Bulgarian director Stephan Komandarev earned critical acclaim for his 2017 feature “Directions,” which was selected for Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar. The first installment in a planned trilogy about the social inequality and moral ills plaguing both Bulgaria and Europe at large, the film followed six cab drivers over the course of 24 hours as they picked up fares on the streets of Sofia, weaving together several vignettes to offer a wry but sympathetic and nuanced portrait of Bulgaria today.
Komandarev’s follow-up, “Rounds,” is set on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the fall of communism in the Eastern European nation. Echoing his previous film, it centers on three pairs of police officers who patrol the capital in their squad cars over the course of a long and eventful night. As with “Directions,” Komandarev again raises larger questions about Bulgarian society three decades after its rough transition to democracy began. As one character puts it, “I lived on Class Struggle Street, now it’s European Way. But nothing has changed.”
“Rounds” has its world premiere this week at the Sarajevo Film Festival. Komandarev spoke to Variety about Europe three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, how strong communities can shape a better future, and the power of cinema to change the world.
The film is set on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the fall of communism in Bulgaria. A central debate in “Rounds” is whether anything has improved with three decades of democracy. How do you view the changes that have taken place?
It’s not only for the Bulgarian society. Bulgarian society is not unique. All of Europe, we have the same problems. But some things are more strongly represented in Bulgaria. We are champions in many disciplines. [Laughs.] The poorest country. One week ago, I saw that we are the country with the biggest inequality in Europe. We have terrible problems with mortality, with health, with education—43% of young people in school are functionally illiterate. But I think all these problems, they came from this main topic, the inequality. Because this is something that really divided the society, destroyed the feeling of community, and influenced all the rest. Somehow the social capital is disappearing. Without being part of some war, a quarter of the population of Bulgaria left. Without disaster, without anything. All of these things are important for me, because I’m living there. And my family is there, my kids are there. I’m attached to this country.
My first education, I’m a doctor. I joke with friends that a doctor is always a doctor. In this film, but also in the previous film, somehow our patient was the Bulgarian society—not only the Bulgarian society, but European society, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And of course we try to treat this society with some humor, some drama. I don’t know what we did. Maybe diagnosis, maybe psychotherapy, maybe autopsy, surgery. [Laughs.] I don’t know. The audience will say. But at least we try, because I think this is the duty of every filmmaker—not so much to entertain, but to ask questions. To present the problems. And maybe something will happen. I believe that cinema can change things.
You’ve talked about wanting to “diagnose” the problems in Bulgarian society through your films, but there are a lot of scenes of hope in “Rounds.” What are the things that make you hopeful as a Bulgarian?
To make someone hopeful, maybe it’s mainly a question of the people around him, and the relations that he has with these people. For me, the most optimistic thing around me are the eyes of my two kids. Because the most important things in the world, you can see in the eyes of your kids. But also all the friends, including the friends that we are doing films together. Because in Bulgaria, you can do films mainly with friendship—not so much with money. [Laughs.] When you have this society around you, when these people believe in similar things, they are trying to do something in order to have a good result at the end. They struggle for some good causes—this is something that is giving hope. The feeling of community. This is a big problem, because this community is disappearing. It’s more easy to hate other people, but it’s much more difficult and much better to do something together. Not to divide, to unify.
Both of your recent films are set within a particular community – first taxi drivers, now police officers – which become windows into the wider world. What attracted you to that kind of storytelling—to use these groups and their encounters as a microcosm of society as a whole?
The basic idea [for “Rounds”] came when we did “Directions,” we just noticed that during the night there’s a lot of police cars. So naturally this idea came. We contacted the biggest police union in Bulgaria, and we told them, “Listen, we’d like to make a feature film about you. Can you help us?” They helped us and we met a lot of working police officers in Sofia. We collected many real stories that we used as a base during the shooting of the film.
The interesting thing with the police officers, especially the ones that are in the street every night, they are dealing with real life. What does police officer mean in Bulgaria? It means nobody loves you. Everybody hates you. You work for a very small amount of money. Your clothes, everything is very poor quality. You look terrible very often. So somehow, the police officer is also a way to represent what is happening in this society.
There’s a memorable scene where a patrol car interrupts two young men spraying graffiti under a highway overpass, chasing them off after they’ve only managed to write a single expletive: “f**k.” And one of the policemen wonders if that curse is directed at the government, or the Russians, or the Americans, or someone else. Does that strike you as a typically Bulgarian sentiment today—there’s a great deal of anger without a clear sense of what to be done with it?
There is a lot of anger in Bulgaria because of the situation, but very often this anger is going in fake directions. Every time someone else is guilty for what is happening. It’s a psychological mechanism. It’s much easier to find someone else that is guilty. What I hope will happen, when the film is released in Bulgaria, is the audience will watch the film and think, “What is my own possibility to try and change something?” I believe in small changes, not in the revolutionary ones that happen [overnight]. If you start to think, “What can I change in my behavior? In my relation with this person, with this person?” Maybe in this way, something can change.
We will release the film in Bulgaria on Nov. 8th, the night [the events of the film are] happening. There will be a lot of discussion in the media, in social media, about this anniversary—30 years. We want to present the film on the same night, in all the cities around Bulgaria, in order to provoke discussion.
One of your characters says that Bulgaria is suffering from a kind of Alzheimer’s, but you can’t simply erase the past, regardless of whether or not you like it. Is that one of the biggest challenges facing Bulgaria today?
When you deny something, it stops to exist. When you destroy a monument, this period did not exist, because you don’t see the monument. This is a very infantile way of thinking. Even at the moment, there is a lot of discussion. A few weeks before the release of the film in Bulgaria, there will be a local election, for mayors. At the moment, there is one candidate whose platform is: “I want to destroy this monument [to the Soviet Army in Sofia].” And that’s it. Not some platform about how to improve the life of the people, how to raise the salary, how to improve the situation on the street. No. To destroy the monument. This is a magic way of thinking: [that] with things like this, you will solve the problems. But we are very happy about this discussion, because this also will help our film.