SOPHY ROMVARI, MAINSTAY OF THE CANADIAN INDEPENDENT FILM COMMUNITY
Sophy Romvari is a filmmaker born in Victoria, B.C. and based in Toronto. Her critically acclaimed short films have travelled the international festival circuit and have earned her a reputation as a leading young talent. Her 2017 hybrid documentary Pumpkin Movie premiered at True/False to considerable praise, as well as at Hot Docs and Sheffield Doc Fest. It has been praised by critics as "a lovely, subtle work of feminist protest." In 2018 her short Norman Norman received its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was also the centerpiece of “Super Succinct and Radically Direct,” a retrospective of Sophy’s work at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. She has directed documentary films for such acclaimed outlets such as CBC Short Docs (In Dog Years, 2019) and Kino Lorber (Remembrance of József Romvári, 2020). Sophy completed her Master of Fine Arts at York University, where she shot her thesis film Still Processing. The film had its World Premiere at TIFF in Sept 2020 where critics called it “her most masterful and heart-wrenching work to date; the kind of personal reflection on family and loss some directors and writers can spend their entire lifetimes striving to accomplish.” (The Gate)
Interview by Rebeccah Love
Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood? What kinds of creative activities interested you most? How did storytelling play a role in your early years? What were your favourite movies as a kid?
I grew up with my family on a tiny island called Gabriola, just off of Vancouver Island proper. We lived in a small house that my dad built all by himself. We lived apart from the rest of society in a lot of ways for the first 5 years of my life. I spent most of my time in the forest, playing with sticks, rocks, and whatever dogs I came across. We didn’t have cable, but we had a television which picked up a few channels. There was also no movie theatre on the island. So movies didn’t figure in to a large extent until a bit later in my life, but there was a lot of music and dancing. I do recall watching The Yellow Submarine and The Point, both animated films from the 60’s/early 70’s that I still feel very fondly towards.
How would you have described yourself as a teenager? How did the world of art factor into your high school years? What creative endeavours did you engage with during this time? What high school classes fascinated you most? Did you have any standout high school teachers?
When I was a teenager I tried a lot of different creative outlets to feed into the energy I had, but none of them were film. I was really interested in visual art, painting in particular; I don’t think I ever had any real talent for it but I enjoyed it. At the time I was quite sure I wanted to be an actor and found the most satisfaction in theatre. It’s still so thrilling to think back on performing live! In line with those experiences, my art and theatre teachers were both exceptional and continue to support my work to this day. I sometimes wish I came upon film at a younger age, but I think these early encounters were still totally worth the adventure and learning experiences.
After you graduated high school, what curiosities did you carry with you into adulthood? What big questions did you want to explore? What were some of the most important choices you made around schooling and work at this juncture?
After I graduated high school, I went to McGill University for 1 year -- I thought I wanted to go into political science. I figured out pretty quickly that was a mistake, so I took the opportunity while living in Montreal and going to school to take some courses that actually captured my attention. I ended up taking a 4th year film studies class which I had no prerequisites for, against the professors recommendation. It covered Hollywood cinema in the early 1950’s and looked at the connection between each film's release and the political/social climate at the time. The class ended with an option for a final project to shoot a noir film, which ended up being my first short film. I excelled in the class and the professor recommended I attend film school, and so I moved back to Vancouver and did.
When did you know you wanted to become a filmmaker?
I suppose my last two answers kind of delve into the making of, but now that I am one, the other avenues that could have led me here seem more obvious. My Grandpa in Hungary was a Production Designer his whole life, but I never knew him well and hardly understood what his job meant until I was much older. My dad also studied cinematography in Hungary, but did not practice professionally in the end. So although there is a deep family connection there, it was not part of my active consciousness growing up. In that sense I feel like I really only found out once I started directing, around 20. Luckily I haven’t changed my mind since then, so once I knew, I knew. I feel lucky for that.
What filmmakers were you following closely in your early adulthood?
Like most, I think someone like Wes Anderson was a gateway in my teens into the concept of a director -- that someone was behind the singular vision of each film. It wasn’t until my early 20’s that I started branching out and considering myself more of a cinephile. Even still, I always feel so behind.
Nine Behind (2016), Let Your Heart Be Light (2017), Pumpkin Movie (2018), Norman Norman (2018) are all set to a large extent in domestic spaces. What does the idea of home mean to you?
I’m always searching for homes in different places, and for families with different people. I think that might be an inadvertent theme in my shorts. Domestic spaces also happen to be where I spend most of my time, and have the greatest access to, so I’m sure that’s part of why as well.
Can you speak about your relationship with your dogs, and how these relationships have informed your filmmaking practice?
I had my dog Norman from age 11-28, so my relationship with him was quite special in that he really was with me throughout the most formative years of my life. His passing felt very representative to me, as a form of loss of youth and innocence. I was always very afraid to lose him, I held a lot of anxiety around his death and it caused me to think about my own mortality a great deal as well. Hector, who I still have now, is a sweetheart and has kept me company during the solitude of the last year. Norman Norman and In Dog Years are both my attempt at capturing how critical such a relationship can be.
We all lug around with us fragile mementos of times past. How do you personally make sense of the histories you carry within you? What advice would you give to a younger person just starting to engage with the pains and beauties of human memory in their artistic practice?
For me, I definitely hold dear the documentation of my past. It has acted as a placeholder for the memories that I’ve not been able to grasp or recall. I use my films as time capsules, trying to represent very specific incidents, feelings and experiences that I’ve gone through and I feel very grateful to have them to look back on now. It helps not only to remind myself of the emotions I was feeling at the time, but also the growth since. My recommendation can only apply to those who might also find such a practice helpful, but I wholeheartedly endorse making work that speaks to your specific experiences, and not how you think other people would prefer to see your experiences depicted.
What non-filmic art forms do you turn to for inspiration?
Reading, especially non-fiction work -- or short stories. I hope to do more work with adaptations later on down the road.
Do you find Toronto to be an artist-friendly city? What could be done to improve the lives of creative people living in Toronto?
Toronto is an incredibly diverse city with endless opportunities to connect with like-minded people, if you are willing to seek them out. Unfortunately it's inhospitable in almost every other way. The price of living is shameful, especially for low-income or marginalized artists.
Why is film important?
There is nothing else remotely like it. To get to experience other people’s point of view in such a visual and all-consuming way is mind blowing. What a gift!
Can you tell us a little bit about Exquisite Shorts, your film distribution website? How did you get the idea for this project? How does it work?
I came up with the idea for Exquisite Shorts after seeing so many incredible short films over the years and wanting to figure out a way that I, as a filmmaker, could help highlight them for others to see. Initially it was meant to be a one-off in person event at the Revue Cinema here in Toronto, with the support of Eric Veillette. The event would simply be a series of short films, each one selected by the director of the previously screened film. When the pandemic began I decided to make the transition to an online, ongoing series. A key factor was that I really wanted to make sure all artists are paid to screen their work. I’m really excited to see how it all goes!
What is your favourite aspect of the Canadian independent film community?
There is a lot of very interesting low-budget work coming out of Canada with a real emphasis on telling personal or local stories which is really nice to see. I’m inspired by the hybrid approach of many filmmakers here who really take advantage of their limitations to make the most of what we have access to without the bigger budgets and stars such as in Hollywood. Canada has a deep tradition of documentary which seems to be flourishing in new and exciting ways.
What are you looking forward to?
Hugging my friends! (And making my first feature, I guess.)