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Ralitza Petrova • Director

“My aim is to master as much as possible what I call ‘haiku’ filmmaking”


- LOCARNO 2016: Bulgarian director Ralitza Petrova talks about her Golden Leopard-winning first feature, Godless, but also about the social cynicism and apathy in her country

Ralitza Petrova  • Director
(© Alessio Pizzicannella)

The winner of the Golden Leopard at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival, Godless [+see also:
film review
interview: Ralitza Petrova
film profile
, proves that Bulgaria has unlimited resources of impressive talent: a bleak story about how the country’s elderly are used by the sharks of society, this first feature uses minimal resources to tell an efficient, lingering story. Director Ralitza Petrova talked with Cineuropa about her storytelling approach, but also about social and creative issues in Bulgaria.

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Cineuropa: Since the moment you first came up with the idea for Godless, what was the biggest challenge that the project threw up for you as a storyteller?
Ralitza Petrova:
How to own the emotional truth of the story, and how to retain the authenticity of each character and situation in the film, with maximum economy. My aim is to master as much as possible what I call “haiku” filmmaking. I believe that the emotional tension of a film stems from the stark contrast between opposing elements, like in haiku poetry. It demands a very precise boiling down of what things are really about.

You chose to use many amateur actors for Godless. Why?
I feel that a non-actor whose life is close to that of the character in the story brings further depth to the film. Godless deals with the emotional pain of Bulgarian society, and it was very important for me to show that pain imprinted on the actors’ faces. They carry more meaning in their silence than what I would have been able to extract from a middle-class actor or actress who would be playing an idea. I am interested in watching people “being” and not only “seeming”. It also depends on the kind of story. This is an austere story, and with this approach I was able to create more tension. 

Do you think this aspect of Bulgarian society, with certain individuals preying on the weak, is widespread?
Unfortunately, cynicism and apathy have become deeply rooted in Bulgarian society. The collapse of values has led to the complete failure of how the country functions. The justice system is a joke, and a pawn in the hands of criminals with money. People have a huge disbelief of the law, the police and the social services, as they don’t offer any protection. This lack of trust erodes people’s own self-belief and courage. It erodes people’s intuition for what is right, as there is the feeling that anything is allowed – even murder.

Over the past few years, two million Bulgarians have left the country. These were all people who would have preferred to stay but saw no prospect for personal development. It is very painful to witness this. I myself have come from having left in the 1990s. It pains me to see that today’s situation is very much the same for the new generation as it was for mine. Still, my hope is with those who stay, those who, despite it all, speak well, do well and work hard.

How hard is it to debut as a director in Bulgaria?
I was very lucky to have one of the best-established producers in Bulgaria, Rossitsa Valkanova, who liked the project and got on board from an early stage. In that sense, I had no difficulty with debuting. I am particularly grateful for the type of producer that Rossitsa is, not pushing a director to compromise on their vision for production value, or sales appeal. Having said that, the production was extremely challenging, but everyone stuck together, and I think we gained satisfaction from the work.

Does being a female director make things more difficult? How would you comment on the relationship between young directors and the National Film Center, as the Center's support is paramount in making a film?
It is difficult for new directors. I explain this not only by the status quo at the National Film Center and the Ministry of Culture, which hasn’t changed in years; the biggest concern is the lack of dialogue between generations, and essentially the lack of interest in nurturing new talent and new ideas. Many young filmmakers in Bulgaria would agree that Rossitsa Valkanova is probably the only producer who has passion and interest in the new generation. The people who often end up on the selection committees seem reluctant to accept that time moves on, and so do stories and storytelling. 

Do you have a new project you are now developing?
I would like to further explore the themes I have touched on in Godless. There are two stories that I would like to make next: one is called Dust. It is smaller in scale than Godless and is also more absurd. It follows a middle-aged man who returns to Bulgaria after abandoning his career in England, and his rich, upper-middle-class hypochondriac mother, who has a phobia of death. It deals again with the themes of a lack of self-belief, and the flawed acts that result as a consequence of that. The main character ends up in bad shape, but it turns out that only by reaching the bottom can he truly transform. The other story is bigger in scale and deals with gun politics.

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