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KARLOVY VARY 2022 Competition

Ilian Metev, Ivan Chertov and Zlatina Teneva • Directors of A Provincial Hospital

“We hope that our film offers a unique and surprising window into a reality that seemed so close and yet so far away”


- The co-directors share their insights into the filming process for their documentary, revealing the atmosphere in a small Bulgarian hospital during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic

Ilian Metev, Ivan Chertov and Zlatina Teneva • Directors of A Provincial Hospital
l-r: Ivan Chertov, Zlatina Teneva and Ilian Metev (© Neva Micheva)

In 2012, Bulgarian helmer Ilian Metev made his breakthrough at Cannes with the observational film Sofia’s Last Ambulance [+see also:
film review
film profile
, which followed an emergency medical team while they struggled with the traffic and tended to patients in and around the Bulgarian capital. In A Provincial Hospital [+see also:
film review
interview: Ilian Metev, Ivan Chertov a…
film profile
, currently taking part in the main competition at Karlovy Vary, he works with Ivan Chertov and Zlatina Teneva in order to provide a closer look at the work of the medical staff in a Bulgarian provincial town’s COVID-19 department.

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Cineuropa: How did you come up with the idea for this financially risky production, which also posed a threat to your health?
Ilian Metev: It emerged spontaneously when the pandemic in Bulgaria reached its first real peak, in November 2020. I felt that people needed to see what the reality looked like, unadorned and raw. It was my partner, Betina, who gave me the confidence that we could naturally do something different, something with an attentive, observational approach. Then, co-producers Martichka Bozhilova and Ingmar Trost stepped in, as there was no time to lose. The challenge was that I was stuck in the UK in lockdown, so I discussed the idea with my assistant, Zlatina, who was in Bulgaria at the time, and I asked her if she would collaborate as a co-director on the ground, bearing in mind the health risks and the fact that she would have the freedom to quit at any time she wanted. Zlatina agreed, and shortly afterwards, I approached Ivan with a similar proposal. They started working on location, while I was working remotely, and we discussed, on a daily basis, the experiences and plans for each day. The shoot itself was difficult on many levels, and we came close to abandoning the project many times. Yet, Zlatina and Ivan showed an exemplary level of courage and care in their relationships with the medics and patients during that period.

Finding the money was a huge challenge, and the film was largely self-financed by the producers, with most of us working voluntarily. In Bulgaria, we could get neither the broadcasters’ nor the film fund’s support. Considering our ambitions and access, the reasons for this seemed unclear, and there was a sense of quiet censorship. We couldn’t wait any longer, so we finished the film the way we started it, with the invaluable help of Creative Europe – MEDIA, the European Work in Progress workshop, and our colleagues Adrian Lo, Michael Kaczmarek, Ivan Andreev and Todor G Todorov.

How did you protect yourself from COVID-19 while inside?
Ivan Chertov: There were strict regulations regarding clothing. Everyone in the COVID-19 ward and the ICU was wearing protective suits, at least two layers of masks, two pairs of gloves and so on. We had to change every time before going in and out of the patients' rooms.

You spent around 70 days in the hospital, and it seems as though you had full access to everything. How did you achieve this?
Zlatina Teneva: We were there without a camera for quite some time, actually, trying to get to know the medics and the patients, and learning how to help them with some of the routine work, like taking PCRs, refilling the patients' oxygen bottles with water, preparing the cart for the nurses and so on. In a way, we became part of their team. First and foremost, however, it was the head of the hospital, Dr Velichkov, who supported us. We could feel his positive attitude during our first phone call, which was the reason why we chose to film there, specifically.

You tackle the issue of the lack of trust in institutions and authorities in Bulgarian society. How do you view this situation?
IM: Whenever we enter a hospital, we are conflicted inside, feeling trust and distrust simultaneously. We have our doubts about the treatment we will get, but because our lives are at stake, we have nowhere else to go. Most Bulgarians are aware that the healthcare system is systematically underfunded and understaffed; they’ve heard of preventable tragedies, hence a certain level of mistrust is justified. However, I believe we should think twice before we accuse certain people of the system’s failings. The orderlies, nurses and doctors who work ridiculous, 12-hour-plus shifts under extreme conditions, doing the work no one wants to do, are not to blame.

Dr Popov is an exceptional character, just like the doctor in Sofia’s Last Ambulance. Did you know him before making the film?
IC: We were lucky enough to meet him in the hospital and to slowly get to know him over time. It was not clear in the beginning that he would play such an important part in the movie, but he was open and authentic, and was probably the first one to really chat with us freely.

The characters in the movie create an interesting ensemble. Were you thinking about this while shooting, or did it rather crop up later on, during the editing process?
IM: Both. Whilst Zlatina and Ivan were shooting, I started editing, which, in turn, influenced our approach to filming. The initial plan was to follow only a few patients, but it proved difficult to predict and capture the more emotional moments that we needed with them. On the other hand, Ivan and Zlatina shot numerous unusual and evocative sequences with people whom we did not plan to film. So, our choice of characters had to be rethought frequently, and many people who were filmed did not make it into the final version. It was difficult, but we made the selection by ensuring that the characters would complement each other.

Do you think it would have been possible to shoot the film in a more highly regulated country, where the rules would have to have been strictly observed?
IM: I think that in many countries, the question of access would not have been the main hurdle, since many medics, patients and relatives wanted the reality to be seen, I believe. Television productions were made, too. What I am surprised by, though, is that I’ve seen less than a handful of long-term observational documentaries on the subject. We hope that our film offers a unique and surprising window into a reality that seemed so close and yet so far away.

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