Corneliu Porumboiu, Police Adjective
Cornelieu Porumboiu’s absurd anti-policier Police, Adjective, a hit at last fall’s New York Film Festival, has pushed the Romanian director into the forefront of a young group of Romanian filmmakers who have in the past four years taken the world of International Art Cinema by storm. Along with Cristian Mungiu (2008 Palme D’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days), Cristian Nemescu (California Dreamin’) and Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. L?z?rescu), Porumboiu has found success at the highest levels of the international festival circuit while still trying to carve out audiences at home. In his latest film, the follow up to his outrageous and insightful 2006 debut 12:08 East of Bucharest, he turns the police procedural on its head in order to meditate on the disconnect one cop has between his thankless duties and his unformulated ideals while examining its resonance to the larger societal woes of this former Communistic bloc country. Featuring a haggard Dragos Bucur in a performance that gets to the bottom of a crushed young spirit, this droll and highly comic movie paints a portrait of bureaucracies’ most malignant manifestations.
Centering on a cop charged with the thankless task of doing surveillance on high school kids smoking pot near a local kindergarten, it slows the dynamics of the film investigation to an all too verisimilitudinous crawl, showing how such a small and pointless task can grow into an administrative nightmare in which local law enforcement will ruin lives just to save face. Just as capable of being infuriating as it is laugh out loud funny, it suggests the ways Totalitarianism is an ethic informed mainly by an abuse of language and procedure.
Police, Adjective opens in New York and Los Angeles today.
Filmmaker: In the New Romanian Cinema one of the major themes is the way bureaucracy, be it in a police station or a hospital or wherever else, is a cancer that eats away at everyone’s best intentions. Is this something that you and the other filmmakers of your generations especially attuned to?
Porumboiu: When I’m making a movie I don’t realize it. I’m more interested in particular cases. For me this case with the police guy. While you make the movie, you follow this guy, you try to decide what he’s supposed to do. I have things in the movie that remind you of Kafka, but this is not the point in the end. Its a sub theme, a second theme.
Filmmaker: What was the initially thematic spark that pushed you toward telling this story?
Porumboiu: I had two stories that touched me. This was one, with two brothers. The other one was told to me by a friend who is a police officer who told me a small case like that. He didn’t want to solve it because of his conscience. These two stories I stuck with because I started to ask myself, if you have a law that can give birth to this kind of story, asking what is the law now, what is religion, this is what I started me.
Filmmaker: So you initially planned to focus on the two brothers although the film now focuses mostly on the cop who is observing them?
Porumboiu: I heard about this story. A small case of conscience, this one. I follow this, what it is for him to do this. He’s applying the law you see, he could be God. So I start with this, following him, to see where it takes me.
Filmmaker: Language is a very important aspect of the film. The resolution of the film involves one of the police lieutenant who uses a dictionary to point out the ostensibly flawed logic of the conscience stricken cop. He uses language as a weapon against the cop in order subvert his own internal sense of justice.
Porumboiu: When I started gathering all the facts for the movie, learning the various procedures for a case like that, I found these records which they write, for which they have their own rules. At the end you see a day and a date represented on a form which has some strict rules about how its written. Very objective, very cold. I asked myself, mainly for the actor, to help them compose their roles, I was thinking of the way that doing this kind of writing would change your perception of reality. That if you are writing this perverse reports everyday your perception of reality and the way you represent it on the page is becoming more and more abstract. So this was the first point when I began to think about language, when I saw that in this bureaucracy there is alot of report writing and so on. Also, if I’m writing, I’m obsessed about words and structures. I have that problem with myself [Laughs]. After that, when I was arriving at the conscience section, I asked ten friends of mine how they would define conscience. Each one had a different response. Like that, I started to build the scene around that idea, started to develop this theme which is the most important in the movie: the representation of words and what is in the back of the words? Even the dialogues, they are very constructed. How we use words, change them to communicate better, but the real meaning is in the subtext behind the words.
Filmmaker: What kind of research did you do with policeman in Romania?
Porumboiu: Yes. The protocols for following, watching. Never follow them on the same side of the street. Stay obstructed, keep a proper distance, the way of walking. There all people who don’t want to be noticed, so he stalks them like a predator. I made alot of research like that. Day in the life. How you start a case. What are the reports you do. Opening of a case and closing of a case. If you’re writing these reports everyday, using much the same language everyday, eventually these phrases start to lose meaning, they become abstracted. They become a preformance. They become defined by these structure of language. In the end, the character is defined by the structures that are confining him and the language that’s used to keep those structures in place.
Filmmaker: It seems that everyone in the film is so concerned with their place in the system that they can’t see the spirit of the law, they can only act upon the letter of the law. So much of the New Romanian Cinema suggests this is a society wide concern.
Porumboiu: I think its about the society. We didn’t reach this common point. I think my characters are living in an intermediate world. They don’t have things to grab on to. They don’t have something stable. They may not have the bible, but they have the dictionary. This is the problem all my characters have, even in my first feature.
Filmmaker: Do you feel like you’ve grown as a filmmaker since 12:08 East of Bucharest was such a success a few years back?
Porumboiu: I think this one is more visual. I think the rhythm is more compact. Its a step forward for myself. It has these sequences of loneliness, especially when he’s at work, that are absurd. They’re something I want to visit again in the future.
Filmmaker: What were some of the biggest challenges in putting together the film. What is the financing situation like in Romania? Did the success of your first film open up opportunities for you that led to this one?
Porumboiu: I earned some money on the first one. I put it into this one. At the same time, it was made with the help of the National Center of Cinematografica Romania, who put up half of the budget. Because I had some money from 12:08 and I didn’t want to be interfered with in terms of making the movie that I want, I didn’t apply to other funds or anything like that. So with the success from my first, I did my second. I don’t know what I’ll do after.
Filmmaker: What was the reaction among the Romanian public to the film?
Porumboiu: It was a very good response. The press and so on. We had 12,000 people see it, which is a good number.
Filmmaker: Would a film like this be considered popular in Romania or does the American pop cinema dominate the local screens and audience consciousness?
Porumboiu: Yes, it is the dominate cinema in our country. We are like, as you say, art house.
Filmmaker: What position does that put Romanian audiences in? It seems like a film like your own and some by your contemporaries most closely resembles or speaks to the daily existence of many Romanians and yet this kind of filmmaking must seem exotic to anyone reared on American studio films.
Porumboiu: They expect to go to the cinema and spend two hours laughing and being entertained. They don’t want to see what they are dealing with in normal life! For most of them, cinema is just an entertainment art. So they don’t know the codes. Cinema has one hundred years. They don’t know that it has its own codes, its own language, that its developing in one way or the other. If someone doesn’t have a sense of the history of cinema, its kind of hard to see these kinds of movies because they’re conditioned to just go for two hours and laugh and giggle. So they don’t like these kinds of movies.
At the same time I feel this new wave is forming an audience which you didn’t have five or six years ago. If I made this movie five or six years ago I wouldn’t have had as much success as I’ve had.
Filmmaker: Has Romanian cinema from the past been much of an influence on you?
Porumboiu: We’ve had very good directors in the past who were making films in the 70s, 80s, 90s, so yes, but these are individuals cases and they were never part of a compact wave of filmmakers all coming of age at the same time.
Filmmaker: You’ve called this film an anti-policier. Talk to me about some of the ways you went about subverting that genre.
Porumboiu: When I was writing the script, the first draft was more like a classical policier. After I did some research, I realized that a policier tries falsely to involve the audience in some sort of puzzle. I could do this, but I realized that I would lose my character, what he’s searching for. So after that, I realized I would choose to do a movie in which the character becomes central. I prefer to be detached from the character to better observe him and his world. To try to involve the audience in the classical way would be to arrive in another type of thinking and structure. If I do it that way, I couldn’t arrive at what I wrote.
Filmmaker: It seems like you intentionally eliminated the moments we’re accustomed to getting from this kind of film and put in there place an accumulation of representations detailing actual, tedious work to get at what its actually like to be a lowly street level cop who has to do this thankless type of snooping.
Porumboiu: Yes! In a traditional policier you have all the time, action. Action, cutting on action, action involving the case that very specific, so that the spectator has to follow just this part. What I found when I did the research was that in actual police work, there is alot of waiting. And waiting and waiting. For me, this was good, because it fit with this guy who is trying to find sense and his meaning in this world. So I focus on the waiting, not the action. So I go and keep this in the whole movie, the waiting. He walks, he’s going somewhere, no he’s going nowhere. When he’s watching the house of the kid and when the girl is going out who is the housekeeper and he follows her because he has to see where she’s going, you see it in real time, just as the police actually would. So I put in these kind of dead moments, which in daily life far outnumber the action. Conceptually, this fit with what I wanted. I leave it open to the audience, because for me its all about timing, time of being, time of leaving, for this character, who is trying to define himself. These are my main points.