TheWrap Screening Series: Syrian Refugee Crisis Highlights Bulgarian Oscar Submission ‘The Judgment’

Submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar is ripped from today’s refugee-crisis headlines, and director Stephan Komandarev discusses Bulgaria’s scary past

The timeliest Oscar contender has got to be Bulgaria’s “The Judgment,” a drama set along the terrifying precipice on the Bulgarian border, where Syrian and other refugees risk death daily.

“One month ago, an officer from the border police killed a refugee from Afghanistan,” director Stephan Komandarev told moderator Sharon Waxman at TheWrap’s Award Screening Series at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles on Thursday. “Some say this film predicted this would happen, but this is the reality.”

“Everything you see on the screen — the empty villages, the sign with the name of the village scratched out and ‘Mexico’ written on it — we didn’t touch anything,” the filmmaker said of his country’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Komandarev spent two years making three documentaries about the area, which has a long history of horror.

“We were the external border of the Communist system, and many people who wanted to escape Communism to the free world, to Turkey and Greece, were killed,” he said. “Today, thousands and thousands of people want to cross the same border in the other direction. It’s happening every day.”

Some of the characters seem over the top: the jobless hero struggling to feed his family and driven to refugee smuggling, and desperate to conceal his crimes as a Communist-era border guard; the son disillusioned and inspired by his dad; the evil, alcoholic border guard called The Captain. But all the characters are as real as the 2,600-foot precipice itself, which is known as the Judgment because people have been tossed from it since Roman times for political purposes. The East German Stasi killed at least 2,000 people.

“Border guards like the precipice a lot, because they can say, ‘They were running, he jumped’ — you can still find bones and people’s possessions at the bottom,” said Komandarev.

The director began his career as a doctor and psychiatrist who got into filmmaking because Bulgarian shrinks were required to film therapy sessions. As the youngest and most tech-friendly psychiatrist on staff, he was able to get a grasp on the medium. His 2008 film, “The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner,” was the first Bulgarian feature to be shortlisted for the Foreign Film Oscar.

By the time he made his documentaries about the border region, he knew the town’s true stories so well they tried to get him to run for mayor.

“Every one of the characters in the film has his own prototype with the same name,” said Komandarev. Even The Captain, the murderous racist border guard boss turned smuggler, was known by that name.

“He died two months before shooting of our film because he was drinking something like one liter of vodka a day,” said Komandarev. “All the things he said in the film, we didn’t edit. It was exactly the way he was talking. His wife, his daughter, it was all real. So our work on the script was just to organize, to connect the stories that we found.”

“The Judgment,” a $1.8 million film that won the $45,000 Best Narrative Feature prize at the Indianapolis Heartland Film Festival, does not focus on the refugees being smuggled and killed. It’s about the father-son dynamic, and Bulgaria’s unexamined conscience and history.

“Half my life was under Communism,” he explained. “In the generation of my children, there was an active propaganda campaign — ‘Let’s not talk about Communism, it’s not modern, let’s look to the future.’ In this film we’re trying to show that this is happening today. One reason we are the poorest country in the E.U. is that politicians somehow connected with the Communist time are today again in power. We cannot say that this past is not existing. This is the moment of taking responsibility for the future.”