Warsaw 2014 Interview: THE LESSON Co-director Petar Valchanov On The State Of Bulgarian Cinema

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Warsaw 2014 Interview: THE LESSON Co-director Petar Valchanov On The State Of Bulgarian Cinema
In Peter Valchanov & Kristina Grozeva's The Lesson, schoolteacher Nadezhda (Margita Gosheva) discovers that there is a thief in her class and decides to not let this petty offense go unpunished. Unfortunately, as soon as she returns home, she finds a creditor ready to seize her family's house because of unpaid debt. Nadezhda has three days to find a large amount of money to save the house. The downward spiral that this young teacher faces, knocks down the door of her own moral and ethial system forcing her to trespass boundaries she would normally not dare to cross, while struggling to maintain a personal integrity and honor.

Even though the main ingredients are quite familiar, The Lesson is not the usual social drama. Grozeva and Valchanov use plot components as the time ticks down the high stakes, lending to the dead-end situation for what could be called their poverty thriller. What distinguishes The Lesson from similarly themed dramas is the fact that Grozeva and Valchanov are not afraid to throw some genre spice, even self-parodying elements, into the boiling social drama pot.  After the film's screening at the Warsaw Film Festival I was able to sit down with Valchanov to discuss their film and what it's like to be making films in Bulgaria right now.

ScreenAnarchy: How did THE LESSON come about?
 
Petar Valchanov: Some years ago, my co-director and co-writer Kristina Grozeva and I read in a newspaper the headline 'Teacher robbed a bank'. And this headline inspired us to make this story. It´s not a biographical story, it´s a fiction feature and the plotline with a student was very important for us because we were thinking what her relationship with students would be before and after the robbery. We also saw a sort of paradox in the story. I mean why would a teacher rob a bank? And besides this headline we found another two with similar absurd situations and that prompted us to make a trilogy. The second film is called The Pledge and it is about a railway worker who finds millions on the tracks. 

And the third one?
 
The third one is in the development process so it´s still under wraps. 

When will THE PLEDGE be out?

The Pledge is scheduled for the end of the next year, with Kristina and Magdelena Ilieva acting as producers and me as the director and the same artistic and technical crew from The Lesson and with our Greek friends from Graal film as co-producers. We have already won some funding in Bulgaria. 

Was the casting process difficult, especially when THE LESSON is mostly a one-woman-show?

Not at all. We knew Margita Gosheva from our previous work. We worked with her on a TV series but we saw her in theatre also, and she had some roles also in other Bulgarian films. But we were absolutely sure that she has to be the teacher in The Lesson when we saw her in a film by Nikolay Todorov: Three Days in Sarajevo. It's a great film, and she was perfect there. And we are very satisfied with her performance in The Lesson. She is very talented and professional and she is especially well-suited for work with non-professional actors. She is really the heart of The Lesson

Were there a lot of non-professional actors in your film?
 
Yes. A lot of them are from a big family of my uncle Georgi Bratoev. He plays the guard in a bank, one of my cousins plays the bank clerk (Nadejda Bratoeva), the other one (Ana Bratoeva) has a minor role in the scene with the camper at the beginning of the film, the policeman in the moneylender shop is my brother-in-law (Boris Doichinov). The secretary is also a non-professional actress (Poli Angelova) and her daughter (Andreya Todorova) plays the daughter of the main character. And my mother Ivanka Bratoeva has also a miniature role, she is in the picture that is hanging in the main character´s house. Moreover, me and Kristina, we had also small roles but in the end we cut the scenes out with us because we are not good actors. 

There is a lot of suspense in the film. Is it intended as a thriller?

This idea was developed in the Berlinale Talent Project Market and came from the producer Amra Bakšić Čamo, who was my mentor there. She suggested putting more suspense in between the drama and comedy, so we did it and it worked out well. 

So the comedic elements in THE LESSON are intentional?
 
Yes. The Lesson is mostly drama but with elements of comedy... and thriller. 

Because my colleagues and me, we were arguing whether the comedic elements are intentional or a result of coincidence. At some point, the film ventures into more slapstick territory.
 
Of course we planned it. For Kristina and me, it is important to guide the emotion from drama to comedy and vice versa. For example, our previous film The Jump was a comedy spiked with drama elements. So, for us it´s very important because it makes films closer to the real life and to the audience as well. 

The husband of the protagonist is rather underrepresented. Why did you opt to put him in the background?

Well, as a character he is a very good father and husband. He tries really, but at the same time, he is a loser. He is the type that every time he wants to make something good, but he ends up screwing it, either because of bad luck or attitude problems. But for us was very important to create a human image in this character. He is not a bad guy, he is really nice person, but unknowingly he makes only bad things. The actor Ivan Barnev is very famous in Bulgaria and he is also the husband of Margita Gosheva [the actress playing the protagonist] in real life. It was a very good experience to shoot them as a couple on the screen. 

Was it difficult to produce a film in Bulgaria or in Balkan region in general?

Yes, it is actually. However, I met several people here at Warsaw Film Festival and apparently it is not much easier in other corners of the world as well. I think it´s good that most directors don´t give up and they are still trying to find new ways to shoot their films. But I guess it´s not sustainable for long-term because at some point you must pay you crew or maybe it does not pose such a problem if you father is a millionaire... 

...Or a banker...

Yeah. We could also rob a bank. So yeah, it is difficult. For example, we shot this film in three weeks and on one hand, it´s difficult because of finances but on the other hand, Kristina and me like to have deadlines, to feel a bit pressured as it helps us to be more creative in our working process. Magdalena Ilieva has made a great work in our producer team. Now she is one of the best young Bulgarian producers and we think that she will have a very successful career.

The problem in Bulgaria is that there is only one way of financing, from the Ministry of Culture, a support through National Film Centre. The real problem is the budget which can cover only three or four films a year. Although this year, they came up with a new concept regarding low-budget films. So, they will be supporting now low-budget films. Hopefully, this trend will continue for the next five years and will generate fourteen to fifteen Bulgarian films every year. And in this rich batch, there might be four, three maybe two very strong films for festivals, audiences or films that might manage to merge both appeals which is the best option in my opinion.

I hope that nobody destroys this concept... because honestly, this is the problem of politics in Bulgaria. For example now, the minister of culture says that they don´t have money and nobody cares about it, so maybe society must do something about it. For me, this is a little bit cynical because all his predecessors have not done anything, so his attitude is disappointing. As a minister of culture, your job is to make something about it, you should come up with some points that can motivate people, can change the climate in the culture. You know, you can say you do not have enough money for culture, but you should be responsible and try to do as much as possible for culture with the little money you have. To just simply say we do not have money is not enough. 

Aren´t you a bit discouraged to work in Bulgaria in the light of recent controversy involving Maya Vitkova´s VIKTORIA? [ed note. which was, despite international praise, not selected as Bulgaria's Oscar entry]

That was a big shame. I have not yet seen the film [Bulgarian Rhapsody by Ivan Nichev] they sent to the Oscars. Maybe it´s a great one, but that´s not the point. Nobody in Bulgaria nor out of Bulgaria has really seen the film. In the same time, the director of the film is directly connected with the selecting committee. He was a big talent in Bulgarian cinema back in the past, but after the changes I won´t comment on his work. Although the problem is not his film, but the whole process because he is a part of the selecting committee and nobody saw this film in Bulgaria and abroad - and that´s a shame since Viktoria is one of the most successful Bulgarian films in 2014.

And also The Alienation, by Milko Lazarov, which was in Venice and has already won some awards there and here (Last year he won the same award in Warsaw that we won this year [the award for best first or second feature]). It´s a shame they did not send one of these two films as the Oscar contender. So yeah, it´s a bit discouraging to shoot films in Bulgaria but as I have mentioned they came up with this scheme to support low-budget films and even though it´s a small step, I think it´s a good one.

In Bulgaria, we do not have a real cinema community. That´s why Kristina and me and some other directors, we have created an artistic group called Raketa. Iur idea is to build a good atmosphere and working environment in cinema for young colleagues, but also for older generations to be able to make film in more pleasant atmosphere, to help each other and to identify the real problems that need to be solved. And the other problem is that Bulgaria still does not have a national cinema fund. They have one in Macedonia, Romania, in Greece they have some funds, in Turkey as well. So that needs to be sorted out as well. 

Why have you chosen to co-produce your film with Greece?

The merit for this has our producer Magdelena Ilieva and we are very thankful to Graal Films, and mostly to Konstantina Stavrianou and Rena Vougioukalou, that they decided to help us with some post-production support, DCP and other deliverables related to post-production process. They covered those expensive things. And they also provided a great support regarding the distribution of the film. One more company, ZDF, joined and helped us, thanks to them we made the sound design and colour corrections of the film. Also two others Bulgarian companies supported our film. The first one is American Foundation for Bulgaria, they support a lot of student films in Bulgaria, they supported mine and Kristina´s student projects too. The other one is The Central Cooperative Union in Bulgaria. We are very grateful to all of them. 

It´s unusual that a film has two directors. How did you share your responsibilities?

I have been working with Kristina for ten years, since our student era and we worked at each other´s student projects. I was an editor in her films, she was scriptwriter on mine. And after graduation we made a commercial for rhe Bulgarian Film Centre, for free of course, but they provided cameras, stage and so on and again with one of the best young Bulgarian cinematographers Krum Rodriguez. And after the commercial, we decided to try to work together which is great because when both of us are on a set, we feel more confident, more creative and more free. Since we are two on the set, we are more objective but also those little differences we have are playing in favor of project we are working on.

You are the editor of the film.

Yes. She writes scripts, I am just proposing some rewrites, we are both involved in the shooting and then I work more with editing. 

Are you both on the set while you are shooting at the same time?

Yes, of course. But in case of The Lesson, it was a slightly different since we have a three-year-old daughter... 

You and Kristina?

Yes, we are a couple. So we decided to take our daughter to the set. Kristina was shooting a scene, then she changed with me... she was taking care of our daughter and I was shooting some scenes. So from time to time, one of us was by himself/herself on the set but the DoP and the crew know us well so it was easier to work like this. It´s much more easy when you have a group of friends or people you know to work with. When we are both on the set, Kristina works more with actors and I work more with the DoP, the storyboard and the vision of the film. So we managed to do it this way.
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BulgariaKristina GrozevaPetar ValchanovThe Lessonwarsaw 2014
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