Maya Vitkova turns pain into humour.
"Making a film takes years of your life, so you’d better believe in your story and feel attached to it."

Teodosia Dobriyanova talks to Maya Vitkova about her film Viktoria, the tribulations of the Bulgarian film industry, and usurping expectations.

Although occasionally intrigued by a new production emanating from Bulgaria, I’ve been growing more discouraged by the predominance of monotonic stories about Communism and Post-Communist desperation. The existence of such stories never bothered me per se; the depiction of crimes committed by the Communist regime, as well as an attention to its aftermath, is natural, even necessary. The issue comes from the fact that the productions released in recent years easily merge into one homogeneous entity with little substance.

Why do the films we send off to festivals feature the same conventional elements with zero trace of the author behind them? Authorship is a lack in Bulgarian cinema, naturally accompanied by a lack of creativity. It seems to me that, as in the Communist era, filmmakers are commissioned to make recipe-book films, devoid of personality. Only this time the government is serving not the will of the almighty Party, but the almighty Western Festivals that need to fill their quota of movies coming from the stereotyped “Other Europe”—that dark and moist place filled with the kind of poverty that resuscitates Medieval ethics. This way of filmmaking can be more demoralising than the limitations that the Communist regime used to impose on artists; when an artist’s vision is suppressed, at least he/she looks for ways to subvert the censorship, and there is a chance, however slight, that creativity can flourish (Binka Zhelyazkova’s work is a great point of reference here). But art rarely exists when a worker is being paid to follow a formula. The difference between these two types of filmmakers is as tangible as the difference between an architect and a bricklayer.

The release of Maya Vitkova’s Viktoria (Bulgarian: Виктория) (2014) suggested that we are still yet to experience the true potential of Bulgarian cinema. Set in the last decade of Communist Bulgaria, Viktoria is a realist drama and a surrealist fable simultaneously, blurring the lines between historicity and fiction.

The film introduces us to Boryana (Irmena Chichikova), a young woman who lives in a small apartment with her husband and her mother, but longs to flee the regime and escape to the West. Conversely, her husband seems comfortable where he is, and tries to convince Boryana to have a child. Eventually, she gets pregnant and her attempts to have an abortion remain unsuccessful. Trapped by the unwanted child growing in her body, Boryana is incapable of escaping the prisoning regime of the country. As a result of the lost bond between the mother and her child, Viktoria (played by Katerina Angelova, Daria Vitkova, and Kalina Vitkova), is born without a belly button. Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov, informed about this child phenomenon and incapable of making scientific sense out of it, proclaims Viktoria as the new symbol of the Socialist regime—a “Superhuman” that breaks her bond with nature in the name of the ideology. With her child being the centre of the dictator’s attention, Boryana can forget about escape. Following the complications of this mother-daughter relationship, Viktoria is a story about a girl and a country that need to grow up together.

As opposed to many other films set in the Communist era, Vitkova’s subversion of genre becomes a subversion of Bulgarian cinema’s tendency to award Communism a sense of sacredness by treating it with fearful respect. As terrible as Zhivkov’s regime was, it was also, for the most of it, filled with anecdotal absurdities. Voluntarily or not, Vitkova’s decision to leave Communism in the background, and to explore it through the spectre of a Surrealist fable, teaches us an important lesson: if we want to transcend our past, we need to be able to laugh at it.

Proving that such bravery pays off, Viktoria became the first Bulgarian feature film to ever premiere at Sundance. Earlier this year, the film was also listed in The New Yorker’s “My Twenty-Five Best Films of the Century So Far”. Enamoured by Viktoria, we sought out the films creator. In our interview, we talk to director Maya Vitkova about cinema, inspiration and her experience with the Bulgarian Film Industry. The director also told us a little bit about her new project, Afrika.

electric ghost: To begin with, what got you into the film industry?

Maya Vitkova: I believe it was my parents’ love for film. My father, a brilliant doctor, was crazy about cinema, my mother too. She even dreamt of becoming an actress, but did not take this step. I guess she was too timid by that time. The real entertainment in our family has always come from cinema. We spent every weekend going to movies and used to see up to two films a day.

The decision to become a film director came early, back in 1990, when I was 12. It was after seeing Wild at Heart [1990] by David Lynch. I remember watching it following Twin Peaks [1990-91] streaming on Bulgarian TV. Wild at Heart made me dream of making films…

Last, but not least, my brother took me to a screening at an event called Cinema University in Sofia when I was 14. There were lectures given by a great film critic, Todor Andreykov, and showings of prior films he curated at the Bulgarian Cinematheque. My brother, 19, picked me up in the middle of the school day and took me to Duck Soup [1933], starring the Marx Brothers. I fell in love with the film, but also with the words of Andreykov. I spent the following years attending the Cinema University and that formed my taste for cinema. I saw some of my favourite films there—Cries and Whispers [1972], Zelig [1983], A Clockwork Orange [1973], and many more. Todor Andreykov became my professor in the history of world cinema at the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts, but unfortunately passed away after my first year there.

Your first feature Viktoria received wide international acclaim. We saw it at the London Film Festival in 2014, not to mention that it is the first Bulgarian production screened at festivals such as Sundance and Rotterdam. A lot of critics mention it as one of the best films produced in recent years. Now that you have the perspective of time, how did Viktoria change your life?

Viktoria is very dear to me. There were nine years between the initial idea for the film and its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. I have been through a lot in order to make it. I think the success of Viktoria came thanks to the good crew and the taste of festival programmers around the world. And of course thanks to the film critics from The New Yorker, The Hollywood Reporter, IndieWire, Screen International, Filmmaker Magazine, to name a few.

“In terms of support in my own country: zero. I only recently got financing for a short film, which is hardly enough. But I am happy to obtain it.”

Viktoria (Maya Vitkova, 2014), 155 mm, 35 mm,
Viktoria (Maya Vitkova, 2014, Bulgaria).

In terms of people knowing my work, things now are better than before—even if they have not seen Viktoria, they’ve heard or read about it. In terms of support in my own country: zero. I only recently got financing for a short film, which is hardly enough. But I am happy to obtain it. While Viktoria is being named number four of the best films of 2016 by The New Yorker, and I am pointed out as one of the five best directors in the world by the same magazine, I don’t get access to financing. It’s pretty interesting, but I will keep the faith and do what I love doing.

How would you describe Viktoria to those who have not seen it yet?

Viktoria is a sometimes funny and often sad film about a girl who feels rejected by her own mother. It is the story of a journey of one human being, from feeling unloved to learning how to give and receive love. Viktoria is silent and breathtaking in its simplicity. It is a personal story happening in a specific historical context—the end of Communism and the beginning of the so-called Bulgarian political, social and cultural transition.

Is it important to keep telling stories about the Communist regime almost three decades after its collapse?

In my case, I was just telling a personal story that happened to take place in that particular moment of time. The story dealt with my childhood, the time I knew best. For me, it was more than natural to have Communism as a very active background for the family story in Viktoria. I don’t have another story that takes place during the regime and I am currently not planning to work on one, so Viktoria is quite a unique case for me. Please note, that the film treated Communism the other way around—the characters in such films are usually miserable, repressed, and tortured during Communism, while Viktoria is having the time of her life under the regime.

“I am tired of films that exist only because their creators thought they would ‘work well’ with festivals and/or audiences.”

Viktoria (Maya Vitkova, 2014, Bulgaria).

I don’t know, it’s like asking if it is important to keep telling stories of the World Wars or the Holocaust, of course it is… But it also depends on the director and his/her intentions. I am working on very personal subjects, so I am not the best example. If I feel the need to tell a story of my mother’s childhood in the Jewish neighbourhood of Sofia during the Communist regime, I would. Everything that makes you excited, emotional, or moves you, you will tell it in the best way possible. I am tired of films that exist only because their creators thought they would “work well” with festivals and/or audiences.

Would you tell us a little bit about this process of creating Viktoria and how it came to life? Were there any compromises you had to make with your initial idea?

I [have been] writing short stories since I was a teenager. There was an element in one of them (I was 20 something when I wrote it) that made me feel very amused. It was a description of a birth. In this short story, the mother did not want the child, while the father was crazy about it. And since the mother did not want it, the child did not have an umbilical cord to connect it to her. So when she gave birth, the newborn burst out of her, swimming on top of a wave (when her waters broke), landing straight into its father’s loving arms. This image never left me; it was both funny and moving. I think it somehow became the heart, the inspiration for Viktoria later on. I wrote it quickly, but making the film took a long time. I have not made any artistic compromises with Viktoria. I know this is luxury and I fought like a lion to have this luxury. And now I am addicted to it…

Is it inevitable for you to invest personal experiences into your work?

It is inevitable for me and I don’t mind it. It needs to hurt, or make me happy on the inside, in order to inspire me and make me work. Making a film takes years of your life, so you’d better believe in your story and feel attached to it. I think my stories generally come from pain and then they get funny—or, a bit funnier—in the process. It’s like when telling something dramatic, you always try to give it a bit of humour. Otherwise, it becomes melodramatic and people hate hearing it.

There are several moments in Viktoria where the realism of the film gives away to a more surreal atmosphere. Viktoria is born without a belly button, perhaps as a result of the missing connection between her and her mother; not to mention the beautiful final scene with the rain… Were there any influences that inspired your work?

My first influences come from literature. My fantasy world is hugely inspired by writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, Boris Vian, Ray Bradbury, Mikhail Bulgakov, and J.D. Salinger, to name a few. Their universes gave me freedom and made me want to express myself through writing. Then came the fine art, the photography, and the music. The films were always there… But believe it or not, I have never seen a film that gave me an idea for a film of my own afterward.

“Afrika is a family story about processing loss and embracing love. It is personal, as I’ve recently lost my father… It is another step in the magical realistic storytelling for cinema for me.”

Maya Vitkova.

Apart from Viktoria, you have worked on other acclaimed Bulgarian productions, such as Eastern Plays [2009]. What do you think about the way the film industry in Bulgaria is developing in the recent years?

The truth is many talented Bulgarian directors do not have access to financing, although they did important films in the past years. I myself am not part of the status quo that gets supported on a regular basis. Some think I am punished for the success of my debut film (this is a popular post-Communist feature in our characters) and for always speaking my mind on the state of the local film industry. The majority of my colleagues never mentioned my name and my film in written or TV interviews, although many of their films went to some festivals only after Viktoria opened the doors for the first time. But thank God the international critics know, as they are aware of the process. However, we recently joined forces with some of my colleagues, to try and influence changes in the industry. Let’s see how it goes.

I know that you are currently working on your second feature film called Afrika. What should we know about it at this stage?

Afrika is a family story about processing loss and embracing love. It is personal, as I’ve recently lost my father… It is another step in the magical realistic storytelling for cinema for me. I am very excited about it and I believe it will be a beautiful film.

What kind of projects would you like to work on in the future?

I would like to continue directing and producing my own films and I would like to co-produce the films of other directors. I will very much like to continue offering production services, I love helping foreign projects while shooting in Bulgaria. I’ve been doing that for UK projects mainly (I just finished one some weeks ago) and I’m spoiled by the great quality and content.

What was the last film you saw in cinema?

The latest films I saw in cinema, a day apart, were Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales [2017] by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, and War for the Planet of the Apes [2014] by Matt Reeves. Next is Dunkirk [2017] by Christopher Nolan.

What is the film you think our readers should watch this week?

I think they should try re-watching The Kid [1921] by Charles Chaplin, if they want—laughing and crying is good for you. And this film is both very simple and so great, I re-watched it a few weeks ago and thought how amazing it still is.