Monday, 4 August 2014

In Search of Other Lives: A Dialogue with Konstantin Bojanov

It was on a rainy day that I met Konstantin Bojanov the first time. He was staying in a heritage hotel at Fort Kochi. It was a week day, but he was very thoughtful to give me an appointment at 4.30 p.m., and I could easily manage to be at his place after my work. I heard about his arrival from our common friend Gautham Subramanyam the Indian documentary maker, and I was excited to meet this acclaimed Bulgarian director working on a book of which I enjoyed every page, every word - The Nine Lives by William Dalrymple. The work on  the second issue of Lakeview Journal was in progress and we were very excited about a Skype interview my colleague Alicen Jacob did with Dalrymple, on his latest book Return Of A King. I thought an interview with Konstantin would add some more value to the issue, which many consider a collector's item now.

We decided to carry out the interview at the hotel patio, and while I fumbled with my video camera, Konstantin offered help. He went to his upstairs room and came back with his tripod and fixed the camera for me. There were some glitches in the beginning - the rains, the heavy noises of some repair work in the hotel, visitors talking loudly... we had to switch off the camera a few times. Finally he asked me to go up with him to the balcony of his room. We settled down there once again, to the beautiful sight of rain falling down on the Arabian Sea and the all green terrain surrounding it. The noises were at a safe distance to distract us. "This is a place where I would love to have my home, some day" he said, half seriously. His girlfriend made some nice tea for us, and offered some cakes too. Everything was perfect, and I did trust him fully for the camera setting once again. The only trouble was that we didn't realize that it took us around two and a half hours to wind up the whole thing - small talk, off the record discussions/comments and yes, the interview, which was in fact a freewheeling chat, though I succeeded in asking him everything that I had in mind. He realized he was late for another appointment, but made some quick alternatives, Kochi style, and was back to his warm, friendly self by the time I shook his hands and said goodbye. 

Here is the interview in full, which was first published in the Vol.1. Issue.2. of Lakeview Journal, August 2013. He talks about how he came upon the idea of doing a film version of The Nine Lives, why its characters appealed to him, his relationship with India and its culture, how he plans to work on this project, his major influences, his previous work and his areas of interest.


In Search of Other Lives: A Dialogue with Konstantin Bojanov

Bulgarian producer Konstantin Bojanov, born in 1968, is a quadruple-threat producer/writer/director/visual artist. He graduated from the Sofia National Higher School of Fine Arts and received his M.A. from the London Royal College of Art. After a period of documentary film studies in New York he became a visual artist and filmmaker. He shot and produced his first documentaries and shorts: in 2001 - Lemon is Lemon, in 2002 - 3001, in 2004 - Un Peu Moins and in 2005 - Invisible. In the same year he established his first US based company, while three video installations marked his carrier (Quintet without Borders2007, Crash, and Burning Ghats, 2008).  Bojanov found international success with his first feature Avé (2011). The bitter-sweet hitchhiking story of two young people crossing the post-communist Bulgaria took part in 60 festivals and received nineteen prizes and over twenty nominations. It has been commercially distributed in France, Switzerland and Poland and sold to HBO Latin America and TV channels in France, Turkey, UK and Switzerland. Among his various projects now is an adaptation of William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives. He was in Kerala in connection with the research for this work and was gracious enough to share with Jose Varghese his first impressions and his views on how to tackle the challenging project.

Konstantin Bojanov    - Photo credit: Jose Varghese

Jose Varghese (JV): Hello Konstantin, welcome to Kerala. Hope you enjoy the monsoons here.

Konstantin Bojnov (KB): I am trying to make the best of it. It is quite an experience. I have always been here during the dry season. This is the first time I am here during the monsoons. And it is a concern for me how it would affect my research on Nine Lives - the reason why I am here. However I didn’t want to postpone this trip one more time. So, I decided to go on with it. 

JV: Can you tell me bit on how this project on Nine Lives evolved? I guess you are going to call it ‘Other Lives’. 

KB:  ‘Other Lives’ is a work title. It’s a very challenging project. Challenging for a number of reasons. I believe that my research trip now is going to help me finalise the way I want to tell the story. I need to see whether all the nine stories become part of the film, or they are to be reduced to a small number of selected stories. Hence the work title ‘Other Lives’.  And the idea is to produce a theatrical feature which hopefully will not exceed two hours. So, in order to be able to go in depth into each story, nine stories in a two hour format might be a lot too much. The work title reflects the idea that the stories might have to be fewer, since we couldn’t at this time give the original title. 

JV: How did this project materialise? Did you get a proposal from someone? Did you think twice before accepting it?

KB: Actually, I originated the project. One thing that I do very often is to go to the local bookstore. Nine Lives was in the shelf on one such occasion, for the newly released non-fiction paperbacks. It caught my attention.  The reason for that was my love, interest and obsession with India for over the last ten years. I didn’t know much about William Dalrymple. I read a summary (blurb) of the book. And in some ways, not being able at the time to physically travel, I wanted to transport myself to India through this book. I really didn’t know what to expect and I was very surprised with what I actually discovered after reading the book and how the book affected me and what it made me think. So I was so fascinated by the book and the characters that almost immediately I contacted William Dalrymple. 

JV: When did this happen and what was his response?

KB: This was in April of last year. He responded within minutes. I told him about my interest in turning the book into a film. And then we had to take the next step and deal with agents and lawyers and had negotiations and so on. In the mean time, Dalrymple was working on and finishing his new book The Return of the King. And he shut himself up and disappeared for several months. I didn’t really know what to make of it. But for good or bad I am a very persistent person.  So, although I was not hearing back from Dalrymple or from his agent for a long period of time when I wasn’t sure of what the reason was, I kept at it, and kept sending emails and kept making phone calls until at the end of November when William Dalrymple finished his book and he apologised for not being in touch and for neglecting my emails and said he had to finish his book and couldn’t think of anything else and then he went on a six month tour with his book. And we managed to sign the auction agreement in April. So, it took me a year to get the agreement in place. So since mid-April things went off in a fast track. I was first expecting that we could sign the agreement in September so that I could be here in October-November. I didn’t want to lose the momentum, the energy, and I decided to go ahead and come to India and research some of the stories. 

JV: Do you believe it is necessary to know India a bit closer before you start the project?

KB: It was for me very important to have a first-hand experience of the characters and locations before I could solidify my ideas of how I want to tell these stories. It’s a challenging project for many reasons. Because it is very important for me as a film director to not fall into the trap of creating a film that deals with exotic subjects. That is so far removed from my intentions.  On the contrary I am trying to strip all exotic elements as such and to focus on the human story, on the human condition, on the specificity on the lives of these people, and also to try to tell these stories in a way that they have a universal resonance; that they would be understood anywhere. 

JV: Why do you think they will have a universal appeal?

KB: They are stories about human aspirations. They are about people reaching a point of no return and drastically changing their lives. This is where the surprise came for me. Basically I was looking for an escape when I first came across the book. And yet what I found were characters that I could strongly relate on many levels despite the differences in culture; despite the fact that most of them live their life, from the European perspective, in an extreme way. Most of the characters basically possess nothing.  They have these solitary pursuits of transcendence; of trying to transcend their daily lives. 

JV: Which is the first story that you are going to research?

KB: It is the story of the Theyyam dancer in Kannur, Haridas  - for me what was really fascinating about the story was not the dance itself; it’s not the anthropology and origins of this tradition. What was important for me was this is a person, a human being, who leads a kind of dual life. Ten months out of the year, he does menial jobs. He digs wells. For a long period of time he was a prison guard – in a very violent prison. He belongs to a low position in social ladder and hierarchy. Yet in the two months when he becomes the Theyyam, when he actually practices his art, he transcends that life. He becomes something different. He is treated differently, and the way he comes across in the book is basically that he lives for that experience. 

JV: Were you struck by his religious fervour?

KB: All these stories have religion as a major element. Yet I am trying to not ignore, indeed it is impossible to ignore, the religious aspects with these endeavours, but to again focus on the deeply human aspects of these stories. 

JV: Will you have the story of the Jain nun in your project?

KB: Yes, indeed. One of the guiding principles of Jainism is that of non-attachment – to places, to people, to objects.  And it’s something I had always been grappling with – the meaning of possessing objects, the meaning of attaching yourselves to someone to the point that you could get easily hurt. The meaning of attaching yourselves to places. In the case of this nun, she goes against the basic principle of her devotion and develops this life-time bond with another nun, going against the principle of non-attachment, of solitary life. For me, this is a love story not in the romantic sense, but in the human way. And when her companion nun decides to put an end to her life because of suffering, because of advanced cancer, she decides to do the same. Here it’s about how you could almost choose the option to give away your last worldly possession, which is your body. She goes on this eighteen months of gradual fasting until her body slowly withers away. 

JV: Did you have to face some challenges to convince your producers about the way these stories could work in a visual form?

KB: It’s difficult to convince producers and financiers that I can tell the story in a way that it doesn’t end up being an anthropological study; but it becomes a film that can be seen everywhere. The goal of my research trip now is to be able to generate the written treatment of these stories that can convey the way these stories can be retold. I am not doing something unlike what Dalrymple did in several of his books. That is, taking a text, often an ancient text and transforming it. Even in his very first book, he took the writings of Marco Polo and followed his route from Jerusalem to Xanadu, which was the summer capital of Kubla Khan in the Fourteenth Century. Later in his third book From Holy Mountain, he took the manuscripts of these two Sixth century monks who went through the Middle East visiting different religious figures who live in remote places. I am doing the same with the book that is not centuries old, but only a few years old. But I need to find my own unique perspective, and I need to bring something from myself. Otherwise, what is the point of me making the film? 

JV: Are there any films on India that have really impressed you, to the extent that you might include a few technical and thematic elements from them in your project?

KB: The French director Louis Malle made a film in 1969, which is a film that I really love. I have watched it countless times. It’s a six hour documentary, in seven parts. And it is called Phantom India. He came here to India and spent a year, along with a cameraman and shot this cinéma vérité– documentary. It’s almost like a personal diary. It’s a masterpiece of observational cinema. There are a lot of things that I really like about the film. First is the level of dignity and respect and sort of appreciation for the subjects of his film. Second is that he inserts himself as a narrator – an off-screen narrator – of these stories that he had seen, these people he encounters, and I am planning to use a similar tool in narrating the story. I will try to be the off-screen narrator of these stories. I am not planning to produce a traditional documentary - there will be no sit-down interviews. I would like to film their daily life now and to tell the story of their past and how they arrive to this point of their lives. Because this is extremely important for me – the personal journey up to the point of now, up to the point when the film takes place. So I guess it will have a different tool than what is used in conventional documentaries. 

 From Louis Malle’s Phantom India (1969)

JV: What will you call it – a docu-fiction, or a non-fiction feature film?

KB: Non-fiction feature film - and I would also like to mix fiction and non-fiction together, which is also a necessity, since some of the characters are no longer alive, and I need to tell their story as well. Where the real characters are unavailable, I would like to find similar characters to play the real ones from the book. 

JV: So, you will use real characters when they are available?

KJ: Yes. The book was researched and written just six years ago. And yet, four out of the nine characters are no longer alive. The Sufi Fakir from the book ‘Red Fairy’ passed away only three weeks ago. And also the Devadasi from ‘The Daughters of Yellamma’, as far as we could assume, is also no more. She had AIDS. Her story is extremely tragic and touching at the same time – someone who so violently protested against the decision of her parent to commit her life to that of a devadasi, she did the very same thing to her two daughters, and both of them died in their twenties. Her dream was to save enough money to stop working. She bought some land, to be able to have some cattle there and live out of that. As long as we know, she is no longer alive. The Jain Nun is no longer alive. And the Story Teller also passed away while the book was being written. His wife and son now continue the tradition. 

JV: How could you connect with all these stories, as a film maker?

KB: These are very very different lives from one another. Extremely different from my own life. Yet, in all these lives, I could find something that I could relate to. I could recognize, if not myself, people that I have grown up with. The book actually succeeds extremely well in not drifting to exoticism and orientalism, and instead to really focus on the human being. The book deals with religion as well, but the core of it is not religion, in my opinion. I could connect well with these characters because they are real human beings who can have a similar existence in any part of the world, with their passion, solitary goals and so on.

JV: In what way is it going to be different from, or similar to, your earlier documentary Invisible?

KB: I think there will be both the elements of Avé, my last film which I made two years ago (in 2011), and Invisible which I made a very long time ago (in 2005). I came to Films from Fine Arts, I was educated as a fine artist, many years I made art, and in fact I continue to make art these days. So, I came to make films late in life. Invisible was my first feature length film. It was a documentary. It deals with a very harsh subject of six young people of various ages addicted to heroin. In the late Nineties and early Two Thousands, Bulgaria was flooded with heroin. The country has always been on the route of drugs coming from Asia into Europe and then the States. This was the first time in the country’s history that the drugs became available in the streets.  The film is very flawed, but even in this case I tried to give platform to the characters to tell their own story and how they view the world, rather than me being the interpreter of these stories. So as much as also possible, I would like to do the same thing here with Nine Lives. As an off-screen narrator I would like to connect the stories, give them a personal touch, but give voice to the characters themselves. It’s important for me to create the context of each, but it would be in such a way that the characters would tell their own stories. Another way this film would relate to my previous project would be in terms of imagery. I would like to keep the images as simple as possible. I may try to create a poetic realism. Indian films from the Seventees onwards, for instance the ones by Satyajit Ray...I love that kind of poetic imagery that is very different from what Bollywood generally creates. In that respect, visually, I believe this film will have a lot in common with my last film Ave. Something else that I may have this one in common with Ave is that I would structure it as a read movie, with me going on a trip to discover these people. So, it will have very different location in one part from the other. And it will be an essential part of the story to try to connect them together. 

JV: I have just started watching Avé and it looks like an intense, unique film. And even though you say that Invisible was flawed in some ways, I found it deeply engaging too. I even wondered whether those six people depicted in it were real people or just actors. 

KB: They were very much real people, with very real addictions. I got rather attached to some of them. And I kept in touch with some of them. It was indeed a very difficult project. 

JV: So, the transformation of the characters is also real?

KB: Yes, the transformation is also real. There is a four years’ gap between the beginning and the end of the film. After I finished the film, it became very difficult for me to get out of it emotionally. Because of how difficult their lives were, to just keep engaged with them was tough. I had to selfishly pull myself out of my engagement with them, and to preserve my own sanity. 

JV: After your research, how do you plan to proceed with the project? Are you going to have discussions with William or, are you going to keep him out of the picture and interpret it your way?

KB: That was one of the stumbling blocks before the signing of the agreement. And I can understand his position. This is a book that was written years ago. For him it is a thing of the past, and he didn’t want to re-engage with the book. He has been very helpful in putting me in touch with people like Gautham Subramaniam who put you in touch with me. He was also a researcher for four of these stories. He worked with William. I am actually yet to meet Gautham in person, but I am seriously considering collaborating with him as a writer on the project. For me, creatively having an Indian viewpoint, an input on this project is a must. As a ‘foreigner’ trying to tell these essentially Indian stories, you could very easily drift into the territory of a singular point of view, which I would like to avoid. I am also considering other creative elements to be used in the film, like working with an Indian cinematographer. At this point, there is an Indian co-producer, a Kolkata based company called Overdose. As a director, I would approach this as a collaborative process. The creative producers, the’s a team that works together, not a dictatorial director who says, yes, I have a vision, and then everyone should facilitate that vision. I am just not like that. It would be a collaborative process with the characters, the co-writer, the cinematographer and so on.

JV: It seems you have a keen interest in Indian books and movies. You have already mentioned Louis Malle and his documentary. Do you have other favourite Indian writers or film directors?

KB: I must confess that despite my love for India, I am not much familiar with contemporary Indian literatures. I am a little more familiar with Indian films, especially from the independent film scene. One thing that directors like Anurag Kashyap achieves is that they don’t fall into the trap of Bollywood rules of making a film, and they manage to make their films on their own. They do everything the way they are not meant to be done. There is a whole new generation of young film makers like him here as I understand. In terms of contemporary Indian literature though, I have a lot to catch up on. 

JV: Have you seen the recent movies Midnight’s Children by Deepa Mehta and The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mira Nair? 

KB:  I actually tried to watch The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I found it incredibly artificial. On many levels I found it plain bad. Short of the first film with which she became famous, Salaam Bombay, I haven’t liked her other films. Her previous film The Namesake was an okay film, but that is not really the type of film I am interested in. 

JV: Do you have a soft-corner for sidelined people – who inhabit the underbelly of cities?

KB: I definitely do, and I also definitely care for the way they relate to the world that surrounds them. I am very careful when I use the word spirituality, but it is the question of evoking yourself to endeavour and pursue what you consider significant. When the centre of your being becomes how you relate yourself as a human being, how you reflect on the world that surrounds you.  I have always been attracted to people who pursue with extreme conviction solitary goals. And with no exception, the characters of Nine Lives represent that. In many cases, from a Western viewpoint, they would be considered as artists, although they don’t view themselves as such. The by-product of their devotion is in fact art, whether it is music, whether it is dance or whatever. These are people who can, like me, pursue their goals against material lobbies. So I have a soft-corner for them. 

JV: Your characters in Invisible refer to the Indian culture and attitudes to ‘time’ in a dreamy way.

KB: But that is an illusionary viewing. But if you look more carefully, India spends much more time to spiritual betterment. There is something distinct in the approach of the mystic and the metaphysical here in India than in Europe or America. And I have an attraction to that part. 

JV: You are also a film editor?

KB: Yes, but I often try not to edit my own work. But apart from directing my own films, I am involved in the editing of the work of the younger generation of directors. 

JV: Can you talk a bit about your recent movie Avé? You have mentioned in some interviews that it is an autobiographical work. And what connects the two unlikely characters in that movie?

KB: Although it is a work of fiction, there are some autobiographical elements in it. It is essentially an unusual love story. It takes place on the road. Two young people meet while hitchhiking. These two people can also be considered outcasts. They could not be any more different from others. The girl is a compulsive liar. She invents different personalities for herself. She does that not in order to have personal gains, but to protect her own fragility. The boy is more like a Catcher in the Rye type of character. He is compelled to tell the truth no matter what, no matter how much he can hurt someone. And these two very unlikely characters meet on the road. The boy is hitchhiking to the funeral of his friend. And the girl is looking for her troubled brother. They spend four days travelling together, on the road. And at the end both of their lives are changed. Although it is a very simple and low-budget film, every element of its production was difficult and lengthy. 

From Avé (2011)

JV: What do such situations teach you?

KB: For me, part of making films is learning to be patient.  It so happens that a film takes a long time from me. A friend of mine often poses the question how to eat an elephant, and the answer is, one bite at a time. I am going to approach this new project that way. 

JV: What is your take on the short movies that are all over YouTube these days, most often made by young students?

KB: Like anything else a majority of them may lack any significance, but a few of them are brilliant. Both directors and actors start by making short movies. Even in my case, I made a number of short experimental movies in the beginning, which were shown in galleries. I find the short movie format quite challenging. It’s not easy, it’s like a short poem – you have to be very precise. It all depends on the intention. As long as the story that they narrate engages you, and makes an impact, that’s all I care about. Technical aspects are secondary in that case. If you could sympathise with the characters, or find something about humanity revealed in a movie, that’s a work worth watching. 

JV: You are also a writer and visual artist. Do you write anything other than for the films? 

KB: No. If I write something like that it would be my own personal reflections. Years ago, in my teens, I used to write poetry, and some of them got published.

JV: What about the visual artist part of you? Which medium do you use?

KB: I make photographs, digital art and sculpture. 

JV: This should rather have been the first question – when did you realise that you wanted to be a director? What is your academic background in arts/films? 

KB: This may sound like a cliché, but I have always wanted to make movies. Even when I was very young, even as a kid, I used to write scripts for films. When I was at college, I made short films. I went to London Royal College of Art for my Masters and did Documentary Film Studies in New York. But it is not always necessary to have an academic background in the craft before you start making movies. If you look at the large number of famous directors, there are many who never went to the university to do a course on film making. A course may help in some cases, but it is never a must that you do it.

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