HBO Max has boarded Nikolay Stefanov’s debut feature doc “No Place for You in Our Town” which it is co-producing with Bulgaria’s Smarty Pants Shooter, headed by writer-producer Ralitsa Golemanova.

Premiering at Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX, “No Place for You in Our Town” marks HBO Max’s first original from Bulgaria. The film will drop on HBO Max in fall 2022.

It revolves around a group of soccer hooligans in Pernik, a mining town in Bulgaria whose industry has slowly decayed since the fall of the Soviet Union. The descendants of generations of men working underground must face the stark reality that the promised future for a working class never came to be.

The soccer fanatics ferociously embrace their third-division football team as a source of identity, a symbol providing a sense of brotherhood. Fascist iconography swarms their reunions, and often racist slurs feature in their abrasive chants. Yet Stefanov’s patient eye looks beyond that veneer of violent masculinity and finds through Tsetso, a skinhead hooligan with a Swastika on his chest and a single father, a wide range of nuance that give surprising depth to their human experience.

Another unique documentary in sales company Lightdox’s portfolio, on board since the film’s development, “No Place for You in Our Town” is an observational exercise that elegantly critiques the hollowness of fascist ideology by examining up close the life of those who bear it. It serves as a reminder that the violence which Europe considers a remote past still remains, its root causes still ever present.

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No Place for You in Our Town Lightdox

Variety talked with Stefanov as his film world premieres in CPH:DOX on the Next:Wave Competition

An element that often gets overlooked when talking about documentaries is the use of a hand-held camera, a tool that we simply assume as a practical choice rather than digging into the formal and aesthetic decisions that it has. One of the first things that strikes about your film is the dynamism of its camera, a dynamism that often reveals the fact that there is someone holding it. How was your experience when shooting?

When shooting, I strive to avoid rules. Instead of conceptualizing, I try to feel the situation and be aware so I can take the best from it. It’s a bit like having an eye on your back. I love hand-held because I can recreate the dynamics of real life. I have the freedom to change my point of view, and I’m not disturbed if it’s within the same frame. When observing, we move our attention to different things all the time. I wanted the viewer to feel close to the characters, so I offered my point of view, of someone who is there. I chose a 35 mm lens to create a sense of immediate proximity. I like the camera to have its own life, and in this film it’s as raw as the city it portrays. I shot the longest shots possible, as I didn’t want to alter reality in any way.

You manage to explore and give humanity to characters who carry swastikas on their chest, which is an achievement in itself given that this fact alone will immediately shape them for the audience. When working with that kind of extreme personality, what was your initial approach? How did your relationship evolve as you continued to film? 

I grew up on the streets of Pernik and this was my ticket to entering the world of my characters. They wouldn’t have allowed an outsider so close. What I learned during the filmmaking process is that it’s very important to try to understand a situation before judging it. I surely had a lot of prejudices in the beginning, but I approached it with patience and that paid off.

At one of the games, I was wearing an Anarchy badge on my bomber jacket. With the long lens, I saw a group of skinhead guys in the distance. I thought I should take it off, but kept shooting and forgot. Then one of them approached me and I thought, shit, I’m wearing this badge. He said, take it off. He turned out to be the main character of my film and in time, allowed me to see a different side of him.

A film about disillusioned hooligans who wear fascist imagery and their somewhat violent affairs can very easily fall into a bleak tone, but that doesn’t happen to your documentary, which is peppered with moments with a very specific sense of humor that lends a needed levity. Yet humor is always very difficult to balance, even more so in a documentary like this. When editing, how did you approach this?  

Humor in the film is provocative and is there to break concepts. This specific sense of humor comes from the characters. The citizens of Pernik have a very raw sense of humor which often can be shocking, but has lifeblood to it. Political correctness is not a thing there. Sometimes roughness can be funny, but it’s definitely a matter of balance. When you’ve grown up in such an environment, it may be difficult to find it though. That’s where the women on the team helped a lot — the producer and writer Ralitsa Golemanova and the writer Mariana Sabeva. I was consulting them about what crosses the wrong borders. The editor Stoyan Velinov also helped me a lot in this respect. We strove to let the characters’ humor come through naturally, without forcing it on the viewer.

The daily lives of your characters is, from time to time, juxtaposed with the history of the town; the footage that you use finds, through editing, a thematic resonance with what is shot. The film manages to say a lot without nailing down its themes to the audience. Could you comment? 

The past determines the present. Our previous words, thoughts and actions shape our state today. That’s why the archive material was so important. A lot of what I found was propaganda. Filming was the priority of the state, which shaped the narrative of the times. Interestingly, the narrative didn’t change much with the change of political regimes. While there’s no totalitarian regime in Bulgaria for more than 30 years now, the echo of these times is still here. What impressed me in the archive footage was the attention given to the working class. These people were valued because their labor was needed. Today’s society is built on their shoulders. The sons of working class heroes are in a different situation today. They have inherited the raw masculine power of their grandfathers, but does someone need it today? I wanted to show who the ancestors of my characters are and let the audience decide who my characters are.

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No Place for You in Our Town Lightdox