Locarno-winning writer and director Ralitza Petrova learned plenty of useful lessons on her first feature, Godless.
Bulgarian-born Writer/Director Ralitza Petrova has been having a remarkable year. Her debut feature film, Godless, just had its North American premiere at TIFF. Just last month, the film won three awards at Locarno, including the Golden Leopard for best film. This past fall, it won two awards at Sarajevo Film Festival. Petrova clearly knows how to get your attention, but this ability to surprise didn’t come out of nowhere; Godless was preceded by three shorts and numerous student films.
When No Film School sat down to talk to Petrova about the story behind her first feature, it didn’t take long to confirm that–like her film–Petrova is an original voice with distinctive tastes: “I was always going to start Godless in a ditch,” she proclaimed. “I’m interested in ditches. I was hugely impressed with two filmmakers I met from South America, who made a film that took place entirely in a mine.”
Here are some of the best takeaways for both new and veteran filmmakers from our conversation.
According to Petrova, her originality took shape over time—and the short films she made were an essential part of the process. “Every short adds a brick to the house you’re building.” She laughed at the thought. “I’m a bit slow in the making of things.”
For her, each one of the films she has made has been an experiment. “I began playing with different formats, different approaches while studying Fiction Directing at the UK’s National Film and Television School,” she recalled. “And I’m still exploring.”
This methodology of experimentation is hardly a straight road, but for Petrova, it eventually led to her award-winning first feature: “Godless is not a cause-and-effect, plot-driven narrative,” she explained. “It’s strictly emotional. I wanted to have a dramatic structure that is completely based on the emotional arc, rather than on the events. Therefore, you can never predict what’s coming.”
Petrova likes unpredictability—but she values authenticity even more. Thus far, the biggest challenge she has faced throughout her filmmaking career is being “as authentic as possible. Having the essence of a scene, the authenticity of tension, that’s all that matters.”
Petrova paused, then nodded. “Yes, that’s the challenge. Authenticity. A production can have many technical hurdles, but it’s part of the filmmaking process, so I don’t take those as challenges. I just stick to my guns, ask a lot from the crew, and make sure it’s done. But for me, authenticity is the tough one. It’s very elusive and sometimes beyond your control, even requiring a bit of luck.”
You don’t have to rely on acting
Petrova insists that her filmic sense is what has saved her: “I’m not an actor’s director, and my films don’t rely on acting. I can get around a bad performer because I rely on visuals, sound and editing.” She also believes that her work with non-actors—often workers, mechanics, local characters—contributes to the realism and spontaneous feel of her work.
Godless’s spellbinding beginning is a prime example. The film opens in a ditch where anonymous murderers have left an anonymous victim. As the killers’ car drives away, the victim’s dog chases them relentlessly, thinking its master is still in the trunk. This shot is heartbreaking...and completely spontaneous, the result of working with a local woodchopper whose dog wouldn’t leave the cameraman alone.
Despite her not being an “actor’s director,” Petrova’s lead actress—formerly ‘non-actress’ Irena Ivanova—won the Best Actress award at both Locarno and Sarajevo film festivals. In Godless, Ivanova plays a despondent physiotherapist who sells her elderly patients’ ID cards on the black market. Her inner moral struggle is portrayed with the utmost subtlety, especially because her character is constantly sedated on her patients’ morphine. While some credit is due to Ivanova, one can’t help but wonder what masterfully light director’s touch transformed this non-actress into an award-winner.
When asked about her lead character’s emotional vacancy, Petrova turned defensive. “The story I wanted to tell was someone surviving in a harsh environment that doesn’t allow you to be emotional. To me, she comes across as sedated. But even though she is this austere, reserved, internally cold performer, I do see emotion. I think it’s totally unbelievable to be anything but that, in such a harsh and dangerous environment. There is no place for naïve people, to be hugely emotional. People are forced to bottle things up, and experience erosion within.”
In fact, Petrova and her lead actress have much in common. Ivanova, it turns out, is actually a poet. Her sensibility parallels Petrova’s intense visual poetry. Petrova liked the comparison: “[Ivanova] writes from a very similar place to me, she feels much pain and sorrow for human suffering, she sees that with great insight…and a lack of pathos. That’s important to me, I don’t like pathos.”
This begs the question: Is Godless a personal story? Petrova offered a careful response. “I think when the artwork speaks truthfully, when it is multi dimensional, something in it must resonate within the artist’s experiences as a human. I think we should only write from this place. There is no straight autobiography for me here, but I do think that Godless represents a general worldview of mine.”
“As a filmmaker, you have a duty to remain as true as possible to the story.”
Never compromise your vision
Some critics have complained that Godless is too unflinchingly bleak, devoid of human warmth. Again, Petrova disagreed.
“As a filmmaker, you have a duty to remain as true as possible to the story,” she insisted. “In the West some critics have given negative feedback on the film, but I have no interest in presenting a reality they have no clue about simply for the sake of entertainment. This is not a subject or theme that’s meant to be entertaining. Why not look at it head on, be as honest as possible about it? Does that make it bleak? That’s life, and in certain parts of the world life is like that.”
Although the film admittedly “represents her worldview” on some level, Petrova herself is the opposite of Godless in tone; her demeanor is cheerful and vibrant.
Petrova tried to explain the dichotomy. “I’ve always had a certain dark humor in my work. The original script for Godless, believe it or not, contained a lot of humor. But as I was editing, the material in the film simply didn’t treat the subject with irony. I realized there was a much stronger film to be made, and I had to kill my babies…and I’m glad I did.”
“It’s not that I won’t ever do a romantic comedy—although it might be quite disturbing,” she added with a laugh. “But I think being a first-time filmmaker, you can’t compromise. Don’t listen to a producer or salesperson going ‘Oh, that’s too dark, that wont sell…’ Instead, if the story, the cause, the performers lead your intuition towards a certain tone, you should listen.”
Petrova leaned in, her voice almost urgent. “At the beginning, when you haven’t made anything, it's really important not to compromise. At that moment you’re no one—not that I’m anyone now!—but in the beginning you have nothing to lose. If someone tells you, ‘You should do this,’ send that person away, break the deal. If you’ve got a vision, listen to your instincts. Later on when you’ve made three or four films and the stakes are higher and you’re working with Joaquin Phoenix, maybe you should listen to a producer. But even then, negotiate. You’re wasting your time, everyone else’s time, if you let them dilute you. When you finally get into the thick of production, shooting, the compromise will show: film will not spare you. So hold strong! In the end, when you go into a screening, no one cares whether you’re a nice guy, polite. All they want is to see a good film.”
Be a geek when it comes to cinematography
Despite her lack of concern about technical hurdles or unskilled actors, Petrova—originally a student of fine art, before attending film school—is intensely concerned with visuals. And she doesn’t compromise there, either; along with her strong voice comes a strong sense of visual confidence. “I’m really a geek when it comes to image,” she confided. “My DP is my best friend on set.”
From the start, Petrova has always been interested in conceptual art. “Form is really important to me. Form that comes from the story,” she explained. “You should never force it.” So what is the form behind Godless? “My visual inspirations come from a number of artists. I like to collide ideas that speak to me, to take on the challenge of connecting two things that have nothing in common.”
The inspirations for Godless add up: Paul Graham—an English artist who photographed unemployment centers during the ‘90s—was a huge visual reference. English photographer Richard Billingham, known for depicting poverty and deprivation, was another. Philippe Grandrieux—an experimental French film director known for an uncompromising and radical style (Sombre, 1998; La Vie Nouvelle, 2002)—and Wang Bing, a Chinese documentarian known for his film on Chinese labor camps (The Ditch, 2010), were two more.
Other Inspirations she cited included filmmakers Antonioni, Nicholas Rourke, Robert Bresson, Jessica Hausner, Brillante Mendoza…and that’s just the short list.
Engage the Viewer Viscerally
Despite this long list of influences, Petrova made very specific, personal choices for the look of Godless—some of them inspired by her own work as a projectionist at The British Film Institute after graduating from film school.
“Film for me has more emotion to the texture,” she explained. “My primary concern is what the film is doing to engage the viewer viscerally. How it will achieve maximum effect with minimum tools? How it will start a conversation around ‘what we don’t show?’”
Godless is shot primarily in 35 millimeter with a 4:3 aspect ratio; the characters and their actions are tightly constrained by the frame.
To be more specific, Godless is shot primarily in 35 millimeter with a 4:3 aspect ratio; the characters and their actions are tightly constrained by the frame. Petrova pushed for those choices, believing that they enhanced the film’s emotional tension. “What the 4:3 or 1:3:3 aspect ratio does here is create a certain sense of claustrophobia. I was interested in holes and tunnels that can suck you in. A black hole sort of idea. A square 4:3 ratio is the closest I could get to a circle.”
In addition to the visual impact, this claustrophobic approach gives the film's audio more power. Violent scenes, for example, only take place out of frame, while the soundtrack tells the story. Static camerawork and handheld wide shots give the film an “omnipresence,” as Petrova describes it, while the subtle movement of a breathing cinematographer makes us feel “as if someone’s watching.” All of her shots come from a conceptual point of view. “Even if I use a shot where the character isn’t in it, it’s a point of view shot of what that character sees. The image and the atmosphere reflect the character’s inner state.”
Godless recalls many neo-realist films, in both subject matter and unflinching grittiness, but also in the originality of Petrova’s unique voice propelling the project. “For me, Godless is an allegory.” Emotional, moral and physical erosion are the themes in question. “Some have said they see it as a social realist film, but I don’t. It’s for sure not a Dardenne.” [Note: Petrova refers here to the Dardenne Brothers’ working class narratives.]
“I’m just lucky that Godless has been so well-received.” Despite all her convictions and provocative statements, Petrova remains humble at her core. “I’m very grateful that my film found the right festivals. We were lucky to win the Golden Leopard, but also lucky at Locarno to have a jury whom I hugely admire—Arturo Ripstein, Rafi Pitts, Wang Bing, these are all filmmakers that are uncompromising, all masters of their craft in my eyes. It was hugely humbling to have a note from them. That recognition gave me courage, it gives me the courage to talk about something seriously, it gives me comfort that I’m not alone in that “bleak” sort of world. That’s important.”