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SOFIA 2023

Nikola Boshnakov, Georgi-Jackie Stoev • Registi di My Uncle Luben

"La libertà è sempre una questione di atteggiamento personale, e nessun regime politico può cambiarlo"


- I due registi bulgari rivelano i dettagli del processo alla base del loro nuovo documentario, nonché alcune particolarità sull'arte e la personalità del suo personaggio principale

Nikola Boshnakov, Georgi-Jackie Stoev  • Registi di My Uncle Luben
Nikola Boshnakov (destra) e Georgi-Jackie Stoev

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We spoke to documentary filmmaker Nikola Boshnakov and veteran director Georgi-Jackie Stoev, whose latest portmanteau work including rare found footage, My Uncle Luben [+leggi anche:
intervista: Nikola Boshnakov, Georgi-J…
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, has just celebrated its international premiere at the Sofia International Film Festival (SIFF). The film portrays Stoev’s brother, artist Luben Stoev, through a dive into the family roots by his nephew (and Jackie’s son) Ray Van Zeschau, who is a singer, photographer and the German co-producer of the film. Documented in a humorous manner, Zeschau’s trip to the realm of his uncle’s unconventional lifestyle in Dresden and Sofia, and his wanderings around the world, takes a nostalgic look at not-so-distant but almost forgotten times, and provides an authentic insider’s view of the Bulgarian political transition through the rediscovery of Luben’s art.

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Cineuropa: Watching My Uncle Luben feels like peeling an onion – it starts off as a random story about this German rock band’s frontman who is dealing with a family property in Bulgaria, and it turns into a time machine and jumps between eras and places. Was this the initial concept?
Nikola Boshnakov:
That was the original idea, yes. Over the years, Luben Stoev had put me in mind of a movie character who had just hopped off the screen to mingle with the audience for a while, but was always ready to get back on it. Only the film was missing. Years went by, but I didn’t find the time to concentrate on his story. Suddenly, Luben was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly afterwards. I felt sad and guilty, so I abandoned the idea – documentaries about dead artists have always scared me, both as a genre and in practice. When Jackie proposed I direct this film, I felt a responsibility to come up with a more inventive concept.

Nikola’s previous documentary Jackie, Johnny and Charlie Are Not Pet Dog Names features Jackie as a character, whilst here, you sit side by side as directors. Was it challenging to change roles, and who did what?
Jackie Stoev: We’ve been working together for a long time: Boshnakov edited my documentaries Bread and Spectacles and Good Morning, Captain. Since My Uncle Luben is a film about my brother, I felt an inner inhibition about signing it as a director, and quite naturally, I asked him to assist. It’s all his concept, and he also directed the shooting process as the younger one in our duo. Then, as in previous films, we worked together on the editing. But this time around, he had the final word on decision making.

NB: Jackie even insisted on having only my name in the final credits, but I firmly refused.

The film is a sort of family affair, and your interest in Luben is understandable. However, what, in your eyes, makes him special in general?
Luben had an incredibly interesting life, and his curiosity led him to strange places, situations and people. As an artist, he was initially fascinated by cityscapes, but then spent several months in a coal mine in Germany, from where he returned with magnificent woodcuts. Afterwards, he did several round-the-world trips by sea. There weren't many ways to travel behind the Iron Curtain, so Luben befriended a captain from the Bulgarian Merchant Navy and persuaded him to let him sail with them. In return, he had to create an exhibition of the works from the voyage and donate them to the navy for free. But it turned out that, administratively, the position of “artist” could not be listed on the crew's payroll. And so he formally joined as a cook. He came back with hundreds of drawings and paintings from Africa, India, Thailand and Cuba. From the austere confines of printmaking and our grey, socialist, everyday life, he started experimenting with colour, techniques and materials. After the Eastern Bloc’s collapse, he took up social themes.

NB: The turbulent changes in the Eastern Bloc were so implosive that suddenly, it felt as if the whole world through which Luben had travelled had gathered in his homeland – the good and the bad, ostentatious wealth and extreme poverty. Thugs, beggars and common charlatans popped up as new heroes, and Luben interpreted this reality with a combination of techniques and materials – from boxes found in the trash, through classic oil and acrylic, to digital installations. For him, there was no medium that couldn't be used or combined with another. Sofia is an eclectic city that is difficult to aestheticise, but he embarked on this adventure and captured the spirit of the time in a genuine way.

The screen adventures of Ray and Luben actually provide a fresh view of a free-spirited life in totalitarian times. Is this a paradox?
Not really, because freedom is always a matter of personal attitude, and no political regime can change that. Luben was free inside, so he found his own way to deal with the circumstances in all systems and make his art the way he wanted.

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