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‘The Father’ Directing Duo on Laughing Through Grief, and Film as Therapy

Writer-director duo Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov are two of Bulgaria’s most acclaimed filmmakers, earning critical plaudits with their award-winning features “The Lesson” (2014) and “Glory” (2016). Part of their Newspaper Clippings Trilogy, the films were inspired by sensationalist media stories depicting the absurdity of life in post-communist Bulgaria.

Grozeva and Valchanov took a break from the trilogy to shoot their latest feature, “The Father,” which has its world premiere Tuesday in competition at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. Inspired by a mysterious, real-life event, the film follows a bereaved husband and son who discover that the deceased has been persistently calling a neighbor’s phone since her passing. When Vassil (Ivan Savov) decides to visit a famous medium to unravel the supernatural mystery, his estranged son Pavel (Ivan Barnev) is forced to tag along to keep him out of trouble — a tragicomic road trip that could ultimately bring the distant duo closer together.

“The Father” is produced by Abraxas Film in co-production with Greece’s Graal Films. Wide is handling world sales. Grozeva and Valchanov spoke with Variety about the use of humor to cope with grief, the trouble with modern-day (mis-)communication, and the influence of the supernatural on everyday life in Bulgaria.

What inspired you to make “The Father”?
It was partly inspired by personal experience, and partly by observing the experiences of other people. It was at Petar’s mother’s funeral. After the funeral, the neighbor actually received a phone call from the deceased, which inspired the film. The first moment when the whole family gathered together, when they heard that his mother is actually calling the neighbor, their first reaction was to believe it — to not doubt it whatsoever, because everybody wanted it to be true.

This is a movie about the relationship between a father and son, but also about the relationship they had with the late Valentina, who is being buried in the film’s opening scene. Vassil clearly feels guilt toward his dead wife, but you chose not to explore Pavel’s relationship with his mother.
It was mostly because Pavel’s relationship to his mother was more of a balanced, conflict-less relationship. At the present, he’s much more absorbed by his troubles with his wife. That’s what balances out the whole movie.

You create an interesting dynamic between Pavel and his wife, who never actually appears on screen. We only hear her voice over the phone. In some ways that mirrors the character of Valentina, with her phone calls from beyond the grave.
This was one of the biggest challenges: to have these female characters without actually having them or seeing them there, and to build an image of them that you can see in the mind’s eye. Even though they’re not present or really active, those female characters are maybe the strongest factors influencing the story.

Everything in the movie seems to hinge on cell phones. Pavel’s work and personal relationships in the film exist over the phone, while Vassil sets off on his quest because of his wife’s mysterious call from the afterlife. But instead of bringing people together, the phones seem to fuel misunderstanding between the characters.
It is a commentary about the way we communicate as a society today — the dependence on technology, and technology itself not really being reliable. A communication breakdown at every step of the way.

The quince is another recurring theme throughout the film. In many cultures, including across the Balkans, the quince represents fertility, love and life. Did you have that symbolism in mind
First and foremost, the quince is a very common fruit around here — especially in the autumn setting that the film is set in. It’s a traditional thing to make quince jam at that time of the year. Other than that, the quince itself is a fruit that is sweet, sour — you can’t really eat it without doing something with it. This also reflects somehow the experience of the story.

[Over the course of the film], the quince also becomes a symbol, a bridge between not only generations, but between members of the family somehow — and between here and the beyond.

Vassil has a very rational, scientific mind. But in the movie, we see how he’s willing to grasp at every coincidence, any opportunity he has to find some sort of meaning in his wife’s death — often in a way that’s very funny for the viewer. Do you find humor is a useful vehicle to explore feelings like pain and loss and grief?
We definitely see humor as an intrinsic part of the human experience, and also as a way to deal with guilt and pain. Creating this film was sort of a therapeutic process, and we hope it will have the same affect on the audience.

Petar, you said “The Father” was partly inspired by events after the death of your mother. How long did it take you to process that grief and, as you said, use the making of this film as a form of therapy?
We started working on it about four years after the event. We first let it rest; we needed the whole experience to transform in a way, and then come back to it when we were ready. It’s important to point out that this is not an autobiographical film. It’s a story which was inspired and influenced by events in our lives. We used a lot of what we went through before while in the writing process, but then, when we started shooting and we went on set, we let this be forgotten and let the story take its own course and its own life. We abstained from influencing it too much with our own experiences.

Can you tell us about your next feature?
That will be the final instalment of the trilogy that we began with “The Lesson” and “Glory.” It will be the third film; the working title is “Triumph.” We recently got financing from the Bulgarian Film Fund, and also from Creative Europe – Media. Now we’re developing it.

It will be quite a crazy story, based on true events from the dawn of democracy in Bulgaria — from the period between 1990 and 1992, when a group of high-ranking military officers started digging a hole in the search for something that was relayed to them by a group of psychics who were allegedly in contact with a very advanced alien race. They dug for two years and ended up digging a 160-meter (520-foot) tunnel before someone found out what they were doing and shut them down. This actually happened, and we’re going to fictionalize it in the last film of the trilogy.

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