interview by Rada Pletnyova; photography by Daniel Lekov

Our own Bulgarian Schadenfreude

Yoanna Boukovska

Bulgarian cinema has yet to match the success of contemporary Romanian films. However, the past year has brought a ray of hope – and Yoanna Boukovska is aware of it. Her most recent role was in Small Talk, a modern adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, directed by Vlado Kralev. The action is set in Varvara. "It's one of the few remaining wild spots on the southern Black Sea coast. It has an amazing atmosphere, very nostalgic, just like in old Bulgarian films," Yoanna says. The film will hit theatres in early November.

Yoanna first caught the public eye in 1999 starring in the Bulgarian soap Dunav most, or Danube Bridge. She gained notoriety for some explicit scenes which then shocked audiences. Since then, Bulgarians have eagerly followed both her professional and her private life.

Yoanna has been acting since she was 14. To date, she's appeared in more than 20 plays and 40 television productions, earning six awards for both main and supporting roles. She loves travelling – and returning. She knows exactly why Bulgarian cinema remains on the industry's fringes. She believes in the impossible, and this is what makes her continue living and working in Bulgaria.

Is it different to be an actor in Bulgaria?

In the Bulgarian art world, compromises are much more common than perfect conditions. Right now many foreign films are shot in Bulgaria and, unfortunately, foreign producers also know that everything here is a matter of compromise – starting with low payment down to cheap sets. Of course, all over the world actors live on the edge, and superstars will always be an exception. However, being an actor in Bulgaria is a much more complicated affair. That's why the question "Are you a successful actress?" seems funny to me. The answer is, "Yes, I am successful, because I have managed to live on my acting."

Where is Bulgarian cinema headed?

I think it's at least found a direction to pursue. For many years after 1989 it was at a standstill. Hardly any films were made during the 1990s. Now the industry is fighting to survive. In the last two or three years, we've started making new and different films. The last four I've been in, for example Seamstresses, War Correspondent, My Wee Nothing and Small Talk, are all in different genres. Earlier, most feature films looked pretty much the same, they looked like bad documentaries. Now each film looks back seeking answers and trying to explain what has become of us Bulgarians. I feel like we're starting to shoot more metaphorically, and this means that Bulgarian cinema has finally recovered. Of course, it's got a lot of catching up to do. For example, it could follow in the steps of Bulgarian theatre, which found its feet much earlier and now actors play to full houses – in the 1990s we thought this was impossible.

Why haven't any Bulgarian films gained worldwide fame? Like, for example, the Kusturica films?

In Bulgaria, filmmakers usually blame the general shortage of funds. Here most films are state subsidised. Recently, a friend told me, "Even if someone gave us millions of euros for a film, it still wouldn't be a good film, because we're too involved in making something out of nothing and there'll be so many people stealing money." But I think the problem has to do with attitude. I think we need to change the way we think, and it is young people who can bring this about. They see things in a different way because they've grown up in different times and know how to survive. If you give them money for cinema, they'll make cinema.

Can foreigners understand Bulgarian films?

Maybe foreigners who live in Bulgaria can partially understand them, but not those who are totally unfamiliar with the country. People have asked me: "Are you really that sad in Bulgaria? Why are all your films so depressing, showing dreams that never come true?" If you look around the streets, however, you'll see that people really aren't smiling, they're glowering. Maybe it's a cliché, but I think it's because of the Transition and the uncertain future. There's no way our art can be cheerful. Here we have our own Bulgarian Schadenfreude.

Which Bulgarian films and theatre productions would you recommend to foreigners in Bulgaria?

For one thing, they should be visually effective – like Small Talk, Seamstresses and Zift. On the other hand, My Wee Nothing is a very extreme metaphor for united Europe, what's happening in the West and what's happening in Bulgaria. Foreigners might be a bit shocked, but it's realistic. Bulgarian films are like a cinematic slap in the face – you shouldn't expect a happy ending. For foreigners who can understand Bulgarian, I'd recommend Hashove, or Exiles, at Ivan Vazov National Theatre; Medea at Sfumato; and Krikor Azaryan's adaptations of Chekhov.

Yoanna Boukovska

Your favourite role?

My favourite roles have been my most difficult roles, because I've had to fight for them. If I had to pick just one, it would be Helena from Autumn Sonata, which unfortunately is no longer running. It ran for eight years registering a record 150 performances. My favourite role is always an upcoming role. It kickstarts me. I try to avoid doing the same thing over and over.

And your dream role?

I've been lucky, because the roles that I have in mind at any given moment always seem to crop up on their own. In terms of worldview and feeling, Scarlett O'Hara would be a good fit for me, but I can't imagine playing her in Bulgaria. Otherwise, I really love classical parts that most directors shy away from, such as Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. Directors are unsure if they will be understood today. I dream about everything that seems impossible, because I think it can be done – as long as you find the right people.

Comedy or drama?

So far I've done mostly drama, but I'd very much like to get into comedy. I'm starting to move in that direction. I don't think I can be put down as belonging to either genre.

Theatre or film?

Film is my first love. I really feel at home there. It uses different means of expression, and acting is subtler there: You can express something with a single glance that the audience will later see on the big screen. That said, however, I believe that an actor is missing out if he works only in theatre or only in cinema. You can't have one without the other.

Is there space in your head for all the characters you play?

In my head, I always hear my characters' voices when I'm acting in several plays or getting ready to shoot a film. There has to be at least two of us in one body – then I start dreaming of scenes and lines. I start searching my consciousness for personal experiences that will best fit the role. I'm lucky in that usually directors and script writers are open to my ideas. My friends even say that when I'm working on a role, I change – my behaviour changes, my gestures change, my vocabulary changes. I like to say that our profession is essentially a form of voluntary schizophrenia that you develop over the years as you get better and better. It's rather frightening.

Are you self-critical?

I'm never happy with myself. I always think things could be done better. I doubt myself and limit myself. In my profession, it's very harmful.

Would you ever live abroad?

Only because of my work. I like Bulgaria, warts and all.


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