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A story of thirst, bed sheets and raw feelings in rural Bulgaria
© Ana Grgic
First Publication: November 2015
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Ana Grgic: You have been working as an actress and producer, could you tell us what inspired you to make the film Thirst?

Svetla Tsotsorkova: I graduated from the Bulgarian Film Academy as a director. I made a short film that travelled to some festivals, and it made it to the Cannes΄ Critics Week. It was kind of recognised back in 2004. After that, I wasn΄t ready to make my first feature film. I worked on two scripts, and then just put them in the drawer. In the meantime, I worked as a producer and an actress because some directors decided I΄ve got the potential for this. They put me in front of the camera, and because they were my friends, I couldn΄t say no. It wasn΄t my desire and dream to become an actress, but I had to live with it, until I was ready to write a script and make my first feature. I love helping other people to make their films, it doesn΄t matter if it’s my own or somebody else΄s. If it’s good, we should all help the director to bring the film to life and to finish it. So, I wouldn΄t say it is a waste of time, it was an experience as well, and acting really helped me. If I knew how much it would help me in the future and how much I would learn, I would have done a lot more acting.

A.G.: The story is set in rural Bulgaria, on the margins of society, could you tell us why you chose this particular setting?

Svetla Tsotsorkova: First because I grew up in a village. Even the short film I made, which travelled to some festivals, was based on a story from that village. The influence and memories from my childhood are really strong for some reason. The way people communicate there, it’s raw, due to the environment which is raw, or they just don΄t communicate at all. You have the same communication people have in the city, but in a very raw and cruel way. It’s like the people are stripped down there. After we wrote the script, I knew we were looking for a village. So, we aimed to find a village in a very dry area, which is very close to the border with Greece, the Sandanski region, in Southwestern Bulgaria. The village itself was quite interesting, with a very cinematographic scenery, but we saw that there were only 3 or 4 people living there and we were wondering why. How come there were not that many houses around. It turned out that besides a spring, there was no water there, so we had found our perfect setting. This village is a lot more abandoned than the one I grew up, and, as a filmmaker you have to stylise a little bit, sometimes exaggerate. It’s up to the director. It was a perfect setting for a hot and dry scenery. It was important that the family was living away from other families. They are kind of enough for themselves, but they’re not, and they only realise it when the other family arrives. It had to be the last house of the village, on top of the hill.

Lydia Papadimitriou: You said that the idea of the film started with the ending of it. How did you came up with the concept of Thirst?

Svetla Tsotsorkova: I grew up in a small village on the Bulgarian seaside. My grandmother used to work for this hotel, later she was helping the neighbour with the bed sheets. I literally grew up among a pile of bed sheets. It was this image of sheets. There were three people responsible for the scriptwriting. We started talking about the script with a friend of mine, with whom we graduated from the Film Academy together. I always knew that the character of the mother would be based on my grandmother, among the sheets. Then, the producer Svetoslav Ovtcharov got involved. I needed his maturity and his talent in scriptwriting to help me develop the script and to be patient with that process.

A.G.: The characters in the film don’t have names, they are Mother, Father, Son etc. Was this in order to construct a sort of an allegory, stripping the human relations down to a bare minimum?

Svetla Tsotsorkova: I believe that people expose themselves in better way when you put them in a raw environment, place your characters who would only be concerned with survival, which is something that happens in life as well. If you see where I grew up, people get on with watering the garden, planting and taking care of their herds. They don΄t have time to caress each other. They express their love in a different way. This is why I stripped them. I wanted the raw feelings, I wanted to play with them and to provoke the characters and myself as well by working with the actors. And to me I’m glad that you say that it’s raw because it was my intention and if it appears this way I΄m more than happy because I achieved one of my goals.

A.G.: How did you choose the actors for the film? How did you experience as an actress contribute to the direction you gave while filming?

Svetla Tsotsorkova: It was a very interesting process because on the one hand you have the non-actors, and the most difficult part was finding them. After I found them we spent months doing different scenes, but not from the film. My co-writer, who was writing the additional scenes, said to me one day “you should stop, we have enough scenes for a new script”. I just wanted to be sure these are the right kids I΄ve got, that I can model them. The trick is that they had their presence and their natural way of talking. I wanted to keep it so I was shaping around that, I wasn΄t really directing them. I was getting what they had and just putting different stuff on it. I didn΄t try to make the kids seem different from what they are. Well, the girl is not as evil as she appears. We had this funny thing, we showed the film to the families of the two kids. The boy has a little sister and when the girl in the film makes him drink vodka, his sister started to cry: “How evil this other girl is!” On the other hand, the very experienced actors were very professional with a good sense of humor, very clever actors. One of them is a director himself, the boy΄s father. He directed the film Losers (Ivaylo Hristov, Bulgaria, 2015). The actors have been in dozen of films and theatre performances. The guy who plays the girl΄s father has worked in over 100 films, so, you can imagine it was a challenge, it was my first film. In one way, very good, they were helping me create the characters, we kind of spoke the same language, sometimes. Some other times, it was a struggle to get what I really wanted out of them, because they thought they knew better. And, they knew better than me, I just had different things in mind. I think the actors’ part was the most challenging and difficult, but I didn΄t want to let go. I knew how I wanted them in the film so I didn΄t want to let go, for good or bad, because I’m very stubborn. I hope they liked the result and would want to work with me again.

L.P.: The young people in the film are very striking, they have a very distinctive look. Why did you chose this look for your main characters?

Svetla Tsotsorkova: Well, before starting to write, I didn΄t know the boy would have red hair one or that the girl would be blonde with blue eyes. I mean, I knew her mother would be Russian, but I didn΄t care if the girl would be dark or blonde, I just wanted to have that striking presence on screen. During the two-year casting process, I saw around 3,000 children. I had a small camera and recorded them to see how they΄d look. Some people are more photogenic than others. It’s something that you have or you just don΄t. When the girl (Monika Naydenova) walked in, I didn΄t know she was going to be the one. I just said a few words to her and there she was. It was a surprise. I΄ve heard this happens, and it happened to me too. A lot of children and young people, when they hear about acting, they believe it’s something they have to do, pretending you΄re someone else. In cinema it’s a little bit different. The camera doesn΄t forgive. It shows if you are acting or not. The children didn΄t care there was a camera in front of them, they were very relaxed. The only thing that I really had to work on with them was the physical contact part. There was a fight scene, so we wrote an additional scene which I rehearsed with the girl. I slapped here and made her slap me back, something difficult in the beginning. I mean, how do you just do it for real when there΄s no reason? I had to work with her. Eventually, she was perfect. I was asked before if I chose the boy because of his red hair. There are not so many talented and photogenic people walking around us.

A.G.: Could you tell us about the production context and finding funding for the film? There seem to be more and more good Bulgarian films produced in the last few years which are present in the festival circuit. How do you see the current situation?

Svetla Tsotsorkova: The Bulgarian Film Centre (BFC) has a special section for debuts. The give half of the money they give for a non-debut film, which is understandable. Around €300,000 when I applied, maybe now it is 320,000. When you write the script for your first film you have to bear that in mind, that it is a low budget film. It is good though that this section of BFC exists, because we had a gap. Within the last 25 years, not so many films were produced in Bulgaria, so there were a lot of people waiting to make their first film. Last year they created another section, for very low budget films, supporting them with €200,000. Just to help all these to make their films. So, we got BFC΄s money, then we got €25,000 from the MEDIA Program for development and that was it! Our total budget was €325,000 cash. It took us 5 years to complete the film. 
For a first film, a lot of people understand. There was a laundry company in Sofia, for example, which was very willing to help us, they gave us all the bed sheets. They also gave us an ironing machine for a very low cost. One way or another you get people to understand and find a way to make it. What we didn΄t want to compromise was the fire. There΄s a scene that cost a lot of money because you need people specialised in making fire. That΄s a very interesting story. We compromised here and there, I found the locations myself, along with my assistant we spent two years doing the casting, you know, a lot of things you do by yourself and you don΄t get paid. If you want to make the film, you have to survive. So, with the fire, we wanted the best people we could get. The one that work with the Americans, they know how to do it properly. They are the most experienced, we spoke to them and they lowered the price because it was a debut film. And they burned the set down, they burned the house down. I explained that what we need is a two-minutes, controlled fire, there is camera movement, actors doing stuff. If I show you the whole take, because it’s one take, you΄ll see the fire engine appearing in the frame just before the cut, because there was a real fire. The house had a back door, the actors were inside, and of course we didn΄t want to burn them alive. The villagers who came to watch the fire weren΄t aware of the back door and they thought we had burnt the actors alive inside the house. It was a mess! 200 villagers, including 13 crew members went crazy. The people in charge of the fire had left the gas bottles inside the house, turning it into a bomb. One of them, just jumped in the fire and took them out. His hands were burnt. It was something. It’s another film by itself. I wanted to have another take. I didn΄t like certain things in the first one. But I couldn΄t have a second take. I was so furious, you have 250 people running around in panic. The police was there, a fire engine, an ambulance, while, others were fainting because they thought we burnt the people alive. I could not believe it! I asked the special effects guys what to do and they replied “nothing, the house is gone”. I know these things happen. They happen in America or in Europe. You know, sometime it goes wrong. Thank God it all went ok in the end. I saw the take few days later and realised that it worked. I wasn΄t optimistic, I wanted to shoot the scene again and come up with a new ending, which would have had destroyed the whole thing.

L.P.: You edited the film by yourself, right?

Svetla Tsotsorkova: Yes, I did. In the end, I got a professional editor to trim it a little bit, here and there. I love editing. Sometimes you see a thing that didn΄t work out during shooting, something you΄ve just realised, and you have the tools to overcome it. It’s something mystic.

Electra Venaki: Didn΄t you need a second opinion during editing, a fresh look on the material?

Svetla Tsotsorkova: Yes, of course. My co-writer, Svetoslav Ovtcharov, looked at the film. My mentor from the Film Academy, filmmaker Georgi Djulgerov did as well, he always takes a look at everything I do.

A.G.: What is your next project?

Svetla Tsotsorkova: At the moment, I΄m working on a script called Sister. It’s about a relationship between two sisters and their mother.
  Electra Venaki
  Svetla Tsotsorkova
  Svetoslav Ovtcharov
  Georgi Djulgerov
  Ivaylo Hristov
  Lydia Papadimitriou
  Ana Grgic
  Monika Naydenova
  Bulgarian National Film Center
  Media Programme
  56th Thessaloniki International Film Fest - Open Horizons, Special Screenings
  The Greek program of the 56th Thessaloniki International Film Festival
  56th Thessaloniki International Film Festival - Agora Industry
  56th TIFF: Greek Film Center & Creative Europe Media Desk Greece Presentation
  Waves and Prizes fade away... A good film must always stay fresh
  The 56th Thessaloniki International Film Festival - Official Webpage
  Bulgarian Film Academy - Official Webpage
  Bulgarian National Film Center - Official Webpage
  Creative Europe - MEDIA Program
  altcine Explore movies by Country People To read
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