United in diversity. The EU’s motto is today a reminder, more than ever, of the power of friendship with the person who is different from us, the person capable of widening our horizons, filling them out, making them more colourful. That is the story told by the newest movie release Vasil, the first Spanish-Bulgarian production in the history of Bulgarian cinema, released in cinemas in this country on 27 January.
The production is one of five films with Bulgarian participation, supported by the EU Media programme, and is a debut for Spanish director and screenplay writer Avelina Prat. It premiered in Spain in November, 2022, and sparked a great deal of interest, the Bulgarian producers from Activist38 Vesela Kazakova and Mina Mileva say. The superb Bulgarian actor Ivan Barnev stars as Vasil; for him this is not the first major international role.
Vasil was shot two years ago in Valencia, and it tells the story of a Bulgarian living in the streets of a Spanish city. The film is mostly in Spanish though there is some Bulgarian too. A chess champion in totalitarian times in Bulgaria, Vasil is also very good at bridge, and in his suitcase he carries Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov. One day Alfredo, starring Karra Elejalde, decides to put him up in his own home as a favour to a neighbor, and what connects the two is their passion for chess.
Vasil is very different from the stereotypes people have about East Europeans. He is intelligent, smart, charismatic, modest and… mysterious. He wants to work as chef and he finds a job at a Greek restaurant. Gradually he develops a closer relationship with Alfredo, though not to the point of friendship – because Vasil is an immigrant, a foreigner.
“People in Spain, as it turned out, know nothing about us, we are an unknown in the equation of Europe. And this film is just that – a way to find out a little bit more about each other. They (the Spanish) are a part of Europe, and so are we, and it turned out we know more about them. They mix us up with other countries, literally,” says Ivan Barnev in an interview with the BNR’s Horizont channel. “I think that is a little bit due to our psychological makeup. We Bulgarians, are curious and we tend to know more about the world than the world knows about us. What we have here is the road two people have to cover to get to know one another. Even when there is no language they both speak they will speak the language of their interest - chess. And that raises the question: How much do we know the people closest to us?” the actor says.
Avelina Prat’s film is all about the cultural stereotypes we have about other people and the way they are manifested. About immigrants, rejected in some way by the system and the reality in their own country who seek refuge somewhere else, but there too they are strangers, they are anonymous, and are seen as potentially dangerous for one reason – that they are different. There is some criticism underlying the movie though it is not targeted at Spanish society, the Bulgarian producers say.
“We, in Bulgaria, ought to be very proud because in Spain, a woman couldn’t open a bank account in the 1970s. And now they are doing everything they can to make up for that, to get rid of that macho image,” says Mina Mileva.
It turns out that the plot of the film is inspired by a real life story. Years ago, Avelina Prat’s own father put a Bulgarian up in his own home for a few days. The days turned to two months, and her father’s stories from that time are all in the film.
There is incredible chemistry between Ivan Barnev and Karra Elejalde, and so, at the end of last year, the two shared the grand prix at the Seminci International Film Festival in Valladolid. Vasil has so far garnered six Berlanga awards – for best film, best screenplay, best director, best supporting actor and best original score and sound. How the pieces will be moved on the Vasil chessboard from now on is yet to be seen.
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