It has been described as “one of the great films about a woman, by a woman” by Richard Brody from the New Yorker. And for her feature film debut as a writer, producer and director, Maya Vitkova should take every bit of that feedback to the bank because she deserves it.
‘VIKTORIA’ was a labor of love for her, taking almost a decade to complete from inception to completion, and it is honestly one of the most hauntingly beautiful films we have ever seen. The story follows three generations of women in the final years of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria and the early years of the transition to democracy. The film focuses on reluctant mother Boryana and her daughter, Viktoria, who in one of the film’s surreal, magical touches is born without an umbilical cord.
Though unwanted by her mother, Viktoria is named the country’s Baby of the Decade, and is showered with gifts and attention until the disintegration of the East Bloc. Despite throwing their worlds off balance, the resulting political changes also allow for the possibility of reconciliation.
The film encompasses many of the elements we love: history, politics, more than one female protagonist, a female writer and director, and an insight into the lives and struggles of women (albeit in a fictional story) across the world. And if you need more proof that the world needs more badass stories and filmmakers like Maya, it should be noted that ‘Viktoria’ has won numerous awards, and was an official selection at Sundance Film Festival and AFI Fest. Maya has also been named a “Producer On The Move” by the European Film Promotion in Cannes. No big deal…!
‘Viktoria’ has been shown around the US in various theaters and opens in Los Angeles today, Friday June 10. Maya will be attending a number of the screenings to participate in a Q&A (Friday 6/10, Sat 6/11 at 8pm, Sunday 6/12 at 4:30pm, and Monday 6/13 – Thursday 6/16 at 8pm). We highly encourage you to run, not walk, to any of these screenings to hear this amazing filmmaker from across the world talk about her work.
We also had the chance to talk with Maya exclusively about ‘Viktoria’, and she shared some very unique insights and perspectives on Bulgaria’s transition to democracy after the Soviet Union rule across Eastern Europe, how that affected women in particular, and the state of women in film.
How did the story for ‘Viktoria’ come about?
It was the day after the last shoot day of a project I did as the First AD (Assistant Director). I didn’t feel comfortable with that project, as the director was a spoiled brat, not knowing exactly what he wanted. This is when I decided that I wouldn’t do this job ever again. And I didn’t, although I had been working as an AD and casting director for more than 10 years before that and learned a lot on production. I recall getting home late that night and sitting in front of my computer in a sort of trance.
This is when I first wrote ‘Viktoria’, as if I planned it for a long time before that. I guess it was there, hiding, waiting for the right moment to come out. I had an extended first treatment in the morning. I did 7 or 8 rewrites of the script throughout the years of development and preparation, but the core of the story remained. Overall only 20% changed, but most of all, the film started as a comedy with the first draft and ended up as a drama on the big screen. It took me 9 years to make ‘Viktoria’, but I don’t regret a day as it taught me who I am.
Although it is a fictional story in terms of the girl being born without an umbilical cord, are there any real life parallels in terms of the identity of women and girls during Bulgaria’s transition to democracy?
Bulgarian women who saw’Viktoria’ tend to often recognize themselves as kids (those my age now were 10 years old when the so-called transition took place), their mothers do too, as young women. Those who saw the film more than once are my age. We weren’t by any means trying to generalize about all of society in ‘Viktoria’, instead we portrayed a family, which gave more of a glimpse into what it was like.
I’d say the 3 generations of women in the film are the women I knew: my mother and grandmothers, my family’s circle, relatives and friends, the colleagues of my parents, and my classmates. I guess part of the Bulgarian women were really like that.
How did the move to a new political period affect women and girls in Bulgaria?
They grew sadder and full of rage. I love watching archival footage. I’ve seen hundreds of hours while working as an AD and later, while prepping for ‘Viktoria’. Along with the manipulation of the moving image (a characteristic of the medium as it is which was typical before the political transition) and apart from the humiliating and ridiculous characteristics of the political regime, you can easily sense a sort-of cleanliness and stability in the Bulgarian women before the transition.
But as time goes by they look somehow bothered, insecure, and maybe a bit hysterical too. One of the things that happened after the Berlin wall fell down (9th November, 1989), followed by the collapse of the communist regimes in Europe (although it turned out it was more or less a theater performance and a shift, rather than a change in Bulgaria), hundreds of thousands of families broke apart. People started getting divorced, finally giving expression to everything they were holding back during the censored times of the communism rule before that.
Women were no longer doing their hair and nails so carefully, they stopped caring about their homes the way they did before, they wanted to leave, set themselves free, do whatever the hell they wanted to. They were without the burden of a guy for whom you need to wash his dirty socks and put dinner on the table with a glass of plum brandy (rakia) every night. The kids stayed somewhere in the back, as they were not the most important people in these women’s lives anymore. How did this period affect them? Well, you can tell by the number of lonely, but also free, women age 50 and 60 nowadays.
In what ways is this film autobiographical?
They key situations in the story happened in my own life, these are moments from my relationship with my mom. The historical part is authentic, referring to dates. The magical happened in my imagination, so it is also true. It’s not semi-autobiographic as such, instead ‘Viktoria’ is an emotional blueprint of myself.
There is often a lot of risk and challenge for female directors with a female-driven plot to get their films the same kind of attention as male-driven films. How do you approach this problem while not compromising on the subjects you are most passionate about?
I never think about it when I start working. It’s not even in the back of my mind. I have been told I am more technically skillful than many male directors. But while traveling the world with ‘Viktoria’ – the film did more than 70 festivals after Sundance – I was often neglected while male directors were praised or awarded, although many thought it was not fair. First it used to make me angry and I was ready to argue, but the worst I thing I witnessed has put an end of it all.
It was a female jury – 5 women, directors and critics, who awarded three films by male directors at a festival where some of the women-directed films were obviously better. When one of the jurors approached me, telling me how much she appreciated my film, it felt ridiculous. I was recently a jury member at a festival in Romania and we awarded a film done by a female director, not because it was a female directed one but because the film was the best one. But I wonder, if I didn’t push for it, as the only woman on the jury, was the film going to win?
What needs to be done is to have an equal number of female jurors on panels and at festivals, not just actresses on screen, and to have an equal number of competition films made by female directors. The same goes for financing. I’d hardly believe there are no good films done by women. With the industry rapidly changing, there are some very strong and distinctive female voices in World cinema.
You can watch the trailer for ‘Viktoria’ below, and visit the Big World Pictures website to find additional screening dates and cities.