Interview with our DECEMBER 2018 winner: Irina Velichkova

The last major award of 2018 goes to Bulgaria – Irina Velichkova wins the big award for her fantastic film, Dream for Happiness, while also bagging the Best Director award. Let’s see what Irina told us about her achievement.

JL: Our sincere congratulations, Irina! What a wonderful achievement your film is – we at TMFF really loved it, and we hope we made it quite obvious!

Irina: First, I would like to thank everyone from the TMFF festival – the jury and the whole team – not just for the reward, but also for the very professional and warm reception of my film, which won the December 2018 edition of the festival and of me as a director. The festival doesn’t only give awards, which is great in itself, but also offers tremendous support to filmmakers. The festival’s review of my film shows the high professionalism of the team and a deep knowledge of the film language. Thank you! To me the recognition I received from the festival has an even higher value as this is my first attempt at filmmaking. Actually, it is my diploma work with which I earned my film director degree. The film was basically produced on zero budget, with props me and the art director brought from our homes. I am a lawyer with 25 years of professional experience in the field of copyright and media law. Making a film has been my child’s dream. That’s what makes these awards (for best movie, best director and best actress) and nomination (for best script) all the more important to me.

JL: What came first with regard to the film: the plot structure, the main character, her chemistry with another character, the overarching theme… or something else?

Irina: In order to make this film – diploma work, my professor gave me a few training scripts he had made, based on short stories by Chekhov and O’Henry. When I read them, none of them provoked me, so I set them aside. The next morning one of the plots returned to my mind like a boomerang. It was based on Chekhov’s story “Anyuta”. I thought if story was told from the heroine’s point of view and some other heroes and episodes were added, perhaps it could work. To some extent, the plot contains a personal story. I had never written a script before. After my first attempt, the professor told me “That is how you write!”. Of course, the script had at least 10 corrections after that, but it was more about details, rewriting dialogues, reworking scenes, etc. A valuable advice I got from my professor was to imagine the actors that would play in the film as I was writing the script. At the time I worked as a legal counsel at the National Theatre in Sofia and I had he chance to watch some great contemporary Bulgarian actors on the stage, as well as during rehearsals and in an informal environment. I believe this was very important for the choice of actors.

JL: Speaking of the chemistry, what a thoughtful, meaningful and bitter-sweet relationship beetween your main character and the ill painter! How do you view the final result?

Irina: Yes, the chemistry between the main heroes – Anita and the painter was really great. I had the chance to work with two exceptional Bulgarian actors – Stefka Yanorova and Deyan Donkov. Both have lots of experience in theatre as well as in films, but until now they had never shot a scene together. A week before the shooting started, we had a rehearsal. We read the text of their scenes together, we talk about the characters. But what was more important to me was that I was privileged to watch an informal, casual conversation between them the only purpose of which was for them to take a good look inside each other. During this small talk they very carefully observed each other – reactions, expressions, mimics. It was as if each was trying to feel the other’s vibes. One week later, during filming, this proved to be very important. The magic had happened! The advantage of working with great actors is that with their experience, they help build the characters, which increases the film’s substance. The director may not accept all their proposals, but it’s worth discussing them. For example, Deyan Donkov suggested that when he talked about the child that was taken from him, he shows a little dress that he keeps as a dear memory. Not just any child’s clothing, but a dress. Stefka Yanorova had the idea that her character Anita wears a hat in every outdoor scene… Or, as it is well known, the script is written three times – on paper, during filming and during montage.

JL: As an Eastern European myself, I see how this story transcends its geographic setting and evokes a universal plain of understanding. However, I found the setting and culturally-specific scenes very telling. How did you approach the balance between specific and universal in terms of meaning?

Irina: I believe in every person’s life there are certain universal, transcending human values – love, the desire to do good, the striving for freedom, the search for one’s self, the power of art – these go beyond language and geographical limits. On the other hand, cinema has its own universal language and there lies its power – to transcend barriers with this universal language. Here, of course, I don’t think I can say anything more than Roland Barthes and his concept of the language of cinema, of the signifier and the signified …

JL: What would you say is your defining trait or trademark as a filmmaker?

Irina: I believe it would be rather pretentious of me with my humble experience as a film director (just one film and a diploma work at that) to claim I have a trademark. From my little experience, however, I understood that cinema is made with love and like-minded people. Besides, the story you tell must come from your heart. And last but not least, you have to be honest with the viewer. Cinema doesn’t tolerate lies. I believe if I make another film (which I really hope would happen) I’ll follow these principles.

JL: Now that everything is done and dusted, is there anything that you’d do differently with your film, or with your approach to it?

Irina: Considering the circumstances (namely: with almost zero financing) under which the film was made – no, I wouldn’t. Of course, for the camera operator this was his term paper. He was a sophomore student in the National Film Academy and didn’t have enough experience, but then again, I had none. While I was writing the script, I imagined a certain great Bulgarian actress in the role of the Artist’s neighbour. She is now of quite an old age, has a purely white hair and unique blue eyes. In the film, she had to be the good fairy that appears whenever the main character is in need of some help or encouragement. Just like in fairy tales. But when filming approached, it turned out she had other personal commitments and I had to make a quick decision. But I believe the film still carries its messages and I’m grateful to all the actors who wholeheartedly believed in me.

JL: It was a tough call to make between three outstanding performances, but in the end we offered our Actress of the Month award to Stefka Yanorova. How did you get her as the lead in your film, and how happy are you with the choice?

Irina: Stefka Yanorova is a very famous Bulgarian actress, an exceptional professional and an amazing person. She was the only actor I didn’t know personally before beginning work on the film, because she plays in another theatre. I met her before a stage performance to tell her about the project and to invite her to play in it. She said neither yes nor no. As a matter of fact she reacted quite reserved, which discouraged me. She took the script and said she would read it the same evening after the performance. The next morning she called and said “I’m in!” Then, just as now, I was extremely happy she agreed. The film definitely wouldn’t be the same without her… But far as I know, she has also won “Best actress” at TMFF in 2016.

JL: Any new projects that you already have planned, or are you taking a break after Dream for Happiness?

Irina: If it is up to me – no, I don’t want any breaks! Just like the character from the film – Anita, I believe I have finally found my way and I don’t want to stop! The only thing I want to do, the only thing that makes me feel alive, the only thing that makes me happy, is to make films! I have ideas for at least three other projects, but unfortunately, it comes down to financing, which is a difficult thing in Bulgaria.

JL: Well, Irina, thank you very much for your time and insights! We wish you all the best, and hope to see your name again among our festival’s submissions!

Irina: Thank you! You are amazing! I wish you to give the same hope that you gave me, for many years ahead – that making good films is worth it!

Article written by Julian Leu for The Monthly Film Festival

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