As we anticipate her first feature, it’s the perfect time to indulge in Sophy Romvári’s short films, which are now on The Criterion Channel. The big debut is still in development. The Toronto filmmaker told me of her excitement of working with a great team and about how “it’s a big step forward in terms of scope and budget.”
It will be especially thrilling to observe Romvári’s bold vision deepen as her career progresses. Her grasp of minimalism is ingenious: the simplicity of her style reverberates with endless possibilities.
Romvári’s work to date recalls the best of avant-garde cinema. It has this compelling variations-on-a-theme quality, echoing Agnès Varda’s overall artistic practice. Grandma’s House (2018), for example, is a revelation. Romvári places old family photos within a meaningful setting – context is everything for this filmmaker. And the conversations extend both within and between the films.
Throughout her work, Romvári employs straightforward yet enticing formal strategies where meaning stimulates more meaning, which engenders deeper understanding. In the most exhilarating way, the deceptively simple quality of her films resonates with both emotion and meaning, interwoven brilliantly within a sharply self reflexive core.
Located on that thin line between documentary and drama, there is a breathtaking honesty evident in Romvári’s films. Grounded in everyday experiences and emotions, she mines the depths of her relationships, examining the dual-edged sword of our connections, be they intimate or estranged. However, this is not merely a simplistic message regarding connections and communication. It’s all in the disconnect in these films.
Consider a couple of very short but exceptionally telling meditations on the loss of her beloved pet dog. Something as basic as unconventional framing conveys everything we need to know. By cutting the people out, herself included, she forces the attention on the pet.
In Norman Norman (2018), we see Norman by Romvári’s side as we hear about Barbra Streisand’s attempts to clone her own dying pet. It’s a mad, desperate attempt to hold on to a connection, to hold on to old memories. Meanwhile, In Dog Years (2019), dedicated to Norman, allows pet owners to express their own pain about the impending demise of their aged, loved ones. This is something that Romvári herself doesn’t directly do in either but the message is certainly clear.
Romvári’s subjects are relatable, universal, and often difficult to face in real life. There’s an overarching sense of longing that binds. The films speak to things that are left hidden, unsaid, not dared spoken aloud. This artist’s vision is especially exciting because she focuses on the stories we don’t often tell.
I first watched Pumpkin Movie (2018) at TIFF. It was such a straightforward concept, but it cut deep. What is truly striking about the film is how she depicts the conversation between herself and her good friend. They are communicating via Skype and are at opposite ends of the country geographically. Romvári is shown both on the computer screen and in an elongated shot as she appears in the physical space of her apartment. Both women are sharing truly upsetting stories about misogynistic encounters, while each carves her own pumpkin.
Never mind where my mind went with all those sharp knives working – I was practically dumbstruck by the vast divide not only of the construction of the frames but of the conceit itself. The gap appears insurmountable. The various levels of distance, that devastating disconnect, spoke volumes.
When the work is linked to family relations, the visual strategy and the emotional responses become more ambiguous. Whether she’s working with documentary or fiction, the sense of realism is evident immediately in the dramas and the personal diary work has an illusory tinge.
Grieving for lost relationships – or ties that were severed – is key in her most personal works. In films such as Remembrance of József Romvári (2020), Nine Behind (2016), and the most recent Still Processing (2020), there’s a distinct battle being waged between each physical divide and the emotional detachment suggested. And yet, the pain breaks through the formal rigour.
In Still Processing (nominated in the Short Documentary category of the 2022 Canadian Screen Awards), Romvári directly confronts the process of grieving. There she is on screen facing a box of photos that will uncover painful childhood memories. These are family memories that have not been openly discussed. But the journey nevertheless begins.
Still Processing underscores the unflinching bravery at the core of Romvári’s films. These are intimate works, personal visions, but the universal qualities make them so alluring. There’s a dazzling interplay between the various aspects of documentary, drama, and experimental traditions that create profoundly resonant statements about our most important and necessary relationships – and how easy it is to find ourselves distanced from those we love.
Romvári’s cinematic attention to detail – the self-conscious framing, the deliberate and spare use of camera movement – elevates her vision beyond the pale. Hers is a methodical approach couched within a poetic, and intensely emotional journey.
This is the brilliance of her minimalist style – the structural disconnect is what causes such deep emotional responses. The formal rigour can make your head spin with its artistic ramifications, but it can also break your heart. That’s a unique kind of artistic courage.
Watching Sophy Romvári’s short films, the excitement comes from observing someone who is so clearly unafraid of structural experimentation and so determined to stare down the most difficult aspects of life. It’s simple but it’s complicated – and that’s exactly where you find great art.
Want more great Canadian movies? Be sure to visit Telefilm’s See It All portal for more info on the latest Canadian new releases.
This content is made possible with the support of Telefilm, dedicated to increasing the awareness of Canadian films.