In their feature film debut, “Cat in the Wall,” Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova examine life on a housing project in modern-day London, where the often difficult co-existence of immigrants and locals is under threat from gentrification.
Written and directed by the London-based Bulgarian filmmakers, the film tells the true story of how a cat, stuck in a wall, affects a community and changes the lives of diverse neighbors, while also tackling timely issues like immigration, xenophobia and Brexit.
The film premiered last week in competition at the Locarno Film Festival, and also plays in competition this week at the Sarajevo Film Festival, where it featured as a work in progress within the industry program, CineLink. Mileva and Kazakova discuss their work and the film’s origins with Variety.
How did this film come about and what was your inspiration to tell this story?
Mina: In my 20 years of freelancing in England I’ve never been asked where I come from until the anti-migrant media frenzy began around 2010. Headlines warned about the influx of 30 million Bulgarian and Romanian migrants. A shabby figure as Bulgaria is currently only 7 million. To us, this film laments the loss of tolerance and normality in London, one of the most culturally accepting and progressive cities in Europe.
Nobody expected a handful of rich men to succeed in imposing Brexit just in order to avoid tax or for any other trivial reason. The knock-on effect now is selling off public services, gentrification, and racist violence from which we’ll all suffer. And on top Boris Johnson as prime minister! Even a satire wouldn’t be as exaggerated as real events lately. Without trying to be political we couldn’t help noticing that this knock-on effect started quickly entering our homes. For example, the £26,000 [$31,397] bill for the replacement of two windows is real. It was imposed by the council where I live and there was no way of objecting to it. These windows had to be made out of gold to cost that much. And as you can imagine they were the cheapest plastic on the market.
In what way does your film deal with the timely issues of immigration, gentrification and the challenges facing multicultural societies?
Vesela: In an honest way, we hope, because it’s all based on true events and first-hand experiences as migrants. Annamaria Lodato from [French-German broadcaster] Arte, mentioned that these migrants from “Cat in the Wall” are easy to relate to because they’re not outcasts. They are fairly educated and are striving to climb the social ladder, which probably represents a large section of Europeans today.
To what extent does the film reflect London and U.K. society today, particularly in the current Brexit climate?
Mina: Telling a true story can never be neutral and going off on a tangent is often a challenge when you work with real events. Both the Bulgarians and the British had to fight their own ground in “Cat in the Wall” and we, as directors, had to organize that battleground carefully. There were going to be racist statements, prejudices and insults.
Vesela: A well-known black British actress who came to our casting told us that “Cat in the Wall” was the least racist script she’s read in a while and that made us very proud. She asked for an extension of her role and we couldn’t work together but she helped set the tone of Rhianna, one of the characters. Emotions were flying high and we were blessed to have a team that didn’t shy from showing their true feelings and employing them in the most creative way.
You both previously worked on documentaries. How did your experience in that field influence your direction on this film?
Vesela: The documentary genre with its truthfulness and authenticity, which we love, caused us a lot of grief. We were crucified for making an innocent portrait of an exceptional artist, the animator Antoni Trayanov. The controversy was covered by Variety. Our next documentary, “The Beast Is Still Alive,” gave us the nickname “demonic duo.” We decided it’s safer to move to fiction but we’ll always be tempted to do a documentary.
On the other hand, we kept closely to a fictional approach when working on “Cat in the Wall.” We rehearsed our scenes to a point that they started to look like reality. That was intentional. Experienced advisers, actors and crew helped us achieve it.
You brought “Cat in the Wall” as a work in progress to CineLink in Sarajevo. What role did that play in the development of the project?
Mina: CineLink was our entry into the pressurizing fiction circles and it gave us the opportunity for a soft landing. We experienced friendly and direct networking. We received the Arte CineLink award, which was a tremendous boost to our development. A Lithuanian friend asked: Are these €6,000 [$6,686] your entire budget then? Of course we had money from the Bulgarian National Television and the Creative Europe Media Program too but that friend was aware that we’re a bit of a black sheep when it comes to funding in Bulgaria.
How did you end up working with Glasshead Limited and Ici et Là Productions?
Mina: I worked at Glasshead in London for quite a few years producing animation for the BBC and Chanel 4. Glasshead and managing director Lambros Atteshlis gather documentary specialists with an astute sense for topics covering reality and social issues. … Three years ago I met Lambros again in Soho and I told him I had to pitch a fiction story to him. He was surprised, as he knew me from animation. He said: “You have two minutes before I lose interest.” Those important two minutes gave the film another dimension.
Vesela: I met Christophe Bruncher from Ici et Là at an EAVE [European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs] workshop. We badly needed cash to finish the film. Christophe agreed to take it on and we won post-production support from the Ile de France region in partnership with the CNC [French National Film Board]. Christophe is the kind of producer who would support you emotionally on every level. It’s not a surprise that he has produced extremely humane films, such as “Growing Old Together” and “Mr. Stein Goes Online,” that were also box office hits.
Will you be co-directing your next film together?
Mina: I think we’ll always work together if circumstances allow it. I’ve had enough of solo career in the arts and I now think collective effort is what matters. In our next film we have the pleasure of extending our team to her family consisting of five actresses!
Vesela: I’m a well-known actress in Bulgaria and I’m often asked why I don’t act anymore. I want to act in something I’d kill for not just for the sake of career or money. In our next project I’ll be in front of the camera together with my sisters and my niece. Again based on a true story, this film will depict current trends in Bulgarian society like domestic violence, the obscure idea of a third sex and the newly born homophobia.