Zsófia Szilágyi graduated University of Pécs in 2002. She continued her education as a Film and TV director at the Academy of Film and Drama of Budapest from 2002 to 2007. She also worked on as an assistant director and casting director on Ildikó Enyedi’s Academy Award nominated film “On Body and Soul.” “One Day” is her first feature film that premiered in the Critics Week sidebar of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.
Tara Karajica caught up with her at the 2019 Vilnius Film Festival – Kino Pavasaris, where her film screened in the European Debut Competition program and where she won the Best Director Award.
I understand a few letters from a friend were one of the inspirations for the film. Can you elaborate on that and? What else inspired you?
Zsófia Szilágyi: This was the starting point, but there are two other starting points as well. The first is the fact that my cousin has three kids and I was her babysitter for a while because I am family and I had time and I saw a lot of how the daily organization worked in their family. For example, the characters of the children were inspired by this particular family. When I realized that I wanted to make a film about the routine and the average life of a family, it was possible because I studied Feminist Literature Criticism and I think that this knowledge is somehow incorporated in the film. When I realized that one can make a film about this underrepresented topic, this knowledge came in very handy.
I don’t really remember why she wrote these letters. I think it was just a joke. She wrote about one day in her life and she did it for a week. The letters were in the same form, with a timeline that went from very early in the morning until the very end of the day. She wrote her days in ten-minute segments and it was funny in a way and sad in another. I always knew from the letters what she wanted to do and what she did instead of what she wanted to do because of the children, because of something always intervening and she couldn’t fulfill her plans.
You chose the everyday life of this particular family, something that is already extremely difficult to live but also to watch as the main plot and then you added the cheating as a subplot that is also a ticking bomb. Can you explain these choices?
Z.S.: I thought that you cannot make a film just about an everyday routine because nobody will see it or I didn’t find any other solution to deal with the everyday routine. I thought that we needed something else; we needed another storyline that was not very visible and not very strong, but that summarized these little parts and that’s why I found that I needed something that gave a structure to the whole film. I didn’t want the audience to just see a series of very small routine events. I was afraid that it would be vey boring. I thought that the audience needed something else to listen to.
The soundscape of the film that is made up of crying kids, spinning washing machines, car alarms… assaults our senses and is extremely accurate and provides a fully immersive experience. Can you talk about that?
Z.S.: It took us three months to build this soundscape! The sound engineer is a very good friend of mine and we wanted the soundtrack to always be disturbing and we wanted to feel that the main character is very irritated and that she really wants to get ten minutes of calm and quiet, but that she cannot find this peace of mind and the time for it. And when you are very nervous and irritated, everything is a little bit heightened and louder than you would like it to be, but we did not want it to be very radical, too abstract or too much. Everybody knows when something is very irritating!
How did you prepare for this film apart from babysitting your cousin’s kids? What enabled you to recreate this so well?
Z.S.: I think that I had ideas before the script and the treatment and an input from my cousin and my friends. But when we already knew that we were getting the money and that we could produce the film, then I really began to talk to a lot of mothers and I just collected situations. I worked with a Hungarian writer and we wanted to find a balance where there was a lot of trouble during the day, but not too much trouble. We wanted these situations to be very typical and we wanted our audience to see the reality; we wanted a reality effect that made you say: “Yes, it’s going this way and not in another way.” But if we didn’t find this balance and there was too much trouble, then the danger was to lose our audience because they would feel it’s too much, that it’s not realistic. It was a work of balance.
Do you think your film will make people appreciate (their) mothers and motherhood in general more? Will it change perceptions? Or, make people reconsider their decisions to expand their families?
Z.S.: What do you think?
As a mother, it makes me appreciate mothers more in general, but I am not sure I can see the film as someone who is not a mother anymore. When I became a mother, I began to see everything with a different eye and I can relate to your story up to a point. What were the reactions of your audience?
Z.S.: It would be very nice if the audience saw the film as you did when you became a mother and saw motherhood and parenthood with a different eye, but I am afraid it will not happen! But there were some interesting reactions in the audience. Usually, the women say: “Yes, we know this and this is how it works. You can shoot this film in my house.” But there were interesting reactions from men. In a small town in Hungary, a man who was around 60 years old was sitting in the audience with his wife and at the end of the Q&A, he said to her: “It’s horrible! I didn’t know it and you did it your whole life!” and the whole audience laughed!
But it was such a nice and organic reaction!
Z.S.: Yes! It was something of a confession, but I’m afraid it’s rare. Perhaps it will change points of view a bit. It would be very nice!
Do you think your film is feminist in a sense? Not because you are woman because I don’t know how it would look like if a man made it, but more because of what you chose as your topic.
Z.S.: Yes. That’s a good question! How would it look like if a man made it?! But it’s definitely feminist in the choice of the topic. The everyday life of a mother as a topic for a film is somehow a feminist choice and the fact that this ordinary story takes up 90% of the plot of the film.
You were Ildikó Enyedi’s student, assistant director and casting director. Do you consider her your mentor? What was the best advice she has given you? Did she like your film?
Z.S.: I think she liked it! We live very close to each other and when we met and I talked to her about what my plan was, she was very enthusiastic and she said: “Just do it very quick! Very fast!” That was seven years ago! I couldn’t make it very fast, but in the end I managed to make it. I had problems with the cheating storyline and we talked a lot about it and her opinion was that we needed this storyline to tell the routine of an everyday life because without it, you could not show what you wanted to show. It was necessary. I don’t like this storyline and I didn’t want to deal with it, but I felt that perhaps she was right and that we really needed it for a structure that works.
Apart from Ildikó Enyedi, do you have any favorite female filmmakers? And films by female filmmakers?
Z.S.: Agnès Varda and her film Cléo from 5 to 7 that inspired the structure of my film. I like this film very much. Yesterday, I saw I Cannot Sleep by Claire Denis for the first time ever – perhaps it’s a shame, but I didn’t know Claire Denis too well before. I look up to her now!
What do you think of the situation of women in film today? How is it like in Hungary?
Z.S.: I think that in Hungary it’s very similar to Europe. Some years ago, I attended a presentation from somebody from Eurimages who said that they were monitoring the situation of women in the audiovisual sector and that in film schools, men and women were equal and equally accepted. But after graduation, women somehow do not make their first and second films and so on, or that they make them at a much slower pace than men and they didn’t understand why! There is this phenomenon and I think it’s the same in Hungary.
What is your next project?
Z.S.: I don’t know! I’m a woman so maybe it will be slower…
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Vilnius Film Festival – Kino Pavasaris.