Foreign-Language Oscar Spotlight: Bulgarian Immigration Drama 'The Judgment'

Courtesy of Premium Films
'The Judgment'

Director Stephan Komandarev on the present-day parallels between his period tale and Europe's current immigrant crisis.

Bulgarian director Stephan Komandarev had no idea how topical his Oscar-nominated film, The Judgment, would be when he first conceived the idea.

Set during the Cold War — when desperate people in Eastern Europe sought to escape oppression and a dreary life with no prospects under stale communist regimes by fleeing westwards — The Judgment is likely to invite comparisons with Europe's current massive refugee crisis from Syria, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

"We did not predict this," Komandarev says. "Just a week ago, a migrant from Afghanistan was killed on the Bulgarian border — like a migrant from another time dies in our film."

Based on an original script, the story began to find shape in Komandarev's imagination when he was working on a pair of documentaries he shot in the border area between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey.

Alphabet of Hope (2003) traces the lives and schooling of children from ethnic Turkish families in Bulgaria left behind after a government policy sparked mass migration to Turkey. Bread Over the Fence (2002) looked at the lives of one of Bulgaria's most oppressed religious minorities, Catholics, examining how they lived alongside their Orthodox Christian and Muslim neighbors.

Following work on his second feature film, the more whimsical The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner (Bulgaria's Oscar nominee in 2009), Komandarev returned to the themes of his documentaries, and began researching the mass immigration out of Bulgaria during the Cold War.

“The starting point was when I realized what an interesting place this border is. During the communist period — more than a quarter of a century ago — would-be defectors from the communist bloc were trying to escape to Greece or Turkey, crossing illegally at this border. Today, thousands migrants from Syria also try their luck crossing the same border, but in the opposite direction — to the “promised land” of the European Union."

Although refugees escaping war and the relentless advance of ISIS in Syria and Iraq were already a phenomenon in Europe when he was shooting the film, it was nothing like what is now happening: "None of us expected that today’s European migrant crisis would happen in such frightening proportions,” he says.

Komandarev emphasizes that the film is not some kind of political comment on today's migrant crisis. A trained child psychiatrist — who practiced for five years before changing careers — his central interest is in family relations.

"Such basic elements of our personality like confidence, love, hope, faith can only be learned in the family. And maybe [making movies] is my way of dealing with today’s moral and identity crisis that we have in Bulgaria. We have forgotten what right or wrong is, we have lost our system of values."

Family values are at the core of The Judgment. The story focuses on the relationship of a young man with his father, a mountain guide who helps defectors find they way across the border to the West.

The film, Komandrev says, is "much more realistic" than The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks around the Corner. “Every one of the characters of the film has his own real prototype. Everything that you can see in the film is real: the stories, the poverty of the people in the area, the refugees that cross the border everyday.”

But The Judgment still contains many light moments and it offers a chance at redemption for its main characters.

"In the end, I feel it is optimistic, because see the young generation of my country such as Vasko, the character of the son, acting, taking responsibility for the past and the future. This is for me the way where, also in this film 'the salvation lurks around the corner:'”

Perhaps that is what makes this, his third feature, the director's most personal to date.

"I am thinking about the future of my two children in my country and I am worried. That is why in my films I try to present, in an authentic way, the situation in today’s Bulgaria and to ask questions. And my hope is that this will contribute to the transformation of my country into a better and fairer place."