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21 June 2018

"We tried to avoid cheap catharsis"

An interview with László Csuja, the director of Blossom Valley which will be competed at Karlovy Vary.

A story of lovers on the run in today’s Eastern Europe. With a stolen child, a morally blind girl and an excessively naive boy. That’s how director László Csuja describes his first feature filmBlossom Valley that debuts in the East of the West Competition at Karlovy Vary.

The male protagonist of Blossom Valley is a mentally challenged boy, as was the case with your previous two short films. What did you want to show about this phenomenon this time?

The notion of parenthood interested me the most. There are horrible misbeliefs that certain individuals don’t deserve the right to have a family because their intelligence is not high enough. This situation creates a lot of questions with no easy answers.

You’ve cast two non-professional actors, Bianka Berényi and László Réti, for the lead roles. What excites you about them?

Both have very strong and consistent inner worlds. With Laci, I was taken by his purity: there is something archaic about him, as if he is from another time. And Bianka’s freedom was completely enchanting. I looked at two-hundred girls during casting. All of them tried to satisfy us – all except her. Which is a kind of autonomy, an outsider mentality in and of itself. I was impressed by that.

 

You describe Blossom Valley as a story of lovers on the run, but the love between the two leads is pretty restrained.

I had intended the love story to be much more intense, but after Laci and Bianka joined the production, I realized that concept wouldn’t work. These were different people, and I needed to build the characters from them, from their potential relationship.

When did you figure that out? After you’d already shot some tests with them?

Yes, we realigned things a little so that we now have a naive boy who wants to experience what it is to hold responsibilities, to be an adult, a self-reliant person, and the drama stems from the fact that he has to accomplish this in an untenable situation, with a girl who doesn’t fit into any conventional morality. It’s completely clear from the very beginning that everything will go wrong. I like films where the protagonists make a well-intentioned decision, and then they’re sucked into a fatal vortex as a result. It’s true to life for some reason.

If everything had to go wrong, was the actual ending obvious for you as well?

Actually, yeah. We thought long and hard about how we should avoid a didactic take on the theme of mental disability. I don’t care for the kind of films that nestle themselves into well-intentioned humanism and easy catharsis. There’s a huge trend now in making films about kind-hearted, unfortunate heroes who always do the right thing, and, in turn, they’re brutally punished by an evil society. People even cry at the end of these kinds of films. It’s cheap catharsis. We tried to avoid that, and therefore the theme of mental disability turned out to be more ambiguous, rather than heavy-handed. We were careful not to make definitive statements about it, only ask indirect questions.

Blossom Valley

You first had the idea for Blossom Valley six years ago. When such a long time passes between conception and execution, directors tend to overthink their films. How did you manage to avoid that trap?

Two things. Firstly, after we’d chosen Bianka and Laci as our leads, the script was rewritten. The other thing was, I gave myself a challenge: I had to add something new to each and every scene during the shoot. For example, we found out on set that a supporting actor had a cool laugh. So we asked him to laugh really loud whenever someone spoke to him. Things like that.

Some people are sure to hear Bianka’s sing-songy, affected speaking voice, and find it grating. Was it hard to decide whether you should soften it or not?

Most of the cast of Blossom Valley are non-professional actors. Each of them has a unique speaking voice. Bianka’s voice might be surprising at first, but I believe most viewers will get used to it after a couple of scenes. And they’ll probably remember her distinctive tone years later.

What does the title of the film symbolize for you?

An imaginary place where all is good.

Blossom Valley has elements of several genres: lovers-on-the-run melodrama, road movie, classic noir, etc. Were the genre tropes helpful in giving the film direction?

Definitely, but we didn’t approach the story as a straight-up genre piece. I love playing around with genre tropes. You can use them directly, even unabashedly, then just drop them completely. I’d like to think the film has this kind of playfulness, where certain stereotypical things appear, you start to expect something… and another thing happens.

Blossom Valley

What films did you find the most inspiring from these genres?

In the film noir Gun Crazy (1950), the female protagonist is very much like Bianka. Of course, there is also Badlands (1973) as a lovers-on-the-run melodrama, and there’s a great film that’s considered a road movie called Wanda (1970) by Barbara Loden. I also kept thinking of a Hungarian movie from the forties called Something Is in the Water (1944) that has Katalin Karády appearing from thin air, wrecking the life of Pál Jávor and then vanishing.

The film was conceived within the Incubator Program with a budget of roughly 250,000 EUR. Did the relatively low budget make the shooting more stressful?

The lack of time certainly enhanced the rawness of the film. We had to reduce the number of setups, most of the scenes consisted of just two shots.

Ágnes Havas, the CEO of the Hungarian National Film Fund, said they created the program to encourage the making of films that take place here and now. Do you also feel these types of movies are missing in Hungary nowadays?

Yes. Hungarian films should reflect much more of today’s society. If we continue this tradition in feature films as well, it’s going to do a lot of good for Hungarian film culture in the long run.

When was this tradition broken?

I suspect Hungarian film lost this type of direct connection around the fall of communism. In the eighties, we had great films by György Szomjas that dealt with the relevant issues of Hungarian society. Remember how wonderful Károly Eperjes was in Tight Quarters, aka Light Physical Injuries, (1983), how lively those characters were! It’s not the realism or documentarism I miss in recent movies, but the filmmakers’ close connection to the reality of Hungarian life in general.

Blossom Valley

After fifteen years of directing short films, you had the chance to make your first feature. Was it a struggle or did you always feel like you were on the right track?

It wasn’t always ideal. I thought I was in a bad situation between 2011 and 2015, I couldn’t find my voice. It felt like a downward spiral.

How about now?

I feel like I’m on the up and up. My documentary Nine Months of War is almost finished, it follows the life of a Subcarpathian Hungarian soldier during the Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict. If the Hungarian film industry boom continues, I’ll be just fine.

Do you have any other projects planned?

Yes, we’re working on a script about a female bodybuilder with the visual artist Anna Nemes, that already received a grant for script development from the Hungarian National Film Fund.

What does it mean for you that Blossom Valley will debut at Karlovy Vary?

Apparently, the audience is great there, everyone is open and friendly, I’m looking forward to it a lot. I think they’ll appreciate the kind of East-European sense of humour that’s typical of our film.

Ferenc Varga

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