Nikolay Vassilev: My characters are always some kind of flying people

They are difficult to work with - you have to empty all the stones out of your pockets in order to follow them

Many people perceive art just as an extra in their lives and do not realise that it is a very powerful way to develop their imagination, which in turn makes it possible for them to change their life perspectives - not to be staring at the ground only, but also to be able to soar, says film director Nikolay Vassilev.

Mr Vassilev, after the “peculiar” physics teacher Teodosiy Teodosiev, you turned your attention to the photographer Alexander Ivanov, who is no less unusual. Was it easier to work with him than with the physicist Teodosiy Teodosiev?

Both of them are difficult to work with because they inhabit a space that is high above. I know them since I was a student in the town of Kazanlak. Their brilliant personalities aroused my curiosity. Alexander Ivanov is one of a kind in the town. He was interesting to me because of his figure and presence, but also because I had seen his artworks even back then. After all, he was - and I think he remains - the first and the only brave photographer to shoot from the air while flying on a powered hang glider, which is not safe at all. We saw for the first time in his artworks what the world from above might look like.

When did you decide to make a film about him?

I saw his best works gathered in one place when I came to Sofia. This was at an exhibition titled 360 Degrees Bulgaria, which was put on display at the Lovers' Bridge near Sofia's National Palace of Culture some twenty years ago. The sights caught by the lens left me speechless. At that time I had not flown on a plane and these pictures were fascinating, the coloured canvases reminded me a lot of the artist Ivan Milev, whose viewpoint was as if he drew while looking from above.

Some of your characters are very difficult to film, don't you think so?

Firstly, they are difficult to work with because they do not like ostentation. I always have a long way to go persuading them. Everyone has their own sacred ways and does not allow somebody else to enter their creative space. Apparently, our work does not seem very serious, because we have to invest a lot of energy to make them trust us before and during the filming. They start to understand and cooperate with us only towards the end of the process.

My characters are always some kind of flying people, so when we take to work with them, we have to empty all the stones out of our pockets in order to follow them. What is interesting to me is that they manage to defy gravity in their own way, if not literally then psychologically. They are people who manage to overcome the everyday humdrum that keeps most of us on the ground.

Were you ever tempted to fly a hang glider?

For now, I prefer to fly in my mind. By the way, it's a childhood dream of mine to fly, although not by technical means but with my imagination.

Many people perceive art just as an extra in their lives and do not realise that it is a very powerful way to develop their imagination, which in turn makes it possible for them to change their life perspectives - not to be staring at the ground only, but also to be able to soar.

What does Bulgaria look like from a bird's eye view - beautiful or deprived?

What I have learned from a mediator like Alexander Ivanov is that things look much more beautiful when seen from above because then the details are lost. The scale is similar when we use a microscope to look at the world of microorganisms. It is always more beautiful from above than from within. Interestingly, everything looks very beautiful from high above, even places that are somehow even toxic, such as mine tailings for example.

Do you mean misleadingly beautiful?

Beauty is magnetic energy, not just aesthetics. That is why it captures the senses. According to me, however, the maxim that “beauty will save the world” is not very true. Because if there is no idea behind the beauty, it is then just wrapping. And we know well what happens to packaging.

Perhaps this is why God does not interfere, because we look beautiful from up above. Is there a need for balance between good and evil in life?

I think it is wrong for us to look for God outside of ourselves. He is in each and every one of us, speaking to us according to our individual capacity to hear and accept. I bring balance into my life by adhering to the philosophy that “there is no evil, just good yet to evolve”. I have no problem seeing evil as something that has the potential to evolve, without stigmatising it. I lend that thing my energies to let it fully develop and I try to understand its bad manifestations whenever such occur. Otherwise, one is liable to go down a path of rejecting things without grasping the essence of the phenomenon called “evil”. I try not to let myself get hung up on either good or evil, I try to look at them both as manifestations of the Spirit. One finds God through harmony, and enlightenment is the way to it. In that sense, we have a lot of room to grow in our concepts and assessments.

But that means to not distinguish between good and evil.

I look at both as necessary for our growth. I do not perceive evil as the nature of something. I think that doing evil is a stage of human evolution and the closer we are to animalistic patterns of behaviour rooted in fear and primal instincts, the more often examples of evil are observed. When we awaken the inner human, the one with capital “H”, we step closer to freeing ourselves of the extremes in life and seeing that they have one common source that shapes the world in its stages of evolution. Suffering can breed awareness, which is more precious than anything else.

Is this where Vaklush Tolev's creed that every man is a god in progress fits? Your first film, The Way to Wisdom, was hugely successful as well, mainly because of its unorthodox main character.

I have been greatly influenced by this volcano of spirituality - Vaklush Tolev. I truly perceive man as a stage in our evolution. Nietzsche, by the way, also alludes to this - that the animal and the superhuman are connected by a bridge called human. I think that the faster we get through this transition of the human in us, the sooner we will create a new dynamic on this planet. To me, the call of “Let us be more humane” deserves to be mocked in that sense. Our future is to be more divine, which means shedding the flaws we have in our human stage of development. Then we will behave more responsibly towards each other and the planet. Right now, we are focused on surviving and conquering territories, which is a product of our instincts, unrefined remnants of the animalistic in us. When we finally start to master instead of conquer our inner territories, we will realise that we are limitless just like our Maker.

Your films treat faith in the spiritual as salvation, but offer a delicate lesson in reality as well.

I would not say it is faith. Lately, I have seen enough of faith leading people to believe in nonsense if they are not mature enough in their awareness. Faith is the childhood stage of a man who is yet to encounter the spiritual realities and has to rely on ideas he has been told to believe. My films try to find and lift up something beyond faith, I seek knowledge about the spiritual. I am interested in people who have not been defeated by the banal or by traditions, which are nothing more than one-size-fits-all concepts meant to be easily processed by the uninitiated.   

How is this time of social isolation affecting people?

I try to be grateful for this situation, because we need to find other paths, ones that lead to our inner world. This period of isolation is problematic for many as they are not used to being left alone, to turning their gazes inward. It is making us practice self-reflection, self-improvement, being self-sufficient. This means being able to transform suffering into growth. It is about seeing the positive potential in a bad situation instead of being negative and failing to find meaning. For most people the medium is fear. The mass media is also using the prism of fear instead of the idea that we should be seeking new directions, fostering a new mentality of a new type of man. I think it all comes down to planetary fate. In other words, we need change and that change will not come through prosperity.

This is a crisis that needs to envelop the man so he can go through a metamorphosis and reach his next level. We are witnessing the mechanisms of evolution in action. The teacher Teodosiy Teodosiev says that being stupid is deadly dangerous, the truth of which is now being made more evident than ever. Vaklush Tolev says that our planet does not need social revolutions, but a sacral one. A revolution that takes place in each and every one of us, when we look into our souls and make ourselves into better versions.

The current situation can be interpreted as one of those moments when we must practice be they even small victories over fear and start talking about death as a transition to the spiritual world instead of solely as a tragic outcome and a punishment. The future will come when we start realising that Life has no end.

The interview was originally published by Headlines by EUROPOST.


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 for Bulgarian National TV productions such as Small Stories, In the Eye of the Camera, and Smart Village. His debut film The Way to Wisdom was distinguished by the 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. In 2019, at the Love Is Madness International Film Festival held in Varna, he received the Bitter Cup award for Teo's Formula, a film about the world-renowned physics teacher Teodosiy Teodosiev, which has stirred great interest not only in Bulgaria but also abroad. In 2020, Vassilev was awarded for best Bulgarian documentary at the festival Masters of Art for his film High Above.

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