Why a Former Doctor Used Film to Diagnose Social Problems in ‘Blaga’s Lessons’

“The best treatment starts with a good diagnosis,” director Stephan Komandarev said at TheWrap’s screening of the prize-winning Bulgarian film

Blaga's Lessons
"Blaga's Lessons" (Argo Film)

“In every screening with a Q&A, there is always a question about the ending,” Bulgarian director Stephan Komandarev said of his film “Blaga’s Lessons,” in which an elderly woman who’s been the victim of phone scammers begins to slide down a path that ends in a shocking act all but guaranteed to leave an audience shaken. And TheWrap’s screening of Komandarev’s film at the Crescent Theater in Beverly Hills on Saturday was no exception, because executive editor, awards Steve Pond opened the post-screening Q&A by bringing up that ending.

“We also tried other kinds of endings, but somehow the script always rejected the other, more optimistic endings,” Komandarev said. ” Finally we took the decision to keep this ending because it’s somehow open-ended. It provokes questions but doesn’t give answers.”

The third film in a trilogy about social problems in Bulgaria, “Blaga’s Lessons” — which is Bulgaria’s submission in the Oscars Best International Feature Film category — stars long-retired Bulgarian actress Eli Skorcheva as an elderly widow who takes drastic measures after she’s robbed of her life savings by a telephone scammer. For Komandarev, the film is the third in a trilogy that focuses on social problems in his home country as it struggles to adapt to its position in the E.U. in the post-Soviet era.

“The basic idea was to do an analysis and diagnosis of today’s Bulgaria, and also European society,” he said. “We wanted to provoke discussion. Bulgaria became a member of the European Union in 2007, and we were very optimistic about everything that would come. But in the last 20 years, we’ve lost one-third of the population because of economic emigration.

“My first profession was as a doctor. And when I was in medical school, our teachers told us that the best treatment starts with the right diagnosis. With our movies, we are trying to make something like a diagnosis with the hope that this will start some kind of treatment someday.”

At the screening, Komandarev explained that his transition from doctor to filmmaker began when the clinic where he worked received a donation of cameras and video editing equipment in order to make short films as part of family therapy. The head of the clinic asked for volunteers to work with the equipment. “She said, ‘Some of you must learn how to work with this,’ and all of the doctors, we looked at our shoes,” he said. “And finally she said, ‘Stephan, you are the youngest doctor, so you must take care of this.’

“So I started to shoot small things and do editing, and finally I was infected with this virus.”

With “Blaga’s Lessons,” Komandarev turned to the victimization of the elderly after making films about policemen and taxi drivers. And for his lead actress, he coaxed Bulgarian actress Eli Skorcheva out of retirement to deliver a heartbreaking and disturbing performance.

“She was one of the stars of the Bulgarian cinema in the ’80s,” he said. “But after ’89 (when the Iron Curtain fell and the country began a transition from Communism to democracy), she made the decision to stop completely with cinema and with theater. The cinema was almost not existing for eight, 10 years, and they started to play more commercial movies that were for her. She didn’t want to compromise, so she stopped with everything.

“She worked in an insurance company, she worked in a construction company. And when we met her, she was cleaning offices every morning from 5:00 until 8:30. But she has a dog and my casting director has a dog. He took his dog to the garden, and she was there with her dog. He recognized her, he started to talk with her, and finally he asked if one day she wants to return the Bulgarian cinema. And she said, ‘Why not? It depends on the script.’

“That same evening, I sent the script. And the next morning she called me and said, ‘Stephan, this is the script that I was waiting for for 30 years.”

“Blaga’s Lessons” has now won more than 15 awards at international festivals, beginning with the Crystal Globe at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic. And Komandarev said he still feels the same urgency to make films about the social problems in Bulgaria as he did when he began his trilogy in 2017.

“Some things have changed in a positive way,” he said. “Most things haven’t. For me, as a director, living in a country with a lot of problems, I don’t feel comfortable to do entertaining movies or reality shows. I prefer to talk about the small people struggling with problems.

“There is a joke I like: ‘Bulgaria is the country of optimists. You know why? Because all the realists and the pessimists have already left.’

“And as an optimist, living there with my family, I want to do something.”

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