photo credit: Nikolay Hristozov
author: Iliyana Braykova
On January 18th 2020 in FSK Kino Berlin an audience of about 60 people enjoyed director Stanislav Donchev’s film “Letters from Antarctica”. Many of them began to tear up, some found reasons to laugh, at least one person jumped up in terror, and almost everybody stayed for an hour after the screening for a Q&A with the director, producer Teodora Doncheva and actress Irmena Chichikova who plays Diana. This Saturday afternoon excited both the audience and the guests deeply. Here is an overview of the event through the lense of the discussion.
The icy continent and the work with BAI and prof. Pimpirev
During the creation of the raw material for the film the film makers asked the chairman of the Bulgarian Antarctic Institute prof. Christo Pimpirev for professional advice. He, himself, in Stanislav Donchev’s words, an “artistic” personality, suggested, he should be given a part in the film. The professor, who plays himself, is a “character” from the storyline of Petar (or uncle Misho from Antarctica) who becomes a participant in the deceptions, created by Diana.
Alongside with geologists, meteorologists and other specialists, the director sent a brave camera operator on a mission to shoot the icy continent with its blizzards, melting ice caps and the endless white of the snow. The viewer steals a glance at the base of the Antarctic mission and the scientists’ cheerful everyday life. These scenes offer one of the moments in which the audience looks away from Diana’s grief to feel the multifacetedness of life. Even in the hardest of conditions, there is a place for collegial mocking and practical jokes. In this way prof. Pimpirev, and with him the BAI, turns out to be so much more than a consultant. They make the story realistic not only on a factological, but also on an emotional level.
Working with child actors
The acting of the many children in the film is another key element which Berliners appreciated highly. Asked whether the casting of child actors is challenging, Stanislav Donchev said that because they aren’t professionals, children are only truly relaxed in front of their parents’ home cameras. Producer Teodora Doncheva said besides that most mothers and fathers brought their children out of their own ambition and were more critical to them even compared to the casting managers.
The casting for the part of Nikola proved a true challenge. Even in acting schools for children the second-grader remained unfoundable. Success was finally achieved when Donchev managed to suppress his dislike of the typical Bulgarian nepotism and gave a chance to the son of the actor and head of one such acting school, Daniel Angelov, Simeon. Simeon quickly found his place on set and had his colleagues “wrapped around his finger”.
The fourth guest in FSK Kino was Vasil Donchev, son to the director and the producer and in the film, one of Nikola’s classmates. Vasil said that his friends enjoyed “Letters from Antarctica” and that during the filming it was hardest to prevent Simeon from eating all sandwiches provided by the catering.
photo credit: Nikolay Hristozov
Building up Diana’s character
Diana is Nikola’s mother, the best ophthalmologist, newly employed at a private clinic in Sofia, and the protagonist of “Letters from Antarctica”, played stunningly by Irmena Chichikova. Right from her introduction, the viewer feels that she keeps a bitter secret. She watches documentaries about the eternal ice of Antarctica in her car and falls asleep behind the wheel. She looks tired, distracted, locked up in her own world. There are other signs too - she shows her son a package from his father who is supposed to be on the icy continent, yet the box bears the symbols of “Bulgarian posts”. She stumbles upon an old friend from her hometown Rousse and immediately after the meeting rushes to change her phone number, in order to escape any further conversations with the friend. She prescribes to patient a binocular in the form of glasses.
Irmena Chichikova shared with the audience in Berlin that she has mixed feelings about her character. This is in fact the pain in the film - on one side, we empathise and understand the deeds of a fully devastated woman. On the other, we judge her for the egoism of creating a parallel reality for her son. Diana is actual, comprehensible. Her grief is like the melting ice of Antarctica and with every scene the levels of the ocean of truth rise to flood her and immerse the relationship with her son.
From the conversation after the screening we found out that Irmena Chichikova had an enormous competition for the part. Producer Teodora Doncheva said that at first they underestimated the actress because she doesn’t have any children of her own. On workshops abroad, experts told the film creators to cast a Western-European actress for such a complex part. It turns out, for a professional of Irmena’s range, the lack of life experience is merely an opportunity to build the character from the ground up. As we saw, her success is tremendous.
photo credit: Nikolay Hristozov
An unconventional drama
“Letters from Antarctica” is a multidimensional and deeply exciting film. The trailer, the topic, the motif of the white lie, even the genre “family drama” create the sense of weight and absolute darkness. Many of those who came to see the film - and probably even more of those who didn’t - had forgotten for a minute that Stanislav Donchev is known first and foremost as the author of comedies. On January 18th, the audience in Berlin found out that more than anything, he is an expert of the human heart.
The comic effect becomes stronger through its closeness to reality. If you’ve gone to school in Bulgaria, undoubtedly, you will identify with Nikola’s class, being aligned in two rows and shouted at by the class teacher. You would laugh. But this mood stands in opposition to the intense conflict between the teacher and Diana which pushes the protagonist on the road to the truth. In this way, all feelings become more tangible and relatable.
The emotional dynamic in the core of the screenplay is what makes the story remarcable. Through laughter we connect to the characters, we come closer to them and empathise with them. In less than two hours we go through several shades of laughter, several levels of grief, until the very end we burst in laughter through unabatable tears, alongside Diana.