‘Plamen’ dir. Andre Andreev & Dan Covert

In 2013 Plamen Goranov, a 37-year-old construction worker and artist from Varna, Bulgaria set himself on fire as a form of political protest. PLAMEN (also meaning “flame” in Bulgarian) explores what led the young activist to his protest and ultimately to his death, thus setting a disturbing trend of self-immolations in the EU’s poorest country.

Directors: Andre Andreev & Dan Covert
Producer: Tara Stromberg

C8: When did you first hear of the story of Plamen Goranov and how did you set about telling his story?

DC: Starting in 2013, there were a series of anti-austerity protests and self-immolations in Bulgaria. The immolations were unprecedented and as a Bulgarian myself, they immediately caught my attention. My childhood friend Martin Marinos was following the news from Bulgaria and started sending me in-depth articles about each case. Since 2013 there have been 18 documented cases.

After Plamen’s story stood out right away for two reasons: he had an interesting life and some of the facts around the immolation didn’t add up. He was a very creative person who wrote theater plays, played music and took interesting photographs. As far as his act of immolation, there were a lot of details that seemed suspicious. The main was the time of immolation; he lit himself on fire at 7:30am in the morning when there was nobody to see him. That simply doesn’t make sense because he had a poster that asked for the resignation of the mayor by 5pm. It was clear that he was prepared to stand there the entire day. There was an altercation with the security guards of the municipality building but the footage from the closed circuit cameras was never released. There is speculation that they provoked him and he reacted by setting himself on fire. Lastly, there was a lot of misinformation from the media. They first reported that he was a drunk or drug addict who just wanted to kill himself. All of which was far from the truth and there was a clear attempt of a cover up.

C8: What was the most difficult part of the process for you?

DC: We work in New York so it’s very difficult to holistically understand the political climate of another country without actually living in it. In this case, we asked Martin to help us with the writing because he was much more knowledgeable and was living in Bulgaria at the time. Without him it wouldn’t have been possible to understand the nuances of the story. The second most difficult part of the process was editing over 40 hours of footage which was mainly in Bulgarian. After months of searching we finally found Maria Stanisheva who was both a great editor and native speaker.

C8: What challenges did you encounter during the interviews? Were any participants particularly closed off or difficult to access?

DC: The hardest part was gaining access to Plamen’s friends and the people that knew him the best. We started by reading every news article and gathered a list of people who were interviewed or quoted. After narrowing down the list we started calling them one by one. A few close friends of his met us for an informal interview and after they agreed to be filmed, most others agreed too. There were some participants who didn’t want to talk to us or logistically couldn’t, but that was understandable given the tragic way in which Plamen died. One of the logistical problems we had was that most subjects didn’t want to be interviewed at their house. We had to find makeshift locations like public parks and cafes on the fly and that was a huge headache. Also, we interviewed a total of 16 people and only a third of them ended up in the final cut.

C8: How did you decide upon the visual aesthetic of the film? Were there any films, pieces of photography or art that you found particularly influential?

DC: At the time we were looking at a lot of architectural photography of old communist buildings. In particular, the work of Jan Kempenaers, Rebecca Litchfield and Roman Bezjak. Their photographs resonated because the scale of the architecture was paramount and one could feel its enormous weight in a visual sense. It also connected because Plamen protested in front of the municipality building in Varna, Bulgaria, which is a huge, faceless slab of concrete. We wanted to re-create the feeling of disenchantment and loneliness that Plamen must have felt on the morning of his immolation. To underline those feelings most of the shots were static and long. Also, when we got to the location in Varna we realized that early in the morning an exceptionally thick wave of fog engulfs the city. To the dismay of the crew, we got up around 5am every morning to shoot b-roll of the foggy city and that became another visual element.

C8: What did you shoot on and what was the reasoning behind this choice?

DC: We shot on a Red Scarlet with a set of Nikkor rehoused prime lenses. The Scarlet wasn’t the most practical choice but at the time we couldn’t beat the dynamic range. The primes worked out great for the interviews (we usually used the 30mm or 50mm) and they opened to 1.4 so shooting night exteriors wasn’t a problem. However, one of the biggest aesthetic decisions was to shoot the majority of the film on a very wide lens: the 11-16mm Tokina zoom. We wanted to show the enormous scale difference between the architecture and the human size and we couldn’t have achieved those shots without the Tokina. Overall we were very happy with the results. At 11mm there was quite a lot of distortion but when we kept it at 14-16mm, everything looked pretty sharp.

C8: How did you fund the film? Did you receive any financial or in-kind support from film organizations?

DC: We run a production company that primarily does commercial work and we were able to entirely fund the film by ourselves. This also allowed us to move quickly with the production and make no compromises while editing.

C8: The film has played at several film festivals across the globe. How have audiences reacted to the film?

DC: In Bulgaria the reception was polarizing. There was a lot of interest from the media and we had two sold out screenings. Most of the feedback was positive but there was also some negative; a lot of people still view Plamen’s act as a suicide and not as a form of protest. In the case of the former, the film can be viewed as controversial because we are publicizing someone who has killed himself. Obviously that’s a very skewed interpretation and we’ve always strongly disagreed with it. Outside of Bulgaria the reception has been fantastic; we got an audience award at Thessaloniki Film Fest and had really good Q&A’s at San Francisco and Seattle.

C8: Do you think film festivals are the best place for emerging filmmakers to showcase their work?

DC: Film festivals are great for emerging filmmakers if they have the means to attend them. For us, the best part of going to fests is connecting with other filmmakers. As far as showcasing short films, I think the web is a better place. As filmmakers, our main goal is get the biggest audience to watch what we make and the viewership online is much higher.

C8: What’s next for you and Dress Code?

DC: We just wrapped up a short doc on Emory Douglas, the minister of culture for the Black Panther party, and currently we are in pre-production for a feature documentary.