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." The title refers to the amount of time one of the
main characters, Gabita, is pregnant when she goes for an illegal abortion.
The story is mostly told from the point of view of her college roommate
Otilia, who helps her arrange the abortion and accompanies Gabita to the hotel
room where the abortion is to secretly take place.

The movie is set in 1987, in the last days of Nicolai Ceausescu's communist
regime. Ceausescu made abortion illegal in 1966, shortly after he became
president. It remained illegal until the fall of Ceausescu in the late 1980s.

New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis described the film as a haunting and
haunted intellectual and aesthetic achievement. She writes, quote, "The film
deserves to be seen by the largest audience possible, partly because it offers
a welcome alternative to the coy, trivializing attitude toward abortion now in
vogue in American fiction films, but largely because it marks the emergence of
an important new talent in Romanian writer and director Cristian Mungiu,"
unquote.

Cristian Mungiu is joining us from Radio Guerrila in Bucharest, Romania. He
was born in 1968, two years after abortion was made illegal. He's part of the
same generation as the two main characters in his movie.

Cristian Mungiu, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about the filmmaking
itself, let's talk about the story and the history behind the story. Abortion
was illegal under Ceausescu. Why was it illegal? Was it a moral issue or
were there other reasons why it was illegal?

Mr. CRISTIAN MUNGIU: No, it wasn't something connected with moral or with
religion. It was mostly a decision taken for the economical and
propagandistic reasons. Abortion was banned in Romania in 1966 and it stayed
forbidden until 1989, after the fall of communism. And the main reasons for
which Ceausescu decided this were because, for some reason, he considered that
Romania would become a more important country in the region if it had a bigger
population, and he hoped that--for the plans that he had for the country
regarding agriculture and regarding the industry, he needed a bigger
population.

And it's important to say that it wasn't only abortion that was banned. It
was every kind of contraception that was banned. So basically people were
encouraged to have more children. That was the whole point. And, for
example, abortion was legal after women had four children or after the age of
45. But it's important to say that this decision generated a baby boom in
Romania from like 1966, '67 to 1972 and, for example, nothing like religion
was involved in this decision because religion during communist times was not
encouraged in any way. And one more thing to mention for people who don't
know is that we are Orthodox, we are not Catholic.

GROSS: Not Catholic.

Mr. MUNGIU: No.

GROSS: So do you consider yourself part of that baby boom that happened
during the period when abortion was banned?

Mr. MUNGIU: Well, I am. I mean, technically I know because this is
something that our parents wouldn't hide from us. So I know that I
wasn't--like, I don't know, a planned child. It just happened. It's not that
our parents wouldn't love us. It's not that my parents didn't love me, but I
wasn't a planned child. And later on I discovered that, you know, in a very
special way, there's a certain kind of solidarity among these people because
we had to face the same kind of difficulties when we were younger, and one of
the motivations for which I decided to make this film is that I discovered
these people were going to see a story about themselves on screen at some
point. And this is much more a part of my motivation of making a film about
that period than abortion itself. I just thought that abortion is one of the
most relevant things that happened to us during that period.

GROSS: So what are some of the stories that you were told by women friends of
yours that became background for the movie?

Mr. MUNGIU: First of all, you know, I knew that I want to make a film that
would happen in that period, and then I started looking for stories from that
period and asking what would be relevant from what we experienced then, and at
some point I just ran again into this girl that has told me this story some 15
years ago, a story that originally happened in 1987. We just met again on the
street, and we just got inside into a coffee shop, and somehow this story came
back in conversation with all the emotions and the frustrations that I
experienced the first time I heard this story, and I thought, `Wow, this is
relevant for what we experienced.' Because, thinking back and thinking about
the communist period that we experienced, I somehow identified in this
absolute lack of moral judgment in connection with pregnancy and abortion, one
of the worst things that communism did to us. And I thought, you know, it's
really important for all these people belonging to this generation to make a
story not about abortion but about how we spent our 20s, but starting from a
story like this.

And I sketched the story in a couple of days, and then I knew that I'm going
to follow my story. But I started talking with a lot of other people just to
make sure that this is not an exceptional story. And something very special
happened on the set. You know that normally technicians on the set, they
don't necessarily read the script, and they are not too much involved in what
kind of story you're going to tell. But this time, understanding what the
story is about, all of a sudden on the set we started having the first
reactions and the first personal stories. And after two weeks of shooting, it
seemed that everybody my age or a little bit older had a story like this. The
focus puller and the electricians and everybody had a sister, a friend, a
mother, or a story like this in the family.

And later on this continued after the first public screenings in Romania. And
it was this lady from Sibiu, after one of the first screenings that told us
this story. She had a good friend in Sibiu, and this was somewhere in the
'70s, and this friend of hers decided to get married, but just before the
wedding she fought and she split with her boyfriend, and she knew that she was
pregnant already, and it was unconceivable in the '70s for a girl of 21 in a
small town like Sibiu in the countryside somehow to have a single child and to
have the means to raise it. So she knew that she absolutely needed to appeal
and have an abortion. But she couldn't find anybody brave enough in that town
to perform this abortion to her. She wasn't necessarily very well connected.
And finally she heard about somebody that was living in a village some 50
kilometers away.

So she went to that person, and that person took her to a basement. And in
that basement, he had two big barrels, and he told her from the beginning,
`This is the table where I'm going to perform this abortion, and in these
barrels is water in one of them. So if everything goes OK, you're going to
wash yourself and you're going to walk back home. But if things don't go
well, I'm going to put you in this other barrel with acid and I'm going to
bury you somewhere and nobody will ever hear about you. And I'm telling you
this beforehand so you decide what you want to do.' And she decided on the
spot to just continue and keep on going with the abortion.

And she's one of the lucky ones that survived. But supposedly, statistics say
that nearly half a million women died because of having illegal abortion from
1966 to 1989.

GROSS: Well, I have to say, the way you show how the abortion is done in the
movie, it's amazing that anyone could survive it, completely not sterile
procedure. How you could walk away with that without getting an infection is
unimaginable.

Mr. MUNGIU: Well, if you watch the procedure in detail, they were using the
alcohol or something like this. For example, for the shooting...

GROSS: Yeah, but he's putting everything on a little piece of gauze on a
hotel table.

Mr. MUNGIU: Yeah, absolutely.

GROSS: You know?

Mr. MUNGIU: But this is also my way of mentioning that we are not talking
about the professional, because people would say that this is a doctor and
they would call this character in the film `the doctor,' but actually it's
never mentioned that he's a doctor. And if you ask me what...

GROSS: No, exactly. When I talk about the movie to friends...

Mr. MUNGIU: Yeah.

GROSS: ...I say the abortionist. And I say, `The reason why I'm calling him
an abortionist is because there's no reason to believe he's actually a doctor.
He just performs abortions.'

Mr. MUNGIU: Absolutely. And what he's doing over there, it's a little bit
of a voodoo. It's not clear. It's just faking that he's a professional. But
actually, you know, most of the people doing things like this were not
professionals. And the way this went was like this. Somebody like this guy
or somebody in your family would start this, would provoke a bleeding,
basically, and after that moment, you had to call for the ambulance because it
was a process that couldn't be stopped, and normally they would take you to a
hospital and somebody qualified would continue and finish this thing up.

The problem is that, especially after 1975, doctors in hospitals were obliged
to call the police before doing this because everybody knew that abortion is
illegal. And in the last years of the regime, the restriction was really very
harsh, and they wouldn't allow the doctors to operate you and to make the
intervention before you told them who did this to you. And this is why lots
of women died, because very often it was somebody so close that you wouldn't
turn in somebody from your family.

GROSS: Did you have friends who died as a result of abortions?

Mr. MUNGIU: Well, recently we discovered that this project got financed
because, from the jury of five people that had to read it, there was a lady
that had some problems like this and there was a guy whose sister has died
because of having illegal abortions. And they were the two members of the
jury that were very impressed and decided that this screenplay's going to
become a film.

And later on, we discovered that we have a very good friend and film critic
that was a supporter of the project from the beginning, and we never knew too
much of his biography detail, but his story is that, you know, when he was
six, in the morning, his mother kissed him and he went and she said, `Bye.
I'm going to come back at 2:00. I'm going to make this small visit,' and
apparently she went to have an illegal abortion, which went wrong. And she
never came back and nobody told him anything until the age of 16. She just
vanished. She disappeared, and his father had a nervous breakdown. So he was
raised by his grandparents.

GROSS: My guest is Cristian Mungiu, the writer and director of the new film
"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Cristian Mungiu. He's speaking
with us from Romania. He wrote and directed the new film, "4 Months, 3 Weeks
and 2 Days," which won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Now, your film is kind of like a suspense film. It's about a woman having an
abortion, a college student having an abortion; her roommate, who makes the
arrangements and helps her through it; the abortionist who performs the
abortion. But the movie's done kind of like a suspense film. It's not an
action film, but it's so suspenseful because every step of the way, you know
that there are grave things that can happen, from imprisonment to death as a
result of infection. And because this is all through the black market
underground, there's all kinds of consequences that could happen as a result
of that. Do you see the movie as, in its own way, a suspense film?

Mr. MUNGIU: Well, it is a suspense film, but it is a suspense film in the
sense that what I wanted to do is to make you see this story from the
perspective of the main character. We deal with this in a different way. I
thought, `Whose perspective do I have to tell in the story?' And it was quite
obvious for me that the main character in the story is not Gabita, the girl
that finally will have the abortion, but it's her friend, it's Otilia, because
she would understand something after this day, and because she's the girl that
told me the story originally. It was the girl that was helping her friend.
And it was very important for me to preserve the key moments of the story.

And the most important thing was to try and make spectators experience what
she was experiencing in that day. And from her perspective, if you think
everything was possible and she couldn't know what's going to be the result of
that day. And this is why I wanted to design the film like this.

And I wanted very much to sketch this, but it's something important to say at
this moment. As much as the film speaks about abortions, it's not necessarily
a film about abortion for me. Abortion's an important part of it, but it's a
lot a film about that period, and it's a lot of film for me about decision
making and responsibilities in life, and freedom during that period and
compromise and friendship and solidarity. So I think that narrowing the
discussion and talking too much about abortion is a way of not perceiving the
film the way I intended.

GROSS: The friend of the woman, the roommate of the woman who's having the
abortion...

Mr. MUNGIU: Yeah.

GROSS: ...goes through such extremes to help her friend through the abortion,
and the friend doesn't seem all that comprehending and appreciative of what's
been done for her. And I guess I'm wondering why the roommate is motivated to
risk so much and to sacrifice so much for her friend.

Mr. MUNGIU: I had to figure this out because when you decide to make a film
about a true story, you know from the beginning that things happen like this,
and the story came to me with all the details and with all the emotions, but
not with all the motivations. Because people don't know why they acted the
way they acted. They just acted and reacted to a specific situation. And it
was up to me to talk with people and think about what happened and figure out
why she decided like this. And it has to do with the situation. And it has
to do with the kind of friendship that they were having. You know, whenever
you have a very strong enemy in front of you and you have a problem which is
common for a group of people, the solidarity belonging to that period is going
to much more important. And this was considered to be the most important
problem that women were facing during that period. So they would help each
other in a way which wouldn't necessarily happen today.

GROSS: I've never lived in Romania, yet watching your film I feel like you've
captured a lot of the just kind of suspicion and paranoia and claustrophobia
of that communist period under Nicolai Ceausescu. Can we just talk about how
the film looks a little bit? Like, the dormitory rooms just seem so kind of
like small and cluttered and claustrophobic. The hallways in all of the
buildings that are shot are that like institutional two-tone colors of paint
with like dirty linoleum floors. The outside shots, they're just kind of like
dark and just depressing looking. I mean, everything just looks so colorless.
What are some of your memories from that period that you visually wanted to
put into the movie?

Mr. MUNGIU: The most important thing for me was to render the atmosphere.
There were too many films about communism in the last years, and each and
every of them tries to tell a story from the perspective of somebody looking
back and knowing how it all ended. And you get to see people nostalgic about
all the objects of the period in this kind of films. I'm not interested,
really, in this kind of filmmaking.

What I wanted to do is to tell the story from the perspective of somebody
living then. It made all the difference for me because it's true to say that
even in, let's say, 1987, which is like two years before the fall of
communism, nobody had any idea that this was going to an end. And if you
imagine that you were going to live forever under the communist regime and
you're going to die under the communist regime, people were tending to make
much more compromises. Nobody had any idea that this was going to an end.

And I wanted very much to describe and to capture this atmosphere of
gloominess, as you say, and of despair, and of...(unintelligible)...that was
present and to describe the way in which, you know, people having this little
authority on you would use it and abuse it very, very often. And I wanted
very much to avoid using things which became cliche, like Ceausescu and other
words like "communism" and "comrade" and things like this, because were not
necessarily mentioning them. This is something that belongs to you as an
author looking back today. And people living then were living like, you know,
people having more problems but trying to attempt to live normal lives. And
this is why I avoided on purpose, and besides this indication at the beginning
of the film, which says "1987," there isn't actually any kind of indication
about the period. It's only in the atmosphere.

And we decided to make some very special things in order to render this lack
of enthusiasm that people had for living. For example, we decided from the
beginning to shoot wintertime and to use a specific laboratory process and to
desaturate the colors in a process called bleach bypass and to make the blacks
very intense and to shoot these nights as much as possible with the existing
light, just for trying to render this atmosphere that everything is really,
very true. And I...

GROSS: So you desaturated the color? You drained the image...

Mr. MUNGIU: Yeah.

GROSS: ...of the color.

Mr. MUNGIU: Yeah. What you see, you know, it's a digital intermediate, so
finally we graded this in a computer, and colors were desaturated just in an
attempt of rendering the atmosphere of the period. And if you watch the film,
there is no sun in the film, and we made big efforts to shoot everything
without having any kind of sun. Because we thought that this is really
matching that period. And we wanted to respect, as much as possible, the
historical truth, and not only regarding the locations, because we shot
locations, but also regarding the atmosphere and regarding the nights.

And, for example, I could afford to tell my cinematographer, because I know
him quite well--he's a good friend of mine--that I want to try and respect
what I remember to have been the atmosphere of the nights then, which is to
say that we never had any kind of light outside. It was a shortage of
everything in the last years of communism. So technically it was, I don't
know, complete darkness. Of course, you can't shoot if there's complete
darkness, but he invented this, you know, some special devices and he was
carrying some china balloons on some special devices just to have a little bit
of a glimpse of light on top of the characters, and you could somehow get a
feeling about what was going on. You can't see much in the last 30 minutes,
but still you get the atmosphere, and you feel the fear that this girl
experiences.

GROSS: Cristian Mungiu speaking to us from a studio in Romania. He'll be
back in the second half of the show. His new film is called "4 Months, 3
Weeks and 2 Days." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Cristian Mungiu, the
writer and director of the film "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," which is
gradually opening in theaters around the US. It won the top prize at the
Cannes Film Festival last year. The film is set in Romania in 1987 and is
about a college student who gets an illegal abortion and her roommate who
helps her arrange it. The film takes place a couple of years before the fall
of communist dictator Nicolai Ceausescu, who had outlawed abortion and birth
control. Mungiu is joining us from a studio in Romania.

There's a black market that you show in the film, and one of the things that
the main character wants to get in the black market is Kent cigarettes.

Mr. MUNGIU: Yes.

GROSS: I have to say I haven't seen anybody smoking Kent cigarettes in the
United States for a long time. Were Kent cigarettes the thing in Romania?

Mr. MUNGIU: It's not about the cigarettes, it's about what they meant. You
know, having Kent cigarettes during that period was a social sign. It meant
that you can afford the service that you were asking for. It's not about the
cigarettes in themselves. And it's very difficult for everybody to mention
why finally it was for the Kent cigarettes to have this role. If you ask
me--but this is only supposition--I believe that because they were white they
were different. You know, all the other cigarettes that were imported from
Western markets like, I don't know, Camel or Marlboro or whatever, looked
pretty much like a regular Romanian cigarette, although they were way better.
But the Kent cigarette, you know, meant aristocracy for people here. It was
the sign of the free world that was present on the local market. And it
became very much a local sign. You couldn't go to a doctor during that period
without having a pack of cigarettes like this. And you couldn't get a room in
a hotel unless you were paying, bribing that person or having a pack of
cigarettes like this.

GROSS: You mention that Kent cigarettes were white, and, you know, the paper
on the filter part was white whereas the paper on the filter part of most
cigarettes was brown. So, yeah, they really stood out and looked different.

Mr. MUNGIU: And what is funny is that this habit stayed so much with the
Romanians that even today there are old people that would go to a doctor, and
this became a form of salute. They would offer him a pack of Kent, which is
very funny because today this is like, I don't know, $2 here and it doesn't
have any meaning today. But still it was preserved from that period.

GROSS: In shooting the film, what did you have to do to give the interiors
and the exteriors the look that you were describing, that gloomy look? You
mentioned the lighting, but I'm sure like the outsides of buildings and the
streets have changed a lot since the end of communism in Romania.

Mr. MUNGIU: Well, they changed a lot, but they haven't changed a lot in the
sense that we have a lot of skyscrapers or anything like this. It's just that
most of the buildings were repainted, the windows are different, are metal,
new windows. There are a lot of air conditioning around now and a lot of
advertising. This is the problem. It's like the locations were spoiled for
making a period film, but at the same time, you know, it was important for us
to try and shoot this film as much as possible in location.

So what we did, we tried to discover if we can still find these buildings that
still have the atmosphere of the period and then we treated them as sets. For
example, the student dormitory that you see at the beginning of the film, it
was an empty room. So for us it was important to just find a room that still
looked the rooms that I could remember from that period. And from that moment
on we just fill it with the objects that I remember that were in all the
students' room.

GROSS: A lot of the scenes in "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" are shot in one
take. And you might have like a 10-minute scene that's like one, it's not
only--I don't mean one take I mean it's like one shot.

Mr. MUNGIU: Yeah, one shot.

GROSS: There isn't a lot of like editing within scenes. And often you just
seem to like place the camera, and the camera just like sees what's going on.
There's one scene, for instance, in which the main character walks out of the
frame, and the camera just kind of sits still and waits for her to walk back
in.

Mr. MUNGIU: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And nothing moves while she's gone. And I think by doing that, by
having these like shots that last a long time it helps convey how slowly time
is moving in the movie because there's so much kind of fear surrounding every
movement and there's so much that needs to be done, like time has a real
consequence and time has a great weight to it. Is that part of what you
wanted to do with those lengthy shots, to convey the passage of time and the
threat of time? You know, that each second brings a new problem and that
something's going to go very slowly before they resolve.

Mr. MUNGIU: Well, there are a lot of things associated with using long
takes, and one of them regards what you say in so that there's something about
the long things that would signal to a spectator that this is true, this is
happening in real time. There is no editing. There are no tricks. This
emotion that you see in front of you takes its time. It's not edited. It's
not like somebody preserved what were like the best moments of it. And you
know, what people feel without necessarily conceptualizing is that they are
not being manipulated and being shown what's more important. Everything is
there. The real time is there. That is the time of that scene. If the scene
needed 10 minutes to develop, that is the time of that scene. And the regular
kind of moments, which would be cut out of a scene in which somebody, as you
say, would step off the shot and get back a few minutes later, are there.

And this heightens the feeling that there's nothing to hide and there's no
cinema--there's no filmmaker behind. And this was the whole purpose of using
these long takes for us. We thought that it's really important for a
filmmaker from time to time to question all the formal decisions that he's
making all of, you know, all of the time very often because, you know, you did
this before and because you've seen a lot of films. But actually, if you
start questioning these decisions and you check how many of them you make
because the story requires you to make them and how many of them you just make
out of habit, you see that you make a lot of things which are not necessarily
required by the story. And you make a lot of formal decisions which are being
very manipulative regrading the audience. And this is exactly what we wanted
to do with the film, to have it as truthful as possible and make sure that
we're not making any kind of manipulative decisions.

This is why, for example, we decided not to use music from the beginning. And
this is why we decided not to use editing, because even a close-up signals you
as a filmmaker behind saying `this is more important than a wider shot in
which you would see all the action and I will tell you the spectator that it's
more important to see the tear dropping on her cheek.' And this is something
that we wanted to avoid. We wanted to have this perspective a little bit, if
you want, as if in theater, in which I wouldn't tell you what's more important
on this shot. I would just place the camera over there, try to capture as
much as possible from the scene, and then it's up to you and up to your
responsibility as a viewer to decide what's more important in the shot.

GROSS: My guest is Cristian Mungiu, the writer and director of the new film
"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Cristian Mungiu, the writer and director of the film "4
Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." It's about a college student who goes for an
illegal abortion in Romania in 1987 during the period that communist dictator
Nicolai Ceausescu outlawed abortion and birth control.

A lot of people are talking now about like a new wave of Romanian cinema,
about really exciting films coming out of Romania. And the two examples most
often offered are your film, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," and a slightly
earlier film, "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu." And your cinematographer is the
same cinematographer who worked on that film. Did it take a long time in
Romania after the fall of communism to have a good environment for filmmaking?
The film industry was basically run by the state during the communist era,
right?

Mr. MUNGIU: Yes. Well, I think we needed some 10 years to settle things a
little bit. And the films that were made in Romania in the first 10 years
were not really to be remembered too much. Although, you know, lots of people
made a lot of films about the communist period, for example, about the present
period, but nothing really very special came out. And people speak about a
new wave of Romanian filmmakers, mostly referring to the films that started to
be selected in Cannes after 2001. And what was changed was that, finally,
there was a new law regulating cinema, and this law created a clearer system.
And little by little they managed to put together a fund which is enough to
help some 10 filmmakers to make films nowadays.

But it's still somehow a state system in a way. It is an organism called the
National Center for Cinematography that collects a tax, mostly coming from
advertising. But this is a state organism that collects this tax, and they
organize a screenplay competition twice a year. If you manage to win this
screenplay competition, you will get like half the budget that you need, but
not more than let's say 400, $600,000 US. And you have to find the rest of it
either in a co-production or in the local market from some other tax money
which are destined for cinema. But there are no private money involved in
Romanian filmmaking.

But still somehow this law gave the opportunity of more and more people every
day to make their debut in cinema. And we started having films that were,
first of all, remarked in festivals in Europe. And later on what happened is
that these films started getting important awards, especially in Cannes, and
finally became quite successful, from a commercial perspective, if you want.
I mean, the films were bought by important sales agents and were sold
theatrically to a lot of theaters. And I think people see this as a
generation of filmmakers mostly because refers to filmmakers from 30 to 40 and
because it doesn't involved a couple of names and couple of filmmakers, but at
least five or six different people.

GROSS: Am I right in saying that you helped write that law that you were
referring to, the new law about the film industry?

Mr. MUNGIU: Well, yes, we got involved a lot. And I got involved a lot.
And this helped us knowing how to use it. And we're trying to design a more
logical way of funding here. And these gave finally the opportunity of more
and more people to make their debut every year. So it helped.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So growing up during communism in Romania, what films did you
see when you were young? What made the biggest impression on you for better
and for worse?

Mr. MUNGIU: Well, first of all, I think I got this desire of making films
mostly from watching some films that I didn't really like too much. And I
refer to the Romania films of the '80s, which were quite strange for us. We
were very free and very, if you want, protesting adolescents and we were
having the access to films and books from abroad. So whenever we were
watching Romanian films we had this feeling that they were involving, you
know, people that look like us and apparently talk like us but still behave
like aliens. Nothing like that ever happened in real life because
mostly--people had some problems with the propaganda in the system, but it was
not necessarily this. I don't think they were encouraging the right people to
make films. And very often these films didn't really expect a reaction like a
commercial--or reaction from the market.

And watching these films and watching the kinds of stories that they were
placing in the films, you develop this idea that it wasn't complicated to make
something better than these people. And the feeling that we got is that we
need to get back to the story and to refer to reality, and to get to tell
stories about, you know, having a real kind of a conflict, because during that
period...

GROSS: What were some of the stories that were told in the propaganda films?
Give us an example of a story.

Mr. MUNGIU: Well, it wasn't like, you know, direct propagandistic films
which were funny because they were praising the regular system. But there was
another kind of filmmaking. For example, there were films about a worker in a
factory whose internal conflict were like this: He was the best guy in
production producing screwdrivers, and he wanted to work an extra shift to
help his company become the most important one in the competition among
companies producing screwdrivers. But at the same time, he was the best
football player of his factory. And this is the kind of conflict that he was
having. And this was laughable, actually. Everybody knew that, you know,
this is fake. This is not the kind of problems that people were facing in a
country where, you know, you had to queue up for everything, and people had
really, you know, a lot of dramas that they were caught in.

GROSS: But he was trying to figure out if he should play more football or do
more at the screwdriver factory?

Mr. MUNGIU: Yeah, yeah. This is the kind of drama that would motivate
somebody to make a film.

GROSS: So what made you want to make movies? You've described some really
lousy movies to us. Why did you want to make them yourself?

Mr. MUNGIU: Because I got this feeling that I can do way better, and because
I felt that I'm a storyteller somehow, you know, from a very early age. I
thought for a long period I'm just going to express myself in words and write
and become a writer. But later on, somehow, seeing these films, the feeling
that you got was that it's not too complicated to make, you know, way better
films than these people, and they had no idea what they were talking about.

GROSS: Had you seen good movies?

Mr. MUNGIU: Yes, of course. But they were different periods. For example,
in the '70s, the state would still have money to buy quite actual films of the
period and you could still see in regular theaters American and French films,
mostly mainstream, but you would see them. And then it was a boom of the
video periods in the mid '80s up to early '90s. Everybody was having kind of
illegal VHSes with mostly American films. And that was a period in which, for
example, I don't know, it was very often to see a couple of films per day.
And that was my period when I've seen, I think, lots of mostly American and
French films, modern.

GROSS: So name a couple of the films that really influenced you a lot.

Mr. MUNGIU: Well, for example, from the earlier films that were really
impressing me and giving me a push to become a filmmaker, I remember Milos
Forman's early films before he left to US. "The Love of a Blonde" and "The
Fireman's Ball," and the films that he made in the late '60s in
Czechoslovakia. And then there were the...(unintelligible)...films that we
could see and there was Truffaut that I could see quite a lot and "The Bicycle
Thief"s and the films of the Italian neo-realism and Mihailov that was quite
popular during that period. And later on we discovered Altman and Milos
Forman's films that he made in the States. And way later on in the school I
discovered Jarmusch, for example, and people that were making films at the
same time with us without ever knowing about them.

GROSS: What are movie theaters like now in Romania?

Mr. MUNGIU: Well, actually, this is the biggest problem that we're having
here because this is the only important thing still owned by the state. Some
18 years have passed already, but still the state owns the theaters. And
because the state is not really a very good manager, these theaters are in
very poor condition. And from having, I think, some 400 theaters in 1989 when
there was the fall of communism, now I think we have less than 40 left in a
country of 20 million. So it's really important...

GROSS: Forty the--that's so few theaters!

Mr. MUNGIU: Yeah, yeah. So basically it's really--the number of admissions
have dropped from more than 20 million to less than two million. So it's very
difficult to get a response from the market, and it's very difficult to get
any kind of financial feedback from the market. This is why it's impossible
to involve private money.

And this is why, for example, motivated something very extreme that I decided
to do with my film. I decided after Cannes to release this film myself,
although this is not what I do normally, just as a way of fighting against not
having cinemas over here. And I decided to use this kind of sympathy that
people tend to have for me for the moment because of this Palme d'Or I got in
Cannes. I fund-raised all summer. I brought some important partners here and
we rented theaters all across Romania, and we brought a very high quality
technique from Germany and we created a caravan that toured Romania for some
30 days, screening this film in 15 different big towns that don't have any
theater left just to see if people don't come to see films because there are
no theaters or because they lost interest in seeing films.

GROSS: That's really interesting. So what kind of response did you get?

Mr. MUNGIU: It was an unbelievable good response. And we decided, knowing
beforehand if we're going to do this, to just record this on tape and produce
a documentary in connection with this. And actually this is going to become
part of the bonuses that people will have on the DVD. The response was
unbelievable, and lots of people crowded to see these films and these special
screenings. And this became our most important argument in the fight that
we're having now, and we're trying to stimulate somehow the minister of
culture in Romania in the government to give something back because they got a
very good image because of the films, Romanian films in the last year. So I
think it would be the right moment for them to get involved and try to do
something about this release of films in Romania and trying to improve the
system.

GROSS: My guest is Cristian Mungiu, the writer and director of the new film
"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Cristian Mungiu, the writer and director of the Romanian
film "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." It's about a college student who goes for
an illegal abortion in Romania in 1987, during the period the communist
dictator Nicolai Ceausescu outlawed abortion and birth control.

So I know you've gotten to see your movie "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" with
a lot of Romanian audiences. I'm not sure if you've gotten to see American
audiences watching your movie, but if you have, I'd be really interested if
you could compare the reaction between American and Romanian audiences.
Because your movie is about getting an abortion during an era when it was
illegal in Romania, not for moral reasons and not for religious reasons, but
because Ceausescu wanted a larger Romanian population. So he didn't want
birth control and he didn't want abortion. Abortion is such a kind of
controversial subject in the United States, and so much of that revolves
around the question of is it moral, is it ethical and does it violate, you
know, religious practices. So what are the different reactions you've seen in
America and in Romania from audiences watching your film?

Mr. MUNGIU: It's important for me to tell you something else before this
connected with this moral issue. One of the reasons for which I decided to
make this film regards especially this kind of moral issue, because, as I told
you, it is said that nearly half a million women died in the process of having
illegal abortion from 1966 to 1989. But at the same time, after 1990, when
abortion became legal again in Romania, we started having nearly one million
abortions every year, mostly because people didn't have any kind of education
about this. So, you know, I thought that making this film for me was a way
also about speaking about freedom and about how not having this freedom for
such a long while, or abusing this freedom for lack of knowledge once we had
it, could pretty much lead in the same direction.

And, you know, one of the best things that happened in US at the screenings
where I've been was the people finally understood that this film is not a
political film. It doesn't tell you what to believe. It just signals to you
that this is an important problem on which you need to have an opinion. And
this is why the story said to them because it speaks at the same time about
what an abortion is and about what the consequences of forbidding it are. And
I was very happy to see that finally the film was understood like this. That
it doesn't carry conclusions, it doesn't carry preconceptions, it just tells a
complex story. And this is what a film should do. It signals to you that as
soon as you see this, in accordance to your own beliefs, you need to think
about this and see what your opinion is.

GROSS: One more question for you. You've made "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"
without any music because you didn't want music to telegraph what somebody's
supposed to be feeling.

Mr. MUNGIU: Yeah.

GROSS: But there is music during the close credits sequence, and it's duet.
It's, you know, two people singing.

Mr. MUNGIU: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And because it's sung in Romanian I don't understand what's being
said. So I'd be interested in what the lyrics are about and why you chose to
use that particular piece of music for the end of the film, for the close
credits?

Mr. MUNGIU: Well, it's mostly about the lyrics, but it's not all about the
lyrics. For me, the credit is not directly part of the film, it's not
directly part of the story. It's important to say, to signal to the
spectators that the convention is over. `This is still a story that I told
you about.' And I wanted very much to avoid being overdramatic. You can't
really have the credits of a film on complete silence for two minutes. It's
going to be very heavy. And we wanted to avoid being melodramatic all the
time. So for me it was important to end the film the way it ends. And I hope
that the final shot of the film signals to you that now it's up to you to have
an opinion, and there's a short silence which gives you a few seconds to think
about this, and then this music signals, for me, that for you as a spectator
the presentation is off. The story is off. It's up to you.

And the connection between that song and the film is indeed made by the
lyrics. And I'm very happy that, you know, some of the people releasing the
film had the idea of translating the lyrics. I think it happens in Japan now.
Because the lyrics say something about this woman that mentions that she will
all the time think about what she's seen and she will remember all the time
that day. Probably she doesn't refer to what the film refers to. It's a song
from the '70s, but it was really very accurate for what the film tells you.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MUNGIU: Thank you.

GROSS: Cristian Mungiu wrote and directed the film "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2
Days," which is gradually opening in theaters around the country. It's also
being shown on IFC on demand. Mungiu spoke to us from radio Guerrilla in
Bucharest, Romania.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. Here's the closing song from "4 Months."

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified: (Singing in foreign language)

(End of soundbite)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

'Fresh Air' remembers Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (Part 3)

We conclude our tribute to Sondheim by listening to archival interviews with collaborators and performers, including Stephen Colbert, James Lapine, Paul Gemignani and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

52:30

'Fresh Air' remembers Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (Part 1)

Sondheim, who died Nov. 26, was the lyricist and composer who gave us Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and other shows. In 2010 he spoke about his writing process, from rhyming to finding the right note.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue