An unfortunate incident involving a sick dog sparks a heated confrontation on a Bucharest subway, setting off an increasingly bizarre series of events when a cellphone video of the argument goes viral. Before long a well-meaning bank worker has her life turned upside-down, as the growing hostility on social media spills over into the real world – with catastrophic consequences.
Inspired by events in South Korea in 2005, “#dogpoopgirl” is the feature debut of actor-turned-director Andrei Huțuleac. A biting social satire about public morality and online outrage, the film won the top prize at the Moscow Film Festival this year, as well as a best actress award for lead Andreea Grămoșteanu. Pic is produced by Bucharest-based DaKINO Productions.
Ahead of the film’s Romanian premiere at the Transilvania Film Festival, Huțuleac spoke to Variety about public shaming in the internet era, finding the right balance between our online and offline personae, and why things are likely to get worse before they get better.
Your film was inspired by a real-life incident that took place in South Korea in 2005. How did you come across that story, and what attracted you to it as a filmmaker?
I read the book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” [by Jon Ronson]. It’s like a small encyclopedia documenting many cases of doxxing and online shaming. I was at a place in my life where the power of the internet scared me. There are so many people that can attack you, you don’t even know who they are, they hide behind their profile picture. I feel that people feel there is less moral implication when we are aggressive online, because you don’t actually look at the person in front of you, and you forget that he’s human, too. So I got a little paranoid about this, and I started researching this story and saw that it was the first case of online shaming in the history of the internet. I thought it was pretty interesting, because it is a very unpleasant incident for someone to let his dog poop on the subway floor, but I think there’s no actual reason to go that far into shaming that person. I think there’s a certain kind of balance that society has to achieve when dealing with the internet, and when dealing with trying to bring good to society.
Was there ever any question for you about whether this would be a comedy?
The moment I start writing, even if I try to do something sober, after the first three or four pages of writing, I instinctively go toward this style of writing. It’s something that I’m interested in, it’s something that I like watching when I watch films. So I knew from the beginning that it’s going to be a mix of comedy and tragedy, like my earlier short films. When the final product reaches the audience, I’m not the one to appreciate hard laughs; I’m not the one to appreciate people crying in the audience. I appreciate the people who are like, “Man, what the f**k is this?” I’m more into this kind of reaction. It’s also the way I see life and human existence. I think it’s what’s actually happening around us. I live in a world where I see a lot of absurd situations, over-the-top situations, that I would not expect, but they exist and they’re everywhere.
Was it difficult adapting the story for a Romanian context?
I had no worry about adapting the screenplay for the Romanian public, because I think it’s more a story about the internet than about a specific society. Of course then it becomes also a little bit about Romania, because it’s made in Romania, and your instincts tell you to be specific about the story. But I thought about it more as a story about the internet age. Even the original story is just a pretext – this is not how things really happened. I only took the premise and a few details and I constructed a fiction of my own based on this story.
You spoke earlier about finding a balance with how we interact with the internet. Your film paints a very unflattering portrait of society, in which everyone – the public, the police, the media – is complicit. Do you have any hopes that we might actually find the balance you’re talking about?
You have to understand that I’m kind of a fatalist when it comes to this subject matter. I think people will get to some kind of balance, but until we get there, I think we’re going to go through a lot of very difficult situations, whatever that might mean. I think that people learn from their mistakes, but they have to make a lot of mistakes before they learn. So I think it’s going to be awhile before people find the balance. And if you think about it, maybe it’s quite normal, because we are just starting to question, publicly and en masse, the morality of how we use the internet.
“#dogpoopgirl” examines all of the worst elements of internet culture in 2021. What sort of relationship do you have with the internet, both in terms of your fears about it, but also how you choose to engage with it?
I’m pretty active on social networks – it’s part of who I am as a professional, because I’m also an actor, and I have to be more or less present online. I’ve had my own experience with being shamed – maybe I’ve had my own experience with shaming people, too. Just because I thought I was right in a certain moment of time, and I thought I was the truth-bearer, but I was not, I realized later. Some people were hurt in the process. That’s how it works. We’re adapting to this new instrument – but it’s not that new, it’s just different than it was before. At some point before the social networks, the internet was a very nice place where you could find information, and you could research. But it’s become this very public square where people can point fingers at one another without even trying to get to the truth. Social networks are not about the truth, they’re about: “I’m right.” Which is so much different than searching for the truth. Because when you search for the truth, there might be points in time when you have to admit that you’re not right. And you’re not very prone to do that on the internet.