Avelina Prat and the crew of the film Vasil, actors and producers, were greeted with applause when they appeared at a press conference in the Miguel Delibes hall to present this debut film with which the Valencian director is competing in the Official Section of the 67th Seminci.
The film is inspired by a true story between the director’s father (Alfredo in the film) and a Bulgarian immigrant (Vasil) who has the gift of transforming forever the people he comes into contact with. The press conference was attended by actors Ivan Barnev (Vasil), Karra Elejalde (Alfredo) and Sue Flack (Vasil and Alfredo’s friend), along with Spanish producer Miriam Porté and Bulgarian producers Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova.
Avelina Prat – who is an architect, although since 2004 she has worked as a scriptwriter on more than thirty feature films with great Spanish and foreign directors – explained why she decided to embark on the world of directing, and with a personal story: “I had already shot some short films and documentaries. When I found a story that I really saw that I could tell in a personal way, that’s when I thought: I’m going for my first feature film”.
The story is inspired by something that happened to his father a few years ago: “A friend of my father’s asked him to take a Bulgarian into his house for a couple of days, because he was sleeping in the street and had turned up at the bridge club… a bit of a strange story. But it went on for almost a couple of months. My father, although he said: “He’s leaving, he’s leaving”, he would tell me a bit about his adventures, and that stayed in my head. When everything happened, and this man I never got to know left, I thought that I had missed an opportunity, that I had experienced it as a spectator, as if it were a fictional story… and I said to myself: I have to do something with this. And I wrote the film as if to complete this story a little”.
Three actors fascinated by their roles
Actor Ivan Barnev (Vasil), a revelation in this film, recalled that when he received the script for a test, he didn’t know any Spanish. “I did the casting, but the text was very difficult for me, really complicated, because it had some symbols that I didn’t know, which is the Spanish language. And I couldn’t believe that I was going to do something like that. But I tried. I repeated the text in my head, like a song… And it came out well. Then I met these beautiful women [the producers and the director] and what had to happen happened. I’m really delighted to have been able to take part in this experience”.
Karra Elejalde (Alfredo) said that when he received the script, he read it and thought: “I have to participate in this out of solidarity, because you have real communication problems [in relation to the characters in the film]. I don’t have communication problems, I communicate with everyone, even with vegetables and animals, but I said… these people don’t know how to communicate. I play a character who is the antipode of my character, much more leisurely, monosyllabic, terse, laconic, bitter, bitter, sour, grey… self-satisfied, self-satisfied… unhappy. One day someone said to me: he sleeps on a bench, he has nothing and transmits happiness, and yet you who have everything, architect, live in abundance, and you are unhappy”. So Elejalde spoke to Avelina Prat, because he felt that the role was a challenge for him. “That script was a very beautiful thing to tell, with very little skeleton, that basically talked about the problems we have when it comes to communicating, not with a stranger, a stranger, a Bulgarian emigrant… but with your own daughter. I found it interesting and I’m delighted to have made this film”.
Sue Flack (Vasil and Alfredo’s friend) recalled that she also did the casting and it was not easy for her. “Unlike Ivan, I have been working and living in Catalonia for many years, and when they called me, it was a big challenge for me, in Spanish, because I usually get Guiri roles in English. I really liked the role, because it is that of a woman who claims the problems that exist. But although Vasil and I are foreigners, we come from a different emigration. He is an economic migrant, and I am not, I am a wealthy expatriate. I mean, there are different types of immigration in Spain, and the film deals with that. For me it was very interesting, because I know a lot of people like that, like my role, people who live on the surface of Spanish society. I liked it a lot and the work has been brutal, fantastic.
Three female producers
The Spanish producer of this film, Miriam Porté, told how this project came to her through Isabel Coixet. [With the script of Vasil, Avelina Prat had already won first prize at the Fest Pitching Forum of the New Films New Directos Film Festival in Portugal and at Berlinale Talents Script Station 2018, as well as participating in the V Laboratorio de escritura de guion de la Fundación SGAE directed by Isabel Coixet,].
“One day I asked Isabel Coixet if she had any interesting projects, and she immediately told me: “Yes, I’ve been tutoring a project by a Valencian director at the SGAE, and I’ve already said that if she doesn’t direct it I’m going to direct it, although I don’t think she’ll let me, but I’d love you to read it and consider producing it”. Well, you can imagine the rest. The truth is that it has been very easy and fluid, the pandemic interrupted the production process but the rest was very simple, because Avelina is an extremely intelligent person and knows perfectly well what she wants. She just moves forward, and she always does it in the right direction”.
Miriam Porté recalled how by chance she also met the producers Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova at a TV market… “And they were Bulgarian! And as I was looking for a co-production with Bulgaria, I said to them: ‘Can we have a coffee? I told them about the project and that the main character had to be a Bulgarian actor… And they immediately said yes. It was very easy, they are two very talented women, producers and directors, in fact their first film was here at Seminci, Cat in the Wall (2019), and their second film [Women Do Cry, 2021] premiered at Cannes, so they are very promising and I feel very proud to have been accompanied by them throughout this process”.
For Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova, everything was also very new, as they had never worked on a production on such a scale and with such big stars. “During the process we became very good friends, and we also learned a lot from Miriam, from the production point of view, and that means a big step for us, in our career as well,” said Mileva.
Kazakova added that they took this project very seriously because it was important for them to showcase Bulgarian cinema. “We thought that the main character was going to be a rather big person with a dark complexion… a typical Balkan person. But after the casting, it was very clear to both of us that it had to be Ivan, because he read the text in a very spontaneous and natural way… And although .he didn’t respond to the stereotype of the Bulgarian immigrant that you could imagine, precisely because of that, and because of that angel that he has as an actor and as a person, we thought he was an unexpected but wonderful Vasil”.
“Ivan didn’t speak a word of Spanish when we started”, commented Avelina Prat, to which Miriam Porté added: “It’s that the role Ivan plays, in a language unknown to him… He’s an anticasting actor, like Karra. I don’t know, I take my hat off to these actors. We like challenges, telling the audience what they don’t expect… And I think it’s worked out well, Avelina”.
Between social reality and fable
From the auditorium, an Italian critic reflected that Vasil has a hybridisation between a fairy tale, a bit like a fable, and social realism. “But very well done. And he asked Avelina Prat if she recognises in this film an approximation to a certain North American independent cinema, and also to French auteur cinema. “That of being somewhere between realism and fable… that’s exactly what we were aiming for”, the director answered. “The characters are very real, very human. We didn’t want stereotypes, we wanted to represent people you could identify with… Also, with that little air of fable, I understand a personal way of telling the stories. And yes, I feel very close to all this independent, auteur cinema, not only American or French, because this cinema is being made all over Europe”.
On the character of Ivan, of whom the Italian critic said that “he represents very well that human type who survived the whole winter of regimes, and shows that he has a culture; he represents a superiority over the thinking of the narrow-minded people we have here in Europe, who don’t like those who are different because they are different”, all agreed.
“It’s a way of portraying a different immigrant, and it’s true that many people arrive who have a lot of culture, but we denigrate them because of their social condition, because they are different, because they don’t have money…”, added Miriam Porté.
When asked if the immigrant her father took in was like the one in the film, Avelina Prat replied that no, that it is very much fiction. “As I never met him, I allowed myself to write everything that came out of my imagination. Everything is idealised in favour of the film. Having lived the story as fiction is what led me to fabulate, to imagine it”.
Karra Elejalde underlined that it is “a wonderful film, which tackles a social issue without falling into pamphleteering. But in this case Avelina has been very subtle. You can see the hand of a woman in the direction. And the truth is that it is a thought-provoking fable, but it is not an allegory. And a film that holds its own because the protagonist is special, and because Ivan is special”.
Vasil will be released on 4 November by Filmax.