Stephan Komandarev: We should call things the way we see them

It would be absurd, even cynical if cinema doesn't show life as it is, pulling wool over people's eyes instead

I'm trying to make films about the life that 95-97% of the Bulgarians are living. I don't care about the life of the 1-2% of the affluent, who are quite bored. What worries me is that apart from being the poorest EU member, Bulgaria is the country where the wealth disparity is the biggest. This is the reality, says film director Stephan Komandarev in an interview to BTA.

Mr Komandarev, your feature Rounds is already a fact. Its world premiere is forthcoming. How would you asses your work after it is finished?

On the whole I feel very satisfied. The reports have been favourable. However, I feel uneasy praising my own work. Be it as it may, I hope that the film will be welcomed at festivals.

How would you explain the high interest in the police theme, in Bulgaria and across the world?

Police stories are always exciting and captivating. Because policemen are like all other people, with their good and bad traits. And the environment in which the action unfolds is Sofia today, here and now. So we're trying to portray our community and the events which happen now.

Is the picture you are creating real or is it just wishful thinking?

We tried to be as close to reality as possible. We have been working on the scenario for a very long time. It is based on real stories told by many police officers. Of course, it is a feature not a documentary. The events are fiction but they are realistic to the maximum extent. Just like in real life, there are many funny as well as sad moments.

Beta Cinema, one of the world's biggest film distributors, bought the distribution rights for Rounds already before the shooting started. How did it happen and what does this cooperation mean?

We often meet at festivals and film markets. They have repeatedly told me their major mistake was that they didn't buy The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner, back in the day. And every time we meet I tell them, jokingly or earnestly, that it is high time to correct the mistake. They liked my previous film, Directions, and after reading various scenarios of Rounds, they said they would like to buy it. They bought the global distribution rights, except for the co-producing countries, i.e. Bulgaria and Serbia.

Beta Cinema did not buy The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner but the film was distributed in over 90 countries.

Yes, it proved to be the most watched Bulgarian film of all times. And, what is more important, it was screened across the whole world.

Were there any interesting interpretations of your films' titles around the world?

Yes, there were. For instance, Directions was released in France under a rather stupid title - Taxi Sofia. Nevertheless, the film was on the bills of over 55 theatres which is more than success for a Bulgarian picture. In Spain the title was translated much better - Destinos, which means both directions and destinies. Nevertheless, all distributors have the right to interpret titles.

How do you manage to preserve your sensitivity?

I hope I managed to preserve it. The profession of a director is very special. This is what I'm trying to bring home to my students. Being a director is something that gets under your skin. You can learn a lot from lectures but it is not enough to become a film director. It would be very helpful to any student to make a lot of shorts, even if something goes wrong at first and it is maddening. The second film will be free of previous mistakes. A would-be director has to face many different challenges. It helps to develop a special sense with time - understanding of what is authentic in the director's work. There is no recipe for feeling falsehood in an actor's performance, this special sense is what prompts you to see it. It takes a long and hard time to develop it, but this is an indispensable sense for a film director.

Does it mean that you have to give up if you make many mistakes? Have you ever told any of your students that he or she is no good for a film director?

No. Once there was a popular maxim that success is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. I believe it holds true across the world. It means that to have a clear idea of what is happening in the modern film industry one has to make and watch films non-stop. If you relax and rest on your laurels you are a goner.

You say there's no European film that can achieve box office success apart from the films of Luc Besson. Could the reason be that the directors are guided only by their own taste?

The European cinema is a cinema of smaller states that speak different languages. The entire pattern of the European film industry, including funding mechanisms, are based on a different principle. While in the US a producer and a studio raise money and invest in a film, in Europe they believe that cinema is part of their cultural identity. On the whole, in Europe cinema is financed by various funds - public, national, regional or pan-European. In Europe a producer doesn't invest, only raises money. The idea is that he generates a cultural product, and profit is not the aim of the exercise.

Why Bulgaria's national lottery doesn't allot money for culture as they do in Great Britain, for instance?

Funding mechanisms are a totally different issue. Much has been said in Bulgaria throughout the years about standardising financing of film production. Nowadays, money flows only from the National Film Centre, which has not finished a single session for the past year and a half. It would be normal to have a cinema fund entitled not only with public financing but also with royalties from lotteries, games of fortune, tickets, etc. That's how it is done in all EU states, including North Macedonia. Bulgaria allocates the lowest percentage of GDP for culture in the whole of Europe. As far as I know, for years now the governments have been allotting only 0.5% of GDP for culture. We hoped, and so did they pledge, that at least 1% of the budget will be spent on culture, but I was told that only 0.4% is envisioned for the next year, which means that the trend is just the opposite.

Has it ever tempted you to see your films adapted for TV series?

Television as such is history. The future belongs to such platforms as Netflix, HBO, etc. On TV you can watch only what programme developers selected, while these platforms allow you to select what to watch. Besides, now the platforms offer high-quality series. The major difference, though, is that a series is conceived as a series, and a feature as a feature. It is not by chance that they have different dramaturgy and use different scenarios. So, I have nothing against TV series, but it has to be planned straight from the beginning.

In your opinion, what type of cinema or, let's say, genre, is absent from Bulgarian cinema?

I'm all for all kinds of cinema genres. However, in recent years there is a noticeable trend towards entertainment cinema, something like fast food - go, watch, forget. I like films one can watch many times. I have watched my favourite films 10 or 15 times, and every time I discover something new. I like cinema which makes people think, stirs emotions, makes them laugh or be sad, helps us look closer at our surroundings and then go to posterity.

And how long will misery, in all of its dimensions - material and spiritual, be the key theme for the Bulgarian artists?

As for me, I'm trying to make films about the life that 95-97% of the Bulgarians are living. I don't care about the life of the 1-2% of the affluent, who are quite bored. I'm concerned about what is happening in Bulgaria as a whole. What worries me is that apart from being the poorest EU member, Bulgaria is the country where the wealth disparity is the biggest. This is the reality, and it would be absurd or even cynical not to show the situation in its real light. Everything else would be pulling wool over people's eyes. This is what I can do as director. The important thing is not to get accustomed to untruth. The problems have to be brought to light and called by their real names.

Close-Up

Stephan Komandarev, 52, graduated in medicine and then in film and TV directing. Maybe this is the reason why each of his films is a diagnosis of life in Bulgaria, made with medical precision and expertise. His film The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner, released in 2008, after the novel by Ilija Trojanov, won Audience Awards at film festivals in Switzerland, Poland, Norway and France. Dog's Home (2000) and Judgement (2014) were also warmly welcomed at various film festivals. Conceptually, his new feature Rounds, which is to be screened in Bulgaria in November, is a follow-up of Directions, which was shown in Cannes. It is the second part of his trilogy about modern Bulgaria - a story of three pairs of patrolling policemen and the adventures they go through within one night. Beta Cinema bought the distribution rights.

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