The Lazy Women of the Film Industry: Interview with cinematographer Agnesh Pakozdi
In this interview series, I would like to introduce amazing women in the film industry who work passionately and successfully in the still male-oriented industry of filmmaking. I interview women from all over the world and from very different professions within the industry to show both their individual and their universal experience in cinema.
“My body is a war zone where the entire world stages its battles” the melancholic girl says in Aren’t You Happy?, the critically acclaimed and widely popular diploma film of Susanne Heinrich and Agnesh Pakozdi, that I came across a couple of months ago. I immediately fell in love with its unusual narrative and style, with its perfectly-written dialogues and unexpected images that subtly but clearly call attention to society’s degenerated value system and make you want to cry and laugh at the same time over it. The protagonist of this uniquely structured movie is “the melancholic girl”, who, in search of a place to stay for the night, leads us into unexpected encounters with various, stereotypical figures of today’s society. The story has no beginning and no end, it is simply the series of chapters from the melancholic girl’s life, presented in an artificially beautiful style, reflecting the world of advertisement and social media. The carefully constructed, Brechtian dialogue delivers sharp comments on love, family, relationships, art, politics and so on, in every little episode. After seeing the movie for the first time I immediately contacted Agnesh Pakozdi, its cinematographer to find out as much as possible about the inspiration and work behind Aren’t You Happy?.
After a quick and straightforward exchange of emails, I met Agnesh virtually for the first time. She was in Georgia, shooting her fourth movie with director Elene Naveriani, and despite having a long day of work behind her she was energetic, fresh and ready to talk about her career as a cinematographer. I immediately had the impression that she was a strong-minded and hard-working professional, her confidence and passion for film came through even as we battled with the difficulties of bad internet connection and so did her kindness as she answered my nervously phrased questions about Aren’t You Happy?.
How did you start out in the film industry? You have a BA and an MA in economics, you graduated from Corvinus University in Budapest. How did the idea of studying film come up?
Yes, I am an economist but I have never worked in that field. I went to Corvinus because I had no better idea at the time. I have always been interested in photography and I joined film clubs when I was a teenager but it was only later that I realized one’s hobby can become their profession as well. I applied to ELTE, to study Film Theory and Film History and then step by step my career in the film industry evolved. I always wanted to spend some time abroad and I won a scholarship to Universitat der Künste in Berlin. It was here that I realized I am most interested in cinematography so I applied to the German Film- and Television Academy (DFFB) in Berlin and I have stayed there ever since.
Do film history and film theory have a meaningful impact on how you approach your projects? What/Who do you turn to for inspiration?
It is different with each project. I lived in Hungary for 23 years, so it is inevitable that Hungarian culture and film history has an impact on my work, but I believe that it mixes more and more with my international experience. For example – if I may jump ahead – Aren’t You Happy? [2019, dir. Susanne Heinrich, DP. Agnesh Pakozdi] could not have happened in Hungary. It is a film that needed that particular German writer-director and Berlin as the shooting location. Susanne created an exciting perspective in the movie that is specifically German yet universally relevant. I believe it is a movie that is quite unexpected in many places, including Hungary.
How did you come across this project, Aren’t You Happy?
Susanne [the director] studied at DFFB too, she started three years later than me and we actually met each other in a political context. There was a socio-political controversy at the academy, which basically revolved around the question whether the academy could remain free from commercial demands and market pressure and stay the protected, creative force it once had been. This whole dispute went on for one and a half years and Susanne and I were on the same side in the debate. That is how we met and started working together. And it is interesting because the majority of the crew for Aren’t You Happy? came from this revolutionary group of students who all fought for artistic freedom.
Actually the political side of the topics is always important for me, in every project, with every director. Usually, it is our political consciousness that brings us together.
Can you talk a bit about the inspiration behind the film’s iconic style and the aesthetic world? Many noticed its reference to TV commercials, Instagram filtered images, generally to this perfect, spotless world of (social) media…
First of all, you must realize that it is a very cold film and it is that on purpose. Our main aim was to distance the film from the audience and make them watch it structurally. Both the text and the visuality served this purpose. For example, the characters have no names; the main character is simply called “the melancholic girl” and all the others represent only stereotypes. This is to prevent the audience from identifying with the characters through emotions and sensitivity. We wanted the film to be watched with a structural approach. The chapters serve this purpose too. Each chapter is a little bubble with its own aesthetics for which, yes, the sterile, all-perfect and fake world of advertisement was a great inspiration. The objects in the frames have no history, they are standing there as signs. Every object, every surface, every colour is simply the sign of itself. A good example of this is the football T-shirt hanging on the wall in one of the scenes, where instead of “Messi” or “Ronaldinho” the word “Football” is written.
And we presented surfaces rather than depths which was again a critique of today’s neoliberal approach to the world; we must create a perfect, glamorous surface – possibly without any depth. It is the surface that must be bright, shiny, attractive and spotless.
Already in the first monologue, the main character herself declares that no one wants to or can identify with melancholic girls…
Yeah, I mean it is a wink at the audience, how the movie should be perceived. Which is unexpected for the viewer! Our usual approach to a film is that we identify with at least one character, most likely with the main character… and usually, the whole structure of a movie is based on our emotional identification towards the characters. We, on the other hand, worked – with all creative tools – against this, trying to give a purely structural view on society… a sort of exhibition where we look at things from three steps afar.
What was the work with the actors like? Were they in any ways free to prepare the choreography for their characters?
No, they were not at all free. The film is actually post-synchronized, again to distance it further. Brecht was a great inspiration behind the script, Susanne wanted the material to exist on its own, for its own sake. Every movement, every gesture, every word is choreographed and affected, it was actually a very interesting work for the actors because they basically had to forget everything they had ever learnt about acting.
The film was very successful with the critics, it won the Max Ophüls Preiz for best film and it was presented in the Berlinale. What was the reaction from the public? Have you heard any personal feedback that stayed with you?
I attended a few Q&A sessions with Susanne and I have to say the reception of the film was quite radical. Some immediately fell in love with it while others could not understand the unexpected style and text, which is absolutely understandable.
But there was a lot of positive feedback, and it was clear that this movie fills a certain void.
It was interesting that different generations reacted positively and negatively to the film, not only the twenty- and thirty-something girls liked it, but elderly women too. The fifty-something men often feel offended… [she laughs]. But I do not want to generalize here either, because Philippe Bober [film producer] is one of them and he was a huge fan of the movie [he became co-producer to the film]. But still, most of the negative critiques have come from older men.
It is understandable though because the scenes were definitely from the woman’s perspective. We often played with putting the male characters in positions where traditionally women are the objectified ones, like when a guy presents several poses naked in front of a camera, like the female models from an erotic calendar. And this sort of curved mirror is definitely more successful with female audiences.
Yeah, my favourite scene is when the melancholic girl talks about the whole world owning her body and we see the shadow of the word “fragile” appearing on her shoulders… It was so powerful, I definitely felt that it was addressed to me as a woman!
Yeah, it is one of the strongest moments in the film, I agree. I think what makes this movie unique is the unexpected surroundings in which the socio-political messages are delivered.
Do you worry about losing viewers exactly because of the movie’s unexpectedness and coldness?
This was our diploma film, so we did not really want to care about the number of viewers or anything like that, we just wanted to make the movie that meant a lot to both of us. But once Philippe Bober – who by the way was extremely supportive – came into the picture as co-producer, for him – of course – it was more important that the film becomes commercially successful as well. So much so, that we reopened the editing and among other changes, we actually shortened the first monologue…I think I can speak for Susanne as well when I say that it is important for us to reach as many viewers as possible, but not at all costs. I do believe it is necessary to push boundaries and to push the viewers out of their comfort zones, or at least try to encourage them to make an effort to view a film in a more challenging way…
What is your general experience as a woman in the film industry? Do you think there is still gender-discrimination? Is it harder for a woman to get ahead?
For cinematographers yes, it is definitely harder if you are a woman. I mean it differs from country to country, but generally yes. I think in an international environment it is always easier. For example, at DFFB I had two female professors, both of them French, and seeing examples for actual working, and successful female cinematographers were as important as the practical knowledge and experience we gained from them.
What I see is that even today if you make a mistake the first reaction is that you made it because you are a woman, and not because, let’s say, you are young or inexperienced, no, it is always “why did we hire a woman to control the camera?!”. I have seen this attitude way too often.
But again, I was lucky to study in a protective, international environment where I was able to make a lot of mistakes. I photographed many more films and was given more chances than, for example, Hungarian cinematographers of the same age, who studied in Budapest.
And now I am here in Georgia, which is a very male-dominated environment with zero female members in the camera department and they accept me which suggests that arriving from above, in a way, is easier… but it really does matter where and how you climb that ladder. In Hungary, for example, there are female cinematographers accepted to film schools, but they hardly ever get the chance to shoot a normal budget feature film later on. At least I don’t know any examples.
What would you advise then to young cinematographers, just starting out in the industry?
I would say they have to believe in themselves. It will be difficult sometimes because there will be clashes with the directors and with the producers, and it requires a lot of self-confidence to work in a tough environment, but that is exactly why you should work with people that believe in the same principles as you, with people that have the same interests and political views.
Sometimes we just have to slice out the piece of the cake for ourselves if men do not offer it to us on a silver plate.
It takes a lot of energy and plenty of sacrifices to be a cinematographer. But it gives you unique, amazing experiences! I would advise you to try and find the people you can trust, and the ones with whom you share the love for cinema.
How do you manage the amount of travelling that comes with your job?
I always wanted to travel a lot so I am not complaining but it is true that this profession is hardly family-friendly. I am actually working on changing that. I have a little child and so does Susanne, so for our next project, we are trying to set up a little kindergarten onset. And we try to discriminate positively and hire as many mothers as possible for the shoot.
For us, the way we work and the principles we follow on set are just as important as the social and political message of the end product. Filmmaking is our life and we would like to improve the working conditions, be innovative and prove that it is possible to do in a family-friendly way. It is not easy, but it can be done!
What are you working on at the moment? What are your future plans?
Unfortunately, many projects are on hold at the moment due to COVID-19; which is especially hard for already running documentaries. This feature film that I am working on by the Black Sea in Georgia at the moment, is a big risk as well, especially for the producers. I am preparing a musical with Susanne [Heinrich] which will be about the mother-child topic. Many projects find me from the borders between narrative and experimental cinema, which I am really happy about because I enjoy working in these shorter, creative formats, and I can shoot them in Berlin which has been an advantage since I became a mom.
Photos are the exclusive property of the interviewee.
Interview by Gréti Csernik.