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Lemonade: Ioana Uricaru’s bitter immigration drama is brutally honest and fit for our time

Lemonade: Ioana Uricaru’s bitter immigration drama is brutally honest and fit for our time
Still from Lemonade (2018), dir. by Ioana Uricaru

In her gripping first film, Ioana Uricaru depicts a Romanian mother’s hellish plight for a U.S. green card. Based on the true stories of immigrant women, Lemonade exposes the dark truths about emigrating to America

26 July 2018

Institutional corruption has become a recurrent cinematic theme since the emergence of the Romanian New Wave in 2001, when Cristi Puiu’s Hitchcockian road movie about life in post-Ceaușescu Romania, Stuff and Dough premiered in Cannes. Since then, films like Corneliu Porumboiu’s cerebral thriller Police, Adjective and Cristian Mungiu’s striking drama on moral decline, Graduation have navigated the shortcomings and dead ends of Romanian beauraucracy. However, Ioana Uricaru’s debut Lemonade, about a young Romanian woman’s Kafka-esque struggle to obtain a United States green card, suggests things aren’t much better in the “Land of the Free”. We spoke to the Romanian director about her own immigration experience earlier this year at FEST - New Directors | New Films Festival, where she was awarded the festival’s Golden Lynx award for best fiction feature.

Empathetically exploring the timely and contentious issue of U.S. immigration, Uricaru’s film follows Mara (Mălina Manovici) a nurse and single mother who has come to America on a temporary work visa. We are introduced to Mara during a medical examination, required by U.S. immigration authorities. The lack of control that comes to define the character’s entire experience in the film is felt immediately, when Mara is vaccinated by a nurse without consent. “My immigration experience was a combination of extraordinary frustration and deeply satisfying small triumphs.” Explains Uricaru, when asked how much of Lemonade’s plot was based on the difficulties she faced obtaining residency in America. “Emigrating is one of the most effective ways of testing one’s limits. Like Mara, there were moments when I thought all was lost, and moments when I surprised myself with the things I was able to do because I had to.”

European emigration to North America is a complex phenomenon, with international migration one of the most spectacular social changes to affect post-communist Romania. “I interviewed many immigrants to the US, especially women with small children, and gathered narrative elements from their stories.” Explains Uricaru when asked about how Lemonade fits into the wider narrative of recent US immigration stories such as; Man Push Cart, In America and The Visitor. “My film presents those same obstacles, and adaptation strategies, but a deep structuring element for me was the psychology of displacement, the internal conflict of someone who is faced with decisions they weren’t prepared for.”

“Emigrating is one of the most effective ways of testing one’s limits”

Mara’s American dream quickly becomes a nightmare when her seemingly benevolent immigration officer Moji (Steve Bacic) tricks her into a no-win situation. Their interviews together are initially conducted with professionalism, but when circumstances conspire against her, Mara is placed in a vulnerable situation that Moji, a man very much aware of the extraordinary power he wields, wastes no time in exploiting. “I was interested in the question of; what are you ready to do in order to be successful in your immigration story? When Mara decided to try and become an American, she accepted that there would be obstacles. But by the time she is faced with the fine print, she’s already reached a point of no return. Once you’ve done a couple of things that were hard and unpleasant, but had positive results, you become invested in this project and it becomes harder and harder to quit.”

The line is eventually crossed by Moji during a long, dialogue-heavy sequence in the immigration officer’s car. The sequence displays the strengths of Uricaru’s writing, with the dialogue between the two evolving into an uncomfortable display of linguistic domination. In fact, the psychological complexity of traversing cultural boundaries is what makes Lemonade such a unique representation of the immigrant experience in a post-9/11 America. “I think Lemonade took shape very much the way the immigration experience shapes one’s life and psychology.” Asserts Uricaru when asked about the leap from her contribution to 2009’s portmanteau Tales from the Golden Age, to creating her debut feature in North America. “I wanted to explore the collision between worlds not only through the story and its themes, but also in the style and in the making of the film.”

“A deep structuring element for me was the psychology of displacement, the internal conflict of someone who is faced with decisions they weren’t prepared for”

This transference of a Romanian realist aesthetics to an American indie template gives Lemonade something of a bitter aftertaste. “I pushed the actors for performances that echo a certain type of authenticity that has come to be associated with Romanian cinema, but at the same time we were constantly aware that there’s a tension between the American-looking sets and the Romanian outlook.” This tension results in a film that somehow mirrors Mara’s fractured state-of-mind and collision of identities. “During production we all had to learn together. The cast and crew learned about a way of filmmaking they were unfamiliar with, such as; long uninterrupted shots, numerous takes, a very close attention to detail, and I learned to adapt to the reality on the ground when some of the artistic choices dictated by the story were not obvious to everybody on the team. Ironically, we had to shoot in Montreal, because of immigration issues and in our whole crew there was only one person who held US citizenship, and even he was a dual Canadian citizen. One of the main challenges was working with a crew coming from a collection of different countries, speaking different languages. Our working language was English, but I ended up constantly switching between English, French and Romanian. The whole experience was a bit complicated, much like the process of immigration.”

Mara quickly realises that the corruption and misogyny of her homeland is very much an international language, but as the expression goes, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” and she refuses to go down without a fight, hiring a Serbian lawyer to help her find a way out of her predicament. Much of the film’s sparkle comes from Uricaru’s deep understanding of the powerlessness that comes with navigating between authoritarianism and survival. “For me, this saying is a mix of positive thinking and sarcasm” explains Uricaru whilst discussing the film’s title. “It assumes that any bad situation can be turned around, but at the same time it places the responsibility very heavily on the person caught in that bad situation. If you’re not capable of turning the lemons into lemonade, then you probably deserve to chew on lemons? It was one of the first American expressions I learned and it struck me as quite brutal, even if it’s intended as an encouragement.”

There’s a strange paradox at the heart of Lemonade. On the one hand it’s an immigrant story of hardship and desperation that also radiates with a tongue in cheek wink at how the system can be circumnavigated. “I thought America was different,” Mara laments to her lawyer when faced with having to either sleep with her immigration office or face deportation, his response gives her a slither of hope; “In this country when you are a victim you have rights”, and he proceeds to inform Mara how this situation could be played to her advantage. On the surface it feels like an optimistic ending, to an otherwise disheartening film, but Uricaru is eager to suggest Mara’s future might not be as happy as it seems; “the ending is optimistic in the immediate, but this optimism could also be a trap.” She continues; “Now she gets to stay, but she will probably have to do more things that she doesn’t like. This insecurity, combined with a courage that can pass for irresponsibility is a fundamental feature of the immigration experience, in my opinion.”

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