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SOFIA 2020

Stefan Kitanov • President, Sofia International Film Festival

“By having an online edition, we have the rare chance to share our content with the entire country”


- We talked to Stefan Kitanov, founder and president of the Sofia International Film Festival, about how to resurrect a festival that was forced to shut its doors days before it was supposed to begin

Stefan Kitanov  • President, Sofia International Film Festival
(© Boryana Pandova)

The 24th edition of the Sofia International Film Festival (SIFF) was supposed to start in March, but it had to be postponed, as Bulgaria adopted strict rules to fight the coronavirus pandemic. “We assure you that an amazing festival lies ahead,” promised the organisers when the postponement announcement was made (see the news), and starting today, 25 June, they seem determined to keep their promise, as the first of this year’s two SIFF editions kicks off in Sofia (see the news). Here is what Stefan Kitanov, the founder and president of the gathering, has to say about its most challenging edition to date.

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Cineuropa: First of all, why two smaller editions?
Stefan Kitanov:
In March, we postponed the festival until June, as the state of emergency had been declared until mid-May. Then, new limitations were to be imposed until mid-June, with relevant restrictions for cultural events. So we moved the festival to the autumn. But nobody knows what will happen at that point, and our festival is 100% prepared. Therefore, we decided to split it in two.

In the summer, we will still have restrictions in terms of physical screenings, and cinemas are working with a 50% capacity. As people are still afraid of entering the theatres, we are showing a limited number of films in just one indoor cinema and at three open-air venues. The majority of the films, almost 90, including all of the competition programmes, will be shown online on the joint platform run by Festival Scope and Shift 72.

For the autumn edition, we have left the rest of the programme and hope to be able to show it physically in a limited number of cinemas. Leaving fewer films for the autumn will give us the possibility to be more flexible. We also hope to be able to welcome some foreign guests.

SIFF is Bulgaria's biggest cultural event to have been confirmed for a physical edition. Does that pile on pressure for you? What are the priorities for this edition?
There is just my blood pressure which says: “You must do it, no matter how. Just do it!” And I obey. The festival was 100% prepared. It was stopped and postponed three days before the opening. All flight tickets for the guests were cancelled, all of the publicity had been done, all of the films had been secured and translated, and so on.

The main priority now is to give the audience across the entire country the possibility to watch high-quality films from all over the world. By having an online edition, we have the rare chance to share our content with the entire country. Nevertheless, we will try to physically visit some of the places outside Sofia with open-air screenings during the late summer and the beginning of autumn.

What were the logistical challenges of this edition, given that you now favour outdoor screenings?
Cinemas have been allowed to work with up to 50% of their capacity since mid-June. But only arthouse theatres reopened, and they are not suited for SIFF, as they all have such a limited number of seats, made even more limited after the restrictions. Therefore, we decided to use some new open-air venues, which were announced as alternatives for film and other cultural events. They can provide a bigger capacity with all of the necessary safety measures. All galas will be held outdoors.

SIFF Online greatly improves the accessibility of the festival; do you plan to keep the initiative intact for future editions?
Having the festival online gives the audience the possibility to access it from all over the country. But also, it will give many people the chance to watch and participate in interactive discussions with filmmakers whom they would never have been able to meet otherwise. This might be a motivation for them to become part of the big world of cinema. The experience might also stimulate us to develop a way of reaching larger audiences for the next few editions.

A quote that we are hearing a lot these days is the one about finding opportunity in crisis. What would you say is the opportunity for festivals in general, and for SIFF in particular?
For us, the challenge is to have a festival sharing its content, but not providing an opportunity for a physical meeting between filmmakers, the audience and the industry. The SIFF is famous for having a warm, informal and energetic atmosphere where people can enjoy cinema, and celebrate the possibility to meet and discuss common topics.

An important part of it all is the Sofia Meetings co-production market, where hundreds of European professionals are invited every year. Well, we are not able to do Sofia Meetings physically this year, but we will do it online. The pitches and one-to-one meetings will happen at the beginning of July. Not in Sofia, but in the virtual world of film that will be Sofia – at least for a few days.

Do you have any advice for festivals that haven't yet decided whether to hold a physical edition this year?
The main thing is not to give up, and be active in any way we can. In the middle of March, as we were not able to hold the festival, we established an imaginary SIFF diary, presenting part of the programme with additional information, trailers, and video messages from the filmmakers, jury members and friends of the festival. They shared moments of glory from the past, photos, interviews and music.

It was a time of solidarity, moments to encourage people to keep their spirits high and believe in a brighter future. You can find 16 entries in this imaginary diary here. Most of them have English subtitles. I would especially recommend day ten, where we presented the history of The Festival Band, with lots of music. The Festival Band is a trademark of SIFF. It features three Stefans (Kitanov, Laudyn and Uhrik), plus some fine Bulgarian musicians. At each year’s SIFF, we invite guests. And It’s Only Rock’n’Roll. Have fun. Always Look on the Bright Side of Life [you can check out The Festival Band playing “All You Need Is Love” here].

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