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The Invisible Labour of Women

Interview with Zsófia Szilágyi, the director of ‘One Day’, the first Incubator Program film in Cannes.

‘One Day’ follows a typical day in the life of a 40-something-year-old woman. She has three children and an unfaithful husband. Life cannot be put on hold, though, as she has to run errands, just like every other day. Zsófia Szilágyi’s first feature premieres at Cannes Critics' Week selection.

‘One Day’ was made in the framework of Incubator, a talent programme funded by the Hungarian National Film Fund. Zsófia, why did you choose this fundraising channel for your first feature?

It is a very straightforward system. I liked that it wasn’t me who had to seek a production company, but the other way round: it’s an open race to secure funding for a film. The fact that it is the idea that receives the money represents a great deal for a first feature director. It means that at meetings you become the person with an advantageous position, not just an idea. Because anyone can have an idea! At a pitch forum in front of the whole Hungarian film industry, my pitch caught the attention of Ági Pataki, a producer at Filmpartners. She came up to me after the presentation, which seems to have also been easier for her that way. I would probably never have been able to do a feature film without Incubator. It’s a shame, but it’s true.

How did you come up with the story for ‘One Day’?

One of my friends who has children wrote down her day in segments of ten minutes. Reading what motherhood meant in practice, hour after hour, came as a bit of a shock to me. It was like being in a real drama, even though nothing had actually happened. It was just another day that had passed. At first I thought about making the film as a documentary, but I did not want to have to bother a family, so I decided to create a fictional story instead. 

Zsófia Szilágyi at the shooting of 'One Day' (Photo: MTI / Bea Kallos)

Your film consists of many trivial things and everyday activities that make it very vivid. How did you collect all of those small details?

It was a matter of stealing from the life of my neighbours, of my family and of my friends. I also used to be a babysitter, so I have seen with my own eyes how defenceless a mother can be and how easily she can get stuck in a world where she has to meet so many expectations. But obviously not everything can get done, it’s simply impossible. This situation makes it very evident how finite time is. In our society, we have no real tolerance for it. “Deal with it, my dear mummy, you are not the only one who has a child!”

This trivial, everyday story on the surface actually covers a much more serious background story; a real drama. How did you balance between the drama and the monotony of everyday life?

The drama is a backstory: somebody cheats on somebody. It’s quite banal, I guess everyone has their stories about that. But I don’t think it’s banal when your trust and faith, built on ten years of marriage, break down. It wasn’t easy, as we had to find a balance between keeping the backstory in the background and avoiding that it disappears altogether. There is always a phone call or a reed on a balcony that reminds us of it. I wanted to keep track of that, and this is the frame of the film. 

Did you have any premise for this storytelling?

I admire the Romanian New Wave and its austere and realist style. It doesn’t forget the tiny details that can turn a life upside down. But using a realist style does not mean you have to show everything in real time; it is also about construction. An example of this that I really like is ‘Cléo from 5 to 7’ by Agnès Varda or, in Hungarian cinema, ‘It’s Not the Time of my Life’ by Szabolcs Hajdu, which deals with very similar problems in a very similar way.

Zsófia Szamosi in 'One Day'

Your whole film is built around Zsófia Szamosi. How did you find working with her? How did you explain this moderate style to her at the fever pitch?

For an actor it is very hard work to play a role in which you have to sit in a car and drive but still be completely elsewhere in mind. Her face had to show complete engrossment, which is not at all an easy task. We worked on concrete situations: how to avoid dramatic and pathetic styles, yet still have a style. Anna, the protagonist is a strong woman, but it was very important to not present her as a robot or a machine that simply gets through the day. Viewers had to be able to see when she was damaged and was losing her way. Anna always stayed extremely disciplined. 

How did you find shooting with three children? The little boy cried in the morning routine. Was it because he was ill?

I am very grateful to the children and to their parents. Working with them was a great experience and they became real colleagues. The crying that takes place on the street was totally unintentional. I would never want to make a child cry. The plan was just to film his bike ride on the way to day care, where he dashes out ahead and his mother has to run after him. Then he started crying, and as we were already filming we were able to use the scene. And yes, the poor thing had the flu throughout the whole shooting. Like every child does from autumn to spring.

What was it like to have three children on set? They seem to behave so naturally in the film.

It was great. It was very important for us that the children have a good time and not get too tired. Somehow you have to get a feel for how many more takes you can do with them, but you can also negotiate. I had a straightforward and collegial relationship with them. I obviously did not want to manipulate a child actor, nor could I have, but for that we had to make sure we had a good relationship before filming even started. We wanted them to feel safe with us on set. We also had a day care provider, Zsuzsi Konrád, who was on set with us for all of their needs. She did a fantastic job.

Will they be attending the premiere at Cannes?

Of course I invited them all, but in the end only Ambrus, the eldest, will be coming with us to the festival.

Who do you think will be the audience of your film?

In the first place, every mother who finds herself in this situation and any other woman who knows what can happen. But I would be reluctant to say this film is only for women. I believe that fathers and men in general are also very aware of the moments that are lost due to all the rushing around as well as of the hard work that is involved in raising a child. But I really wanted to make a film about the invisible work that women have to do on a constant basis. While I was searching for my child actors I spent a lot of time in playgrounds talking to mothers. When I told them what my film was about, they broke down crying. It came as a surprise, but it was also very encouraging to see that this is something worth making a film about!

Does your protagonist find her place and time in the end? Your finale can be interpreted both ways.

She draws a line. Up until then, she has wanted to do everything the right way: at her workplace, at day care, at kindergarten and at school. The ending is a step forward, but it’s also a step back, physically. It’s as if she’s saying: “Now it’s my turn, it’s me who is important.”

Anita Libor

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