Viktoria, to me, was a punch in the gut. But one of those punches that slowly sinks in your stomach and leaves you aching for days. Maya Vitkova looks at Bulgaria and the dramatic changes that happened in 1979 through her main character Viktoria.
Boryana (Irmena Chichikova) is a young woman whose dream was to escape to the West where she could find freedom, leaving communist Bulgaria behind to finally start a family but before her plans are put into action, she finds herself expecting Viktoria.
As soon as the baby is delivered, doctors notice that she was born without a belly-button, which immediately brings attention from Todor Zhivkov (Georgi Spasov), leader of the communist party that pronounces her to be The Baby of the Decade. This title brings lots of treats for baby Viktoria: a brand new car, an apartment and an immediate phone line to the Zhivkov, so he can make all her wishes come true. She is treated like a queen, a spoiled kid, the relationship between mother and daughter doesn’t exist.
Everything will change in 1989 when Zhivkov loses his power, Viktoria is immediately put to the side as a bad representation of the ‘Old days’ , something no one wants to remember anymore. In this way, Maya Viktova uses Viktoria to show the changes Bulgaria suffered these past years. We witness a character study very straight to the point but very deep in emotion that allows us to go through her life-changing experiences and watching her grow in front of our eyes. Even with the small budget, the movie has amazing cinematography and the director successfully created different decades portraying through images, environment and costumes, how the characters felt in those ever-changing years in Bulgaria. It’s a journey that leads us to understand, in a dark but honest tale, the struggle of loving your own and the pursuit of happiness no matter where you are going.
Go watch this now, Viktoria was the first Bulgarian film ever to be screened in competition at Sundance.
I sat down to talk to director Maya Vitkova about her latest film Viktoria.
Gomes: How was the process of writing and executing Viktoria? How long did it take?
Vitkova: At the beginning things seemed to happen with the speed of light - I've written the first draft treatment overnight years ago and the story both moved me and amused me so much, that I thought I will be shooting this extraordinary film within a year. Seven drafts of the script and almost equally the same number of years later, I've obtained the producer's rights after a long struggle and I immediately jumped into pre-production and production. This complex film happened because I've produced it (I mean, it was a nightmare - so complicated that only I could survive it, being my own personal story) and since I've had the best creative team. I had a crew that a director / producer can dream about - kind, patient and dedicated people, who did their best to help me bring VIKTORIA to life. The majority of mothers carry their babies for 9 months, I've carried the Baby of the Decade for 9 years...
2) I could tell that the movie is very personal; it was also dedicated to your mom. Were there any aspects of your life and family portrayed in the film and how your relationship with cinema developed after this movie making experience?
What makes it personal - it is a story of the relationship with my own mother and also the history of my motherland Bulgaria in a certain period of time (the end of communism and the beginning of transition). All the characters are built upon protagonists. It was not important for me whether the actors knew that they are getting into the shoes of existing people (it was of course important for the character of the communist leader Todor Zhivkov - Georgi Spasov is an amazing actor). I didn't want them to think too much, it was not doing any good in this particular case, they had to feel instead. I preferred to keep it to myself and provoke the "right behavior". Therefore the child actors were the easiest to work with - Katerina Angelova (baby Viktoria), Daria Vitkova and Kalina Vitkova (in the other two ages of Viktoria). The key situations in the mother-daughter relationship are true, there's a lot that happened for real, but VIKTORIA is not a documentary. I could call it a documentary of a soul though... My relationship with cinema? It's my life.
3) Being a woman in the business can be very tough, we face tremendous obstacles on a daily basis, financing, gender drama on set. Here in Asia we see almost no female directors, they are culturally pressured to stay at home. Compromise is a strong word to become successful in what you do so I would like to know what did you have to overlook, the struggles you went through to make your feature Viktoria.
It is not as easy as it seems, but also not as hard as it looks like. You are a woman, but you are also a person, a director, a fighter. I suppose that there are women that get what they want smoothly, sometimes perceiving themselves as victims, other times being silent and patient, prepared to wait for a long time before they make a step. I think that waiting (not in terms of sitting on chair, although it might be pretty fascination too) is very clever and surely protects your inner self much better. I am a different type - I go for it, I fight. I went though a lot in order to make VIKTORIA, there were a lot of people standing in my way for various different reasons, one being that I openly speak my mind. Something you should try avoiding in society where culture is at the end of the line, where cinema doesn't have nearly enough governmental support, where every second person you meet is a director and wants to make a film, where filmmaker families (or clans of friends) are "occupying" the so-called business for decades, where corruption and interest are not even hidden well enough. So, I've been hurt many times, but I also met amazing people who helped me and are still helping me to be. No man is an island, but more than a man forms an archipelago.
4) What do you hope the audience will take from the film?
I saw it happening during our screenings at Sundance and Rotterdam, don't have an idea how it was in Göteborg, but I have to say that the perception of the audience was my gift, my personal victory. Most of the people felt everything "right", they could feel this is a very personal, honest film, that there are no tricks and nothing done for the sake of pleasing, they followed the story, the emotion. I think they also felt that the crew behind the film did its best to make a film that it won't be ashamed of. What I want the audience to take from the film - the love that made me do it, the love I hope that streams at the end...
5) What do you think Viktoria would be doing right now? What kind of life would she be having?
There was a great question after the Q&A in Park City, right after VIKTORIA's last screening at the Sundance Film Festival (what a great place - a fantastic festival with a wonderful team). An intelligent, tiny looking woman asked Irmena Chichikova (in the role of Viktoria's mother Boryana) where is Viktoria now. Irmena pointed at me and said - here she is. So if I take it as a starting point, I'd answer - if she stayed in Bulgaria, she would feel very sad too often, she would feel absurd while watching the news, witnessing humiliating political games, social injustice and overwhelming sorrow, but also some kind of an inner strenght and rage against the machine. If she left, she was going to have a much better life, but probably a bit too lonely without her family and friends around, away from her motherland...
6) Movie fan to movie fan, who or what inspired (or inspires) you to keep creating and making movies? Any recent movie you watched that you would like to suggest to movie fans out there?
Honestly, I don't get inspired by films while preparing or doing a film. I cannot watch anything during prep, shooting or editing, but I read a lot. I've read 3-4 books each week while editing VIKTORIA. I've been telling their stories to my editor Alexander Etimov in the breaks at our beautiful balcony. What really inspires me is life - a simple, but moving mixture of dreams and reality, of sorrow and joy. Some of the films I loved in the past years were Le Quattro Volte by Michelangelo Frammartino, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu by Cristi Puiu, Lourdes by Jessica Hausner, Fish Tank and Red Road by Andrea Arnold, among others. I've also been watching over and over again the films I love for decades now, it's safe, they never let you down. For instance I could read a book I love more than 10 times... Cinema is a great escape, a soul doctor, it collects your pain and turns it into a moving picture - moving, because it can move people.
7) This was your first full-length feature film as a director, what’s next now?
I'm in development of my second feature Gin Air. I have a first draft of the script and it will probably take 5 drafts (not years), while putting the financing together. But now it's much easier, as we've been there. I'd like to do it with almost the same creative team, so we "just" need the money and... the help from God.