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Thirst for Life

The eighth interview of the series FemGems in the Arts. Featuring writer/director/actress/producer Svetla Tsostsorkova.

FemGem in the Arts #8 Svetla Tsotsorkova

What made you pursue a career in the Arts?

I still wonder how I got into the National Film and Theatre Academy. Just a month before the exams I thought that Kurosawa is a brand of Japanese motorcycles. I remember that there were applicants who were talking about Tarkovsky and Dostoevsky. That shocked me. Then, I realized that all they knew was that Dostoevsky had a beard and Tarkovsky has made very complex films.

One night during the exams I saw “Stalker”. There were only particular sounds and images that remained in my head after I watched the movie. But I realized that film making is exactly that — capturing human emotions and transforming them into images and sounds. In that night, I didn’t understand anything from “Stalker”, but I thought it would be very exciting to find that “room, which made your dreams come true”. At first, this transposed only to my film wishes, then it influenced everything. Luckily, I managed to get in.

The visual style of your films is very impressive and unique. Can you share more about that?

The word “style” origins from stylus or stylo. That sharp stick, which helped ancient people write on wood or clay plates. Back then, the handwriting style wasn’t important. What was important was a stable hand, so the message could be neat and could remain for a very long time. This is what we are aiming to do with my DOP Vesselin Hristov. We want to make the shots and their content “visible” enough in the context of the film. There is no particular philosophy in that. In “Thirst”, we sought for the color of the burned grass, and in “Sister” — for the color of the clay with which the characters work. Or, at least, that was our intention. If I go back to the “stylo” — its opposite side was blunt and it served to erase. We also try to write and erase. We hope something will remain after us.

Alexander Benev and Monika Naydenova in Thirst (2015)

Both of your films share similar dramaturgical and visual principles. Do you think you have already found your artistic style?

Don’t make me look at myself in a way I had never before!

The fact that we have already made two films is a miracle. It’s a pleasure for our souls and a total exhaustion for our bodies.

I guess questions like that could be a bit misleading for everyone who is not Fellini. Some directors think that they are “Fellini, Antonioni, and Roman Polanski” at the same time (as the “Manchester, England, England” song goes).

What I do is to search for the stories I would like to tell on screen and to find the right people to help me in that.

Monika Naydenova in “Sister” (2019)

Do you think that you will continue to work in this stylistic direction in your next projects or you might shift to something different in visual style, storytelling and the type of characters you usually create?

It depends on which the next film would be. We have several projects. Usually, when I think that “project one” has a chance to win a grant from the National Film Center or Media Program, it happens that “project two “has surprisingly passed the test. Film project selection committees move in mysterious ways.

In “Thirst”, you describe life in a house quite similar to the house of your grandmother and in “Sister” you said that you used yourself as a prototype for the main character, who is a pathological liar. Can you talk about how you incorporate personal elements in your films?

Every film starts with long talks. I talk and talk and talk… In a particular moment I stop and then Svetoslav Ovtcharov starts to write. In his eyes, I see myself in an unexpected light. It’s so weird that he knows me more than I could imagine.

Svetla Tsotsorkova and Svetoslav Ovtcharov

Is it necessary for you to have a very personal urge behind every project?

There are many ways to make movies. You generally need to find something for yourself in the material. It’s not that difficult — it’s a matter of self-examination. Shakespeare’s plays have been staged for hundreds of years. Despite that, every director tries to find something for himself in them.

It seems that women are the stronger characters in your films. They can deal with difficulties in life better than a man, although they always need one. Is this a deliberate, rational decision or is it rather intuitive?

Among both women and men there are people who are worthy of notice. There are also many faceless people among both women and men. There is no guarantee that a decent person could not lose his or hers self-respect and turn into a typical villain and vice versa.

In my second film “Sister” the male character is rather odious with its natural arrogance. Thanks to his relationship with Raina he goes through a catharsis. He shows that he could be compassionate and human.

Which of your two features was more challenging for you from an artistic, but also a producer’s point of view?

Every film has its difficulties. While I was making my first feature, I feared the things that I didn’t know and in the second one — the things that I already knew.

Elena Zamyarkova in “Sister” (2019)

During the shooting of “Thirst”, the actors and the team looked at me with mistrust. They were expecting a director who insists and imposes. But when they didn’t face such a difficulty, they got absorbed in the film stylistic. Everyone thought that it had all happened naturally and effortlessly and that they all had acted on their own device. But actually, they were all following one direction and it was the direction that I had in mind. It was quite different in “Sister” — the actors trusted me more. I hope that I have proved worthy of their trust.

For “Thirst” we had a small grant but for “Sister” we had nothing. Our main artistic team had to take part in the film without being paid for it. In that sense

“Sister” is the most expensive film that I have ever made because no one can measure the help of dear friends.

How do you usually start your creative process: with a basic idea of the plot, with a vision of a specific character, with a strong visual reference or with a particular feeling that should be present in the film?

In the beginning, there is an incident or a couple of incidents. Then I create the circumstances surrounding those incidents and the characters involved. At some point they start to talk. After that comes the light, the warmth of the characters, the communication between them, the exact filming locations etc. and the world becomes vivid and alive. There comes a moment when I take a look around me and start wondering if I it was really me that had invented all that.

Svetlana Yancheva, Assen Blatechki, Elena Zamyarkova, Monika Naydenova on set during the shooting of “Sister”

How do you manage to motivate and involve your team to work for your vision?

If the participants like the script they usually don’t need other motivation to enter the world of the future film.

Sometimes it takes talking, other times you must demonstrate what you have in mind or to analyze the different elements of the story. Of course, in every film there are people that are interested mainly in the question of what’s for lunch. You can motivate them easily with meatballs.

Which part of the film creating process is most challenging for you — writing, pre-production, working with actors and rehearsals, the actual shooting, postproduction, promotion or something else?

Film promotion is a whole other occupation. There are sales agents for that job. With both of my films, we were lucky to have agents who took good care of them.

Sometimes during the postproduction, you have to make decisions that are changing the film’s fate. It takes a lot of responsibility and consideration. On set, we shoot with small diversions from what we have already planned. I don’t do rehearsals with the actors right before shooting. They are good enough and we have already set the mise-en-scene. In pre-production, I spend a lot of time on location scouting. We carefully scan the locations and we do some tests so we can choose the points of view and the right time for shooting. The time spent during the pre-production is paying back in full during the shooting period. And, of course, the script: in the beginning there was the word.

Which of your personal qualities serve you best and what are the personal weaknesses that you are trying to overcome?

Two years after we had finished “Thirst” and the film had already run its successful festival circuit, I still had doubts and I still wanted to change small things in it. To get rid of that feeling, I made “Sister”. Now, I have the same feelings about the new one.

How are you dealing with hesitations, insecurity and personal fears?

I fear snakes, but I often have to scout for film locations in the middle of nowhere. When the fear is overtaking me, I start clapping and singing with my full voice. That’s how I chase away the snakes and my fear of them. It’s quite the same with filmmaking — you should be able to chase away your fears at the right time.

What can motivate you and what can disappoint you?

Being alive is motivating. To live and breathe is motivating and at the same time — discouraging. That’s how it goes.

In what direction do you want to continue?

When we finished “Thirst” I thought the worst has already passed. Now that we finished “Sister” I know that the hardest part is still ahead of me.

This portray is the 8th one of the FemGems in the Arts series, proudly part of FemGems, whose mission is to boost female entrepreneurship.

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Katerina Lambrinova

Film Critic, Art Journalist, Scriptwriter, Creative Producer, Programmer