Directors Petar Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva: The 'call from the hereafter' incident was inspired by real life

Pirating content is much more devastating to cinema than Covid-19

Our generation is the bridge between the eras of communism and democracy. What we do not know is whether the foundations of that bridge will turn out solid enough for our children to cross it, or they will have to reinforce the structure to prevent it from collapsing so that at least their children can confidently and safely walk across it one day, say directors Petar Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva in an interview to Europost.

Mr Valchanov, Ms Grozeva, what stage of the Oscar campaign are you in right now?

We are actively campaigning. The first promotional materials will soon appear in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. At the beginning of January we are having a virtual screening and a video conference chat with the team behind The Father, both organised by The Wrap.

You have some experience with such campaigning thanks to Glory, but this year seems different. Will Covid-19 affect the way you promote The Father in the US?

Yes, because of the situation created by Covid-19, everything is being done online this year, including meetings with the creators of the film. We are working with a very good publicist, who is building the right promotional strategy for the film in these constantly changing circumstances. The one constant is that, as ever, you need a certain bare minimum of funding to promote the film, without which you stand no chance of getting past the first stage of the selection process - the shortlist of 10 titles. Of course, the merits of the film are extremely important, but they are far from enough to carry a successful campaign.

What are the rest of the events on your schedule and what are the challenges facing a Bulgarian team tasked with presenting a film from a relatively small country?

There are enormous challenges. The big countries and film productions have huge budgets for promotional campaigns. They can afford to land the covers of all prestigious publications, to organise numerous additional online screenings. Meanwhile, small countries like ours have budgets that, on average, are barely big enough to pay for half a page in one of those prestigious publications or two quarter pages in two different media outlets. When Variety sent us several issues with the promotional piece about Glory in 2018 (that short piece of text cost about $5,000), we had to leaf through the magazine for a while before we could find it.

Despite the obstacles created by the pandemic, The Father managed to reach Bulgarian viewers. How was the film received, were you able to get any feedback?

A lot of people have written and continue to write to us. The film has been on HBO for some time now, which probably brought many new viewers to the project. People are excited, they share takeaways from various details that made them think or stirred their emotions. We were really touched by a comment by one viewer in particular, who was struck by the sound decision for the final scene, where the only sound is that of quinces getting sliced. For us, one of the most exciting reviews came from Sergei Loznitsa, chair of the Karlovy Vary jury, who said that there were no wasted scenes in the film and that he was impressed by the theatre audience's strong reaction to the scene where Ivan Barnev's character steals quince jam from the police officers.

What inspired you to make this film?

At the heart of it is a deeply personal moment related to Petar's mom passing away. It stuck in our minds and somehow pushed us to make this film. Let us put it this way, the “call from the hereafter” incident was inspired by real life.

Among the through lines of the film is the disconnect between the needs and wants of two different generations. On that note, what are the differences between your generation and the two bracketing it - those of your parents and your children, respectively?

Our parents have spent most of their lives under the communist regime and that has inarguably inflicted serious damage on their psyche. Our generation is the bridge between the eras of communism and democracy. What we do not know is whether the foundations of that bridge will turn out solid enough for our children to cross it, or they will have to reinforce the structure to prevent it from collapsing so that at least their children can confidently and safely walk across it one day.

A year ago you announced Triumph as your new project. Will it be the third instalment in the trilogy after Lesson and Glory? At what stage in the filmmaking process is it? Can you share a brief synopsis with us?

My hope is that we will be able to start shooting this year. The story that inspired us is emblematic of the dawn of Bulgarian democracy. It is about a hole that we seem to keep digging to this day.

In your opinion, will the pandemic change the way Bulgarians make and consume cinema?

The practice of pirating content has been much more devastating to the way we consume films than Covid-19. The good news is that in Bulgaria, as is the case around the world, more and more people are subscribing to streaming services, which are becoming an increasingly important platform for film distribution. As for film production, it got suspended for a while during the spring lockdown, but work on all the projects has resumed since the summer - in compliance with Covid-19 mitigation measures, of course. The new rules, however, have created a massive unexpected outlay for the project, stemming from mandatory regular testing of cast and crew members. As you might guess, the budget has not been revised to take into account the effects of the pandemic. It is undoubtedly a tense and stressful situation.

There is a chance that you reunite with Maria Bakalova at the Oscars this year. What was your experience working with her on The Father?

Let us hope that happens! Maria is a very talented young Bulgarian actress and her success with Borat 2 is unprecedented. We are keeping our fingers crossed that she gets nominated and we hope that this is just the beginning of an inspiring film career for her. We would love to work together again.

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Petar Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva have directed some of the most successful modern Bulgarian films. Petar Valchanov was born in 1982 in Plovdiv, while Kristina Grozeva was born in 1976 in Sofia. They first met in 2003 outside Egypt's embassy in Sofia. Both were there to receive visas in order to participate in the Ismailia Film Festival. They started working together while still in university. Before becoming a director, Kristina Grozeva graduated in journalism and then worked as a journalist. Petar Valchanov studied film and television directing. The filmmakers duo is also a real-life couple.

One of their first international triumphs came with the short film Jump (2012), which received a nomination for the 2013 European Film Awards. Lesson, their first feature film, earned honours at festivals in Toronto, San Sebastian, Warsaw, Tokyo, Thessaloniki and many others. This project launched their yet unfinished newspaper-article-inspired trilogy, which so far features Lesson, along with Glory - the latter was the Bulgarian submission for the 2018 Academy Awards. After winning the Grand Prix at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival with The Father, the directorial team is once again trying for the Academy Award in the international feature film category.

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