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Early last year, Stefan Kitanov, director of the Sofia International Film Festival, thought that after two years of lockdowns and online events, things were finally getting back to normal.
“For two years I was out of all festival events and travels, I avoided all public events and spent time in our family house outside the city,” says Kitanov, who started Bulgaria’s biggest film event 27 years ago. “[Then], just as we thought the pandemic is finally over, the war in Ukraine broke out, just a month before our 2022 edition.”
The festival lineup was already locked down, but Kitanov quickly adjusted to the new reality. And made Sofia’s allegiance clear.
“We decided to withdraw Russian films and call off Russian talents and guests,” recalls Kitanov, who has many friends among both Ukrainian and Russian filmmakers and fellow festival colleagues. “[Ukrainian director] Oleg Sentsov was selected to serve on the main jury, but he had joined his Ukrainian compatriots on the front line to defend his country. Oleg was eager to come to Sofia but fate wanted otherwise. At least we had a chance to show his latest film Rhino, which was presented as a work-in-progress 10 years ago at the Sofia Meetings co-production market. Two years later he was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment by a Russian court in 2015 on charges of plotting terrorism, released five years later and then finally made the film a few years after he went out of prison. We didn’t invite him back this year; as far as I know, he’s still fighting on the battlefield.”
The yellow-blue flag of Ukraine is pinned on the Sofia festival website, alongside the words “Solidarity with Ukraine!” And, for the 2023 festival, Kitanov decided to shine a spotlight on Ukrainian cinema.
“Among the Ukrainian films this year we had Maryna Gorbach’s Klondike, Sergey Loznitsa’s The Kiev Trial and Igor Ivanko’s Fragile Memory. We stand in solidarity with Ukraine and the boycott of Russian films and official Russian delegates associated with the Russian regime and linked to the Russian government continues. Our position is anti-war — there is no room for any gray zones. None of us is happy that we have to make such decisions, but we have no choice,” he notes.
Speaking in the most important arthouse cinema in Bulgaria, the Dom na kinoto (Cinema House) in the center of Sofia, which also serves as the headquarters for the Sofia festival, Kitanov notes how the local industry is still reeling from the damage wrought by the pandemic, and by the rise of streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+, which have decimated arthouse cinema admissions.
“During the pandemic, the festival and the distribution and exhibition of films suffered; attendance has remained lower than in pre-COVID years,” he notes. “The government helped with measures but couldn’t compensate all the losses. It hasn’t been easy to get back on the track when you have slowed down for almost three years, but we’re getting there.”
The 2023 Sofia festival, which wrapped its 27th edition on March 31, was a success, says Kitanov, with four times the attendance of last year, plus “more interest from the media and many sold out screenings.”
In total, 170 films from 53 countries screened with 300 international guests attending, while the 20th Sofia Meetings, the festival’s industry event and co-production market, welcomed more than 200 industry participants and presented 33 projects in five different sections.
“I see a bright future for the Sofia Film Festival because we offer what others don’t have: films from around the world that cannot be seen in local multiplexes, retrospectives and special programs and, most importantly, interaction between audiences and filmmakers,” says Kitanov. “One of our main goals is to attract younger audiences and students, to engage them in cinema-going culture, present them stories and cinema visions they cannot find in multiplexes and on streaming services. That has been my personal mission for many years.”
Looking into the future was also the force behind the Sofia Film Festival Forest, a new environmental initiative to compensate for the festival’s CO2 footprint by planting a forest of new trees. The initiative kicked off this year with the help of veteran German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, whose environmental documentary The Forest Maker opened the 27th edition. Schlöndorff planted the first tree in the Sofia Festival Forest, followed by the Mayor of the City of Sofia, Yordanka Fandakova and Kitanov himself. Other trees were planted by the legendary Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi, the veteran Czech filmmaker Jan Sverak, head of Sofia Meetings Mira Staleva, as well as Geraldine Chaplin, who received this year’s Sofia Municipality Special Award in honor of her, as Kitaov puts it, “amazing career.”
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