SOFIA 2020

“A sense of humour will save us”

by Marta BałagaCineuropa

20/04/2020 – Cineuropa talked to Mira Staleva, the managing director of the Sofia International Film Festival, also behind its industry event Sofia Meetings, about the current plans for the postponed edition.

Originally scheduled for March, the 24th Sofia International Film Festival and the 17th Sofia Meetings – postponed owing to the COVID-19 pandemic – are now expected to take place from 24 September-4 October. That being said, the festival is also happening now, thanks to the “imaginary diary” of the event published online (read more here), proving that if one can imagine no heaven and no possessions, as urged by John Lennon, imagining a festival isn’t hard to do either. We chatted to managing director Mira Staleva about the recent developments.

Cineuropa: What was behind the decision to have this fictional festival diary, which started on 18 March and is still going on?

Mira Staleva: It was a spontaneous reaction to what has happened. Due to the state’s decision to close cinemas and call off cultural events, we had to cancel the festival three days before it was supposed to begin. It was quite hectic. We were in a no man’s land, so how do you proceed? Do you go online or just postpone? We decided to do the latter, but also to do something now. [Festival director] Stefan Kitanov came up with this idea to present some of our festival’s past and some of its future, as there is no present. All of the content was created specifically for this edition or was taken directly from our archives.

The thing is, you have to do something for your audience. You have to keep in touch with them and keep them involved. There are all these people sitting at home, so it’s an excellent time to watch a video from a director or to hear about a new film. We also offered our audience the possibility to watch films on MUBI, in partnership with Europa Cinemas. If you stay connected, like we do, it’s a way to say: “Don’t worry, it will happen. We can’t give you what you expected right now, but it’s coming.”

Cineuropa: “Sofia Film Festival is a peculiar festival,” it said in one of its entries. But how do you keep this peculiarity intact online as well?

Staleva: It has always been peculiar! In situations like this, you need to think about the essence of your event: every festival has its own identity. We have always been very strongly connected to music, as it started out as a rock festival at the beginning of the 1990s, we have held many concerts, and we like to cross-connect audiences. And we have the festival band to keep up the spirit! For the moment, we are considering September, as we want our event to unfold in the same way as we had originally planned it. But considering the needs of the industry, we want to hold at least part of Sofia Meetings online, and soon – especially the Works in Progress, as they are the most urgent.

Cineuropa: So many other events are also currently eyeing the exact same time slot. Does it worry you?

Staleva: Of course. We were well on our way to starting the festival, so in this sense, it’s not a problem to switch to any given date. The problem is whether people will be able to travel, and yes, we might be pressed for time, as all of a sudden we will only have these few months when everything needs to happen. Not just the events that were already scheduled for the autumn, but also these ones that had to be postponed. But as far as Works in Progress is concerned, there is simply no point in waiting. All of these films that were selected for March, they are ready – they want to get into festivals. For the pitching sessions and presentations, we are still thinking about it, but we want to see how the situation develops and help these selected projects the best way we can.

Cineuropa: Despite numerous talks and virtual conferences about the current situation, moving industry events online still seems to be quite a struggle.

Staleva: For the Works in Progress, you just need to find the right platform, one that you can trust. Individual meetings can also happen online, as getting in touch is really not a problem. The main issue might lie with the communication, but back in March, people were caught by surprise. Nobody has established any common practices yet, but I am confident that we will. Our community is so interconnected – all we care about are the talents and how they can develop their projects.

We have to wait and see what Cannes, Venice and Toronto will do. As for the audience, there is clearly this thirst for content – when we announced our partnership with MUBI, you can’t imagine how many emails we received! The shocking part of this situation is that, as a festival organiser, you suddenly have to start dismantling a machine you have never dismantled before. We have never cancelled a festival, not in 24 years. We were ready. But we need to go on, with humour, solidarity and creativity. And as we are talking close to Orthodox Easter, a bit of Monty Python’s Life of Brian will certainly come in handy. I believe that our community is flexible and strong. The sense of solidarity, creativity and a sense of humour will save us.

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