Making movies helps Sophy Romvari trust her own memories
The buzzy Canadian filmmaker recently had 8 of her short films added to Criterion Channel
Earlier this month, Sophy Romvari — the Toronto-based actor, writer, and director — was reading Sarah Polley's new book, Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory, when she felt prompted to dog-ear a page. She reads some of it to me over the phone the next day, reflecting on whether she sees herself as having a mission statement.
"So much of coming to terms with hard things from the past seems to be about believing our own accounts," writes Polley, "having our memories confirmed by those who were there and honoured by those who weren't."
"I think that's filmmaking for me," says Romvari of the passage. "It's this sort of honouring of memories and believing my own memories, because I have such a shaky grip on my own sense of memories."
In a series of acclaimed shorts made over the last half a decade or so — eight of which were recently added to Criterion Channel, drumming up quite a bit of buzz about her work south of the border — the 31-year-old filmmaker has typically combined scripted and unscripted elements to work through different corners of her psyche. In 2017's Pumpkin Movie, two women (played by Romvari and her real-life friend, Leah Collins Lipsett) turn to Skype for their annual Halloween ritual of laughing about the everyday misogyny they've experienced in the past year, the anecdotes ranging from demoralizing to truly unnerving. The pair have a natural banter that suggests we're privy to a legitimate friend catch-up, but the credits reveal that the anecdotes were in fact crowdsourced from a couple dozen people who wrote in with stories.
"That's kind of my sweet spot," Romvari explains, "where you're getting really genuine performances, getting at something really raw, real, but you're also acknowledging that you're making a film, and that there is artifice." When it comes to her own viewing habits, she gravitates toward work that takes this same kind of hybrid approach, offering Cynthia Scott's The Company of Strangers — produced by the National Film Board of Canada in 1990 — as an example.
Romvari was born and raised on Vancouver Island (and the nearby Gulf Island of Gabriola) with her three older brothers, who had recently immigrated from Hungary with their parents. Though she spoke Hungarian for the first several years of her life, her parents otherwise "didn't entirely bring their culture with them." This included not immediately "divulging" — to use Romvari's phrasing — a couple notable pieces of family lore: that her father had practiced cinematography in Hungary, and that his father had been a top production designer in the film industry. (The latter's filmography included István Szabó's Mephisto, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1982.) So while Romvari and her siblings were encouraged growing up to express themselves creatively, the fact that she became another family filmmaker is something of a coincidence.
"On the surface, it looks very obvious," Romvari says. "But I don't think I'd be a filmmaker if I didn't have stories to tell."
Still, her creative lineage has popped up here and there in her work. Since Sophy only got to meet her grandfather once as a small child, 2020's Remembrance of József Romvári features Szabó filling her in on the late production designer's creativity and resourcefulness. Still Processing, released the same year, was in some respects a collaboration with her father, who took the photographs and home videos at its centre. The film involves Romvari unboxing a collection of black-and-white portraits and undeveloped negatives from the early 1990s, when she was a toddler on Gabriola; we learn that these family memories are now bittersweet, as two of Romvari's brothers tragically passed away in the 2010s.
One through-line in her films is the idea of reckoning with decisions that were made for you, or things more generally out of one's hands. "With any filmmaker making films about their own life, I think there is an element of trying to regain control," she says. But even when she lays herself bare in her work — or when others do, as with 2019's In Dog Years, which highlights a number of elderly dogs and their owners — it never feels exploitative. Still Processing withholds many details regarding the loss of her brothers, and the film could only be made with the blessing and direct involvement of Romvari's family.
"Making these films is a way for me to say, like, 'Yes, this did happen,'" she says, coming back to the Sarah Polley passage. "And kind of confirming that for myself, and then for and with other people."
And there have been thousands of other people: while Romvari has had previous films play the festival circuit and receive critical acclaim, Still Processing has been singularly pivotal. After she spent months direct-messaging a link to the film to anyone who expressed interest, it made its official premiere at TIFF in 2020. This past February, it garnered her a Canadian Screen Award nomination, and last month, it was among the shorts of Romvari's that were added to Criterion Channel.
These recent milestones notwithstanding, she seems most concerned these days with her first feature, the script for which she's been working on for a year and a half. Though its synopsis is still under wraps, she shares that it'll be set in Vancouver and once again draw from her real life in some way. As she explains: "I want to make purely fictional films not related to my life and family, but probably after this feature."
"I think I'm just creating context for people to have conversations within," Romvari adds. "What I would like for films to do is start conversations with people. I would hope that I could do those in person more often than just through Twitter DMs."