Director Slava Doytecheva - The Bulgarian Queer Communities guardian angel
Away from home, Slava Zoom's in from Basel, Switzerland. The room is quaint, the ceiling is a pale old wood, slanted and charming. Salva is dedicated to her Queer community, and a pandemic won’t stop her from pressing on with her next projects.
Despite being young, you get the impression that she has been working in the industry for years. Thats probably because she has. Slava has been an actress well before she started writing and directing her own work. In 2006 she featured in ‘Christmas Tree Upside Down’ as Rasha, then again in ‘Crayfish’- a 2009 feature film directed by Ivan Tscherkelov. But now it is more important for Slava to take charge of her own creativity: “I really wanted to see myself represented in cinema.”
"The parts for women my age are the girlfriends of the main character, and I clearly don’t fit that image. So its hard, I don’t think I could have ever made a career out of acting. But also I was always more interested in doing my own stuff. I find my own work more giving and more rewarding at this point. And I like to have more control."
In 2020, the short film ‘Whole’ was released online. It was premiered in 2018.
“I made it for Bulgarian audiences, because I didn't see our queer life in cinema here at all”
‘Whole’ is a dramatic portrayal of a closeted queer person at a traditional, family, Bulgarian wedding. Yana- the main character- seems to be struggling immensely with her identity and her place in the world. There is a lot of pent up frustration which appears to boil over when talking to her mother or older members of her family.
“Its almost autobiographical. It didn’t happen per se in this way. The plot is made up, but the emotional weight came from an actual experience. Going through an actual Bulgarian wedding was very difficult for me. It was a clash of two worlds- at that point- because I was more in the closet, I didn’t have my community around me and I felt very alone. It was like me against the world.”
In the film, a young waitress catches Yana’s attention. The heteronormative and traditional wedding setting exaggerates the ultimatum: should Yana choose a life of hiding, or should Yana follow her innate desires?
Seeing Yana explore this is incredibly relatable. You don't need to be from Bulgaria to appreciate the sheer level of distress and anxiety. This is what makes ‘Whole’ such an incredible piece of film.
"Once this film was done and out, It felt like a huge weight lifted off me. I was finally me, nothing to hide anymore."
Thankfully Slava managed to figure out her inner struggles, but this often isn't the case for young queer kids in relatively hostile communities. An issue Salva knows all too well about. In her spare time, Slava gets involved in projects within the Bulgarian LGBT+ community:
"In 2018, as part of the Sofia Pride Film Fest, we created a talent lab for film makers from the Balkans, and we invited 10 people form the whole region to pitch a short queer film, and win a small production grant. It was a very inspiring time, after just one week we all felt a strong sense of a community. Usually these labs in the regular film world are tinged with competitiveness, but I think we as queer people really find strength and purpose in supporting each other like family.”
When asked about her feelings towards the young queer generation in Sofia, Slava feels proud and inspired. Inspired enough to want to make a documentary about them.
"I really want to make a documentary about the new queer generation in Bulgaria. The youngsters, they have a very different energy than my generation and older people. It’s almost like they didn’t grow up in Eastern Europe and are a different breed of queer people. An improved version of us, because they have less fear and they’re so relentless and fabulous. So I would like to make a film about them because they fascinate me and I want to learn from them. The world is theirs, the future is theirs"
Although, being this open and brave in Bulgaria is a very difficult thing to do. In April of 2019, politicians in Plovdiv were actively seeking to halt a photography exhibition called 'Balkan Pride'. As well as this, there have been frequent attacks to LGBT+ people in the capital, Sofia. It is also common to see homophobic graffiti with derogatory slogans like “No to gay propaganda in Plovdiv”.
However, the LGBT+ community in Bulgaria should not be defined by these sad instances. There is a strong queer community, full of talent, art and creativity- and Slava is a shining example of this. But the reality of the situation is that being an openly gay artist and director means being exposed to backlash and criticism in society. But Slava is not worried, and it will not silence her:
"It can get scary, but when you see something like this, you see all the more reason to keep speaking to keep working, because if that’s not a reason, what’s the reason."
"For the kids now, there are so many shows with queer characters. I don’t think they are watching any Bulgarian TV shows, because they have access to everything now. And it has to be really good for them to watch a Bulgarian TV show. And that’s the goal. To make something that good that they will watch it, over Pose or Queer Eye."
Speaking loud and clear, she said: "They’re facing a bigger backlash because they’re not trying to pass. A lot of us from this older generation are passing, or trying to pass, and these are not trying to pass. And that’s why they are in bigger danger. They need us to fight for a safer space."
First as an actress and now as a writer/director of her own projects, Slava has been on a journey of self discovery through film. She has evolved from being controlled, to being in control. Slava now has a selfless purpose, she will use her experience to help the young queer kids have an easier time. And for this, she is their guardian angel.