Milko Lazarov: I step like sacrificial lamb to the altar of cinema

From a spiritual standpoint, our award from the International Arctic Film Festival in Chukotka is the most valuable to me

Photo: Lyubomir Mladenov Milko Lazarov

It is just a feeling when I set he camera and check what the frame looks like. I still believe that the only criteria should be whether I like it or not. The only principle I follow is my sense of aesthetics, director Milko Lazarov says in an interview to Europost.


Mr Lazarov, your film Aga recently brought home two awards from the Valladolid International Film Festival after winning five at the Golden Rose in Varna earlier and having success at The Heart of Sarajevo prior to that. Do all these accolades hold the same value to you?

The awards are numbering in the dozens now so I have stopped counting them. From a spiritual standpoint, our award from the International Arctic Film Festival in Chukotka is the most valuable to me because it is decided by the audience. We had a sense of guilt for using local people in Aga while the story was entirely fictional, with no ethnographic authenticity to it. There were some wonderful local films in the Chukotka forum but the audience gave the Golden Raven grand prix to us. We also won a very interesting award in Germany from the national film festival in Schwerin. For the first time the event allowed the participation of co-productions and I won in the best director category, becoming the first foreigner to have ever been awarded by the German professional filmmaking guild. But no prize can compare to the joy I had making the film. I am sad that we are no longer together, that it left the nest as all children eventually do. The moment it debuted at the Berlinale, I lost it. That was the last time I saw it too. I no longer attend screenings; Aga has its own life now. It will be fine on its own.

What is still left on the festival tour schedule?

Our distributor Beta Cinema picks out from the many invitations we get and there is a strategy to it. For the rest of the year, we have appearances in the competition programmes of about 10 festivals left. I and producer Veselka Kiryakova will attend some of those personally, but we will not be able to make others because of scheduling conflicts with international premiere dates. In recent days the film was released in Germany, France and Switzerland. We are in the height of the festival season. Flying has become just as routine to me as taking a tram. I have 27 flights planned by the middle of December. The film is not elitist; it is more communicative than my previous one, Alienation, was. I would even describe it as family drama. It brings to tears many in the audience across the globe.

What is the most surprising viewer response you have seen so far?

It has to be the Chukotka prize, I did not expect it. People there do not take well to foreigners who make films about them and use them. I myself felt a sense of guilt. In the early stages of shooting, for example, they used to remark, “We do not fish like that”, and there was serious pushback until we managed to convince them that it was all fictional. It turns out that we slowly won them over. We did not set out to document their way of life factually, but at the end they identified emotionally with the story. They said they embraced Aga as part of their history and old ways.

How did you cast the roles in this existential tale about the northern people?

The young lady playing Aga is a professional actress who lives in Moscow. The woman portraying the old Sedna is not a trained actress, she breeds cows in an obscure village in the taiga, but she is extremely talented. The most interesting part was finding someone for the role of the old Nanook. The casting process went horribly and we went to the office of our local producers. I told them I imagined the character as an old Charles Bronson. Just at that moment, a man who remarkably resembled Charles Bronson walked into the municipality building across the street. I sent a prayer that he was not the mayor of Yakutsk because I had every intention of asking him to play the leading role in my film. They told me he was an actor in one of the local theatres and that they did not particularly like him. Apparently, he came to the casting call but was late. I knew right away that he was the one and we got along swimmingly. The acting philosophy there is close to the Chinese one - they are more expressive in their acting, there is a lot of gesticulating, but I wanted just the opposite. And he did it.

Were there any extreme experiences during the film production in the Sakha Republic?

However strange it may sound, this was the easiest shooting process in my career. At least this was our perception, perhaps because we went there with serious concerns and yet nothing dangerous happened, or maybe something beyond our comprehension was indeed happening. Let's just say we got lucky. We shot on the frozen Lena River, pieces of ice floating. It was like a lunar landscape in a huge studio. The sun there is so low over the horizon that the shadows extend 5-6 metres, as if achieved by artificial lighting.

The imagery in your films is very powerful. Do you dream of those before shooting? How do these images form in your mind?

It is just a feeling when I set he camera and check what the frame looks like. I still believe that the only criteria should be whether I like it or not. The only principle I follow is my sense of aesthetics. It has been a long time and my European and Bulgarian co-producers are pressuring me hard for another film, but I am reluctant to take on a project in which I would not feel as myself. It will likely be years before I come up with the right topic. I treat filmmaking with great respect, as I was taught by my mentor Prof. Vladislav Ikonomov, who used to say that one should step like a sacrificial lamb to the altar of cinema. You are walking into a 'slaughter', taking an enormous risk of creating a monumental disaster of a film, and it certainly looks like it most of the time. I cannot just say, “Well, I will make this kind of film because it is a modern topic.” I am not being capricious and I really want to make a film. Life is difficult and we live at the brink of survival. But for me, five-year intervals, just as it was between Alienation and Aga, make for a very good rhythm. The rest of the time I am looking after my kids, twins Georgi and Maria, and I have three dogs. I also help on other projects, keeping myself in filmmaking shape, so to speak.

You made your directorial debut with Alienation at 45, which is relatively late in life.

Everything in my life happens about 20 years later than it is supposed to. It is not intentional on my part, it just happens that way and I do not know why. I lived a teenager's life until the age of 30, I got accepted to the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts late, made my directorial debut at 45 and became a father at 48. I hope that death will follow that pattern and come for me late. But a lot of my Bulgarian colleagues debut as directors after the age of 40, perhaps as many as half of them, which is a consequence of the circumstances.


Milko Lazarov was born on 28 August 1967. He studied film and TV directing at the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia. His debut feature film Alienation won an award for best young director at the 2013 Venice Film Festival as well as several honours given out by the Bulgarian Film Academy. His second project Aga is currently winning praise and accolades at festivals and has already been sold for worldwide distribution, including in China. Aga is also slated to be six times on the ARTE network's prime time slot.

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