"We had to educate a brand new audience." An interview with Martichka Bozhilova

18. 10. 2021

Author: Vladan Petkovic

Bulgarian producer Martichka Bozhilova has been one of the most prominent Balkan professionals in the documentary industry for the past 20 years. She has been intrinsically connected to the Institute of Documentary Film and Eastern European documentary scene since her first project, Georgi and the Butterflies, which was pitched at Jihlava and later awarded at IDFA. She has since produced films which screened and won awards at the Berlinale, Cannes, Toronto, Karlovy Vary, Tribeca, Busan, DOK Leipzig, Ji.hlava and Visions du Reel, and is also the founder and driving force of the Balkan Documentary Center, a crucial network for the development of documentary filmmaking in the region. We talked to Bozhilova about her career and the state of the industry.

How did you get into documentary filmmaking?
I didn't become a film producer right away, but once I started making films, I stayed there. About 75 movies and series later, I'm still looking for opportunities to learn new things and to develop. Almost 20 years ago, there was no money for cinema in Bulgaria and it was even pronounced dead. Back then I discovered the international market for documentaries and I was lucky enough to present my very first project Georgi and the Butterflies, directed by Andrey Paounov, at the IDF pitching in Jihlava. It was the first project from Bulgaria to be presented at the IDFA Forum in Amsterdam. It literally collected the money from "the table" and two years later, when the film was ready, it won IDFA. That's how I started.

Another milestone - and risky - project of mine, which I would like to especially mention, was the experimental docufiction hybrid Touch Me Not by Adina Pintilie, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2018. I co-produced it and spent some 7 years on this amazing and challenging journey. At the time when few people backed this project I felt it was something unique and worthy and I decided to give it a shot.

How did the Balkan Documentary Centre come about?
The BDC happened by necessity. At the beginning of the century, there were only a few of us producers and filmmakers from the Balkans at international festivals and markets. Our funding systems, and especially our relations with the national broadcasters, have been and still are problematic and sporadic.

Meanwhile our region became internationally known at the time for some of its best films – Alexandru Solomon's The Great Communist Bank Robbery, Florin Iepan's Children of the Decree and ours Georgi and the Butterflies. These films had a new mode of exploring reality at a highly cinematographic level, with observational style, humour, as well as a boldness in the filmmaking approach. That is why we said to ourselves that we needed to create this centre, based in Sofia and operating in different parts of the region, in order to become stronger, more visible and more significant in the European documentary industry. The great talents from the Balkan region deserved a way greater exposure in the professional world of documentary cinema. Thus BDC was created as a cross-border initiative 12 years ago in Sofia, Bulgaria.

How does BDC function?
BDC has two major annual programmes that have been operating for more than 10 years. One is the BDC Discoveries for development of documentary projects aiming at increasing the level of professionalism in order to bring Balkan documentary projects to a new standard of international co-productions and success on the European market, as well as raising awareness of critical issues provoked through quality documentary projects. The other programme is the Docu Rough Cut Boutique (DRCB) for documentaries in the rough cut stage, which we implement together with Sarajevo Film Festival.

So far, almost 100 documentaries which received recognition and prestigious awards have been made. Among the programme's biggest successes are Dana Budisavljević's Family Meals (IDFA), Ilian Metev's Sofia’s Last Ambulance (Cannes' Critics Week), Tonislav Hristov's The Magic Life of V. (Sundance), Mila Turajlić's The Other Side of Everything (IDFA) and Nebojša Slijepčević's Srbenka (Visions du Reel), as well as many others.

In a way, DRCB can be seen as the missing link, providing professional education for the international market, and helping young filmmakers with start-up resources and guidance, and promoting authors with a fresh and bold approach. There is a great responsibility for us as documentarians not only to reflect on life in our films, but also to do our best in order to assist documentary films happen in reality and stand up for their own place in the sun.

Through your company AGITPROP, you also made some very successful films. How did it develop, what is your approach to documentary filmmaking, and what are the biggest highlights of your company?
After Georgi and the Butterflies it didn't get easier, but at least I was already certain what was AGITPROP's niche - strong auteur-driven films, local talents and deeply touching characters that we can bring to the rest of the world.

I have co-produced with Germany, USA, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Romania, France, Croatia, UAE. Among our company AGITPROP’s leading TV partners are: Channel 4, Sundance Channel, HBO, ARTE, PBS, YLE, TV2 Denmark. Our most successful films, in addition to Touch Me Not, are Georgi Bogdanov and Boris Missirkov's Palace for the People (DOK Leipzig, Dok Buster Award) which aired on BBC, ARTE, MDR, NHK, SVT and many other TV channels, Elitza Gueorguieva's Our Quiet Place (Visions du Reel), Nerijus Milerius and Audrius Mickevicius' Exemplary Behaviour (Golden Dove at DOK Leipzig), Tonislav Hristov's Love and Engineering (Tribeca, Karlovy Vary), Andrey Paounov's The Mosquito Problem and other stories (Cannes) and The Boy Who Was a King (Toronto), Boris Despodov's Corridor #8 (Berlinale), and Jordan Todorov's Dad Made Dirty Movies (Visions du Reel), which was sold to more than 30 territories.

Recently we became one of the first Eastern European companies to develop and produce original and high quality non-scripted documentary series for the international market, working with HBO, National Geographic and ARTE.

Still, every new project is both a battle and a cause in its own way. On an average, AGITPROP's films take four years to produce, which is quite a long time, because all opportunities of the market for development and financing are worth exploring.

How do you see the current situation in documentary industry and filmmaking in Eastern Europe and the Balkans?
In Bulgaria, like in most countries in the region, the situation is still quite uncertain - before the pandemic there were like sixty-something screens altogether in my country, especially in comparison to the past, when there were documentary cinemas during the communist regime and there was an educated audience and a long documentary film tradition.

We have very good examples of strong cinematic documentaries that were really breaking stereotypes and political boundaries, also during communism at the end of the 1970s and the 1980s. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had to start from scratch and we had to educate a brand new audience. It is still very challenging after closing of cinemas for such a long period of time.

However, there are great, established documentary film festivals in the region run by devoted and very good professionals, such as Sarajevo Film Festival, ZagrebDox, Dokufest in Prizren, MakeDox in Skopje, Beldocs in Belgrade. In the light of this, in 2020 BDC successfully launched Sofia DocuMental International Film Festival dedicated to films on human rights issues - the first festival of its kind in Bulgaria. Its "0" edition was held online due to the pandemic. This year we are heading to its first live edition.

Today we also see positive results of a number of new companies, founded specifically for the production of documentary films, also in countries with low-production capabilities such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, or Turkey. We are discovering more and more brave new filmmakers and innovative collaborations between the Balkans and the rest of the world.

What is your view of the recent global trends in documentary industry?
Generally, documentary cinema is well established in the international festival and TV landscape, but at the same time the challenges and changes in the market with the arrival of streaming platforms and content formatting have not made it easier.

I am currently finalizing three films and we have also been progressing in the field of original docu series, including Tin Can Race, which was part of the East Doc Series selection. It is a challenge to realize these projects and launch them in the pandemic circumstances, when the big festivals reduced the number of films, and some of them cut out mostly documentaries this year. At the same time, streamers have not yet entered the region, but on the other hand they prefer films that are free to distribute worldwide, which is impossible in the case of European co-productions, in which the co-production territories are taken. I would like to believe that European co-production will have its meaning in the future and that its place on the European documentary market will be significant, especially for filmmakers with a strong auteur style and independent spirit.

Creating audio-visual content in various forms will be an important part of the future. I believe there will be room for feature length documentaries as much as for series or any other formats that might appear. The boom in this business during the pandemic proves it. The works of talented people will always have a place in this business.

As for me personally, what I strive for is to share and pass forward my knowledge and experience in order to help a new generation of professionals to move forward and bring new quality to documentary cinema.

The interview is part of series of talks with European documentary filmmakers marking 20 years of the Institute of Documentary Film in Prague.

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