Shouting and silence

Eugen Jebeleanu on homophobia, Poppy Field and moving from theatre to film

by Jennie Kermode

Conrad Mericoffer in Poppy Field
Conrad Mericoffer in Poppy Field Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

A powerful, resonant film about the stresses of keeping secrets, Eugen Jebeleanu’s Poppy Field is one of the highlights of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. It follows Cristi (Conrad Mericoffer), a young gendarme who has a passionate relationship with his French boyfriend but is terrified of any of his colleagues finding out that he’s gay. When his unit is called out to deal with a situation in a cinema, where religiously inspired campaigners are protesting against the screening of a film by an LGBT group, he is afraid of being outed, and when one of the men there recognises him from his secret life, it becomes apparent that he’s willing to go to extremes to avoid it.

Eugen Jebeleanu
Eugen Jebeleanu Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

When Eugen and I met to discuss the film, I began by asking if it’s based on a real life incident in Bucharest in 2013, in which religious fundamentalists disrupted a screening of The Kids Are All Right.

“Yes,” he says. “That was the first time they stopped the projection of an LGBT film, but after then it was a few times later also, in other years, and even in 2018. It was an event like this that was stopped.

“Because I am a gay person in living in Romania, I wanted to tell the story of someone who's trying to deal between these two identities that he's showing of himself in society. And so it was mostly about how this character can be more aware of what he is, more in peace somehow, with his sexual orientation and his identity.”

A lot of people outside Romania have praised the country for the progress it has made during recent years in updating laws that concern LGBT people. Is there still a problem with society not having caught up with that?

“In Romania, and nowadays, I think the problem is also that we don't speak enough in education, in school, because I think there is the beginning of this problem, because it's not something that we can know. All the people need to have information about what this is, and how people's struggles with this identity, with sexual orientation are. So I would say that it's a topic that people are interested in, but it’s not something that is going very fast.

A moment of truth
A moment of truth Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

“It was a big issue in 2018 because the government proposed a referendum for changing the constitution. The definition of family was that it was between two persons, and they wanted – with all the church behind them – to change it to be clear that it's between a man and a woman. Fortunately, this referendum was not valid, because it was not too many people. But it means that we still have a lot of issues with LGBT rights.”

I've been on Pride marches myself, I note, where I've heard the kind of absurd rhetoric from protestors that we hear in the film. Is it difficult to capture that kind of person in a film without making it seem unbelievable?

“Yeah,” he says. “I was really inspired by what happened at this moment in 2013, at this cinema hall, and then at the other events. I wanted to make something that it's close to somehow, let's say documentary, because I found it more powerful for our character and also for the story. It’s not something that has spectacular action, because it's a story that happens in just 24 hours. So I wanted to see this tension, and I wanted to see this character in the middle of these people, scared, and also all this anxiety that he feels when he doesn't know how to react. And then we see also his own homophobia against himself and against the others.

“What I wanted for the group – and I think it was very important because I'm a director that doesn't want to give lessons of life or anything, even if it's some kind of vulnerable topic – I wanted to open a discussion and put questions about why these people are coming to do these kinds of actions, and not to judge them. Reacting with violence to violence, I think it's worse. And so I worked with the actors on this idea of not putting judgments on their characters, even though I don't agree with those kinds of actions. Not making good and bad characters, trying to see more how everyone is at some point somehow a victim and also a persecutor.”

Riding to work
Riding to work Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

I tell him that I like the way that Christi expects his colleagues in the police to be homophobic, but when they're talking about things, it's a little bit more complicated and they have lots of different attitudes. Was that part of what he was trying to do to create that nuance?

“Yeah, yeah. I'm glad to know that because it's important also, I think, for Christi. He's putting a lot of stories in his head that are not even, really, important. It is, I think, how he's his own censorship, and how he is so anxious, what the others will think about him. But in fact, people are not maybe so interested in how he deals with his life. So yeah, I think this kind of reaction, it's something that I see a lot. Here in Romania, I have lived with it also, and I think other friends or colleagues of mine, people I know, are living with this, because it's also what we learn in school, what the values are in education. And because of all of these limits, we start to be afraid of ourselves and make a lot of projection about what the others will think about us.”

The film moves between dramatic protest scenes and quiet, intimate scenes in a way that can be emotionally disorientating to watch. I ask how Eugen approached the actual shoot.

“In a very short time,” he says. “We had 16 days to shoot. It was also because I have rehearsed a lot for the actors. I wanted to rehearse because I'm a director that comes from theatre. So it was something that was important for me not to change my way of working with the actors or the dramatic way of seeing the story.”

This began with making sure that everybody was well prepared before they went on set, he explains.

Screenwriter Ioana Moraru
Screenwriter Ioana Moraru Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

“The actors do know what they have to do. I think it was more difficult for Conrad Mericoffer, for the main character is a lot in this position of receiving what's happening, and not being the character who is the most active. Yeah, receiving all these things. And it was difficult for him, I think. He was saying this in some interviews, that maybe the most difficult thing for him was the silence, and how he was dealing with all these moments of silence when looking and listening to what's happening, and trying not to make some comments too much. Because as we are so close in on his face and his reactions, it was important here to connect, and I think he was very, very good.”

He wanted us to see the conflict on Conrad’s face but not have it be too dramatic, he continues. We needed to understand what Cristi was feeling not just intellectually but at a gut level.

I ask how he found Conrad in the first place.

“He’s someone I have worked with in the theatre,” he tells me. “We were colleagues many years ago in Bucharest, and then we had theatre projects. And when I started to work on Poppy Fields, I had in mind another actor. And well, now I'm glad that it has happened like this. I remember going out and calling him and I said, ‘I want you to come to the audition for this character.’ And he came, he was in a moment of doubt, because he didn't knew if he wanted to continue in acting. It was difficult for him. Well, it was the best for me because he was very relaxed, and that's what I like. Because for me, that's behind his intelligence and his way of working. He’s very serious, very dedicated. He's also someone that I found very mysterious, and I think that that was important for this character – to have an actor that can leave to the audience the possibility to choose, to make their own projection.”

What was it like for Eugen moving from theatre directing to this kind of work? He tells me that he had a lot of support from cinematographer Marius Panduru, whom he describes as one of the greatest in Romania.

Sitting in silence
Sitting in silence Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

“When I started to work on this, he was telling me not to change anything and to be very confident with what I'm doing and with himself. And so it was something very creative because I was not trying to make something big. I was trying to be in the same position of honest sincerity and that’s something that is very important for me also in my theatre projects. I need to speak about topics, subjects that are social or political. It's mostly speaking about LGBT minority issues of people. And so when I had received this - it was a proposal that I had from the producer and the writer – I said yes.

“I haven't done it before, not even a short or something. So I was a bit afraid. But I think that from the very beginning, I was somehow confident with the topic because I live here. I know, as I said, how a gay person lives in this society. I didn't want to put in things from my own story, because it's not my story, but I think the emotional vulnerability of this story comes from what I have lived.”

I ask how he handled the crowd scenes from a technical standpoint, because there are a lot of people milling about and it must have been difficult to keep everything coordinated.

“Yeah, that was maybe the most difficult,” he says, praising the extras for their exemplary work. “They went really, really into the story and the fight between people against [the film being screened] and the people that didn't understand why they are coming to interrupt the projection. It was so real in the moment because I had explained to them all what had to happen, I had explained what I wanted for this film. What is my position, who I am and what I want to put as questions, and not to make a film that it's putting some someone on the corner.

Out with the boys
Out with the boys Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

“I let them to choose in which team they wanted to be. And that was important, because at that point, everyone was honest, also, with his own way of thinking. I think the first takes that we did with were maybe the best, the more powerful scenes, and then when they started to make it two times, it was not the same tension. But yeah, I was glad to see that all these people were so invested in what we have done. And they were fighting for their opinions, even if it's the one that I agree with or not.”

He’s very glad that his film has been selected by the Glasgow film Festival, he says.

“I'm very glad to see what life this film, that is my first film starts to have. Even if it's difficult in these pandemic times, that we cannot be there with you. I'm happy to know that the film can travel. It has its own wings now and can go to all these festivals... I think it's very important because it's, of course, a story that is happening in and speaking about Romania, but I think it's something even in all the world, topics about homosexuality and homophobia, it's something that we have to fight for. And as I am a director, I want to bring the voices of these minorities into stories, main characters, telling stories, because I think we don't have, still today, enough films and fictions that bring these kinds of characters to life. And so I think it's important to do more, and more and more people will start to be more open, to understand security and to be more into acceptance and tolerance.”

He wants to make more films on related subjects in the future, he says, and although the pandemic means that he doesn’t have a firm schedule, he’s already begun work on further projects with the same production house.

Poppy Field will be available to view as part of the festival for 72 hours from 15:30 on Saturday 27 February.

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