Bulgarian filmmaker Stephan Komandarev discusses his 2017 film Directions, explains his gravitation towards fiction film as opposed to documentaries, and expresses his optimism for the future of Bulgarian films.  

On Tuesday, I tuned into a livestream with Bulgarian director Stephan Komandarev to discuss his film Directions and the future landscape of the Bulgarian film industry. Hosted by the East Central European Center (ECEC) at the Harriman Institute, this event is part of an ongoing series that features contemporary films from eastern Europe focusing on current political and social issues. The discussion was led by panelists Rossen Djagalo, an Assistant Professor of Russian in NYU, and ECEC co-directors Aleksandar Bošković and Christopher Harwood.

Set in Sofia, Directions features a series of intertwining vignettes, mostly based on real events, that voice the despair of people living in a country plagued by great economic inequality, mental illnesses, immigration tensions, and other social problems.

Dr. Djagalo noted that Bulgarian films, until recently, did not dwell on social criticisms and that Directions seems to be one of the contemporary examples breaking out of that mold. In response, Komandarev discussed how he sees cinema as a provocative medium that can ask the “right questions.” He reflected that he loves Bulgaria, and the only thing he can do is make films that make people reflect on these societal problems. Describing Bulgaria as the “European champion of inequality,” Komandarev talked at length about the effects of Bulgaria’s transition from totalitarianism to capitalism, the social inequality in today’s Bulgaria, and its impacts on every sphere of Bulgarian society.

When asked if he would consider making a documentary about Bulgaria’s transition to proto-capitalism in the last 30 years, Dr. Komandarev responded that he is more drawn to fiction films because he believes that they voice stronger emotions than documentaries. Whereas historical documentaries need to have the answers, fiction films do not.

In another moment, Komandarev revealed that he used to work in a psychiatry hospital and points out that both his former career and his current one directly deal with humans. His gravitation towards careers that focus on the human experience explains his preference for a medium that raises questions and elicits emotions rather than answers them.

Because Directions was a low-budget film, it was shot over a course of 12 days in a “one-shot” style, which seems so impressive to me. Komandarev advised young filmmakers to not be disheartened by a lack of funding on a project and encouraged them to carry out a good idea even if they do not have much money. Komandarev expressed his optimism for the new wave of Bulgarian films and future filmmakers, saying that he thinks that something “very positive” is happening in the Bulgarian film landscape. 

Like many Columbia students, I was unaware of ECEC’s series on east European filmmakers, but I am so glad I stumbled upon it and joined this discussion. Hearing Komandarev talk about his love for fiction films, the problems entrenched in Bulgarian society, his love for Bulgaria, and his hope for the new wave of filmmakers was more than enlightening.

Directions took me on a nighttime drive along the streets of Sofia while surprising me with a collection of touching and tragic stories about people surviving in a plagued society. Not only did this film and discussion inform me of the history and state of contemporary Bulgaria, but they also struck an inner chord within me, and I can’t help but agree with Komandarev about the emotional power of fiction films.

Image of Directions via East Central European Center (ECEC)