Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 1 
20 Jan

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Letter to America (Pismo do Amerika, 2002) directed by Iglika Triffonova and produced by Rossitza Valkanova PRODUCER PROFILE
Letter from Bulgaria
Bulgarian producer Rossitza Valkanova interviewed

Igor Pop Trajkov talks to one of Europe's few female producers about working with foreign co-producers, why the Scandinavians may have the best system and the fate of films that don't boost popcorn sales.

Following her graduation from the film and theatre direction department of the Krsto Sarafov National Academy for Theatre and Film in Sofia, Bulgaria, Rossitza Valkanova made the transition to film production. She has proved herself to be one of the most prominent female film producers in central and eastern Europe. All her films have been screened at numerous prestigious film festivals, as is the case with the short film Glineni khora (Clay People, dir Pavlina Ivanova, 2000) and the Bulgarian/Dutch/Hungarian co-production Pismo do Amerika (Letter to America, dir 2001). She spoke to Kinoeye at last year's Skopje film festival.

When you started your job, were you afraid that it would be a tough one? Where do you find it easier to work as a film producer—eastern or western Europe?

I started entirely by chance. I am a film director by trade. As you know, the world changed in 1991 to 92; the studios in Bulgaria, like those in other parts of eastern Europe, were transformed from state-owned companies into something else. My professor of film direction, Georgy Djulgerov, a famous Bulgarian director, had formed a new studio and he was looking for a manager. This was, to a certain degree, a new profession for Bulgaria. He offered me this position because he knew that I speak foreign languages fluently and that I was capable of organising things—and, of course, because we had similar views about various things. I worked there for three and a half years.

At the time, Bulgaria faced a growing need for professional producers, because a lot of things had changed in the system—such as the former state-owned cinema network, the state-ruled film industry etc. A need for independent producers emerged, because there were no such professionals in Bulgaria. So, many people, and many directors, started organising production themselves and became film-producers; former so-called "directors of production" (a kind of executive in the socialist system) were also in their way becoming producers. My colleagues and I gathered together, looking for a suitable person for the position of film-producer—a person that could look after finances and projects It suddenly occurred to me that, as I had previous experience as a manager, I could do this job. I can really say that it was them who made me a producer and stimulated me to stay in this profession.

Whether it is easier or harder to be a producer in eastern or western Europe I couldn't tell you, because I have never produced anything in western Europe. My impression as an outside observer is that every country has its own difficulties. If for us it is difficult, for example, to collect one million, for them is also very difficult to collect ten. But in western Europe they have to make films with ten times as much money.

On the other hand, we're talking of a clash of two systems, two ways of thinking; the problem is not whether it is or it isn't difficult to collect money. I think that, as time went by, I figured out that the most important thing is that we should influence the system of film-making. The fact that we have to take an interest in laws, rules, administration problems is not a very pleasant thing for us, but these problems are our problems and we must deal with them. I wish that, in 20 years' time, no one will have to be interested in these matters.

Your country was one of the countries in the former Communist block; what were the bad and the good things then and now? What are the difficulties for the producers due to the change of the system?

Like I said before, this theme dealing with social systems does not interest me a lot. That would be a long conversation, one that is not connected with the theme of cinema. If we try to make an analysis of the economical, political or social system before the changes and now, if we look at what was in the papers then, we see that the same things were happening in the realm of film: the whole society was changing, so filmmaking was changing too. I can't make a direct comparison, as I wasn't working as a producer then. The profession of film producer only appeared in my country after 1990; someone else can draw this comparison much better.

What is the role of the national funds, national film centres and national television companies? Is it good that they exist at all, or do you believe that they represent a monopoly and that they do not have a positive influence on the creativity of the filmmakers? What is the situation in Bulgaria?

In Bulgaria, there is a national film centre that is financed by the state. A fraction of the budget of the Ministry of Culture is allotted to this centre. Our national television company also has a centre for film production that, by law, has to allocate a part of its budget to film production. And that is almost all the money available for financing. This money is highly insufficient.

The system that governs the working of the national film centre isn't functioning, because in these hard economic times, when the whole state is in an economic crisis, it is normal to expect that there is not enough money in the budget for film-making. So we are hoping that a few public funds will be created for financing films. The first reason is to be independent from the state. And the second reason is to have greater versatility in the selection process, when choosing which projects are going to be supported by the state.

When there is only one place to go and that place has little money, tensions are unavoidable. It is clear that there cannot be enough money for everyone. The same applies to the selection process: no matter how democratic we try to make it, there are always some non-democratic options. It is better to have more organizations of this sort, because that is the way to avoid misuse. There is a commission of—I think—seven people that make decisions about everything. No matter how good they are at their job, they will always have a certain attitude towards the applicants. So it is important to have enough finances that can be handed out by different organizations. If producers know that there are different organizations, they will certainly be stimulated to prepare more projects, because they will have more faith in the possibility that these organizations are more impartial. Of course, that will stimulate creativity as well. The biggest obstacle in the face of creativity is the lack of opportunities to express yourself.

The reputation of the Bulgarian film is very high, at least among foreign partners. The system of financing domestic cinema through co-productions is very good and, also, everybody says that there are excellent Bulgarian teams that can match foreign, western standards. How did you achieve that?

Unfortunately, I cannot give you any advice, because I don't have much experience with that. The connection goes something like this: foreign companies come [to Bulgaria] on the look-out for teams. They come because it is cheaper, but also because there is a base for production. One of the bases is, for example, the Bojana studio. Bojana has technical equipment, a laboratory... That's how it is possible to close the cycle of the production: because there are foreign co-productions, there is this technical base—and because there are these co productions, the level of professionalism in the film-teams is kept high, because they are working with some of the best colleagues in the world. And the fact that the teams are on such a high professional level makes foreign film companies come back [with more work].

This is a lucky development for us, because in these circumstances when the national film production is so limited, this is the only way one can keep working. The biggest crisis was in 1997 to 98 when not a single Bulgaria film was made. Teams, crews would have been destroyed if it weren't for these foreign co-productions. For example, there were people like lighting-designers and, because there wasn't work for them, they had to open pubs. These people cannot return to being good film professionals; they have simply given up their profession. A lot of film people are no longer in our profession simply because they cannot survive.

What is your experience of working on co-productions? I see that for your latest film, Pismo do Amerika," you have enlisted a number of foreign co-producers. And what is the difference between producers from Eastern and Western Europe? Are you satisfied with the result ? What do you think about Eurimages and distribution of films worldwide?

Pismo do Amerika is a good-example. I am convinced that, besides the people I have hired to work on the film and my energy, the fortunate thing is that I have a lot of co-producers from Holland, Hungary, and the chance to have access to CD [French distributors Celluloid Dreams] and to Eurimages for distribution support. The main reason we managed to gather all this was the film itself, the idea. People simply liked its originality. If people cannot see this originality, if there is not enough quality in the material, nothing can help you.

The idea dates back to 1996; we looked for producers in many countries and had many meetings, but not everyone wanted to invest in the project; it was not easy. I received the first expression of genuine interest during the festival in Manheim, where I met my producers from Holland. It was another case of thinking about the same things in the same way, which is very important. I also met the selector of CD, Roby Muller, who immediately liked the idea. Personal contact is very important; is impossible to achieve anything just by sending ideas by mail. In my experience, that is the only way to find a partner. That was very good for the future of the film. When foreign co-producers said yes, it was much easier to get money from domestic funds and Bojana accepted the project.

I found our Hungarian partner entirely by chance. I had been trying to find a third party for a long time; all I had found were people that kept saying yes, yes... and then disappeared. I was very lucky with the Hungarian side. Then Euroimages said yes and our national television company said yes. We also received a lot of help from Bojana, especially on the technical side.

It was all done in view of the distribution, ie the reason why I was looking for co-producers was to ensure as wide a distribution as possible. For eastern European film-makers is not so important whether the film is good but that traditionally we are kind of isolated, no-one knows where we are, etc. And when you have co-producers it is much easier to distribute your film. And also there is not enough continuity in Bulgarian cinema for people to be able to remember us that well. So in the case of this film, Pismo do Amerika, we were very lucky. We were a persistent and friendly team, that's why we achieved all this. Through the Dutch co-producers we got to one of the most important distributors Celluloid Dreams, a French company, which handles non-mainstream films. That's why the film had such a large distribution—in America, at festivals etc, because CD took it.

In spite of this, it can not be denied how unjust the reception was, because if this film hadn't been from Bulgaria it would have been much more popular in television circles, at festivals and with juries. Those were also reactions in the press worldwide that the film received second-rate treatment. As one Canadian film reviewer said, it all happened because this film doesn't sell popcorn. In Montreal, the film didn't receive any awards, but it would have been good if it had. It is different if you can say: "This is a Bulgarian film with an award from Montreal." If you just say "this is a Bulgarian film," it doesn't mean much for some people. In spite of good reviews and the reaction of the audience, the film was kind of ignored, which was repeated on several later occasions.

In Bulgaria, we won pretty much all the awards—which was a first, as before we did that the tradition was for all the film-makers to share the awards. And although the film was, and has been, showing for a long time in our cinemas, I cannot say that there is enough of an audience, because there is no real tradition of watching domestic films [in Bulgaria]. I think that in Serbia, for example, there is a greater tradition of watching domestic films. However, this situation changed in the case of Pismo do Amerika, because there was a large enough audience to keep the film on the repertoire of cinemas.

In my experience, the best way to help our national cinema recover is to produce more films. It is not enough to produce only three films a year and expect that all of them will be brilliant or they will safeguard our tradition in the eyes of the world. If we were present in cinemas across the world all the time, these audiences would begin to show some more interest in our films.

Apart from that, it is very hard to discuss the unification of small national film traditions so that they can help each other, because there simply is not enough production. The Scandinavian approach is a good model, I believe. They also have small national film-making traditions, but their funding and distribution networks are united. Maybe that is the right way for us.

So, you think that regional collaboration is very important for the production and distribution of films from this region?

Yes, of course.

Tell us what inspired you for Pismo do Amerika ? How did you prepare the screenplay?

Every time is different. The main principle for me is to work with people that have the same taste as I do. And also with people with whom I share the same view on life. It's not possible to work well with people that have very different points of view from you. It is important to work with partners, with people that share your thoughts.

I noticed that you always work with almost the same crew; this is also true of your documentaries such as Glineni khora

That's true. Also, I like to work with young people and help them, like I did with the film Glineni khora. People like Nenad Boroević, who is a director of photography student from Macedonia—I hired him for my documentary. I also liked the student work of the woman who directed it [Paulina Ivanova]. And she already had some financing [for the project], because she had won a competition that we have in our country aimed at supporting productions.

Finally, tell us what it is like to be a woman-producer—is it more difficult?

I don't know, I've never been a man. I make no distinction, for me it is the same.

Igor Pop Trajkov

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About the author

Igor Pop Trajkov is a critic and film director based in Skopje. His articles have appeared in Macedonian publications such as Puls and Ekran and his films include shorts, documentary work and advertising.

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