It’s easier to be courageous while fighting for creative autonomy when it doesn’t mean becoming a political target and risking one’s livelihood.

Filmmakers who have lived through oppressive times know better than most how important it is to brave through retaliation in order to make a truthful film. Director Maya Vitkova grew up in the final days of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, and in her debut feature, Viktoria, she looks her country’s and her own past straight in the eyes. Channeling her childhood memories of her relationship with her mother and life under communism, Vitkova ambitiously crafted the first Bulgarian film ever to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, in 2014.

Running 155 minutes, Viktoria communicates via lavish imagery, blending the particular and the grand. A girl born without an umbilical cord, disconnected from her mother in both spirit and flesh, grows up amid a cycle of hate, perpetuated by her mother and grandmother. In this tragic world, Vitkova inquires about parent-children interactions, and whether that refers to those who gave birth to you or those who raised you.

Vitkova is currently promoting the film in Los Angeles. MovieMaker caught up her to discuss her convictions, concerns and yearnings.

Kalina Vitkova portrays the eponymous teenage Viktoria

Kalina Vitkova portrays the eponymous teenage Viktoria, who becomes a symbol of communist Bulgaria

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): The film opens with a caption that reads, “based on a true story,” but it has all these elements that play with reality in surrealist ways. What’s real and what’s not?

Maya Vitkova: Most of it really is based on reality, although sometimes people wonder because we have such surreal elements, like the girl the missing her belly button. My boyfriend even thought I didn’t have a belly button before we met, because he saw the film before meeting me. The story’s entire mother-daughter relationship and key events are things that actually happened in my own life and in my relationship with my mom. The historical background is also entirely true. We even refer to dates from the history of Bulgaria and everything shown really happened, so I think the right question is “What’s not based on real events?” The answer to that is the surreal elements or magical moments, but they happened in my mind, so it’s difficult to say they didn’t really happen.

MM: Were you the “child of the decade” in communist Bulgaria like Viktoria is in the film? She has so much power and is spoiled by state officials. Where does this specific characteristic come from?

MV: Well, I lied about being the “child of the decade” because I had been bullied so much in kindergarten. I changed schools four times because I had a temper. I was really like Viktoria. I basically thought I owned the world and that everyone needed to be submissive and do whatever I wanted them to do. When I was in kindergarten, I invented this story about my grandmother being the cousin of Todor Zhivkov. You can imagine this crazy communist or socialist system; the women taking care of us in kindergarten believed my story [laughs]. They gave me special treatment and extra cucumbers when I wanted them. It’s a funny example, but I think it shows what the situation was like.

MM: Viktoria’s idea of reality, in which she is a godlike figure,  falls apart as soon as communism falls apart. She has just found out that the system has changed and she is just like anybody else. How does that shape her as a person?

MV: It’s like your world is broken into pieces; nothing you knew and nothing you liked is there anymore. Everything that made you feel strong and loved is gone and you need to start from the beginning. This is the hardest part in the film, and I think it’s also a very hard moment in life, because it’s the moment when you are losing ground and you need to start living your life anew, with new rules as a new person. If you manage to become a different person with new values and a new perspective, you will survive, but if you cannot, the most tragic things happen. For Viktoria, this is a catharsis—the moment when you purify yourself because you are learning a lesson. I think she learns it. To me, she is the wisest character in the film.

People always talk about the mother being the main character of the film, but it’s not a coincidence that the film is called Viktoria, not “Boryana.” Viktoria is the main character of the film because she is going through the biggest change; not only that, we are also telling the story because of her. When you see her at the end, entirely changed, that’s my voice. The final third of the film is my voice. If you look at the style of each part and how it is shot, everything is different. They reflect the steps the characters are taking to become what they are at the end of the film.

MM: One of the most striking motifs in the film is the image of the umbilical cord and what it represents in Viktoria’s world. Can you talk about its significance?

MV: The missing umbilical cord is a metaphor for a missing connection with the mother, the one who gave birth to you, who and is supposed to love you and teach you how to live your life. What makes Viktoria strong is her missing umbilical cord, but it actually also shows her biggest weakness: a lack of love. But then she has this other mother; the party or the state is replacing her missing mom and everything that she needs, like a foster parent. When she cuts her connection with the party, I think she feels betrayed.

A psychologist would say that from the very start, even from the womb, she lost trust in her mother, which is why she doesn’t trust anyone. I believe children really feel everything their mothers go through emotionally. At the earliest stages of writing the script, there was a moment when we would see the baby in the womb cutting its umbilical cord, because there is hate coming through this cord. From my observations, history always repeats itself in a vicious cycle unless you break it, so it was natural to me that the grandmother didn’t show love to her daughter either.

I made the film because I think it’s important for us to start loving, and to get rid of everything that’s standing in the way of love. I’m not talking about this “pink” perception of love; I’m talking about something which is sometimes very rough, but makes you feel alive.

MM: The film tells a story about women from the point of view of a woman. Have you encountered negativity because of this?

MV: Being a woman and a filmmaker, I’m always judged harsher than male filmmakers are judged. Always. I’ve been having these conversations all over the world since I’ve been traveling with Viktoria. The film went to 70 festivals and I went to about 40 of them. There were many situations in which there would be somebody from the business, either a programmer, a festival director, a male director, a critic or a producer, who would tell me that if I were a man, I would have a much better career and that my film would have everything it deserves. Comments like these make you go insane. We are stuck in the Middle Ages. There is a need for a major change, because this world is coming to a bitter and painful end otherwise. And don’t get me wrong, that’s not only because people don’t respect female filmmakers, but because of many other standard misconceptions as well.

MM: Would the film be as powerful without the political context in which it takes place?

MV: Not at all. The political background is very important because it’s a catalyst for everything that happens. It makes a huge difference if you are a writer in Sofia, Bulgaria or if you are a writer in Los Angeles. I wouldn’t have been able to make such a rough film if I were living in New York. Your past and these circumstances form your artistic self. If I were living in New York, I would have probably made a romantic comedy, because people are always telling me that I have a great sense of humor. But even if I wanted to make one I wouldn’t know how, because everything is so tragic here.

Irmina Chichikova as Viktoria's disconnected mother, Boryana

Irmina Chichikova as Viktoria’s disconnected mother, Boryana

MM: Did you consider not showing certain elements or ideas regarding Bulgaria during this oppressive era? Have there been consequences for perhaps showing the country in a negative light?

MV: I showed everything I wanted to, but then the system got back at me by not sending Viktoria to the Oscars as Bulgaria’s Foreign Language Film entry. It was like, “OK, do whatever you want but then you have to pay the price.” I’m still paying the price because they are not financing my films. Nothing has changed since those days and it will never change. It was like a little revolution in a glass of water. Look at Romania. Bulgaria and Romania have always been linked together, especially since we were accepted into the European Union together, but did you notice what happened with Romanian cinema? Just this year there were two Romanian films in competition at Cannes. Meanwhile, Bulgaria is still behind. It’s an insane place. After making this film, I’m now in the same situation as Viktoria’s mother because I need to decide where to go. If I can’t work in Bulgaria, then I need to go somewhere else. I’m a filmmaker. This is not my hobby; this is my profession. I have three new projects and I can’t finance even one of them. I’m paying the price of speaking my mind with my film and with my personality.

MM: Viktoria is a rather ambitious project. Did you ever consider going a different direction for your first feature-length film?

MV: It would be a complicated film even if it weren’t a debut because it combines the most difficult elements in cinema: It’s a historical piece that takes place over 15 years with kid protagonists, lots of CGI, and archive material. Everybody advised me to make a very simple first feature with two people sitting and talking in a room. I told those people to make that film themselves. Making the film was hard, but also very fulfilling and brought me a lot of joy. I loved sitting down to read a scene with my DP, Krum Rodriguez, and asking ourselves how to do it. I loved that moment when none of us knew how to make it happen, so so we started digging. These moments of enlightenment are one on of the reasons I make films. It took nine years from the moment I first wrote the idea for the film, which was an 18-page treatment, to the moment the film premiered at Sundance. It was really a long pregnancy. It’s my baby and I’m ready to fight for this baby.

MM: There is such a strong visual language in the film that truly reflects unique sensitivities. How did this develop?

MV: It comes from a blend of my DP and me: who we are, what we enjoy in cinema, photography, and art in general. I’m going to be very honest. We never talked about having a beautiful film or a daring picture with stunning visuals. It was when we started color grading that this came up. The raw material was a bit gray without much color, but it was fine because what was really important for me was telling the story and having the emotion. The moment we gave the material to the colorist, who had worked on about 200 films already, he told us, “You made a gorgeous film. It’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen.” Bit by bit we started realizing what the images were carrying; we’d only discussed the images in terms of bringing the right emotion to the story, but we’d never talked about them just for the sake of beauty. When we started working on the film, we agreed on one thing: We wanted to make a film that looked very realistic, so that even while having all these magical elements in it, those magical elements had to look realistic. It’s like a magical documentary.

MM: Dialogue is not exactly minimal, but it does become secondary to what’s on the frame. What’s your process to shape dialogue as the film goes from the page to production?

MV: We didn’t want to rely on dialogue, but the script actually has more dialogue than the film. When I’m writing, I don’t want everything to be in the film at the end, but I want hints to lead me while I’m reading the script. I shot it the way I wrote it and then did different takes, sometimes prolonged, sometimes without dialogue. We got rid of 50 to 60 percent of the dialogue during editing. We didn’t have a storyboard because we didn’t have time, and I also produced the film, so I literally didn’t sleep. We had a month before the madness began, madness meaning when we started employing other people besides me and my DP, and we discussed the scenes every day we had. That’s how we figured out how the film looked in our minds, and why we didn’t suffer despite not having a storyboard.

MM: Throughout this arduous odyssey, were you always certain bout your lead actresses? If not, what changed?

MV: I found them very early—way before the shooting, because it was postponed. There were others producers on the film, but I had to disconnect from them. It took me nine months to disconnect from one of them and nine months to get disconnected from the other. Everything was nine months or nine years with this film. Like I told you, it was like a crazy pregnancy. Three years before we started shooting, I already knew the actresses; I had this idea of a perfect preparation for the film. I imagined having a storyboard, a month of rehearsals with my actors, and many other things, but they never happened. But I think it was for the best in the end. Everything happens for a reason. MM

Viktoria opened in theaters April 29, 2016, courtesy of Big World Pictures. All images courtesy of Viktoria Films.

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