The liberating power of a film-poem: Interview with Slava Doycheva

by cultshorts 7 min read 8/01/2021

Writer, director, and actress Slava Doycheva found freedom and healing in creating the wonderfully personal, touching, and poetic short film “Whole”.

CULT CRITTER: Were you always planning to play the lead in “Whole”?

SLAVA DOYCHEVA: No at first I wrote the film with two guys, a gay male story, and I even started casting for that version, and then my producer Ralitza Petrova had an intervention… (laughs) She pointed out that I’m cheating my way into a very personal story and the real film is between two girls! It hit me and I knew, not only is this true, it should be me who should play it. Because, as a director, I am always searching for the person closest to the part, and in this case – that was me. And I had recently acted in a feature film so I felt confident about doing it and felt like if there would be a problem with the film it wouldn’t be my acting (laughs).

CULT CRITTER: Your intuition was totally right to cast yourself as the lead but, isn’t it overwhelming on set when you have to also direct your own screenplay?

SLAVA DOYCHEVA: From my experience, the biggest difficulty with acting/directing was that I couldn’t improvise with the camera, with certain directing decisions on the spot. I think I missed recognizing certain opportunities and that was the price I paid for acting. When you are just a director on set, there are these pockets of time where you can have a glimpse of another, more interesting idea, or another angle, but in this case, we mostly shot what we story-boarded.

CULT CRITTER: “Whole” feels so authentic, it makes me think you were actually at a wedding when you came up with it!

SLAVA DOYCHEVA: I was at a wedding! And the whole event had a big emotional impact on me that wouldn’t go away… Weirdly, the next day after that wedding I got chickenpox … Straight weddings really are dangerous (laughs)! I wrote the script a few months after that, but that was the emotional push!

CULT CRITTER: What exactly did you want to communicate with this film?

SLAVA DOYCHEVA: If I could simply put it in words, I wouldn’t have had to make a film, but… I really wanted to share how I felt, about something that was eating me and was killing me, and I thought, If I feel like that, there must be other people who also feel like that. Or there must be people who have a loved one who feels like me and it would be good if they had some insight into their feelings. I also wanted to speak up, because these topics in our countries are a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and that was very painful to me, it was actually killing me. Like literally. Before I made the film I had health problems one after the other, my body was telling me you cannot go on living like this… And after I made the film, I felt physically lighter, and healthier.

CULT CRITTER: It must take a lot of courage to put something out there that is so deeply personal. Did you fear at any point whether you are going to make it right or whether other people are going to get it?

SLAVA DOYCHEVA: I had many fears. All throughout. And I was afraid I may not do it right and that could be a blow because of the huge personal stakes of coming out publicly. It’s a hindrance to the creative flow but I wanted this film to be perfect. This is something that often happens with queer people. We have this syndrome that we have to be so amazing and faultless as if we have to be perfect so that we could be accepted.

CULT CRITTER: What I find amazing is that you still made the film in the bravest way possible!

SLAVA DOYCHEVA: That was the only way to tackle this fear…

CULT CRITTER: It seems like the best shorts sound and feel like poems, and this is exactly what I felt when I watched “Whole”. What draws you to short film storytelling?

SLAVA DOYCHEVA: I think it’s arrogant of me to say that I am poetic, but I do look for poetry, and the films that I like are more poetry… Especially shorts. Like if it is a painting, it can only be a few lines, but they are enough to feel so much… If I could ever make films like Japanese paintings or haiku, I would be very happy. I certainly try not to fit a feature film into a short. The stories that I wanted to tell, required this format. Sometimes I even wonder if I have longer stories, maybe I don’t have… I mean, it’s possible, I don’t know (laughs). No one would like to see a filmmaker making short films all their life, but you have to stay true to the kind of ideas that you have.

CULT CRITTER: I imagine you are now developing a feature, after a couple of beautiful, successful short films?

SLAVA DOYCHEVA: No, actually I am not working on a feature right now. I am dabbling with documentary and wondering where it could take me. I feel like I need to try different things first, expand my storytelling, I don’t want to repeat myself… I need a creative challenge I guess. And I feel the need to be more of a witness as opposed to projecting my visions of the world. I find that more valuable right now.

CULT CRITTER: How was the film seen in Bulgaria? And where did you show it in Bulgaria?

SLAVA DOYCHEVA: It actually played quite a lot in Bulgaria, it had individual screenings at the “House of Cinema”, showed at the major festivals in Bulgaria, and it toured the country, screening in smaller towns too. It didn’t always play with queer films, and most reactions were positive or neutral. I did have one negative experience with homophobic comments, but that was more of an exception.

CULT CRITTER: Do you think an ignorant homophobic person would see a film like that and be moved by it and maybe start to think that, you know, queers are people too?

SLAVA DOYCHEVA: I hope so… I would like to believe that. And in a way, this was an intention that I had while making Whole, but I feel far from it now…I do not want my films to be explanatory for straight audiences. If the story is strong and authentic everyone should be able to feel it.

CULT CRITTER: How would you define the queer community in Bulgaria at the moment and what is the general attitude towards it.

SLAVA DOYCHEVA: The queer community is growing and becoming more visible, which is very inspiring. I missed Pride so much this year, it would have been the biggest ever…The general attitude – that’s a tricky question. It gets better and worse somehow. In some respects, it is getting worse because certain politicians are getting braver watching what is happening in Poland and Hungary and they manage to rile up a certain number of people here to the point of aggression. On the other hand, I see a lot more out people that are changing the environment around them and creating more safe spaces.

CULT CRITTER: The premiere of Whole was actually during the Sofia Pride?

SLAVA DOUCHEVA: The film opened at Sofia Pride Film Festival. It wasn’t the big A-festival premiere that I was hoping for, but it was emotionally much more valuable, sharing it with my family and the community.

CULT CRITTER: The same year, in the frame of Sofia Pride FF you organized a queer short film workshop with filmmakers from South-Eastern Europe! What inspired this initiative?

SLAVA DOYCHEVA: I didn’t want to be alone. That is the most honest answer! I needed a sense of community and I also wanted to encourage, share, and help others with the resources that I had at the time.

CULT CRITTER: Where else did Whole travel to?

SLAVA DOYCHEVA: Actually, the film started very small and not very promising, but it did well eventually. By the end of its festival run we got 9 awards and 36 festivals. It was an interesting journey and now I am curious what the online exposure will bring.

CULT CRITTER: Is there something you wish you could change in the world distribution of short films?

SLAVA DOYCHEVA: I actually would wish – this is a very specific Bulgarian point to make – but I wish, televisions in Bulgaria were showing short films. It would make a huge difference, the kind of people you can reach. And for a queer short to be screened on national TV – that would be huge!

CULT CRITTER: Have you actually considered an online premiere before Cult Shorts? I feel like a lot of American and UK directors plan their online release, but with European (mainland) directors, they rarely look at online release even as an option?

SLAVA DOYCHEVA: I guess I am a more regular European director because I hadn’t put much thought or planning into it. And weirdly with my newer film, it’s only been online screenings due to Covid, which is something no one could have predicted or planned for.

CULT CRITTER: How do you think the pandemic will affect mankind?

SLAVA DOYCHEVA: I think inevitably it will affect us in major irreversible ways but I am not such a great mind to grasp it all. I do hope that all of us will become more self-aware, more open, braver, kinder. These are my hopes. But it could be that the divide between us could grow even bigger, in every aspect – between rich and poor, healthy and sick, left and right and then we will have to face other hardships…

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