Nikolay Vassilev: Cinema taught me to be ruthless

It is not easy to make an interesting film about a physics teacher

I have always been seeking knowledge and I still do. But it is not knowledge they give you at school, rather the knowledge that explains the meaning of things, film director Nikolay Vassilev says in an interview to Europost.

What is the formula of the physics teacher Teodosii Teodosiev?

The title of the film, Teo's Formula, did not come to me easily, same as the film itself. The formula of this teacher consists in the idea of sacrifice, which is the 'ink' with which he writes his biography. Teo is an exception because most people would rather sacrifice their neighbour in order to achieve some goal, but not themselves. However, this is the very concept of teaching - to give part of yourself to others.

And how did the idea for this film come about?

I know Teodosii Teodosiev for a long time, we are from the same city. When I was a student I saw him as a wanderer of sorts, who was always rushing on his way to somewhere. He was hurrying to found schools, to meet with his students. I keep it in my memory that he was somewhat strange. But so many of his students were a success that his fame transcended the borders of the small town and he became known worldwide. Now Teo is a teacher who is renowned across the globe. The culture which he imprints on his students is now of use to the whole world. First, I wanted to make a film about him for the Bulgarian National TV series Small Stories. Then we agreed to make a film about his ideas and methods of teaching, which are so interesting but at that time they were not so popular yet. It took me two years to write a screenplay because I was simultaneously working on other projects as well. Fortunately it was approved by the National Film Centre. This is my only heavily financed project, and it was implemented as films should be - with no compromises. With photographer Borislav Georgiev and producers Poli Angelova and Nikolay Todorov from Screening Emotions we have been working for over two years and even travelled to China with Teo. His student Stanimir invited him for the Day of Physics. Stanimir is now teaching in China according to Teo's principles. He told Teo that he would become a millionaire if he decided to stay in China. People like Teo are very highly valued there, being a teacher is an exceptional asset. However, Teo is too much absorbed by what he is doing in Bulgaria. Now he is thinking about opening a physics 'monastery', high up in the mountains at the cleanest place where he measured zero radiation, in the village of Bazovets. It will be something like a boutique school for children who are gifted with exceptional qualities and could develop them further in physics. Teo does not view life and the opportunities it offers to him from a commercial angle. His will power is so strong, and he is an absolute altruist. Actually this is what makes everything he is doing completely pure and helps generate energy. He doesn't have any hidden agenda as to what he could gain, in fact he doesn't even have an instinct for self-preservation. He is incredible!

Do you understand anything about physics?

No, I don't, and this was a real issue while making a film about such a person - to conceal the fact that I know nothing about physics and trying not to discredit myself in the eyes of my hero.

What did you learn from him during the shooting?

What he taught me was not about physics, it was the idea of patience. We have all learned it alongside him. The project was really very difficult. It is not easy to shoot an interesting film about a physics teacher. The story is not camera-friendly at all. Nevertheless, we have managed to make interesting something important. It is different from what we usually wind up with - turning insignificant things into something exciting. I relied on the experience I amassed while filming my debut The Way to Wisdom, about Vaklush Tolev. Somehow, there is a touch of fate in this. Both films are dedicated to exceptional personalities, teachers. The very dramaturgy is similar. The first film was about a teacher of metaphysics. It was rather difficult for me too because his dynamics is manifest in ideas rather than in actions. It was the same with Teo - he simply stands at the blackboard and is teaching. There's no action while action is exactly what cinema loves. What I learned from the teacher of metaphysics, I used in a film about a teacher of physics. And I have managed to build upon that, somehow. From my first film I learned that Man is an evolving god while in my latest film I saw how this divinity can be translated into life.

Were these two films the most difficult?

Yes, these two films and these two personalities were the most difficult to me. Apart from the fact that the stories involved no action, they are not part of the everyday world and their subject matter is not at all easy to convey. These persons' very conscience somehow stands above the everyday routine. Their world is rather in the realm of imagination.

Is there a formula for making a winning documentary?

Shooting documentary films is a very rewarding job and in a poor country like Bulgaria it is easier to do it. There are very interesting characters. What I learned from it is to be ruthless. The stories are concerned with human drama and hard luck. One has to take a ruthless stand to lay bare the essence of a character. If you are emotionally involved, you are no longer a fitting tool for it. Actually, cinema has taught me to be hard-hearted. It has taught me to keep distance, to be at the very edge - once to have an emotional bond with your characters and the next moment to be at a long enough distance from them to be able to control the process. This is the director's job. I don't think that the word “ruthlessness” is bad, the bad word is “cruelness”. They say that “nature is ruthless” but “humans are cruel”. To be at the cutting edge of creativity you have to be ruthless, to be part of Nature.

How and when did you make up your mind to shoot documentaries?

I was born on 15 September, the first day of school in Bulgaria, and I think that this date has destined my whole life. I have always been seeking knowledge and I still do. But it is not knowledge they give you at school, rather the knowledge that explains the meaning of things. Initially I decided to study medicine, then I wanted to become a lawyer, but in the long run fate came to my rescue and showed me the road to arts.

Have you expected that Teo's Formula will be such a success? The film became a cinema event.

I expected that it would stir interest but did not anticipate so much attention. And I'm very happy about it. I see that people have the need for heroes who can be a source of inspiration. I was astonished to see that a documentary may become a blockbuster. As far as I know from recent reports, over 1,500 came to see the film. It will be shown also in Stara Zagora, Veliko Tarnovo, Ruse, Gabrovo… It will be on show throughout Bulgaria. It is even more rewarding that they want to show it across the world. On 9 November we will be guesting in Stuttgart and Freiburg. The film was selected for the festival in Kassel and will be screened there. We have been invited to show it at the European Parliament in Brussels by the end of the year and in December it will be premiered in the US.

What projects are you engaged with currently?

I would like to make a film about the spiritual gifts of Bulgaria, filmed entirely from a drone. It will have nothing to do with the factual knowledge of Bulgaria's history but will rather focus on the spiritual realities that have been happening in our country.

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Nikolay Vassilev was born on 15 September 1975 in Kazanlak, central Bulgaria. He graduated from New Bulgarian University in Sofia where he majored in film and TV directing. He worked as a freelancer mainly for such Bulgarian National TV productions as Small Stories, In the Eye of the Camera, and Smart Village. His debut film The Way to Wisdom was distinguished by Cultura Animi Foundation. In 2010 his Fairy Tales won the special Jameson Award for best short feature at Sofia Film Fest. Later came the special award at Bulgarian Europe for Diagnosis and the Master of Short Art award for best Bulgarian documentary for The Way to Thebes. This summer, at the International film festival Love Is Madness held in Varna, he received the Bitter Cup award for Teo's Formula, a film about the world-renowned teacher of physics Teodosii Teodosiev, which has stirred great interest not only in Bulgaria but also abroad.

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