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Taking Bulgarian Cinema on the Road: An Interview With Director Konstantin Bojanov

Walking around New York, London or Paris, if you offered someone 100 dollars, pounds or euros to name just one Bulgarian film or director, you'd likely still have the money in your pocket after an hour of trying. Of course, this fact has nothing to do with a lack of productivity or talent in contemporary Bulgarian cinema.

And with “Avé”, the feature film debut by director Konstantin Bojanov, Bulgarian cinema's profile is likely to be raised higher, as audiences discover a deeply personal and finely crafted tale that's part road movie, part love story and part coming-of-age story all rolled into one. And so much more.

A French-Bulgarian co-production, it tells the story of a young art college student Kamen, who is trying to hitchhike from Sofia to Ruse. On the road, he meets 17-year-old Avé, a beautiful and mysterious runaway girl. But Avé is a compulsive liar, and with each ride they hitch, her lies proceed to get them deeper and deeper into trouble.

In July, Avé received the Special Jury Prize and the Cineuropa award at the 17th Sarajevo Film Festival, and recently picked up the Elfe award at this year's Hamburg Film Festival. This week, Polish audiences responded enthusiastically when it screened at the Warsaw Film Festival, where I spoke to Mr. Bojanov about his film.
 
Ave (2011) dir. Konstantin Bojanov 

Robert Bodrog: You were born in Bulgaria and now you live in New York. How long have you lived there?

Konstantin Bojanov: Going on 15 years.

RB: Tell me about your film career. How did you get started? 

KB: My background is in art. And I continue to work as a fine artist. Films and video pieces I've been making for the last 12, 13 years. And Avé is my first feature length fiction film. Prior to Avé, I had a documentary called “Invisible” which I shot in Bulgaria over a long period of time. It deals with the drug addition of six young people. I followed them over a period of three and a half years, and it's an observational documentary, it's not a social film. It doesn't deal with the social issues of why one becomes a drug addict. Basically, I wanted to give these six young people a platform, to voice their own views of the world that surrounds them, rather than the other way around.

RB: What kind of movies did you watch growing up in Bulgaria in the 1970s and 1980s? Did you get to see many contemporary Hollywood movies in the cinemas or on television, or western European films?

KB: In some ways, I had just as easy access to art house films in a small city like Sofia, as I have in New York nowadays. The art school that I attended was right across the street from the main cinematheque, and I spent years sometimes watching two or three films a day. Hollywood films, for good or bad, were not as readily available. So I grew up pretty much on movies from the 60s and 70s, both from the nouvelle vague and Italian neo-realism, the German new wave. And it seems they vastly influenced my view on film, because to this day I feel very inspired by the type of story telling the cinema of the 70s engaged with.

RB: Avé is your first feature film as a director. Although the story is set in contemporary Bulgaria, the premise, the subject matter transcends nationality or even culture. The main characters are easy to identify with. The film could just as easily have been set in Brazil, Japan or the United States. However, you chose to shoot it in Bulgaria. Why was that? Because it was a personal story?
 
KB: Two reasons. Ironically, I was developing for a New York based producer a contemporary adaptation of “Crime and Punishment” to take place in Brooklyn, New York. And at the time, I realized that it would probably take way too long, (1) to end up with a decent script based on such an enormous book; and (2) that financing it as a first feature would be difficult. And I was sitting in a bar with a friend of mine, a producer, and he suggested, why don't you write something simple that's based on your own life, and produce it cheaply in Bulgaria. So that was the initial idea behind it. That's how the project started. The autobiographical elements in this film are two. One, is when I was in my late teens, last year in art school, one of my best friends committed suicide. On a Friday we went to see “Easy Rider”, of all movies, and on Monday morning he was dead. So I set out to hitchhike to the funeral, [but] missed the funeral, and it was the first time in my life that I had to confront death, the idea of death, and also the outcome of someone dying at such an age. I guess my friend and I shared one thing, which was we glorified people, artists, writers who burned like a match, who died young. However, having to face the grief stricken family of my friend at the time really sobered me up and it was a life changing event. And the girl, she was inspired by a runaway girl that I knew in my late teens that just appeared at my doorstep one night, and who, without intending it or even knowing it, effected my life profoundly.

RB: Tell me about the production process on Avé. How long did you work on this project? What was the timeline from when you wrote the script to when you actually started shooting? And tell me about your co-writer.

KB: The script was co-written with a longtime collaborator of mine, Arnold Barkus, a New York based writer/director. From writing the first draft, to the first day of principal photography, I would say two and a half years. 

RB: What was the original budget?

KB: The budget we were aiming for, I believe, was somewhere around 700,000 to 800,000 euros. And after my French producer finding it basically impossible to find funding for a first time feature film [set] in Bulgaria, and the very limited options for funding, then we switched strategy. We received a small production subsidy from the Bulgarian National Film Fund of 300,000 euros. Then I put in 100,000 in the film of my own personal money. My Bulgarian producer invested in cash and services another 50,000 and we were able to finish the film with the pre-sale we made to Le Pacte, the French international sales and distribution company.

RB: So, in the end, what was the final budget?

KB: The final budget, including final post production of all deliverables, came to about 600,000 euros.
 
Ave (2011) dir. Konstantin Bojanov 

RB: The lead actors in your film, Ovanes Torosian and Angela Nedyalkova, are great, and make a very compelling screen couple. Was this their first time acting in a film? Where did you find them?

KB: Angela, I had briefly seen in another film. 

RB: Another Bulgarian film?

KB: Another Bulgarian film. She had a very brief appearance. And there was something about her that I really liked. I first called her in for a small part, as one of the junkies. And then I immediately liked her. It took a while, not only to track her down, but also to convince her to do the film. With Ovanes, I met him in the very beginning, when I was still working on the script, because I knew how crucial it was for me to have the right cast. I had seen him very early on, when he was still a student at the National Film School. This is not his first acting role, but this is his first lead role. He had a part in another Bulgarian film that I liked very much, called “Eastern Plays”. And since, he has been in a number of films. 

RB: Have you found a distributor yet for European or North American distribution, or elsewhere?

KB: We have distribution in Bulgaria, France, Switzerland, the U.K., and two other countries are pending. In March 2012, first the film is being released simultaneously in Bulgaria, France and Switzerland, and then in the U.K., right after.

RB: Well, thanks for taking time to talk with me. And best of luck with Avé.


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