When this interview took place, Ralitza Petrova’s Godless had just premiered as one of the few feature debuts in the Official Competition at Locarno Film Festival. In the time since we sat down to talk about her work, Petrova has received the top award at the festival, the Golden Leopard; an enormous achievement for a director screening their first feature, and a testament to the phenomenal strength, importance, and quality of her film. It is a dark, harrowing, and overwhelming work; one that breaks from the tone that defines her short films, Rotten Apple and By the Grace of God. While both shorts established Petrova as one of Bulgaria’s most inventive and cognitive filmmakers, her feature is an enormous step forward. We spoke to Petrova at Locarno about the process that informed her work, the inspirations she holds as a filmmaker, and how she perceives the future of Bulgarian cinema.
The film seems like it’s drawn from a wide experience within Bulgaria. I wanted to know about these inspirations, behind the story, the characters—because I’ve seen your previous short, By the Grace of God, and this was such a pronounced move towards something much more directed and serious. It’s one of those films where it’s weird to be like “I enjoyed it”, but I found it confronting in a very rewarding and powerful way.
Thank you. I guess the idea for Godless was to tackle a reality that is so painful, humiliating and aggressive that the question becomes: how do you preserve your dignity, and how do you preserve a kind of personal centre as a human? How do you preserve your soul, basically. A reality that really has no regard for your rights, or for you as a human being. It exploits, it humiliates, it abuses, and it does it without remorse, really. It is serious in that way, because it’s a subject that you can’t present lightly, or with more humour. The whole film is a complete kind of tone and style, but if you want to tackle the subject from the pain, from the most crass feelings of the characters and their experience, I think you have to take that kind of atmosphere and that tone, which is more austere and harsh. To do that, in order to portray these people, you have to bring them up a bit like statues—a bit like in an Ozu film, or Kaneto Shindo work—to elevate them in this more heroic sort of way; as heroes in a way. This was clear in terms of the atmosphere of the film.
The atmosphere is very important for me. You’ve seen By the Grace of God, and there the story also unravels through a certain atmosphere and tone. I often say that film is a poetic form by default, and you shouldn’t strive for poetry because then it will become trite, or be too much on the nose. But you should be aware of the associations you bring when in your montage, in juxtaposing two things, and what that creates: its meaning. I’m very aware of the poetic surprises that this can create. There is that to the telling of the story, and yeah, I guess I’m interested in when there is complete lack of morale and complete lack of values. More lack of values than morale really, because morale is a grey area. I like to be ambiguous about morale in general, but more lack of values, more lack of principles. When there is such a lack, like in the world of Godless, I was very keen to explore what the bottom of that was, at what point it just becomes unbearable, and at what point your soul just goes, your inner voice just goes: “okay, that’s death … that’s like death here?” Yeah.
That’s quite fitting, although unexpected, to bring up Ozu in reference to the style of Godless—
—and Kaneto Shindo, maybe it’s more him … I’m not sure whether you’re familiar. I myself came really late to his films, but he made [a film] about the A-bomb, one of the first. It was called Children of Hiroshima. I highly recommend his film. He’s a more austere version of Ozu … but yeah. Go ahead, I interrupted.
Yeah, that sounds like something I’d definitely be very keen to check out. Just in that idea of putting a fairly everyday figure on a pedestal, as not intrinsically heroic in any kind of grandiose sense, but highlighting the struggle that comes with everyday life.
I wanted to know how you approached creating [the film’s] overall atmosphere. The cinematography in the film is obviously very distinct, and it really works towards establishing this desaturated, bleak and exhausting environment. What kind of aspects did you have to keep in mind to create what is a very coherent and austere image?
Yes. It was very early on, actually. We had the idea of what was then later adapted as a short cut… that was called Godlike. Basically, even the crew were joking about, “Oh, we’re doing a Godlike scene now”, whereby we had a handheld for a lot of the film. We had a handheld camera, but not like the Dardennes’ falling in action, but a handheld that is still, as if someone’s watching constantly. There is this one presence of someone watching throughout and it’s very subtle, but it’s a static shot, essentially, where it just breathes there. It’s just like that, and that was one of the few motifs that we used to established something strange: an omnipresence, truth, or the Law of Nature. I wouldn’t call it God but the Law of Nature that will take out punishment, as we see later in the film. It’s like a latent beast, a latent sort of … It’s a kind of fate about how things turn out. That was one stylistic choice that we took, and then the use of colour as well through the whole film … it’s in a shade of grey, and stone, and they’re all just coming almost as if they were all dipped into this swamp, in terms of colour, and then brought out. Each one became a shade of that environment.
I guess the environment is the antagonist, the main antagonist, and I guess all characters are versions of one character in a way, which is kind of a portrait for me of a nation, really. Because each character retains characteristics of each other character, and the main, the girl, it’s very much a collective portrait for a nation. She doesn’t speak much, and the little attempts for change, or at least for claiming some truth for herself, or some kind of dignity to what feels right for her … it ends in failure, so to speak. You can sense that with each of them. There is a little bit of her in each of them, and there is a bit of each of them in her. That was important.
Did you have a certain approach to writing your characters? I spoke to Petar and Kristina from Slava, and they had this process for writing their characters and plots where they were getting newspaper clippings, looking through the newspapers, and then ending up with their particularly critical take on Bulgaria’s bureaucracy.
The fictional and reality?
Yeah. Their film is so very bleak, but it’s a comedy as well, so I wanted to know your approach in making a much more austere and confronting look at a different aspect of the same society.
Yeah, I guess I’m more and more interested in tackling things head on. Of course, my point of view will always be some kind of filter through which the viewer will interpret. But I guess I was really trying to get at the very raw, primal emotion of everything, rather than being an omnipotent filmmaker who then paints an absurd sort of comment. Because then you’re like a puppeteer, which is great for being able to talk about something serious through humour. It’s always amazing, but here I was more interested in being with the raw, disturbing emotion of being from inside out rather than from outside in. To be really inside the emotion of the characters, like in music, really, and poetry … and to write those emotions.
Again, for all characters there was one unifying emotion. Actually, there was one palette of a few emotions, but they were very similar. They all know what humiliation is. They all know what abuse is. They all have some kind of inner yearning for light and for love, but because of how it had turned out for them they’re dried out. They’re incapable of reciprocating love, but they’re very much in need of it. I wanted to talk from the pain of it, and that was very important to then find people that somehow had that in their eye, that knew pain. Because people that know pain, they’re often resilient and they could be also funny, they could be joyous, but in a quiet moment there is this … I don’t know.
There is this wisdom about them, or there is something really vulnerable that it’s very, for me anyway, it touches me deeply that it’s … I don’t know; representing the human condition, or the human phenomena of being alive and surviving in this. In some places it’s much harder than others, but as a rule I think life … It’s kind of a strange thing, you know? It’s strange being alive, and then how do you deal with that? I was interested in being very honest with that. Honesty is a big thing for me, being extremely honest without being ironic.
As your first feature film, and compared to say, By the Grace of God, or Rotten Apple, I think it’s also the most honest work that you’ve made. Looking at it as your first feature, which is a large thing in itself, but the other fact that it’s premiering in Locarno… it’s pretty impressive. I wanted to know about the process behind the stylistic shift that’s paved the way for this, and this bigger approach to cinema that you’ve put on display here.
Thank you. You’re so right to suspect it doesn’t happen overnight and to observe that there is a transition. There was one film before Rotten Apple and By the Grace of God, that I haven’t sent anywhere that was called Above Us Only Sky, like the Beatles song. It was already there, and even before [Rotten Apple] I’ve made some other films that were very much omnipotent black comedies. But it was me playing around on the chessboard with these caricatures a little bit. It was more sketch-like before. With that film, Above Us Only Sky, something happened where I really allow myself to be vulnerable rather than hide behind a certain humour, and that developed already in Grace of God. Grace of God had both. There I was already vulnerable, allowing myself more time where it was able to be tragic … there was a seriousness about the material. This was a natural progression towards that; to be always in a state where you’re most vulnerable, and most honest, and most prone to risk taking rather than being safe. That resulted in that. I was very aware, if I’m honest and if I’m vulnerable, and if I’m afraid of being there, it’s a good thing.
I don’t know at what point and who said it. Someone big and important said it. I think maybe Marina Abramović, the artist. If you’re afraid of being there as an artist, of the idea and of what you want to explore, if it’s connected to fear you should go there, and you shouldn’t choose something you’re not afraid of. I really relate to that because in the overcoming of that fear you’ll discover it’s incredible. It’s a gold mine. I approach film projects in that way.
And in Godless, it’s quite pronounced, making a film that avoids a lot of flourish, and cinematic flair. There’s not really a shortage of more experimental and abstract films in Locarno’s competition, and some of my favourite films in the competition fall into that category. It feels like Godless is quite unique within the competition in how it embraces an explicitly realistic approach to narrative, characterisation and aesthetics.
Yes, I guess it was important also for me. I very much enjoy, for example, photography like Richard Billingham, or someone like Paul Graham. He used to do photography in England in the ’80s of unemployment centres. I’m interested in an aesthetic where it’s very raw realism, but then the metaphors of those locations, images, characters live really close to that realism. They’re not stylised with lighting, with set design, with symbolism. Rather, just by allowing a bit maybe more time spent there, or someone going out of the frame, or lingering there a bit longer, or juxtaposing it with something else, and all the detail, that becomes elevated into a metaphor. It feels bigger than life, and bigger than its realism. You know what I mean? I’m interested in being very close to the real, but then subverting it or elevating it, or putting it on a pedestal through those very subtle changes to it.
As I said, for example, you might experience a very brutal, raw situation and then suddenly the character just goes out and has a really deep conversation out the frame. Then this spot suddenly becomes bigger than life because it somehow … you wonder. You’re depriving an element of your image from information. That makes it something else, and I love doing that. Just taking out things, often just one, and take out one thing, and then this thing that is left becomes something else. It’s very real. In a way Chris Marker is very close to what … you know, La Jetée, Chris Marker, all these films. He comes to mind. Not that it’s a straight reference, but I have a huge respect for … Alain Resnais used to do it. Antonioni used to do it. Nicholas Roeg … these are the parents. These are all old filmmakers that somehow dealt in realism but were poets.
It’s funny that a lot of those filmmakers you mentioned are from quite a classic period of cinema, or a quote-unquote New Wave after that. It’s quite a distant period from today, even directors like Ozu and Kaneto Shindo. Do you feel like you take a lot of inspiration from these older periods in film?
Yeah, but subverting that and clashing it with something that’s modern, and something that’s today. I love doing that. I love clashing times. In Grace of God there already was that clash between him believing he’s the son of the queen and all this heritage, but then showing him as the fool that … I think it will develop more and more, because I’m really interested in modernism, modernity. I’m a futurist person. I’m not very … yeah, futurist, romanticism, baroque, all this stuff, I like clashing those references. I love baroque and I love romanticism, but I love also post-modernity and just referencing but also reinventing those things; what we’ve seen in an Ozu film. For example, those low angles. Often there are low angles on the characters in Godless. They are not there. They’re always here, almost like statues. Ozu used to do that. Then again, I’ve seen them sometimes in Carlos Reygadas’ films. They become like statues.
Some people during the making were, “Oh, why these extreme angles?” and I’m like, “Because I wanted to achieve with very little rather than …” again, because I mainly work with natural light. Again, rather than using all these other methods or instruments to achieve it, I want it by simply going down and looking up, making them statue-like, and sort of heroic. I’m sure it somehow influences our perception or our experience of them. In that sense it’s real but there is something strange, and I think, I hope that people are picking up on the fact that it’s a particular realism. It’s realism but it’s something. It’s particularly sort of seen in terms of the angles, the camera. There are subtle variations, subtle choices that are made to make that experience a bit specific.
One thing that I’m not very aware of is within Bulgaria’s cinema. I don’t feel like I’ve seen much emerging from the country on such a scale in the past. Do you think it’s difficult to make work within the country?
I’m so happy, and I can only congratulate my colleagues. They’re friends as well, and I’m really happy we are here. I think it’s really important for the country. Very, very important for the scene, and it’s a very disturbing climate for young filmmakers in Bulgaria. Extremely disturbing and very … I suppose it’s very difficult to make films with the state there, or at least the state funding, which does not take pride in the the successes of Bulgarian films very much. They just take it as, “oh, festivals”; not really taking that too seriously. I think that we should be making a lot more films for less money basically, whereas now there are big inflated budgets given only to certain people that are the status quo of filmmakers for the last fifty years, making films that don’t go to festivals, but take this money to … I suppose we all need to survive. But basically, I think that is what Bulgarian cinema needs because, there is a lot of talent and a lot of urgency to tell certain stories now.
With the new generation that has new energy, that has something to say, that has traveled and have those other references that mean that those stories can be universal, can appeal to audiences outside Bulgaria because of it. I think they should be given the opportunity, and I think we should be making much more films than we do. I think that can happen by dividing those big, inflated budgets that go to only two or three people in the country to just instead go to fifteen people a year. I myself alone know about at least ten filmmakers that are absolutely brilliant and incredibly talented, very precise. They shouldn’t struggle. Instead we should … yeah, and it’s difficult, and we are trying. We are trying. Whoever goes to a festival, and whoever has a certain attention of their film, we do try and talk about it. We hope we can change something, and I think a few of our generation of filmmakers, we are all aware that will be for the better of everyone. Bulgaria, it’s a shocking place politically and socially, on many levels, and I think we have a responsibility to be the filter of that as filmmakers, as artists, and they should just be more supportive, you know?
Yeah, and there’s often such a clear link between government support and funding and countries that have prosperous film scenes. I’ve always noticed that if you’re seeing lots of films coming out of somewhere outside of countries with well-established cinema scenes, making it as far as Australia, where our publication is based – there’s either funding or a strong support network involved. Last year there was a large Turkish program in Brisbane in Australia and it was presented by Zeynep Özbatur Atakan, who produced a lot of films from Nuri Bilge Ceylan. One of the key things she spoke about was the current funding situation being really positive in Turkey, speaking about how positive the effect of that support was.
Yes. Yeah, and I think that’s good for them. I can only wish and hope that something like this happens in Bulgaria, but this is deeply rooted, and I think it comes also from the fact that our Cultural Ministry is completely … Our national state funding is completely dependent on the Cultural Ministry. Lower legislation hasn’t been changed since the communist times. There is a lot of bureaucracy, so this creates a loop hole for corruption, for mishandling things, and sort of hiding behind certain things. It becomes all very elusive, but the main thing is that those generations are unable to communicate, and so they don’t have interest. They don’t want change because that change will threaten the stability of their … you know, the status quo.
It’s convenient. It’s convenient to be a mess. It’s convenient to be grey area. It’s convenient for many people because they can get their pay. They can support existence in that kind of shade of grey because no one knows where the problem begins, where it ends. Everything’s entangled, and it takes people with courage and vision to say “enough of this”, and perhaps “let’s open the law, let’s make it much simpler, let’s make it much more democratic, much more transparent”. I think Godless touches on that lack of justice and law. It’s very much on all levels of services within the system. You can see this huge bureaucracy that allows for these kind of parasites to thrive. The parasites are just sucking on and happily, and all of this needs a big, big clean up and simplification; really a radical one. Everyone’s afraid, essentially, to take the responsibility because they will be alone. I only hope that time will be, slowly with the new generation perhaps the ones that work and are active today can do a bit, and then the next people can do a bit, and then slowly by slowly there will be some kind of detox.
Yeah. It’s an experience seeing Godless and Slava both in the competition, in the way your film kind of presents this very brutal reality, while their film presents this what is thinly veiled in comedy—although to me, it came off as a really stark political critique of the absurdity of the political sphere. Seeing those two films together has been a fascinating experience. I really took a lot from the film, and I think it’s a really special work. I hope it goes well in the festival.
Thank you. Yeah, I hope so.
Has it screened?
It screened yesterday. It had a premiere and it was a bit nerve-racking because I was like, “Oh, premiere and press.” I think it hits good, so I think people were affected. I can’t really judge because my antennas were too … I was like, “Ah, someone coughed! Oh, there is a … Did somebody go to the toilet? How many people went to toilet? How many people came back?” and it was in the FEVI,1 so it’s a massive … I think overall most people stayed, so I was happy.
Yeah, that sounds nerve-racking but great. Thank you so much so much for the interview.
Thank you for your great questions.