Award-winning Film Director Svetoslav Ovcharov: Cabinet Has Declared War on Bulgarian Intellectuals

Interview |Author: Maria Guineva | January 12, 2011, Wednesday // 14:36|  views

Bulgarian award-winning film director Svetoslav Ovcharov. Photo by BGNES

Svetoslav Ovcharov is a Bulgarian film director and screenwriter, a professor at the National Academy for Theater and Film Art (NATFA) with 25 films behind his back.

His motion picture "A Farewell to Hemingway" won numerous awards – the Special Jury Award and Best Director Award at the Bulgarian Film Festival "Golden Rose" in Varna, in October 2008; 7 nominations for the 2009 annual awards of the National Film Center – for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Camera Work, Best Actress, Best Sets, Best Composer; 2009 awards of the National Film Center for Best Director and Best Sets; the 2010 Audience Award at the European Film Festival in Los Angeles, California.

Last December, Ovacharov became the star of the 34th International Film Festival in Cairo – one of the most prestigious in the world – with his movie "Voice Over," telling the story of a family, whose lives become destroyed by the former Communist State Security. In Cairo, the movie received the Best Director Award and the International Federation of Film Critics FIPRESCI Award.

Ovcharov has authored several historical documentaries as well. He is the founder of the culinary TV channel "Fiesta TV."

What is going on with Bulgarian filmmaking and the new Film Industry Act? The filmmakers' protests seem to be toned down now – is it because of the holidays or did you really reach an agreement with the cabinet?

Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, fired the Deputy Culture Minister, Dimitar Dereliev, who was the one in charge of the film industry. The Director of the National Film Center resigned. Remember that joke – "so far, so good, said the person, who fell from the 20th floor while passing by the 10th." I expect to wake up one day and find out the Minister of Culture had resigned as well – in a bout of valiant behavior. The dark atmosphere in the culture sector is, to a great extent, the result of the non-sense this Minister said and did. The word "reform" he constantly uses is a euphemism, replacing the much more inconvenient one – "mutilation."

I am afraid the State's desire for negotiations, demonstrated by the cabinet, is just a way to postpone and water down the problems in the culture sector. If we must use military terms – the cabinet has declared war to Bulgarian intellectuals – doctors, teachers, scientists and researchers, people from the culture sector. So, the negotiations must be held on the battle field, under the sound of the drums. Otherwise, the enemy will sneak out, regroup and strike from the back.

Tell us a little bit more about "Voice Over."

The screenplay is based on a real story; the story of a family separated by the "Iron Curtain." The Communist State Security became an obstacle for a man and a woman to get together, live together. Their love gradually turns into hate. "Voice Over" is a film about small compromise, which destroys great feelings.

Tell our readers about Cairo, the festival, how were you received by the audience?

The Cairo festival is one of the 14 in the world from the "A" category. It includes a very prestigious film program with movies from across the globe. Maybe the best word to characterize this festival is "splendid." The longest red carpet in the world is certainly there. Many tuxedoes, gowns made especially for the ceremony, plenty of diamonds. This is the first time in 20 years a Bulgarian film has been included in the program. Now, we were three Bulgarians there – film critic, Pavlina Zheleva, the actress Kasiel Noah Asher, who had the leading part, and me. And we felt right at home with the international film elite. When you are together with Juliette Binoche, Richard Gere, and Arturo Ripstein, you realize that the things that unite artists outnumber by far those that divide them. We did not feel inferior at all. More so, because our film won two awards. The salons were full; the reaction of the audience and the critics – ecstatic.

How do you explain your film's huge success in a country so far-away? "Voice Over" opened in March 2010, the 14th edition of the Sofia Film Fest, but, except to a few hard-core movie fans, it remains largely unknown in Bulgaria...

The topic of totalitarian regimes is important to all sensitive people across the globe. The fight of the small person, who tries to trick the State, is eternal. As it is eternal the conclusion that to enter a battle with the State is a hopeless pursuit. However, it is always worth trying – this is why we are human beings; this is why we are alive.

Your other motion picture "A Farewell to Hemingway" also won numerous awards. We have lots of readers in the US; tell them how the idea about this movie was born.

Hemingway passed through Bulgaria. This is evidenced by the stamps in his passport, now kept at the "Kennedy" library in Boston. Hemingway sent from a Bulgarian telegraph post his last report for "Toronto Daily Star" from the battlefields of the Greek-Turkish War in 1922. The movie tells an imaginary story of how he was sent to write this report. It was intriguing for me to mix historical figures with imaginary ones. However, everything Hemingway says in the movie is authentic – it came from his letters, and from the memoirs of his contemporaries. All events and circumstances are real – the malaria he caught, the lice. (There are photographs of Hemingway, right after his return from the 1922 war, with his head shaved over the lice.)

What stunned me is that during the showing of the film at the Moscow Film Fest, the audience had already found out the sources of some of the dialogue in the movie. This is what a call a well-prepared audience. In the US, the movie was shown in NYC, Tiburon (near San Francisco) and Los Angeles.

How did you decide on giving American actor, Chris Heuisler, the leading male role – Hemingway? Are you still in touch with him?

We organized a casting in NYC. This was the first casting for a Bulgarian film held in the US. We had to convince the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) that there is a country called Bulgaria because we were not on the filmmaking map. There was Burundi, but no Bulgaria. Over 170 young American actors came for the casting. All extremely well-prepared; all of them ready to fight for the part. Some had done research about me and knew I am a student of Mladen Kiselov, who is now one of the most prominent drama lectures and educators in the US. Many of them did not miss the opportunity to brag that, like me, they were Kiselov's students. Chris Heuisler was not one of them, but he won us with his sincerity and multi-dimensional acting.

Several months after the shooting of the movie, Chris and I met in NYC. He was being filmed in the endless TV series "As the World Turns." He told me he had just filmed his first close-up and then asked what he had to change for the second one. They looked at him like he was insane – a scene had never been filmed twice in these series. After that Chris remained silent for a while and finally said: "You do not happen to have another part in your next movie? It is so nice to shoot in Bulgaria...."

What is the current fate of "A Farewell to Hemingway?"

The film was invited to many international film fests. Only in India it took part in three of them. Its international audience is much larger than its Bulgarian one. When I learned the movie will be shown in Thessaloniki at 11 am, I told myself: "No way; the salon will be empty." There was also a downpour. I glanced inside the movie theater – it was filled with young people. After the showing, the discussion lasted for over an hour. I asked myself – "what if they were showing a Greek movie in Bulgaria at 11 am, would the salon be sold-out? Where did the aesthetics curiosity of Bulgarians go?"

Bulgarian movies hardly ever reach the local audience. What is the reason?

Because there are no movie theaters. The restitution turned the cinemas into bingo halls. State cinemas were privatized for the price of an apartment. The movie theaters in shopping malls are owned by American companies and they hardly ever show anything else than third-class American movies. For example, in Bulgaria, Roman Polanski's film "The Ghost Writer," which won all European Academy Awards, had less than 8 000 viewers. All across Europe, protectionism of filmmaking is a national policy. Here, our Minister says it must work based on the market principle.  Show me another such European example?!

Have you made attempts to show your movies to a larger Bulgarian audience?

Obviously making art in Bulgaria is turning into an occupation from the times of the Bulgarian Renaissance. As enlighteners did then, we plan to throw "Voice Over" on our shoulder and start touring villages and small towns. Because there is interest in Bulgarian films. There are no movie theaters. Through "Sofia Film Fest on Wheels," Stefan Kitanov proved that a good advertisement and announcement campaign in local municipalities can make possible for the movies to reach many people. During the showings we did together across Bulgaria, I saw sold-out theaters in Stara Zagora, Ruse, Sliven, Burgas, Varna, Dobrich. People do care about our own filmmaking because it deals with their problems. Of course, audiences have different levels; they are different. Those who watch "Harry Potter" will not come to see "Voice Over." The line that divides entertainment from art is thin. But so is the fertile layer of the soil and it still feeds humanity.

How do you finance your movies?

It is very difficult. My co-producers in "Voice Over" – "Gala Film" worked on piecing the budget together for over 7 years. State financing is a percentage of the entire budget; the rest are resources from EU Funds, TV channels, private investments. But this is the norm all over the globe, so we should not whine; the State simply must not abdicate from the minimum financing it slates.

Is filmmaking in Bulgaria profitable?

No. Nowhere in Europe is filmmaking profitable. Even in bigger countries such as Germany and France. Michael Haneke's "White Ribbon," winner of a "Golden Palm" at Cannes and an Oscar for foreign movie, has about 40 000 viewers in its "native" Austria. The money collected through ticket sales would not cover even 10% of the film's cost. Films in Europe are considered an exception from the market economy principle. It is a way for self-identification of nations. It is part of their cultural memory. And memory is priceless.

How does one combine documentaries, movies and culinary TV? Tell us a little bit about "Fiesta."

"Fiesta" is the only culinary TV in Bulgaria. It shows the best of the cuisines of North and South America, Italy, France, the Middle and Far East. A major part of the hosts of shows we air are virtuosos in their profession; they have rock-star fame in their countries. It is sufficient to mention Jacques Pepin and Julia Child. Our goal is to improve Bulgarians' culinary culture. See, here it is again, the word "culture." And this is a point of contact with movies. Culinary art has the most fans from all art forms. "Fiesta TV" has its own, faithful 1 million viewers each month. Sociological studies show these viewers are educated, with higher than the average income, live in the capital Sofia or in the largest cities.

Something about the "Michelle Bonev" scandal?

I do not have the honor of knowing her. I only know that the funding of her project with State budget finances has been rejected several times by all artistic committees in Bulgaria. And she still got it. I do not like this "Berlusconisation" of Bulgaria's political life. The Minister's excuse his knees became weak when he met Michelle Bonev in person is na?f. When someone has a "weak angel" (in Bulgarian, this means easily susceptible to female charm), he also has a "strong devil." I refuse to accept cynics turning into a national ideology. Otherwise, I have nothing against beautiful women.

What should we expect from Svetoslav Ovcharov in 2011?

"Voice Over" has been invited to participate in the International Film Festival in Bari, Italy in January. This is a relatively recent event, but his President is the great film director Etorre Scola. You don't think Ettore Scola ("Ugly, Dirty and Bad," "A Special Day," "The Ball") will invite me and I will refuse? More so due to the Cairo awards, "Voice Over" will be one of the few films from the Fest's program to be shown in the historical "Теatro Petruzzelli".

Outside the festivals – it is all work – on the documentary about Communist Dictator, Todor Zhivkov, I have been filming for several years now; on "Fiesta TV," and at NATFA where I teach. And, of course, work on future film projects.

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Tags: Film Industry Act, Vezhdi Rashidov, Silvio Berlusconi, Venice, Goodbye Mama, scandal, RAI, Italy, Arturo Ripstein, FIPRESCI, Best Director Award, Kasiel Noah Asher, Michelle Bonev, budget cuts, filmmakers, Cairo, international film festival, Voice Over, Svetoslav Ovcharov, protest, GERB


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