July 3, 2017 by American College of Sofia
Interview by Petia Ivanova ’97
I first came across Slava’s name in her capacity as Sofia Pride Film Fest artistic director in 2016. Later that summer, I saw her award-winning short film Heart of Lead (2013) at an open-air screening in my favorite Sofia, the Sofia of summertime. The following winter Slava was the person to come to the rescue of a pre-war American College alumnus looking for a Dictaphone to safeguard his rich life-story. Sometime after that, on what seemed to be the coldest winter day ever, we ran into each other on the Sofia University stairs at a small local Women’s March on Washington. I wanted to know more about Slava and her work, so this April, I asked her for an interview and she instantly agreed. To my surprise, Slava had no desire to be informed of the interview questions beforehand. She came to ACS on that strange April day when it snowed. As she was shaking snow off her parka’s hood, Slava told me with a hint of smile that she passed for a student at the police gate.
Slava, in say 7 words, what have you been doing since you graduated from ACS 10 years ago?
I can do it in one word: seeking. It encompasses all the other ones. I’m still seeking and think it’s going to last long, if not my whole life. But I’m happy with that.
How and when did you get into acting and film-making?
Actually, I started by acting. It was a complete accident and it happened while I was at ACS. There was a casting for some American film and a friend of mine brought me, almost by force, to accompany her. So they took my photo, my phone number, and never called me.
Two years later, I was 15 or 16 then, an unknown number starts calling me over and over again and finally I pick up and they say, we want to invite you to this casting, this Sunday, this place, and I say yes with no intention of going. I didn’t think they would follow through. And Sunday comes, I’m not there obviously, and my phone keeps ringing, ringing, ringing. Somehow my home number starts ringing next and I tell my parents don’t pick up or if you do, tell them I’m not here. They did it once, did it twice, and finally my mom starts a conversation with the person on the other side. It turns out she is the sister of a colleague of my mom’s, and my mom says, we have to go, we can’t embarrass ourselves in front of these people. So I went and I was a very bratty child in this casting: I don’t want to sing, I don’t want to tell you a joke, but they liked it. And I went through the next round and the next, and finally they chose me. And my attitude was if I’m not good, that’s completely your problem, I never pushed for this. So very liberating! It was very, very exhilarating actually. And I fell in love with film then.
This was Christmas Tree Upside Down, a feature film by Bulgarian film-maker Ivan Tscherkelov. I like that film very much. It was a very special experience. And then I started thinking, I don’t want to be an actress, but I want to be the one who makes all the decisions, I want control! Whenever we had breaks, I would go to the gaffers, the lightning technicians, and the sound people and ask them how things worked. It was very interesting to learn the whole process.
But then, I wasn’t brave enough when I graduated from ACS to really pursue this; I didn’t believe enough in myself. So I went to Milan (Bocconi) and studied Economics like everyone else back then. I hated it, I hated everything about it. So after I graduated, I made the decision, okay, I really have to do this. I was lucky though, because with Bocconi, I could do an exchange program with the US, so I spent one semester at Boston College, and they had no requirements on what kind of courses I would take, so I took all the art courses and it was amazing. And when I came back from that semester abroad it was decided and I started looking into film schools. By the fall, I was in London studying Film. As you see, it wasn’t a straight path.
Is there a part you dream of playing? That is, if you want to act.
Funnily, I want to act more and more now. I started by not wanting this and now things are changing. I have three films as an actress. That first one was great but I don’t know how it happened, what they did; it was just accidental in a way. The second one was not so good, because the expectations on me were very, very high at that point. It wasn’t like if I’m bad it’s your fault, it was if I’m bad, it’s my own fault. Years passed, I studied Film and I made films until I acted again and I loved it, because now I understood what was happening and it was a very powerful experience. Now, after that, I actually want to do it again.
And no, I don’t have a particular part I dream of playing but I actually would like to work with a director that is going to push me beyond my limit. I don’t know who that is though. That’s the joy of acting. I’ve been wondering a lot lately, as I’m doing the casting for my own film, what do I do, what do I enjoy, what am I looking for in a person? I work a lot with non-actors, but I don’t differentiate in that way. It’s not about training at all, it’s about something else that either you have or you don’t. If you do have it, you have to work on it of course, expand it.
The thing about acting in its true sense, I think, is that you have to be very, very open to let things pass through you, to be willing to experience things, to be broken, to be exhilarated. You have to accept that you are a vehicle of emotions. It’s a high, an addiction actors feel. You want to feel, you want to experience things, you want to cry; it really is like a drug. You want more and more. So, to be pushed even beyond that, I think, is the dream of every actor. You acquire an experience but every time, you have to get there anew. It’s possible to do it on your own but it’s, of course, much better if it’s in collaboration with the director. It’s not good if actors are directing themselves although it happens often.
There’s a great misconception that acting is playing a part, being another person, pretending to be something, that it’s pretense, false, a game if you will. But in its true and purest forms, acting is actually self-revelation, it’s you finding things in yourself and exposing them, the real thing, like stripping yourself naked and allowing yourself to be vulnerable and to show things that maybe you don’t like about yourself. That’s when it works.
Besides, with films you don’t know what kind of scripts are out there. It’s not like theater where the big plays are already known and you read them and you want this part. With film, it’s a constant innovation, there are new and new stories, so you never know what’s going to come your way. It’s interesting.
Looking back now to that first movie of yours, can you describe how it happened that you performed so well?
Yes, yes. The director knew what he wanted and he just casted well. In film-making casting is maybe 85% of the job of the director. If you get the right person, it’s going to be OK. And then there’s another 15% which is creating the right circumstances, allowing something real and truthful to really happen in that moment.
Who are your heroes in film-making?
I don’t want to list names because there are many film-makers that I admire. But I can generalize and say that these are people who are relentless in their work. They really dig deep and go as far as they can without compromising. They all have integrity and the honest intention to tell and share something important, often personal.
What inspires you?
It can be anything. We can be sitting here and I see the workers down there, a small situation happens, I notice it and something can grow out of this. In this kind of job you don’t know where inspiration will come from, so the best you can do is do a lot of things, random stuff.
And keep your eyes open?
Yeah, definitely. You have to be on your toes. I think I’ve learned a lot about people this way. It’s very important to understand people, to read not even between the lines but behind everything. Film-making is a lot about psychology.
Do you have a favorite film character?
Now I’m thinking of a character that’s just funny to me. It’s a film by this Turkish director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan called Distant (2002). There’s a character, basically the director and filmmaker’s alter-ego. It’s a very slow film where almost nothing happens, but it’s funny because there is a scene – and maybe you’ll have to cut this – where his cousin, a very simple man, is visiting from the village and our guy pretends to be super intellectual, so he turns on this amazing film that all film-makers love, Stalker, and they both doze off. As soon as the cousin leaves the room, the main character turns on the porn channel and starts masturbating and he is obviously much more alive in that moment but when he hears the cousin moving about next-door, he turns on Stalker again. It’s self-irony at its best!
But back to your question, it’s rare to find real strong female characters. I think that’s a problem with cinema now, in the whole world. There aren’t enough women film-makers who are given the same chance as men and as a result we have a lot less female characters. So I think I still have to see that character that will make me exclaim, ah, this is it!
I’m trying… Of course, you’re right, but there are people who are better than me, they can do better, and I still have to learn, as well.
What are you up to now?
I’m currently in pre-production for a short film. It’s going be the first short I’m actually shooting in Bulgaria: only Bulgarian cast, Bulgarian crew. It’s a very, very personal story and it’s been tough to get it to the point where it is but hopefully, next year, around this time, we can have some interesting updates about it.
Tell me, what is ACS to you now, 10 years after graduating? Is there anything you learned here that you still find useful?
I’m very grateful for the opportunity to study here. I see what a difference that made to my life and to the way I was prepared for certain challenges. It creates a discipline of thinking, approaching problems, and problem-solving. It does give a lot broader view of the world, so I’m grateful for having been here.
What are your worst and best memories at ACS?
I don’t think I have worst memories. The whole high-school experience wasn’t as dramatic for me as it was for other people but it wasn’t as exciting as it was for others, either. I was kind of in the middle of it, it just went by. But what I remember often is how much I loved being on the football team. Many of my best memories are from practices and games.
I think I was a very lazy student until like 10th grade. I didn’t put in any effort at all but then something clicked and I became interested in actually all the subjects and it was exciting; I actually started to like reading, learning, knowledge… I don’t know how it happened, what triggered it, maybe it was a gradual thing. Around that time I discovered that I loved writing. I had super bad grades in Bulgarian classes until 9th grade and then there was a click and ah, I get it now, and it was super nice from then on. So I had things like that. And I had good teachers.
What would you say is your most marked characteristic?
I don’t know. I’m very curious about life and people. Curiosity killed the cat but satisfaction brought it back.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I won’t change anything because I’ve learned that over time, your weaknesses can turn into strengths; all the problems you think you have could be blessings in disguise. It’s just a matter of self-awareness.
If you could change one thing about school, what would it be?
I haven’t thought about it from a teacher’s perspective but I do think there has to be a lot more creativity in school, in the way things are approached, so kids don’t think I have to memorize this and repeat it. There has to be real problem-solving, creativity has to be encouraged. Whatever you become in life, it’s very nurturing and nourishing to allow yourself to create. Actually, the things I enjoyed the most while at ACS were projects where we had the freedom to come up with something on our own.
What do you most value in your friends?
I value most honesty, a certain willingness to be open and vulnerable, and a sense of humor is very important.
And what is it that you most dislike in people? Dishonesty, I suppose?
Yes, although sometimes I can understand it because it’s very scary to be honest and to be vulnerable. What really puts me off is aggression, violence, and dismissal of other people.
Sometimes you need to let out steam and even be aggressive though.
Yes, but there’s a way to do this which is both honest to yourself and respectful to others. It doesn’t mean you can’t get angry or can’t shout but I think a lot of people overstep the boundaries to the point where any communication is turned into a constant humiliation: you humiliate me and I humiliate you, I pass it on and it becomes an endless cycle. It’s very apparent here in Bulgaria. It’s a constant thing. I don’t know how it can be stopped. I’ve talked a lot about this with my friend Ralitza Petrova, it’s everywhere and it’s unstoppable because no one is strong enough to stop themselves from taking their frustrations out on another person after having been humiliated.
It can start from you saying No, I won’t let you humiliate me.
Or not taking things personally, which is extremely hard. I don’t have the key to this, I’m just thinking out loud. Because when you just say no, sometimes the reaction doubles, which in turn pushes your buttons and you still go there.
Which phrases do you most overuse?
I hope I don’t have such phrases. I care about language and I always try to be super precise with the way I express myself. It’s crucial to my job as a director and artist, but I have found that this can apply to any life situation. I always pay attention to when or why someone loses my attention when they talk and vice versa. Words are extremely powerful when used right.
What is your greatest fear?
I have many fears and if you watch my films you’re going to find out what they are. (laughing) I work with fears every day, with myself, my own fears. Fear and anger are big propellers for people. Fear usually paralyzes me but then I think about it a lot. So then it becomes a creative thing and I want to recycle it, I want to understand it, to work through it. You’re going to see it in my next film which is about another fear.
Is there anything that you regret?
No, not really. It’s good. Of course, in the moment it’s super hard to see it but as time passes you see that it had to happen this way, there’s a lesson you learned, nothing is ever in vain.
How did you get that wise so young?
I don’t know, I just spend a lot of time thinking about things, reflecting. Why am I like this, why are people like this? And I put a lot of work into myself, I go to a psychologist, we talk a lot about these things. I just want to keep asking questions, to doubt things, nothing is so defined in this world, there’s always another angle.
I like this interview.
Are the questions over?
No, there are like ten more.
What is your idea of perfect happiness? And don’t say it’s being pushed beyond the limits.
No, no, I am aware this is just a step on the way towards happiness, whereas happiness is beyond that, it’s where you don’t need to be pushed. It’s a spiritual concept for me, this perfect happiness, it’s beyond this life. I don’t think it’s attainable here. It’s always fleeting.
There’s a story about a priest, or was it just a simple man, a very wise one in any case. When he was dying he gave his son two boxes, one was yellow, one was blue. When everything goes well open the yellow box, he told his son. If everything goes bad, open the blue box. The son’s life was not very easy, he had a lot of problems, his child died, so he opened the blue box and it said ‘This, too, shall pass’. After that things started going better, he got rich, his wife had more children and finally, he opened the yellow box and it said ‘This, too, shall pass’. Of course, it’s so easy to say these things, but life is constantly challenging. So, just keep asking questions and try to be more aware, not just action-reaction.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your life so far?
It has to be coming out. Coming out to myself first was hard, because it relates to how you interact with others and how much you can take or allow. But I think I’m on the other end of it now. I’m doing The Sofia Pride Film Festival, a movie festival showing the Bulgarian audience a selection of the best contemporary LGBTI movies in the world in the week leading to Sofia Pride. The fest has been running for 5 years, and I have been involved in creating the program since last year. That was great for me- it provided me the opportunity to apply my strengths, to demonstrate my courage and to be a source of inspiration for other people.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
It has to be the same answer. As I said earlier, your weaknesses become your strengths, so overcoming myself, centering myself is my greatest achievement.
Who helped you the most to get where you are?
I’ve been very lucky to have met several mentors in my life without looking for them. The director of that first movie I acted in, he became my mentor and still is in certain ways. Someone else who I was in a relationship with is still my guiding post creatively. Then, when I came to Bulgaria I was lucky to meet one of my best friends and also collaborator, Ralitza, who is (in my opinion) one of the most promising film-makers of the world today. I must say I always gravitate towards people that I can learn from, I seek them constantly, so I’m happy that I meet such people and that there are these people that I keep learning from in my life. But that also means you avoid or dismiss other people, friends have told me I’ve been dismissive. I’m not that wise to be completely accepting of others. This is something I have to work on.
What is your favorite journey?
Any journey can become eventful. I do love to travel but I can’t choose one favorite journey, because special things have happened to me on the shortest trip to Kremikovtzi, while traveling across the Atlantic has not always been as charged. You have to really be open to life, the best things really are those that are unplanned.
OK, I have this one example of a really special journey: I was in Berlin last year for the Berlinale, where my current film project was selected for development, and the day I arrived in Berlin, where I had never been before by the way, I had a few hours before having to start the program. So I was just roaming about this new city and I went into the museum of terror and that was, that was… The experience completely devastated me. But it was very important that it happened to me in that moment. At the museum, you first see how the whole Holocaust operated, the structure, the daily simple things of how it all worked out. Then they have different sections about the groups of people they targeted, starting with political prisoners, Jewish people, Roma people, mentally disabled people, that I didn’t know were also eliminated… So I was moving methodically, going from 1.1. to 1.2. and so on until I came to the section about homosexual people… and at that moment, with all this build up, I just broke down. It felt very personal to me, it pushed a button. Something big happened and it was that pain and that experience that then allowed me to go through the whole development week there in Berlin. It gave me purpose and courage, I felt I was on the right track with my project and most importantly that this project mattered. At the end, this whole trip changed me absolutely. During that whole week, the best kinds of coincidences happened at the same time, they pushed me, (laughing) I was pushed beyond my limits and that was great.
What is your current state of mind?
Actually on the way here I was very stressed because of my work, I was worried about finding a location. I’m also casting now and I’m constantly looking around, always running through my head Is this person right? Can they do it? But now, after we started talking, I feel very present, so I’m happy right now.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
I want to be wiser.
What do you want to be known for?
I want to be known as a proper person, a solid person, a person with integrity in whatever I’m doing.
Your message to whoever reads this?
Don’t get too comfortable! (I probably look puzzled because Slava proceeds to say) We’re seeking comfort all the time and I don’t think that’s good for us in the long run
 Ralitza Petrova is the director of Godless, winner of among others Golden Leopard for Best Film at Locarno 2016. Slava is assistant director for Godless.