What did it mean to be part of the International Jury of SIFF?
It was a great honor to be invited to join the SIFF jury, especially with one of modern day cinemas greatest auteurs, Christi Puiu, as our president. I am a passionate about the invaluable and imperative cultural gift of emerging filmmakers, so it was especially exciting to experience the new voices and visions presented at SIFF.
What were your expectations before coming and to what extent did they differentiate to what happened?
I have dear friends and colleagues who have attended SIFF in the past, and they have all expressed what a wonderful and unique Festival it is. Especially noted is how the Director, Stefan Kitanov, and the Managing Director, Mira Staleva, take special care amidst their busy schedules to make sure the filmmakers and guests of the Festival are really welcomed and experience Sofia not just as a Festival but also a City with so many cultural treasures to discover.
With 13 features and 12 shorts to view, it was a busy Jury schedule, of course. But Stefan, Mira, and their guest host teams really made sure we got to have experiences and share time at local places that made us feel like members of the SIFF family, and not just visitors. Strolling through the City center, as Stefan shared stories with us about its history – and his, as a young musician- was an especially lovely time. He is such a hospitable gentleman, and with such a great passion for what Sofia has to offer – not just in Film, but in all cultural areas. It made such a beautiful difference to us all that such care was taken to personalize our experience of Sofia.
Which was your biggest challenge as a member of this jury?
Film is by nature a subjective experience for every viewer, so the biggest challenge for any Jury is to make sure an environment is nurtured wherein each Jurors feelings and thoughts can be expressed openly and honestly- from the heart, and not just academically. Each of the 5 Jurors came from different backgrounds in film, and had different perspectives and levels of expertise in a variety of areas in cinema. And all of us truly respected each other’s contributions and insights throughout the Jury process. So as a diverse collective who come together to support emerging filmmakers, what was wonderful was that we really functioned as a rich mosaic bonded together equally by our love of and respect for the passionate works and brave offerings of the story-tellers.
Was there anything that you didn't expect or something that surprised you very much during the festival?
It made me very happy to see the fantastic support of the Sofia audiences for these 1st and 2nd time filmmakers. Every screening we attended for their films was packed! That surprised me, as too often new or unknown filmmakers find it difficult to attract an audience from the general public. And the demographics ranged from teens and young adults to people of their grandparents age - which was really beautiful to witness as 3 generations shared the experience of the films together. Once I gave up my aisle seat to a polite elderly lady who came in just as the lights went down as she was too shy to ask anyone to stand up or disturb their viewing experience as she couldn’t see an easily available seat in the darkened cinema, and was about to leave, thinking the screening was too full. It was my second time viewing the film, so I actually enjoyed watching it from another area of the cinema. And when the film ended, I watched this lady as the credits rolled. She had tears in her eyes. I wish I could have told the filmmaker what a gift had been offered this woman.
What is your vision of the festival compared to other festivals that you’ve been to?
As an actress, I’ve attended many Festivals with my films - from A-list Fests such as Cannes, Berlin, Karlovy Vary, Venice and TIFF, for example, as well as many more Independent focused Festivals worldwide – such as Sundance (which I’ve presented 7 films at, for example), and my favorite Indie or ‘Discovery’ Fest in Germany, the Oldenburg International Film Fest, which the international trades such as The Hollywood Reporter and Variety have nicknamed “the European Sundance”.
I’ve also been either a Jury member or President at various Festivals in more than 10 countries, and am also a Program Consultant for an International Film Festival. So one could say I am a true supporter of all Film Festivals and the people that dedicate their time to offering platforms for both new and established filmmakers and providing opportunities for audiences to experience or rediscover these films that they might not otherwise see in a cinema – or elsewhere, unfortunately.
So with that qualifier, the Sofia International Film Festival was a gem to discover! As I mentioned earlier, the Festival Director, Stefan Kitanov and the Managing Director, Mira Staleva really ensured a fantastic and well-attended program of varied, challenging, and inspiring works, but it is the hospitality with which they embrace the local and international filmmakers and guests that is their unique stamp.
I only wish we’d had more time to take in more of the Festival and the City itself.
Imagine that SIFF is a man. What kind of person is he?
What a fun question! Well, as I respectfully can’t imagine ‘Sofia’ - or any Film Festival representing female filmmakers as well - as a ‘man’, perhaps I’ll just respond to the ‘personality’ qualities I discovered at SIFF: Welcoming, Hospitable, Enigmatic, Vibrant, Dignified, Easy-going, Passionate, Diverse, Discerning, Resilient, Loyal, and an essential voice for and champion of the future of Cinema, especially for rapidly rising young Eastern European filmmakers.
Which is your best memory from the festival?
There are too many! At night, after a full day of screenings, I privately enjoyed stepping out onto my balcony at the Grand Sofia Hotel just to revisit the films I had seen that day (or night). Watching or listening to the din of the local people in the square, I would re-enter the films as I made afterthoughts. I also become quite fond of one musician in the square, as each morning I would hear the sounds of his two favorite pieces -the theme from the “Godfather” and Sinatra’s “My Way” – drifting up and through my open window. It made me smile each day!
So yes, outside of watching the films, any extra time was spent either considering or discussing the films and the present state of cinema. So having SIFF host gatherings at such historic places as Pod Lipite Restaurant was such a delight. I love paintings, and wished I could have seen more of the artists’ works on the streets, but I also love cuisine, and we made a few fantastic discoveries on the streets during our walk breaks, such as the restaurants “Made In Home” and “Made In Blue”.
You presented you film “The Game” at SIFF. What was that like?
Although I’m quite shy and have no interest in discussing my private life except with friends and family, I really love talking one on one with audiences about film. So I was delighted when Stefan decided to program ‘The Game’, as it’s considered not only a cult classic now but, according to critics, also one of Fincher’s most underrated and best films. And I was really surprised by the huge turnout by the SIFF audience, especially as it’s a film that plays regularly on TV. So I asked the audience how many had ‘never’ seen the film. Only 4 people. But that was great, as it underscored the true cinema fans that -for most- were seeing this classic film on the big screen for the very first time. And that is an experience you can’t get on your home TV or iPad.
And it was fun to share a few ‘on set’ anecdotes with the audience. Like when I foolishly decided I was brave enough to do my own stunts, and decided to free-fall from quite a height into a garbage dump in one scene. I proudly hit my mark every take, except for the last one when I swung out an inch too far and missed the landing pad. And broke a few bones in my foot. Of course, I was too scared to tell Fincher as he’s such a perfectionist, so I had a doctor wrap my foot, loaded up with aspirin, and did my best to hide my ‘gimpy’ walk…and run. In one ‘climbing’ scene with Michael Douglas, however, you can see me lose my footing …and that was real, so I had to improvise some response to make it seem like my character did it on purpose.
What were the most important characteristics while watching and rating the films?
We as a Jury really focused on the love of the human condition that was put into each of the films. It takes a lot of bravery and a true reverence for humanity for any filmmaker to unapologetically share his or her own unique perspective of what he or she has experienced or feels a connection to. And of course, that love extends to the filmmakers’ understanding of or respect for cinema history, and the great storytellers that have paved the way for new generations- with content and form- especially with ever advancing technology. Unfortunately, in times when nearly everyone has access to a camera (be it even on an iphone), there is a plethora of ‘video cowboys’ who seem to think pushing ‘record’ qualifies them a ‘filmmaker’. And because of the short attention span of audiences who either ‘binge watch’ on Netflix or attend only ‘Tentpole’ films like Disney or Marvel, for example, ‘film’ has become what poetry is to prose. And it’s a huge challenge that filmmakers have to face as they create a visually driven story within a time-restricted format that offers no ‘sequel’ nor CGI multi million-dollar escapism.
Tell us more about teaming up with the other members of the jury and your communication with them. What are your impressions of them and how would you describe their perception of cinema?
As I mentioned, it was a joy to have the extraordinary Christi Puiu as our Jury President. I think we all fell in love with his heart, mind, and way of seeing. It was such a very positive spirited jury. Manfred Schmidt is a gentleman and scholar. Importantly, he is very open-minded with a wonderful grasp of cinema history. Angela Nedjalkova was an absolute delight! Everyone appreciated her direct and uncensored honesty, humor, and passion. Eliza Petkova is extremely considerate, and especially as an important emerging new voice in cinema herself, her perspective further enriched considerations of the challenges new filmmakers face. For myself, whether I personally like a film or not as an individual, it has no bearing on my role as a juror whose duty is to be able to objectively as possible evaluate the intentions of the filmmakers, and how close he or she came to fulfilling their objective. I can’t speak for my fellow jurors, except that we shared a perspective of cinema’s invaluable contribution socially and culturally – and extended our love and respect to each film.
Did you use some evaluation system in your mind to facilitate the final choice? What were the most important characteristics while watching and rating the films?
Obviously, there are so many factors that go into experiencing and evaluating a film. And every director has a different focus and/or strength. So we made certain to focus on the strengths and gifts each filmmaker offered.
All films are subjective and – like a Persian carpet- existing beautifully with natural imperfections. We watched all the films together as a unit. And as understandably tough and challenging as many of them were, we loved sharing and focusing on the positive and powerful aspects that each film offered. There wasn’t a single film we weren’t grateful to have watched, especially as each filmmaker inspired great conversions. And this importantly includes the Short-Format filmmakers, which I have a real soft spot for, as their efforts are really underrepresented – and especially in their case, the adage “it’s not the duration but the intensity” really applies.
How were the discussions between the jury going and what kind of controversy did you came across during the evening of final discussions of the awards?
We discussed the films daily, and found unique qualities in each of them. Stefan joked on stage that we had the longest Jury meeting in SIFF history, however that should be taken as a compliment to the filmmakers and the curators at SIFF! We could have easily written a few specific lines about every feature and short we watched, as we wanted to let the filmmakers know the highlights of their films that resonated with us. As our Jury President, Christi Piui, shared to the filmmakers at the Awards Ceremony, “it’s ultimately not about Awards”… as we really wanted to encourage each filmmaker to keep on their path and continue to refine and develop their skills. We could have honored each film with a unique Award. There just weren’t enough. And it was painful for us to not to be able to share the love we felt for each.
What were the common features of the films you’ve watched? Were there any predominant themes, characters or moods that you can distinguish among all of them?
The most common thing we noticed, was that in these times of audiences obsessed with ‘Binge-watching’ boundary-pushing TV series and big-budget ‘Tentpole’ movies, it felt like some younger directors were hesitant to trust the oxygen and intimacy that cinema can classically offer. We absolutely loved it when the filmmakers were brave enough just to let a moment or character ‘be’…we didn’t need crazy plot twists or sudden ‘shock value’ drama to hold our attention. In fact, it often took us temporarily out of the otherwise authentic story they were telling. And we were very responsive to the filmmakers who, in particular, showed respect for the full dimensions of characters – especially characters who could have been dismissed as one dimensional and ‘objectified’ as such. That’s why the word ‘love’ was used by us so often in our discussions- love of humanity. In all its naked and often unpleasant glory.
It was also noted throughout, that an understanding of the technical language of cinema –especially as it pertains to the use of the camera, is an art form and skill that really shines through when it is used most thoughtfully to articulate points of view and not just to exist as a ‘cool shot’ unmotivated by the story.
In your mind, what is the Balkan cinema missing the most?
It was very clear that there is a wealth of emerging filmmakers from the Balkans with exciting and fresh perspectives to share. All that is missing is the opportunity for their voices and visions to be heard and supported. That’s why SIFF is more important than ever, as it offers not only a local platform but also an international platform for these filmmakers who will be the voice of the future.
Anything to add?
Questions Danislava Delcheva