Cédric Succivalli sat down with Bulgarian directors Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova to discuss Cat in the Wall, their third feature (and first fiction). A timely drama about an immigrant single mother in London’s East End fighting for a better life, the film had its world premiere in Locarno in Official Competition, and went on to win the Fipresci award in Warsaw prior to landing in Cairo in the International Panorama section.
CS: This is your third collaboration as directors, and your first fiction film after two powerful documentaries on Bulgarian society. This film is a very timely story of an immigrant single mother and her brother living in London, fighting for a better future in very uncertain times. Was that a personal story, one you found somewhere, or a totally fictitious one?
MM: Totally personal. In fact Vesela was there when part of the story took place on our council estate. It’s my story but in a way she partly saw it. So we both felt it deep within our skins.
CS: So it’s literally your story in terms of witnessing it?
MM: Yes, totally, everything. It’s kind of pieced together over time because first the cat story happened and then everything piled up on top. Vesela and I saw the opportunity to use the cat story as a metaphor of British society.
VK: Actually, the absurdity behind the cat story is very interesting because it’s like the trigger of the whole thing. And when you see it you think, “Okay, it starts from there, Bulgarians steal the cats, they steal the jobs. They are not welcome in this society.” So it actually all started with the cat only. She took the cat from the stairs.
CS: You literally did that?
MM: Yes, of course! It’s like… life steps into cinema.
VK: But of course in cinema you have to make it work dramaturgically.
CS: Speaking of cats, have you ever seen or heard about a French film from the mid ’90s called When the Cat’s Away by Cédric Klapisch? Because to me, your film is like a dramatized, almost Dardenne or Chantal Akerman version of this French comedy. It’s also the story of this cat that an old lady is looking after while the cat’s young owner is on holidays. The cat disappears and everybody is looking for it all over the Bastille district in Paris. It was a big success in France.
MM/VK: We have heard about it! Incredible.
CS: What fascinated me in your film is the way you blend dramaturgy and humor to get the viewer completely at ease with a very socially realistic story. It’s not a question actually, but more a compliment. You manage to blend humor with something that often in British cinema is marked by absolute heaviness when dealing with social realism and the working class. Probably because you are ‘outsiders’ from another country, that very angle is one of the many strengths of your film. I would like you to comment on the current situation in the UK, because I assume you live there, and how it has affected the film’s storyline and how you deal with the working class and gentrification in your narrative.
MM: It is very interesting. Thank you for the compliment! I have been living in England for twenty years now, since 1996. I worked in animation, I am an animator by profession. So I have encountered many people from various backgrounds and class. I have witnessed the transition of British people from working class to middle class, and it is a very dramatic event, it’s very significant if somebody changes class. It intrigued me because I am a Socialist child. We don’t have classes, we don’t have religion. We are thieves, we are petty criminals (laughs). Then you move to another European society that you need to dissect and observe, and I would say it is our outsider’s point of view that probably gave a bit of strength to the film, the fact that we were not biased. Whereas Ken Loach and all the other working-class heroes are biased, completely, because they talk from the inside. That’s why we were so happy when we got this compliment from Screen International that emphasized the authenticity of the film is stronger than in British cinema.
VK: Because we always try to be a bit critical, just like we are critical of ourselves, of Bulgarians, both in a good light or in a bad light. Some people in England said they were embarrassed by this film. So the word from British critics was a bit dangerous for us, would they accept it or say: who are you to say these things? What do you know about us?
MM: So we had to tread very carefully.
CS: There is this line in the film that is being repeated several times: “I didn’t come here to be a leech.” What fascinates me is the fact that originally Irina would love to become an architect, Vladimir was an historian back in Bulgaria. They are well-educated Bulgarians at home and once in this promised land, this non-Communist land where they think they can emancipate themselves and have a career, the harsh reality they face is one of disillusionment. But they never lose hope and they are extremely strong and positive fighters. And I love that.
VK: Yes, exactly. Because it is very easy to be a victim. And it is a bit in Bulgarian nature, that we just can’t give up. Because we’ve had so many troubles in our own country, so what could go wrong?
CS: But then wouldn’t you say that, at some point, there could be the question of going back home if they can’t succeed in their careers in England?
MM: Very good question! This was really the ambition behind the whole premise. The whole premise was to make people believe that you can be strong in your own place. I am an immigrant so I can’t talk, but Vesela is proudly living and staying in Sofia and loving her country. You know, the grass is never greener on the other side.
CS: Let’s talk a little bit about the very specific casting process the film had to undergo. A lot of scenes somehow feel improvised, though I am almost certain they were not. The fluidity of the actors is extremely powerful and I think it is on account of your background as documentarists. It is so powerful that we feel we are literally getting into their houses, witnessing their lives.
MM: Absolutely! It is really hardly rehearsed, even if our editor said, “Oh, there are nine takes of the same text, what have you done?” Because she thought it was improvised in a sort of documentary style. Vesela is a celebrated actress in Bulgaria so she has this nose for good actors.
VK: (laughing) The thing about having a nose for a good actor: if you have an appropriate one for the film, it’s probably the most important thing.
MM: You have a very strong intuition.
VK: If the cast is wrong then you kind of try to fit the story to the person or the person to the story, but it doesn’t fit and you run into a dead end. But with these actors in the film we are happy, because they can fill the shoes of the characters.
CS: How was the process?
MM: The process was very long actually. In fact for Irina it was easy because she kind of saw herself in this situation and she empathized with the character.
VK: She is an immigrant. She has been living in the UK for 15 years.
MM: She is very intuitive. But we had problems with the English actors, because I was aware that most of them are posh. You know, “Let’s see who does Ken Loach best.” Because it is really a problem in England. You don’t have actors that are not posh! And the other phenomenon, even if they are well trained, is when a posh actor speaks with a working-class accent, but it’s fake (laughs). We’ve had all sorts of people coming to the casting and the accent was a constant issue.
CS: Did you try to cast some people from Peckham, where you shot?
MM: All sorts of people, so many came. We had to hire a consultant, because we couldn’t hear if it was real Cockney or not. There were instances of people claiming to speak Cockney but failing according to our consultant. And then Gilda Waugh, who plays the incredible Debby, she’s probably quite middle class, and she arrived with her expensive car to the estate. I said, “Wow, Gilda, you came along,” and she said, “I’m a bit scared but I will try.” She has the intelligence of an actor, she started to coach the others. They were talking among themselves, which was important because we were completely out of it, it’s their world.
CS: And was it shot in Peckham?
MM: In my flat, I’m afraid (laughs).
CS: This is a producer talking. Because you also produced. Apart from lensing I think you did everything yourself, writing, producing, everything. And Jojo (editor’s note: a role played by Orlin Asenov)?
MM: He is an amazing discovery. He really is an actor. So we were calling him a colleague. We weren’t trying to trick him or manipulate him as a child. We just told him what was happening, that he was playing a role, and we were pretending doing this and doing that. And he was brilliant.
CS: What about the specific topic of owning or not owning a flat. This particularly in capitals like London, Paris, Sofia, where rents have skyrocketed. Irina, she owns this place on the lease, but she is still the owner?
MM: It’s a part-of-ownership. They have two types in England: freehold is where you own the land, leasehold is where you own the property within the walls.
CS: And when they have to do this restoration work and she finds out she has to pay 25,000 pounds for the windows, it was completely crazy how you installed the dialogue with the tenants who were saying, “We don’t have to pay anything, we’re just tenants.” I loved that you didn’t compromise, you focused on this timely and difficult topic even within the film, almost like Russian dolls. Normally people would be scared to talk about things like money, as it would be politically incorrect.
MM: Friends on my estate got pissed off with me. I said, “Hey, I’m a foreigner, I can say what I want. I’m a gypsy, I can tell a black person he is black.” In that sense we were privileged, if we had been part of the working classes in this English society we would have to be in a bind to break the boundaries.
VK: And at the end of the day it is a comedy. We can say, “Come on, this is a film.”
CS: You made an incredible comedy out of it. I thought of the Dardenne brothers, not just because of the mise-en-scene but also the empathy you have for your characters. That is important to me, we do care for Vladimir and Irina because they are lovely people who want to fight for their lives.
MM: Humanity is important for us, probably the first thing. We find it very difficult to watch cold and distant films, and we definitely take the stance of humanity. We would compromise success for humanity, we would rather not have success but be humane.
VK: That has nothing to do with the criticism, if you have a strong character that people can relate to and empathize with, then you are making a statement about what is right and not right.
MM: I have been too long in the arts not to know that they can be very isolated and cold, calculating and distant. So I wanted to do something completely different.
CS: Which relates to who we are and where we are, this sense of belonging and community as well. You said you have been living in England for a while. As a Bulgarian, how do you feel about this constant threat of Brexit?
MM: Very worried. I have actually started feeling sorry for myself and for them. As the guys say, “We will be trapped on our own island.” We are outside the prison, they are inside (laughs).
CS: I also like the fact that you do not glamorize London, because it is a city that in my opinion in cinema too often has been romanticized. You show us a London that is more true, and more real than what is shown in British cinema.
MM: British cinema tends to be nowadays very genre orientated, a bit artificial, because the industry is thinking about revenue and sales.
CS: What project are you working on next?
MM: We are working on something that is actually pretty painful. It deals with, perhaps a bit trendy, the ‘female’ topic.
CS: It’s not a question of trendy, it’s a question of “We need to talk about this now.”
MM: But it’s a genuinely very painful situation that we try to approach with a bit of humor. It’s a fiction, we suffered so much with our documentaries.
CS: Does the film have a distributor in the UK yet?
MM: Our salespeople are saying they have good talks, so fingers crossed. For sales, the UK is almost an impossible territory. Ten percent of the distributors buys 95 percent of the product, which means that a small group of the distributors takes 95 percent of the profits. At the same time, independent filmmaking is increasing 63 percent per year, which means that hundreds and hundreds of films must be made in people’s bedrooms (laughs).
CS: You have started a good run on the festival circuit, after Locarno and also the Fipresci prize in Warsaw. The duration of the film’s life on the festival circuit is expanding.
VK: Yes, absolutely. We also hope for France, because this a French co-production.