Svetla Tsotsorkova on ‘Thirst’

Bulgarian’s first feature an Alpha Violet world sales pick-up

Near the beginning of “Thirst,” Bulgarian Svetla Tsotsorkova’s debut, a father sits in a tree, idly smoking a cigarette, wearing a broad-brimmed Panama hat, Chekhov-style. “Thirst,” like the great Russian story-teller, describes a brutal randomness of life, compounded by dirt poverty. A father, mother and son grind out a living, washing laundry for local hotels on a house at the top of a hill, overlooking a broad valley. But their water supply is dodgy. A well driller and his teen water diviner daughter arrive to give them their independent supply, and upend their mundane existence, offering a chance for new love.

Austere in dialogue, but building to a dramatic climax, shot against the background of gorgeous countryside and random ruins, “Thirst,” a pick-up for international by Alpha Violet, was sparking good buzz before its world premiere at September’s San Sebastian, and drew critical thumbs-up. Variety talked to Tsotsorkova just before San Sebastian about her feature debut.

I don’t know if you’ve read Chekhov, but “Thirst” seems to me to turn on the brutal randomness of life. I wonder if you could comment?

Years ago, when I was applying to the Film Academy in Bulgaria, I had to perform a piece from Chekhov’s play Seagull for one of the exams. It was Nina Zarechnaya’s monologue toward the end of the play. Every time I said the first line, someone from the examination committee would stop me and say, “four times slower,” then “six time slower,” then “ten times slower,” and an hour later, I was saying the monologue in complete exhaustion, while only able to slowly and heavily breathe in and out. I learnt that to understand Chekhov’s world and characters, you need patience and humility.

The thirst of the title is, fairly obviously, not only literal – the need for water – but also for love, adventure, emotional refreshment.

A lot of people live in the desert of the material world. When the spiritual and invigorating “rain” pours down on them, they often can’t bear it and prefer to run back into the barren desert. People are often afraid to quench their thirst for love. In our film, the rain that everyone is expecting ends up being a big flood. But there is a hope, since the children survive —love is their lifeboat.

The characters are described in a synopsis as Mother, Father etc. I don’t think we ever discover their names in th film. Why?

Since I was a child, I’ve always loved hearing fairytales. In fairytales, which are often told from person to person, the story usually goes like this: “One poor man had a donkey”. Surely the poor man also had a blanket to cover himself with, but because the blanket has no direct bearing on the story, it has gradually fallen out of the narrative. What is essential to the story are the poor man and the donkey, because they carry the moral of the story. That’s why the characters in the film “Thirst” have no names, except for the categories they present.

In “Thirst,” few people talk, and when they do they sometimes lie, as when the girl says her mother was a gypsy woman, or talk about something, when implying something rather different, as when the mother says her house stinks of sheep, implying to the water driller father her desire to up and leave. Again, could you comment?

A lot of people find it boring to live only in their own skin. We can take social networks as an example, where people create parallel realities for and of themselves. Since our characters do not live in a virtual world, they invent and make up circumstances, which they then apply in their real relationships. The real world is much more violent than the virtual. Fortunately we live in the real one.

There’s a marked contrast between the beauty of the countryside and the post-industrial ruins pock marking the landscape. Even the cars, and the house are run down, the TV set the father builds decades old. People use donkeys as transport. This is one of the poorest parts of Bulgaria, I presume?  

The area of Sandanski, where we shot the film, is the driest and hottest part of Bulgaria. The dry climate obviously makes life for the locals rather difficult. The village where we shot most scenes was almost abandoned when we found it. We wondered why no summer-houses were built there, since the view was superb, but quickly realized it was because the area doesn’t have a water supply. The few people who do live there still have to get their water from a spring. The dryness cannot give birth to anything rich.

“Thirst” is very much performance driven. As an actress, how did you choose the actors for your film?

I knew who was going to play all the adults in the film, while we were working on the script. The actors I chose are clever and have sense of humor, which helped me a lot. But I had no idea who will take the parts of the teenagers. It took me one and a half, almost two years to find Monika and Alexander. I saw over 3,000 teenagers. I tried a lot of different scenes with 20 of them. My co-writer who wrote the additional scenes for the casting kept telling me that if I don’t stop we would soon have enough scenes for a new script.

Omega Films is a pay-TV operator. Is that kind of twin funding normal in Bulgaria: the Bulgarian National Film Center and a TV station? Or how do films get funded in Bulgaria?

The Bulgarian National Film Center and the Bulgarian National Television are the two institutions that usually support Bulgarian films. Other television stations only partner up with filmmakers very rarely. Omega Films offered us the use of their postproduction studios and facilities.

What are you working on now?

We are working on a new script called Sister, which I hope will be completed soon.

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