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Interview: Romanian Film Director Florin Serban

Director Florin Serban poses with the "Silver Bear" in Berlin.
Director Florin Serban poses with the "Silver Bear" in Berlin.
Finalists for the annual Academy Awards will be announced January 25 in Hollywood. One of the contenders for Best Foreign Language Film is "If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle," the debut feature by Romanian director Florin Serban.

It may be a long shot, as there are over 100 submissions from different countries, but the raw power of the movie has already won it notice at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival, where it took the Jury Grand Prix (Silver Bear) award.

Produced on a shoestring budget with mostly amateur actors, “If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle” details the struggles of a teenager in a juvenile-detention facility who faces a profound inner dilemma. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev spoke with Serban in New York.

RFE/RL: You were only 14 when Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime fell in 1989, but you often mention that growing up under Ceausescu profoundly affected you and your world view. Can you be more specific?

Florin Serban: I’m not nostalgic at all about the communist regime, but I’m nostalgic about my childhood and I’m a little bit sad that my childhood is wrapped up in that. I think when you go home at night, in the evening and the water is running, you press the button and the electricity is on, you have everything at your convenience. I think at that very moment there is something much more important missing. That’s why, and I want to emphasize this I’m not nostalgic about that regime at all, but I think that we, the ones who grew up under communism, had something we are missing more and more today.

I mean, to go to the very basics, you needed some imagination to take a bath under the communist regime. Because there was no hot water, you had to come [up] with ingenious ideas to bring water to your bathroom. And I saw some ingenuous ideas that can make me laugh and smile now.

RFE/RL: Some movie critics have characterized "If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle" as a "prison" movie. How would you define it?

For me it is the story of a kid, of a teenager and his turmoil, more than anything else. And I’m insisting on this. I really don’t see my movie as a “prison” movie at all. For me this movie is more about love than anything else. And it’s about several different types of love: the love of this teenager toward his brother; love and hate toward his mother; love for this young girl. For me this is more a love story than anything else.

RFE/RL: At certain moments in the movie, the protagonist Silviu reaches nearly Shakespearean proportions. He is a tragic character standing alone against an invincible, hostile reality. How did you develop Silviu?

When you’re writing [the script], that process has to be costly. It has to be costly because if for the months that you’re writing, if you’re not in the shoes of the character, I don’t think you can bring life and blood [to the character]. I really don’t want to go and tell his reasons for behaving like he behaves because this is part of your reading of the movie as a filmgoer, as a spectator.

Often people ask me why Romanian movies for the past five to six years have been successful and I don’t know if the craft involved is the reason that makes them successful. I think it is more the heart that’s involved in the filmmaking that makes them successful, and I think that there is a lot of my heart in Silviu’s heart.

Part Of A 'New Wave'?

RFE/RL: Movie critics love to classify things and they speak now of Romanian New Wave cinema. Do you feel you are part of a movement or belong to a particular group?

I just did my first movie. It’s really an honor for me to be put next to people
Florin Serban
like Cristi Puiu or Cristian Mungiu or Corneliu Porumboiu, but I don’t know if this has to do with us being Romanian or Balkan or Latin or anything else. I don’t know if any of these people [would] agree with this [classification] and I don’t agree with it myself.

I don’t think that there is what’s called Romanian New Wave. I think that there are several people that make good movies in Romania right now. There are some thematic similarities, but there are many more things that differentiate us than things that bring us together. I mean, I think you can really call a wave what the French New Wave was. They all came from “Cahiers du cinema,” they all were under [the influence] of [film critic] Andre Bazin and then they stayed together for a while and then they split ways. There’s nothing of this [here], so for me this is more of [a classification] for critics and film historians to define, to put together several films that really I don’t think belong together.

RFE/RL: A defining element of the whole movie is that of respect. Silviu yearns for respect; all of his detention buddies ache for respect too. Why it is so fundamental to their characters?

With these kids you really don’t know what’s coming next. One moment he can talk to you like this, face-to-face and he can be calm, and then he goes out the door, he faces a kid he had a minor argument with, he breaks a glass, he takes a shard and cuts that guy’s throat. These kids come from a place where they were not respected. First, they were not loved and then they wanted to replace that type of feeling with respect. So they ask for respect from the people around them. And the only way they could ask for this respect was with the fist and with physical force. And then they did something wrong and they went to jail. And there it’s really nothing but respect.

Everything in juvenile detention centers is built around respect. It’s a system with its own rules, its own values, but they’re all centered on respect. When you go and talk and work with one of these people, it’s rather a matter of intuition and finding the right balance between treating them with respect, not bossing them around, but also letting them understand that they cannot put a boot on your neck.

It’s a very fine balance and I don’t think that you can go and read some social studies or some psychological studies and then go to prison and try to work with these kids. I think it’s much more a matter of intuition and finding the answers as you go along.

RFE/RL: You said after the Berlin festival that working with kids in the juvenile-detention facility while making the movie affected you in many ways. Can you elaborate?

It had an influence on me because I don’t think there are too many movies that really change the life of the viewer. But I think there are experiences in filmmaking that change irreversibly the ones [people] that are involved in it.

For me this was quite a spiritual journey and a spiritual adventure, working with these kids, because it was a challenge but it wasn’t in the way you would expect it, the way I expected it to be that it would be difficult because these kids are wild there, not controlled. It was a challenge in terms of generosity. I learned a huge lesson on generosity from these kids and this was totally unexpected.

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