In Blaga’s Lessons, Bulgaria’s Oscar Entry, directed by Stephan Komandarev, when a retired, recently widowed teacher falls prey to a phone scam, she’s left robbed of her life savings. Desperate to pull through, she accepts an alluring yet suspicious offer for work that will turn her life upside down and force her to make a decision beyond her principles.
The following is our interview with Stephan Komandarev, director of Blaga’s Lessons:
Bijan Tehrani: Blaga’s Lesson deals with elderly abuse by making them victims of fraud crimes, what motivated you to make it? Also please tell us about the trilogy that this film is in its third part.
Stephan Komandarev: After the previous two films in which we tried to present social problems in contemporary Bulgaria (and Europe) through the eyes of taxi drivers and policemen, I reunited with screenwriter Simeon Ventsislavov to look at another group – the current generation of Bulgarian pensioners. This generation (my generation’s mothers and fathers) turned out to be the most significant victims of the so-called “transition from a totalitarian regime to a market economy and democracy” – the time from 1989 to today. These people, who have worked honestly all their lives, lost basic elements of their existence–normal food, adequate medical care, heating–not to mention cultural life and entertainment. Their children emigrated and many old people were left alone in poverty and loneliness. Most importantly, they lost their dignity. Blaga’s victimization via phone scam has quite high stakes due to this context, and this dramaturgical line helped us to keep the tension at quite a high level, almost like in a thriller.
BT: In the other films made about the same kind of subject, victims just remain victims to the end, but never transform to commit the same brutal acts towards others; is Blaga’s Lessons based on a true story?
SK: Yes, we spent a year meeting with victims of phone scams and police officers working on similar cases. We even managed to see a real phone scammer. We found out about three cases where fraudulent elderly people have started working as mules for the same people who defrauded them, hoping to get back at least some of the money they lost. And we were able to see one such woman.
BT: What I love about your film is that it understands that many people committing the horrific act of fraud against elderly are not necessarily criminals, but victims of social conditions which push them to that point. Do you agree with this?
SK: I completely agree. Huge social inequality, unemployment (especially outside the capital), lack of perspective and collapse of moral values all contribute to the reasons why such cases happen. With our three films, we try to diagnose these social conditions through the means of cinema in a style as honest and close to documentary filmmaking as possible, in the hope of provoking discussion, moral dissent and eventual change.
BT: The fact that we are on Blaga’s side all the way through to the end of the film shows how brilliantly you have developed her character and have let us understand the tragedy that she goes through.
SK: In the construction of her character, we tried to avoid any sentimentality (because it would be easiest to go in that direction). The aim was to create a strong portrait of a 70-year-old woman who, in addition to representing a national generation–a victim of Bulgaria’s abandonment of the elderly–additionally represents the older generation in all societies.
BT: What has been the reaction of elderly audiences to Blaga’s Lesson?
SK: It is too early to tell. We had a one-week test run of the film in October. Then we had an important screening – on November 16 we opened a big festival in Sofia in front of 4000 people. The reactions after the screening and in the following days were violent. Fortunately for us, the film has already provoked – discussions, articles, questions about the situation of the elderly in our country. We are looking forward to the mass distribution of the film in Bulgarian cinemas on 15 December.
BT: Performances in the film are amazing, how did you go about casting your film and how did you work with the actors?
SK: There are a lot of actors in the film that I’ve worked with before. The principle is that in a long rehearsal period I invite my actors to become like co-writers of the script – we discuss, change, rewrite. But for this film, I’d like to especially recognize Eli Skorcheva, our lead actress. Eli was a star of Bulgarian cinema in the 80s, she starred in cult films back then. After 1989 she deliberately stopped acting in cinema and television, frustrated by the over-commercialization in this field. During that 30-year hiatus, she did various things – at an insurance company, at a construction company, finally when we met her she was cleaning offices every morning. We met her by chance, in a garden in Sofia, during the pandemic. It was like a dream come true that she agreed to read the script, which she enjoyed very much. And she became Blaga. Rarely in my career as a director have I had the good fortune to work with an actress of such class, with incredible sensitivity and eye for detail.
BT: The visual style of the film is very impressive and helps to tell your story very well, how did you come up with this style?
SK: My cameraman Vesselin Hristov and I have been preparing for Blaga’s Lessons for a long time. We watched a lot of films together, we discussed styles, we did test shoots for most of the shots of the film long before the filming of the movie. We tried to create a picture that both had a documentary feel to it, and at the same time had artistic value, as well as mostly serving Blaga’s portrayal. The fact that we chose the city of Shumen for the shoot also helped with the style and look.
BT: How are the chances of Blaga’s Lessons to get a nomination for winning an Oscar?
SK: It’s hard for me to say. This is the third time a film of mine is a Bulgarian Oscar entry. The first time with “The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner” in 2010 we made it to the shortlist. Now we are starting from a much better position – after the two Crystal Globes (Best Film and Best Actress) from Karlovy Vary the film accumulated a total of 17 awards at prestigious festivals. The latest was Best Director at Goa International Film Festival. The film has already been purchased for distribution in many countries. We will try to present the film in the most dignified way, it deserves it.
With two Oscar entries already under his belt, and the shortlisted “The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner,” director Stephan Komandarev graduated in Film & TV directing from the New Bulgarian University (1999). His works include award winning feature and documentary films. He is a lecturer at the Film Department of the New Bulgarian University, Sofia (since 2008), a 2011 EAVE graduate and a Member of the European Film Academy, Bulgarian Film Directors’ Association and Bulgarian Film Producers’ Association.