Journalist Georgi Toshev: Writing is not a vocation for me but an emotional journey

The greatest thing about my profession is the pleasure of engaging with the world through people who show it to you in the best for you way

Photo: Personal archive

I am happy that the personalities who put their trust in me are people who interest me and whose life stories help me answer questions that are important to me at that particular moment, says renowned journalist and traveller Georgi Toshev in an interview to Monitor.

Mr Toshev, journalistic projects have kept you inside the TV studio as of late. What are those?

A new season of The Unknown, which is one of the longest-running original series on a Bulgarian TV network, is premiering soon. This will be our 12th season - a miracle in and of itself, especially for a commercial TV network. The Unknown turned out to have more staying power than even The Other Bulgaria. Over the span of 12 years, I have told the stories of renowned Bulgarian artists as well as global personalities. I believe this job comes with great responsibility and I am happy to be living my dream of shining a light on the people shaping our nation's cultural identity. We are going to start with the film Words of Love and Hate. It features three subjects: the 90-year-old Fani Davidova (sister of actress of Jewish descent Luna Davidova), Ivo Dimchev (artist of international renown who is an HIV-positive homosexual) and a Roma doctor working at a Covid-19 ward. Each of these people has dealt with hate speech and ultimately chosen to stay on the side of love, to forgive and be loving. The Aznavour Foundation has finally given me permission to release the entire footage I filmed in the singer's home outside of Marseille. Charles Aznavour: The Last Meeting will span several eras because that is how long the singer's career was. I will also show the film Roxette after Marie - the female half of the legendary pop duo may have passed away but her voice continues to draw new generations of Roxette fans.

You are the Bulgarian journalist who travels the most, perhaps among the world's most travelled. What is your next destination?

I will be going to Paris, to continue telling the story of Christo's and Jeanne-Claude's legacy. This time, the focus is on the last Mohican of a superstar trio - the couple's photographer, Wolfgang Volz. He did not come to Sofia for his exhibition so I am going to him just as the Arc de Triomphe is being wrapped (Christo's last project). Volz is continuing his mission of covering the couple's art as the person who they trusted to let into their world.

What is your memory of Christo the person? You had the chance to meet him before he passed away.

We first met years ago in New York and then I filmed him for The Unknown. It was a very rewarding experience because I got to see what Christo was really like. He had this supreme singlemindedness and obsession with creating the next project. Both he and Jeanne-Claude had this powerful aura - many people have aspirations but few manage to fulfil them. Those two turned their dreams into reality. The best thing I learnt from Christo and Jeanne-Claude was to experience art as a moment in time. “Our art is a moment, it comes to be, lives a short life and then disappears. The idea is that art is an amalgamation of many personal experiences, not an object that is there to be collectively liked or disliked,” Christo said once. They made art a personal experience for each and every one of us, even those who reject, dislike or are unable to understand it. Do you know what the best part is? One of the world's most potent artists - nature - is featured in every single one of Christo's and Jeanne-Claude's works. It is amazing!

Every time celebrities such as soprano Sonya Yoncheva and actress Maria Bakalova return to Bulgaria, you are always there, right by their side. How does one win the stars' trust?

I have learnt not to be in a rush. It is a mistake I used to make as a young reporter always striving to be the first on things. Nowadays, I do not try to win their favour, I do not do anything to win them over and use them for an interview or anything like that. I make an effort to build a relationship with the people I really like and to have them as a presence in my life. For example, I noticed Maria Bakalova long before she got famous - she did a show with Mila Robert in Plovdiv. Besides liking and admiring her, I even dared to come to her defence publicly when she was attacked with what I thought was uncivilised and unwarranted pieces of criticism. An actress, and she has proven to be a very talented one, takes on a role. Some projected one of Maria's roles onto her real-life person. Only people who fail to understand the transformative nature of acting make this mistake. My story with Sonya Yoncheva is similar. When I discovered her for myself, I invested time and effort to show her to Bulgaria. I felt shame seeing her as Norma at Covent Garden and reading all the glowing reviews of her performance afterwards because in Bulgaria people were still asking: “Who?!” I told myself that I needed to let people know, because we do not have many talents the likes of Ghena Dimitrova, Raina Kabaivanska, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Nicola Ghiuselev, Boris Hristov and Krassimira Stoyanova. Sonya Yoncheva has the gift of bringing opera, which is an elitist form of art, closer to pop culture in the best sense. With personalities like her, I feel the need to understand them first. I have learnt to be patient, to not pester them. If they turn to me for advice or an opinion, I am there.

Who are you to them - a biographer, a PR person, a friend?

They are my friends who may eventually become part of my journalistic work. I met both Sonya and Maria professionally and became close friends with them - it is something that happens organically, without having to be verbalised. I interview tons of people in my line of work but I cannot possibly be friends with all of them. I have been accused of writing books just to “stand on the shoulders” of the famous, of communicating only with celebrities. I tell those critics of mine that communicating is not a PR campaign but rather a mutual lowering of guards, a sense of curiosity, and morality.

What do we not know about Sonya Yoncheva and Maria Bakalova? Do they have something in common?

They are two girls who had the fortune of being born into regular families, whose “regular” parents turned out to be extraordinary in chasing the dream of their children being happy with their chosen profession. These regular families, in terms of careers and lineage, managed to achieve the extraordinary feat of discovering their children's talents, encouraging them and making sacrifices along the way so that their children could become whatever they wanted in life. Both women are hard-working (talent is a given - without it, they would not be where they are now), dedicated and able to take risks. Here is something probably no one knows - Sonya Yoncheva told me once: “Where we are, it is a very lonely place for us, Bulgarians.” The Russians and the Italians have lobbies, consortiums and foundations behind them, the Bulgarians do not.

In what ways are the two different?

Sonya already has the experience needed to build enough self-confidence - she knows who she is, what she is capable of and the boundaries within which she can keep taking on challenges. Maria is over a decade younger and at a stage of her life where she is exploring, finding and adapting her national mentality and international talent to an extremely uncertain situation. When you are in the public eye and so successful, the risk of crashing down in a matter of days is much higher if you are not that experienced and used to success, money and acclaim. However, she is smart and intentional about her choices. Here is something else they have in common - they are both down-to-earth people. They are aware that the miracle can be over tomorrow, and I am not talking about depression, drugs and rehabs but rather that they may be doing something else the next day. They work to have these opportunities because they know that they come to people who can handle them. This is why they are subjects of my journalistic work. I am going to make a film about Maria because I admire people who manage to meet the moment and take advantage of their chance. She is shooting her third Hollywood production since Borat 2 and is already a co-producer at the age of 25. For those who do not like Borat, go watch her in Women Do Cry directed by Vesela Kazakova and Mina Mileva. She is unrecognisable in it - dramatic, nuanced… Meanwhile, Sonya Yoncheva took the risk of starting her own company. It takes balls to handle this type of risk.

Do you have your eyes set on another talent to work with?

I have an affinity for Bulgarians working on the global stage and I am looking around for the next one. Bulgarians with this kind of scope, however, do not emerge overnight. I would say that a good candidate is writer Georgi Gospodinov - for the things he writes and the way he is received. He has chosen to live in Bulgaria and that may be somewhat taking away from the level of international presence he deserves. Georgi Gospodinov is someone I am increasingly focusing on. My colleague Borislav Kolev has his sights on Theodore Ushev, although I was the first one to tell the story of Theodore Ushev in Canada long before his name gained any popularity. I did it for The Other Bulgaria series.

Has anyone refused to be the subject of one of your biographies, books or films?

No. I am happy that the personalities who put their trust in me are people who interest me and whose life stories help me answer questions that are important to me at that particular moment. I do not take on commissioned work. Writing is not a vocation for me but rather an experience, an emotional journey.

What is the secret of your high productivity? Do you ever get tired of travelling, meeting people and researching archives?

Of course it can be tiring, the years pile on and it is not the same as when I was 20, 30, 40… But meeting inspiring people gives me the desire and the impetus to get back on the horse even after a gruelling stretch. It is what makes me say to myself that I would not stop, I would not give up. The greatest thing about my profession is the pleasure of engaging with the world through people who show it to you in the best for you way. It is a life-affirming experience. I want to keep seeing the world with all its flaws but to still love it.

How would you describe your own life right now?

My life today is about the delight from the work I have done over the years. Now already I want to find delight - no ambition, nothing done at all cost: just delight, because it has been earned.

 

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Georgi Toshev was born on 2 March 1969 in Sofia. He has degrees in philology and journalism and has specialised in New York. He has worked as a reporter for numerous print media outlets as well as a TV host and a creator and producer of popular TV programmes. He has authored a number of biographies about great Bulgarian artists. He is the most well-travelled Bulgarian journalist, having visited over 180 countries around the world.

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