Vesela Kazakova is an award-winning actress who graduated both in Acting and Producing in Bulgaria. Her leading roles in films like “Odkratnati ochi” (2005) and “Prima Primavera” (2009) received prizes for Best Actress in Bulgaria and abroad, including a Silver George Award at the Moscow Film Festival. Following her acting career, Kazakova set out to create socially and politically charged work with her production company Activist38, which she co-founded with Mina Mileva. Their internationally acclaimed documentaries have provoked an outcry in Bulgaria and put institutional pressure on the duo. Their first fiction film “Cat in the Wall” premiered in Competition at the 2019 Locarno Film Festival.
Tara Karajica talks to Vesela Kazakova about her career as an actress, producer and director, women and film and her next projects.
What made you want to become an actress?
Vesela Kazakova: My mother was an actress and all of us three sisters and their daughters are actresses. I have been on stage and among actors since I was five years old, so it came naturally, like a subconscious decision.
You were a Shooting Star back in 2006. How has it impacted your acting career?
V.K.: There was great timing in my Shooting Stars selection as it came right after winning Best Actress at the Moscow Film Festival in the years when the festival was still very strong. I had a few main roles in films and the films I was in had a lot of festival success. After Shooting Stars, the world opened up for me. I played in Germany and France and I had a German agent. I even managed to play in the famous German crime series Tatort. Then, things progressed with my directing and producing activities and I had to choose which path to take and prioritize. But I’m still open to the acting profession and I’ll always look for the role that could challenge me. Acting is a different means of expression that compliments the other creative roles such as those of producer and director. I don’t even mentally separate them.
And now you were on the other side, as a jury member. What was that experience like?
V.K.: It was very exciting because I had to watch all the presented films to establish the selection. There are new faces, new stories, and new trends. I probably wouldn’t have been able to see them otherwise. I have had a good connection with the EFP for many years and now we met up again. I support their activities and admire their mission. Their trust in me, as a member of the jury, was heartwarming. Also, it was fantastic to meet the other jury members. They are great professionals and I could compare my taste with theirs. We were mostly on the same page. Sometimes, it was very easy for all of us to say: “Yes, he/she should be a Shooting Star.” For others, it took a bit of back and forth testing. This year, the group of actors is very powerful and promising.
What was the role you played that has had a lasting impact on you?
V.K.: It may sound a bit strange, but we’ve made a hybrid documentary with Mina, which is now running on ARTE, where I took central stage. It’s called The Beast is Still Alive. I had already started to be politically aware and going through this role was like a catharsis both professionally and personally. Bulgaria is on the brink of new geo-political influences. There is a new “Soviet alliance” being formed and politics are pretty much still dictated by Moscow. Young people are unaware of how scary this tendency is. The central line in The Beast is Still Alive is my dialogue with my grandfather who fought against the communists in the 1950s in a very cruel resistance movement called “Mountain Dragons.” Although completely truthful to the events it describes, the film contains fantasy sequences and animation as well.
What was your favorite role?
V.K.: Every role is very dear to me because I fought for it, and I have chosen it in a way – despite the common perception that the producer and director actually choose the actor. I believe that the actor chooses as well and they have to choose wisely. It is most important to have the role that is appropriate to you. I have said “No” many times. It is not easy to do that at all…
You have acted on the stage and in film. Which one do you prefer? Why?
V.K.: I have a burning desire to be on stage, which is almost impossible for scheduling reasons since we produce and direct films. I’m sure that one day I’ll return to the stage with a very important role and it doesn’t matter when or where, but that role will be memorable.
How did you prepare for your roles?
V.K.: With a militant discipline, serious attention and physical training, actually. I often went to the gym and exercised. I believe you act as much with the body as with your face. I even read the Koran for one of the roles taking place in Bulgaria’s Muslim villages. I studied their rituals and the meaning thereof, although I didn’t have to. For another role – a leading role – in a Hungarian film, I have been learned all my lines in Hungarian for fifteen months. I’m prepared to go that extra mile.
What does it take to be a star, according to you?
V.K.: Star material is a very unusual thing. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of character and not visible at first. For an actor, it is important not to obey their inner limits and go to extremes. Then, it’s important how you handle the celebrity buzz. I’m quite introverted and I think that helps me preserve the sense of reality.
You are now a producer and a director. Can you talk about that change in your career? Do you still act sometimes? If so, how do you combine all three?
V.K.: When you direct, you’re required to think a lot. Sometimes, I feel burnt out. For the actors, it’s important to be focused on the action, not on the thinking process, to be intuitive. And for the producer, it’s a lot of strategy planning, logistics and mountains of paperwork. And you have to be ready to run the marathon for five or six years for a project. I act now in our next film with Mina.
You are part of a two-women producing team with Mina [Mileva] with whom you set up the Activist38 production company. What prompted the founding of this company? What drew you to working with Mina Mileva?
V.K.: Directing is a combative activity. You need a mate to bounce energies, duties and challenges off. We do everything together, actually, from writing to organizing, financing, directing, shooting, editing, animation, sound… Of course, we argued at first, but lately less and less and we actually have the same taste. This is a rare but a very important ingredient of us working successfully together. Mina is a visual artist, an animator. We work with a small crew and have to cover everything together. We make fast decisions when it’s good for the film.
Together, you created a strong wave of political activism in Bulgaria with the internationally acclaimed documentary Uncle Tony, Three Fools and the Secret Service and the docu drama The Beast is Still Alive. Can you elaborate on that? Why is political activism at the center of your producing and directing interest?
V.K.: It almost happened by chance. When making Uncle Tony, we never thought it was going to stir things. To us, it was a portrait of a very important person, Mina’s animation teacher, Antoni Trayanov. Of course, we always like to put political nuances in our mise-en-scène and a portrait as such is never enough. For that reason, we received a lot of harassment for having spoken frankly about the totalitarian structure of our cinema that was Communist at the time and about the Secret Service and its current repercussions in our society. Firstly, the Bulgarian film elite couldn’t bear to see the plain truth. We were supported mainly by journalists and theater people as well as actors. They could value our film as a piece of art and a mirror of our society. But several groups initiated legal proceedings and we had to appear before the public prosecutor every month for a year and a half. That was psychologically very tough. The film we made without any state funding could have been our last one. Thankfully, European organizations wrote letters in our defense, and I think this helped ease the pressure. Then we did The Beast is Still Alive, which also points at the fact that most university deans are former agents of the Secret Service, essentially our version of the KGB. It premiered at IDFA, ARTE bought it, but the Bulgarian television wouldn’t show it. As the last few years have been very intense, we made our fiction debut with a cat, a child and a family, but there as well, we managed to put enough social and political subtext.
How do you pick your projects, be it as an actress, as a producer or as a director?
V.K.: As an actress, I have to see something specific in the role, something that could challenge me. As a producer, if it is relevant of today’s world, yes. And if there is a premise for humor, of course. How we see our society through a story. This is what intrigues me. We like to make a true archive of our times with our films with Mina, so if somebody sees them in say in 2900, they could say: “Ah! That’s what it was like!”
What would your dream project be?
V.K.: Maybe one that is actually financed properly.
There has been a lot of talk about women in film these past two years. What do you make of the situation of women in film? How is the situation in Bulgaria?
V.K.: Very good question, thank you! This movement is not a casual occurrence. I think behind it is the fact that for hundreds of years the world was spinning around the male logic and structure. Cinema is a very good example: structure, fights, good and bad, extremes, high stakes. That’s what we expect to see in a film. Now, it’s time to explore what would happen if there is no murder, violence, logic and masculinity in the art of cinema. I would like to see it.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker? Is there one you would love to work with?
V.K.: I don’t do “favorites” because there are so many. So many recent fabulous female directors and so many in the past. Bulgarian cinema has traditionally strong female voices and I like to believe that Mina and I follow in their path. Ralitsa Petrova, our dear friend and an artist we admire, is a fantastic example of how great a woman director can be. In German cinema, lately, I like to observe Maren Ade and Valeska Grisebach. I like their humane approach.
What are your next projects?
V.K.: Society driven ones.
Photo credit: Marc Melkenleek
This interview was conducted in partnership with: