A meditative, elegiac triptych capturing three chapters in the life of the same man, Kamen Kalev’s “February” is an unconventional portrait of what the director describes as an unconventional figure: his grandfather, a reserved but complex man who lived a humble life in a village in eastern Bulgaria.

“He was a very inspiring figure to me,” Kalev told Variety during the Thessaloniki Film Festival, where “February” is screening as part of the Balkan Survey strand. “He was somebody who preferred the wild nature, rather than humans. Very, very distant, and very hard to communicate with.”

The director described how, as a young film student in Paris, he would return to his grandfather’s village on summer holidays, equipped with a handheld camera. Despite his best efforts to capture the old man’s life, however, he remained a taciturn figure.

“Once I asked him, ‘How do you feel? How do you spend a whole day without anybody, just by yourself and the animals?’” His grandfather, said Kalev, simply replied with an enigmatic smile.

The older man’s relationship with nature and solitude left a mark on the director, who explores those themes in “February,” which received a Cannes 2020 label earlier this year. The film is produced by Kalev and Filip Todorov of Bulgaria’s Waterfront Film, and co-produced by Diane Jassem and Céline Chapdaniel of France’s Koro Films. Memento Films International is handling world sales.

Variety caught up with Kalev during the Thessaloniki Film Festival, which runs Nov. 5-15, to talk about his fourth feature.

Can you tell us about your grandfather and how his life served as inspiration for this film?

This project came [about] in a very spontaneous way. The previous works I have, I’m always trying to send myself into a new direction and try some unknown path, looking for what is closest to me. With my first feature, I was in a very spontaneous mode, let’s say, working very intuitively. And then on the second and the third film, I went somewhere else—especially my third film, it was very structured, and very dramaturgically driven. It came to me as an urge and a need to go back to the roots and really work in a spontaneous, emotional way, rather than rationalize everything.

It was more emotional, that’s how it came to me, as a desire to film. Everything starts with the third part, [which depicts the protagonist as an old man]. I originally wanted to make a short film out of this, because it was an episode that happened in real life. At the end of his life, he wanted to bring his sister back to their village, and spend the last days of their life together, and help each other. It was a pretty moving story. I wrote two, three pages. It was very simple. Then the second part came [to me]. And then I realized that I’m moving toward a bigger picture.

“February” unfolds in three parts, set in Petar’s childhood in a remote shepherd’s hut; the naval base where he does his military service; and the isolated place in the country where he lives in old age. Why did you choose these three specific periods in his life?

The second part in the film was something that he always told me as a story—that he married my grandmother, and the next day he left. She was just waiting for him at the edge of the village. And then he came back three years later, after his [military] duty, no signs of news, no letters, no phone calls. And maybe that was something that I thought was a good way to present this character, this specific and extraordinary man.

Somehow, when I was writing the script, for me it was clear that the first part, the kid represents what is proper to a kid—closer to the chaos, and not wanting to follow any rules, being bored with that adult environment, wanting to escape and create his own vision, his own world. The second part, when he’s 18, that’s when he realizes that he cannot escape this path. That he embraces this repetition of life, and he knows he will be like his father and grandfather.

That’s why from this point until the end, for me, there is no change. There is just life coming as a river in front of him, and he’s just there. Whatever is good or bad, he receives it and he doesn’t hope for another life. He doesn’t think about another life. That was the biggest challenge for me, to follow a character that doesn’t change. To find a way to represent this life that emanates from him, and to find the right balance of everything. Especially the actors, who have to have this balance of energy and physical [qualities].

You also chose two first-time actors, Lachezar Dimitrov and Kolyo Dobrev, to portray the younger versions of Petar. What did you see in them, as well as in the veteran actor Ivan Nalbantov, that suggested they would bring some kind of continuity to the film, and how each would depict a different chapter in Petar’s life?

I didn’t really worry about that. Of course, I wanted to have a continuity somehow, and convince [the viewer] that it’s more or less the same guy, but I never really worried there would be some different aspects, or different features for each of them. For me, what was really important was to find this truthfulness—to convince myself that this kid and the youngster and the old man could be coming from that place that I know very well, in terms of dialect, features, energy, the way they look, and all these movements they have.

For me, it was really important to have their relation to this place. Not to create it, but to have it in their blood. For the third character, it was more complicated. Somebody who I would be able to work with at the age of 80, it becomes more difficult for a non-professional actor. Ivan Nalbantov is somebody that I know, and I worked with on my first feature film [“Eastern Plays,” a Cannes Directors’ Fortnight selection in 2009]. I’m very happy that I finally chose him, because he brings something different than my first image of the character. He’s more mild and fragile, and I like that very much.

The photography in “February” is particularly striking. Can you talk about your collaboration with DoP Ivan Chertov?

I really needed to go back to the roots, not only in terms of subject and relation to the [production] team, but to the process itself. To have a small team was one of my first priorities, to have not more than 10 people on set, and doing most of the work by myself. I did cinematography class in film school, so I still have this desire to make pictures and still photos. For me, it was important to tell [the story] through images, with a very constructed visual world. That’s why I edited the film as well. I had this concept of time and space that I really wanted to finalize by myself.

Chertov, he would eventually help me out with some lighting and some measurements, because we shot on 16mm. He became a very strong collaborator. He was somebody who was really thinking about the global way it should look. He was a great partner in that. I did the framing of more or less the entire movie, but he was very close to me as a partner in that global vision of the film.

You have been showing your films in Cannes throughout your career, and this year would have been no exception, if it weren’t for the pandemic. What has this period been like for you as a filmmaker, not having the chance to physically share your film with the audience?

I really miss meeting with the audience, and I still wait for it. I hope distribution in France and Bulgaria and other countries will not be disturbed next year, and that will be the moment when I will meet the audience and see their faces and their reactions and chat with them. It has been a long process. It took me five years to finish this movie—not only the creative process. We had a lot of issues with the Bulgarian funds, because we spent two years [trying] to get the funding, and there was another year that [public funding] was blocked. The whole system was blocked. For one year, there was no Bulgarian production possible.

So it took me five years. And somehow, I like that slow process. It would be great to have a physical premiere in Cannes. But what can we do? [Laughs.] It’s still good for the film, because we knew from the very beginning that it’s not going to be a commercial project. So it’s important to have this label for the long life of the film. I’m sure the film will meet its public.