Ecce Homo - this is a very specific term or phrase in Christianity. Pontius Pilate used theses words when he presented Jesus Christ, who had been crowned with thorns, to the crowd. Can you please describe a little bit about what exactly attracted you to this specific term, and how it relates to your film?
If I have to be honest, it all came to me a little spontaneously. The film had a different working title. I chose the title ECCE HOMO for various reasons. Of course it carries very strong cultural connotations and it relates to the scene in the Bible in which Pontius Pilate shows the disfigured Christ to
the people. The film tackles certain themes present in the Christian religion. One such theme is the so called Pharisaism – when a person identifies himself with the righteousness and sees himself as the conductor of truth, of the divine law. Such a person tends to judge and condemn the flaws and sins of others and is prone to cruelty. There are other biblical themes which I find interesting but let's not elaborate too much on that.
What I liked a lot was the actual meaning of 'ECCE HOMO' – behold the man. I thought that this is a very good message which every honest film should communicate in one way or another. For me cinema is all about showing, not about saying, moralizing, judging, analysing and so on. It is about showing. And the greatest achievement of a film is to show the human being as it is. As if you see it for the first time, yet all so familiar. I am always fascinated how an image can speak in abstract terms. It can make you see the world in a sort of primordial state – a state preceding knowledge. This ontology of the cinematic image is very interesting to me. It is almost as if cinema has this mystical power of seeing beyond the apparitions and get to the essence of things – to free this essence from its physical shell... to turn matter into spirit as Kazanthzakis said. These are the most powerful moments in the history of cinema; when you forget about any cultural context and you see a human being as it is - stripped out of all objectifications – no nationality, social position, historical background... no such characteristics - just a human being. That's what I want to achieve – to show Man.
There is one scene in which Ada and an elderly woman sit at the table having dinner. It’s almost pitch black. Only the table is lit. The shot reminded me strongly of the iconic scenes in Béla Tarr’s “The Turin Horse” when the daughter and her father eat a single potato every night.
Oh, yes. I was quite conscious of that resemblance but let me explain. The way a film idea appears in my mind is not some linear progression or some sort of logical constructive process. I don't even know how it actually happens. In any case the eating scene was one of the first ones that appeared in my mind when starting to think about ECCE HOMO. I didn't even know what the film would be about at the time, but I knew there would be a daughter and a mother and they would live in misery and I saw it in this symmetrical image with a central light source and all shrouded in darkness. The film is a lot to do with the idea of imperishable light. Then I was thinking a lot about the idea of silence. God's silence, silence as a means of communication – when words are unnecessary. Today everything is so loud, people speak so much and there is just so many words that I was instinctively looking for hope in the opposite - silence. I came up with the idea of the silent image. The world around us is so polluted with unnecessary images, it is all so full of excess. And most of these images are so spectacular and aggressive in this respect, they are so loud. So I was looking for quiet images – ones which do not shout out its meaning, they don't just rely on a sensory shock which dies out and there is nothing behind them, but images which slowly reveal themselves, blossom under the gaze of the beholder. I don't know if I achieved any of that but that was the intention. So to go back to the question. This scene is where it all started from. That was in the summer of 2012. Few months later I went to the cinema and watched the Turin Horse. I'm not going to start explaining how much I value this film (for me it's the greatest 21st century film) but I was so worried that there were these potato - eating scenes which so closely resembled what I imagined. I remember I was looking at Van Gogh's 'Potato Eaters' as a reference for ECCE HOMO and now Bela Tarr does this – the same symmetrical image and stuff. I remember I shared it with my girlfriend – 'Now everyone will say I copied Bela Tarr' and it's true people often ask me, but I don't really care. Bela Tarr's work has influenced me a lot of course. I love his films, but that's a different question.
You underlined this scenes with very light piano music. What was the reason behind your choice of music, this particular music and music in general?
I wanted to have some sort of musical leitmotif. Something very minimal and repetitive. So I contacted the composer, Stefan Belev and told him that I am working on a film and sent him some edited scenes and asked him to write something for the film if he likes it. He reacted very positively. I first imagined strings – some rusty cello sound or something like that but then Stefan send me some very simple melodies which he recorded alone in his mountain house. I've been many times in this house and there is one old detuned piano. He played these things on this piano and thought that the imperfect but textured sound matches the film very well. I thought it sounded great too so we used it. I try to keep music very minimal or I don’t use it at all. I definitely dislike it when it is too obtrusive and it just amplifies the meaning of the imagery. It gets so cheesy and flat. For me it is paramount to preserve some element of mystery. I mean, I intentionally avoid seeking ultimate control over my works. I don't have an explanation and justification for every single artistic decision. On the contrary, I like it when I myself don't have a complete grasp of what is happening and why, but I know it is right and I believe in it. You might call it artistic intuition or something, but it is so important to me and it is also so much at odds with the way they teach you to make films. All these script labs and script doctors and such bullshit. Sorry but it is complete crap – recipe books for successful films. You can see how many films nowadays, even indie films, are so insipid and all so similar exactly because they are done according to these so called rules – character arch, three act structure, conflict and stuff. Anyway, that's the story behind the music choice. I try to focus a lot on the sound, not just music, but the orchestration of natural sounds in the film. The sonic textures, the spatial signatures of sounds, simple things which Michel Chion writes about in his amazing book 'Audio-Vision' . Sound is an incredibly powerful tool and the sound editing and sound design is perhaps the most enjoyable process for me. Especially when you work on film. I like constructing the sound with the sound designer and rarely use synchronized recordings. Choosing every footstep, the sound of a door squeaking etc. A detailed sound with rich texture gives such physicality to the image. I like this physicality because there is some element of detachment in it – it is so realistic that it becomes abstract. 'Ostranenie' as the Russian formalists called it – to see/hear something as if for the first time, to make the spectator go beyond the familiar automatised perception and effectively turn him into a kid which explores the world for the first time. All these dimensions of the sound, it is amazing how they change the image.
I find your use of colour quite interesting. It somewhat ranges between grey/monochrome to sepia. The latter interests me most. Why sepia? And have you done this in post-production?
It's all done in post-production, yes. We shot the film on 16mm colour film. It was not easy to find black&white negative film. I even thought that Kodak had stopped producing the Double-X film. I was told Ben Rivers got hold of some of the last batches and used it for 'Two Years at Sea' – an excellent film by the way. So we shot on colour, yes. Why sepia? Well we had to separate the dream sequence from the rest of the film and I thought of having this chromatic shift. It is a very subtle change. Sometimes it is even hardly noticeable, but we were looking for a lighter, more ethereal look for the scene in the flooded forest.
At the end of the film, you switch to colour, which is unexpected. There is this shot of an empty bed where, before, the elderly woman was laying. The shot looks painterly. How have you achieved this?Yes, it all becomes very colourful in the last two shots. It was a decision, which I took during the editing. I didn't plan it like that. But it just seemed right. I don't know why. I can't give you a thorough explanation because it was an intuitive decision. Of course one can find all sorts of symbols – life continues after all, a resurrection i.e. colour etc. But that's up to the people to decide. I don't want to limit the possible readings. I believe that work of art exists in a seminal zone between the creator and the beholder. It is not fixed. The spectator, his feelings, memories, thoughts are all part of the film. It's not just some sort of demiurge – director sitting on the pedestal and dictating some truths to the people, no. The director and the audience should be on the same level. This works of course only if both the director and the audience are completely sincere. So yes, there was no rational 'reason' for leaving the final images in colour. People often ask me what things symbolise and stuff and often I have a hard time explaining that I did not create some sort of cypher, some hidden codes. No, it's all very intuitive. It's not about making it difficult for the audience to work out your intention. It is about trying to express things without limiting them, without rationalising them – so that's where the need for a metaphorical visual language comes from.
“Behold the wretched men, the humiliated men, the forgotten men, the faceless men.” I found the rather lengthy monologue as voiceover by your main character very powerful. We have already spoken about the link to religion, to Jesus Christ, the messiah crowned with thorns. But I’m not entirely sure whether the film is only religious in nature. What Ada says very much seems to apply to today’s world.
I wouldn't call the film religious. Of course it focuses on certain themes, which are central for Christianity but I wouldn't call it religious. Let me explain. I am very interested in this matter but not in some sort of dogmatic following of clear religious tenets. I'm from Bulgaria and here we have this Eastern form of Christianity which I guess you're familiar with – Orthodox Christianity. I wouldn't venture in analysing how it differs from Western Christianity as I am not a theologian but it to me it feels very different. It is somehow more mystical and less analytical. You can get a complete feeling of it listening to some ancient chants in an old murky orthodox temple. I don't know how to explain it but it is a very different manifestation of the Christian ideas from what you find in the Western tradition. The historical background, the cultural tradition, everything is different. It's not at all rational and not at all to do much with the brain. I am more interested in the sort of impalpable religious feeling not the rigid doctrine and my interest in Christianity is more of an artistic and philosophical nature. This interest emerged quite late as I grew up in an atheist environment and was rather indifferent to religion but when I started reading and re-reading Dostoevsky I found these themes incredibly attractive. I'm not interested in the clear messages but rather the paradoxical nature of some ideas. Blessed are those who suffer?! That's great. I know there is a general explanation of what that means but I am not very interested in it. I am interested in the paradoxes. Those who want to save their soul will lose it. There is so much to think about and to question.
Yes, in ECCE HOMO there is this voiceover about the wretched and the fallen ones. I wrote it long before we shot the film. I've been interested in the idea that the marginalised, the people residing in the periphery of society, the sick, the mad, all these lost souls, could be the ones that carry the hope, because they are completely outside of the system. There is this paradoxical thing that Christ actually was closer to the fallen, the sinners. He was crucified not by the criminals but by the Pharisees, the ones who considered themselves righteous. So the wretched and fallen ones are paradoxically closer to the divine. It's an interesting idea. Of course everything is related to the present day world. I live in this world and everything I do is consciously or subconsciously a reaction to this world. One thing for example. Nowadays there is this great dominant ideology about happiness. Everyone has the right to be happy and should seek happiness at all cost. This is a present-day doctrine which is encrypted everywhere. It's full of commercials which are all about catching the moment and feeling great and believing in your self… all sort of primitive nonsense which is incredibly dull but also dangerous because it is a form of radical egoism. Suffering is something which should be eliminated and it is such a bad thing to carry your burden. So I find it worth paying a visit to the idea of suffering as something meaningful and vital. Compassion. To suffer for somebody else. Radical solidarity with the people around you. It is such a great idea. As I said all these things can be found in the works of Dostoevsky who is my favourite author. I think he himself wouldn’t have called himself religious but he was interested in these things as an artist and thinker. And goes far beyond the rational. He in fact aims for the irrational for this paradoxical nature of man.
Are you working on a new project? I know that you’re not only a filmmaker, but you’re also involved in a new exciting project in your home country, Bulgaria. Can you tell as a little more about it?
Right now I am working on a short film. Its working title is 'Bread' and we're in pre-production, planning to shoot in autumn. With my producers – Screening Emotions, we're working on some co-production opportunities with other European countries.
This film will be a little different from ECCE HOMO and if it works out the way we see it, it will be a richer piece of cinema. It will still adhere to some principles, which I set up for myself but I would like to apply them in a slightly different manner. I don't like to talk too much about a film before it's complete so I'll end with that. There are a lot of question marks still but the team is great so I'm really looking forward to making this film.
I have few other ideas as well including a poetic documentary about a horribly polluted place in Russia and I'm slowly developing a feature film idea. I am not a very productive film-maker. I make slow films and I work on them slowly, so I don't make a film every year. I'm completely fine with that and that's because I only take upon ideas which are really important to me and they pass the test of time. I have to be completely in love with an idea to follow it. That's the way things work with me.
As far as this other project that you referred to is concerned: it is called Cultural Cosmos and I am only a small part of it. Basically there is a group of enthusiastic young people in my town – Cinema Cosmos Collective. We're working on a project of transforming one abandoned cinema – Cosmos Cinema into a cultural centre, which we titled Cultural Cosmos. It's a fantastic building from the 60s but sadly it has been completely neglected for a very long time and it is in a deplorable state. So we want to revive it. We've been working on the idea for a few years already and have been in active communication with the local authorities. It's not easy, but I am optimistic about it. Recently we applied for funding for cultural content in the context of the forthcoming Plovdiv 2019 European Capital of Culture. If our project gets approved, among other things, we plan to set up a film festival in Plovdiv and create a small film school for high school students. There is very little cinema related cultural content in Plovdiv so I'm very enthusiastic about us having the chance to lay the foundations of something which has the potential to develop in future and hopefully benefit the local people. Soon we will know if our efforts will lead to any result.