Interview: Slava Doytcheva, director of Whole

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Actor and director Slava Doytcheva talks to Glasgow Short Film Festival about her latest film Whole, telling the story of a young, closeted woman who attends a traditional Bulgarian family wedding. Whole is a well-observed drama, placing the audience in the head of a protagonist experiencing one of the most formative moments of her life.

What inspired you to set the film at a wedding?

The idea was inspired by a personal experience I had at a wedding, when I myself was still in the closet. It wasn’t anything like the plot in the film, but the feeling of being alone and completely out of place left a mark on me and I wanted to explore it. Bulgaria is still very much a conservative society and to me, weddings are the epitome of such beliefs. Setting the story in such a way allowed me to put great pressure on my character and also make the divide between her and everyone else clearer and even more unreconcilable. 

I really liked the way in which the conflict at the heart of the film felt so momentous, yet goes unnoticed by the vast majority of attendees. Is this something you intentionally sought out to achieve? 

I have always been interested in the subtleties of any dramatic experience, in all the things that happen between the lines. As a director, I see the camera much more as a device to photograph thoughts rather than words. Besides, I think this aspect is truthful to queer stories, especially in my home country – such stories often remain unnoticed by the majority of people. LGBTQ people are all around, yet no one seems to know even one. 

What were you trying to communicate during the sequence in which Yana interacts with the old man? I found it interesting how he was initially shown to be perceptive to Yana’s emotional state, but ultimately turns out to be a bit of a creep.

As most women, I have had plenty of uncomfortable encounters with creepy older men, yet we don’t see it much on film. What interested me even more though, was her state in the moment – a strange mixture of fear and desire to be seen, to be found out. There is a second when she thinks he has deciphered her and a part of her wants it to be that way – to finally let the secret out. Of course, as it turns out, the guy has something completely different on his mind. 

So much of the emotional resonance of the film relies on the actors’ facial expressions. As both the protagonist and director of the film, do you find your approach differs when directing yourself?

In certain ways directing myself was easier – nothing was lost in translation, I knew the character inside out. I made a conscious effort to be very aware of my emotions on set and ride them, whatever they were, sometimes even changing the schedule around. If I was angry with someone from the crew, I would shoot a scene where I am angry with the mother, etc. On the other hand, my mind was too preoccupied and I felt that I didn’t have enough resources or attention for the other actors – we relied more on the work we had done prior to shooting. To be honest, I really missed the joy of working with actors – the improvising, the surprises they give you, the shared creative experience. I think it will be a while before I decide to direct myself again. 

Whole screens in Bill Douglas Award 3: Mom & Pop (N/C 15+)

Interview by Joe McFarlane