How did a short film about a Bulgarian “highway” prostitute, which was rejected by all film festivals become a revered cult classic! We are talking to the film’s director/writer duo Andrey Volkashin and Peter Vulchev.
CULT CRITTER: It seems like it is hard to talk about “Shhh… Sing to me!” without mentioning the specific cultural phenomenon that inspired the film, the controversial but super popular music genre in the Balkans – the Turbo-Folk, Pop-Folk or as it is most commonly called in Bulgaria, the “Chalga”. The musical style that arguably started with iconic Yugoslav singer Lepa Brena spread its roots in Bulgaria and flourished there into a music industry that divides the nation to this day. There is no middle ground with Chalga, people either love it or hate it. Were you aware of this when you started writing “Shhh… Sing to me!”
PETER VULCHEV: For me, there is no way to talk about this so-called “Chalga phenomenon” in Bulgaria without looking at the origin of it. During the socialist era, Bulgaria was completely closed for over fifty years! And then during the transition people suddenly realized they missed out on this entire world of pop culture – musical styles, fashion, cinema, and television, and suddenly, in ten years people tried to make up for it all… And these were the years when I was growing up! So the borders opened and a wave of western culture flooded us! Suddenly we could watch anything we wanted, even porn! “Baywatch” became the most popular show on TV and Pamela Anderson became a symbol of the ideal woman and the next thing you see, all Bulgarian singers wanted to look like her. But it was not only the western culture we craved, but we also started translating Serbian, Greek, and Turkish hits into Bulgarian. Latin American telenovelas became insanely popular on TV as well. So growing up in this cultural revolution I met a lot of girls like Veska – the main character in “Shhh… Sing to me!” and when we started writing the project, about “a small-town girl with big dreams” in Bulgarian context, all of this just came naturally!
ANDREY VOLKASHIN: Yeah, the idea was never like “hey, no one has made a film about pop-folk before, let’s do it”…
We just wanted to make a comedy and when you make a comedy in the Balkans, you can’t avoid the rich inspiration from the absurdities that surround us. But as soon as we started working on it, we knew this was something that no one had done before!
CULT CRITTER: How is a film like that made in Bulgaria? Did you receive any production grant from the national funding institutions or did you come up with some other way to finance the project?
ANDREY VOLKASHIN: We came up with the story of the film while I was shooting my graduate project and back then, somehow we knew this was a project we had to do on our own, to find a way to make it independently, with our investment. I guess it was pretty clear that the National Film Center will probably not support this kind of project.
PETER VULCHEV: We made the film with the enthusiasm and collective effort of a lot of really nice and really talented people! So we financed it ourselves! And this allowed us to be truly independent! If the film happened to have some state funding, we would have had to make some compromises with the freedom of our expression. Back then, at the beginning of our careers, we didn’t even realize how important and rare it was to have this kind of freedom! I guess thanks to this the film turned out to be so authentic and consequently so popular! It was the first Bulgarian short film to have regular screenings at cinema theaters and that was just incredible!
ANDREY VOLKASHIN: I must say the process was stressful and yet, so heartwarming! So many people reached out to help because they were nice people of course and they knew how hard it is to be an emerging filmmaker in Bulgaria, but also because they really liked the idea!
CULT CRITTER: What inspired you to take matters into your own hands and distribute the film yourselves?
ANDREY VOLKASHIN: The film turned out to be 36 min long which falls into the category of a medium-length film, really, and that’s pretty much suicide in short film distribution as there is rarely a festival that accepts films longer than 30 min, but even if they accept longer films in theory, in reality, it is exceedingly rare to program a film that goes over half an hour.
PETER VULCHEV: Also the people that took part in the project were really impatient to see it, so after the first festival rejections we said, okay, we organize a premiere by ourselves, at one of the theaters in Sofia and we do our best to promote the film as much as possible and open the doors to anyone who wants to come and see it.
CULT CRITTER: Do you think the rejection by festivals has to do with the strong regional setting of the film that makes it harder to understand by curators outside of the region?
PETER VULCHEV: I think even if the film was 15 min long, of course – it would have had a better chance to enter festivals but it wasn’t going to be a festival hit in Europe.
Film festivals here simply don’t appreciate comedy, especially a colorful slapstick comedy like this one. They all think short films or cinema in general needs to be dead-serious, and may I say, not very entertaining.
CULT CRITTER: Did you think about releasing the film online at some point?
ANDREY VOLKASHIN: I think we were very stupid about this! We released the trailer of course, but we never thought about an online premiere! I guess we were taught to believe that the place of a film is only in the theaters, which I see now with everything happening this year, was a very stupid standpoint. I mean, of course, I love the cinema theater and nothing beats this experience, but at the end of the day, cinema is an experience inside of you and all you need is a screen!
So what happened was, someone, uploaded a pirated copy of the film on YouTube, without English subtitles, very bad quality – and by the time we found out about it, the film already had over 100,000 views… But of course, we had to report it, so at that moment we realized that we should have had a plan for an online premiere as well!
CULT CRITTER: What was the reaction of critics and curators in Bulgaria?
PETER VULCHEV: Well the film community in Bulgaria was very polarized. Some of them got it and loved it, but a good portion of the older generation could not distinguish the film from the subculture it portrayed. For them a film that features characters who like “chalga” is “chalga” and that’s it, there’s no artistic value there.
CULT CRITTER: But the audience had a very different reaction?
PETER VULCHEV: Oh the best! We became stars for a while! We even made it to the cover of a few magazines! Practically all TV stations called us for interviews! I was riding the subway with Andrey one night when two girls approached us and said “are you guys the directors of Shhh… Sing to me?!” and then we said, yes, and they smiled and said we were brilliant!
ANDREY VOLKASHIN: It was so wonderful to have a person you don’t know to approach you and tell you something like that!
CULT CRITTER: So to go back to the premiere, you didn’t charge any tickets at first, you just invited guests and had doors wide open for whoever wants to come and see the film?
ANDREY VOLKASHIN: Yes! What we were hoping for was enough people to show up to fill up the theater.
PETER VULCHEV: But then, so many people came, practically one-third of the guests could not even get in to see the screening, and half of the people were standing around the seats! It was insane! I mean we expected, or I personally had this feeling that there might be more people than what we hoped for but this was way beyond my expectations!
ANDREY VOLKASHIN: And then, the best feeling was, when all of these people start laughing at the same time, the whole theater roaring with laughter, and you are sweating and nervous but then you see they are laughing at the right places and for the right reasons, I mean, it made me want to make comedies for the rest of my life! That was one of the happiest days of my life!
PETER VULCHEV: So after the premiere, the director of the cinema offered us to include the film in the repertoire and we had screenings every day for the whole summer!
ANDREY VOLKASHIN: So, to our great surprise, we started selling tickets! They were half the price of a regular ticket, but still, people were buying tickets to watch a short film and that was something we never expected! And then some other cinemas started calling us and asking for the film.
CULT CRITTER: Was this an advantage for the next steps in your careers? I imagine having such a hit should theoretically open some doors?
ANDREY VOLKASHIN: Yeah, you would think so, but in the Balkans, things work differently. When we realized that we had these two amazing characters set against the Bulgarian pop-folk-colored countryside, we thought we had amazing material for TV series or a feature film franchise. Because we had just opened the door to this previously unexplored, very fertile ground for comedy, and we already had an audience craving for more, we thought, well, let’s approach broadcasters and pitch our idea to them. And we wrote series bibles and treatments for ten episodes and ideas for the second season, but it turned out, no matter how big of an audience you have, Bulgarian TV decides what people will watch, and not the other way around. So it was very hard to penetrate this wall, and once we realized that, we said, okay, let’s start with a feature film.
But then, the National Film Center in Bulgaria, which has a committee of ten experts who evaluate your project, was as polarized as the first cinema critics when the film came out in Bulgaria. Some of them got the idea of the project immediately and gave it high scores, but then others, didn’t get it at all, and a few fanatic ones were not even delicate in expressing how much they hated our project about “hookers and faggots”. So, overall, this was quite disappointing.
PETER VULCHEV: So me and Andrey we moved on with other projects! But even then, having made this cult short movie like “Shhh… Sing to me!” was not a huge advantage! Because, how do you put that in your CV?
Generally film funds, film labs, and residencies they are all asking what festivals did your short film go to, nobody asks you how many people saw it!
ANDREY VOLKASHIN: Exactly… I made three more short films after Shhh… Sing to me! And they all traveled to festivals and won awards, but I never experienced anything like with Shhh…. Sing to me! I mean then, people were coming to the theater dressed like their favorite characters to watch the film one more time before they went to a theme party!
PETER VULCHEV: Maybe now in the Netflix era things would finally start changing! Maybe short films will get the appreciation they deserve! The form of the short film should theoretically prove to be a great advantage!
CULT CRITTER: Where are you professionally at the moment?
PETER VULCHEV: I co-founded a production company in Sofia and I am moving forward with a couple of feature film projects, both fiction, documentary, and hybrid. I really want to make films that portray the beauty of life the way I see it! After “Shhh… Sing to me!” I shot a short documentary called “A Monologue in the Intermission” which has so far screened in official competition at 33 festivals and won 5 awards; and now we just completed my latest fiction short film, called “Goodnight, Lily” which is about an old lady who is trying to face her fear of death.
ANDREY VOLKASHIN: I recently moved to Berlin to do postgraduate training in Screenwriting and producing TV series, which I am really, really excited about. My first feature film project was recently approved a production grant by the Macedonian Film Agency, and I am just thrilled and grateful about this!
CULT CRITTER: Congratulations! Finally, is there any chance we might see more of Veska and Beba in the future?
PETER VULCHEV: I would love to work in that colorful, glittery world again! For sure! And I see it as a series! I mean, these characters you fall in love with right away and there is so much to tell about them, put them in all sorts of crazy situations! Serial storytelling gives an opportunity for a story to expand and also for the actors to really dive into these characters, and of course, now is the era of the series and the stories of Veska and Beba would fit wonderfully there!
ANDREY VOLKASHIN: It is a matter of time, but in my heart, Veska and Beba are still very much alive and I am sure there will be the right time and place to get back together with Peter and the wonderful actresses Sofia Bobcheva and Silviya Stanoeva who play Veska and Beba and to continue the magic we started!