When the Communist Party relinquished power in Bulgaria one day in November 1989, the 11-year-old Maya Vitkova saw it unfold on television.
She called her grandmother, eager to share her excitement. She had just begun the chat when her father took the telephone from her hand.
"'They are listening," he said.
Vitkova, now 36, says: "Can you imagine the size of the fear, that subtle fear, that people lived with? Nobody talked about it, but I remember it clearly."
That memory of pervasive survelliance becomes mixed with Vitkova's own close relationship with her mother in Viktoria, Vitkova's writing-directing feature debut that is screening tomorrow as part of the European Union Film Festival.
The bleakly comic coming-of-age story about a girl born to a mother who did not want a child was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize, World Cinema, at last year's Sundance Film Festival.
Viktoria - played by Vitkova's nieces Daria Vitkova as a child and Kalina Vitkova as an adult - is a freak of nature, born without an umbilical cord. She is hailed as a new stage of evolution, a human with no attachments to a decadent past and the embodiment of a new communist being.
The party leader becomes her surrogate parent and her relationship with her parents, especially with mother Boryana (Irmena Chichikova) becomes estranged.
The intertwining themes of maternity and life under an all-powerful regime came to Vitkova suddenly, one day in 2005. She had just spent a frustrating day working as a casting and assistant director for a French director who could not make up his mind, she tells Life! on the telephone from Bulgaria's capital city of Sofia, where she lives.
Returning to her hotel that night, she typed an 18-page first draft of Viktoria in a fit of anger and for the next decade or so, has shaped and reshaped the script while trying to get financing for the project.
Vitkova thinks the cycle of estrangement and reconciliation between Viktoria and her mother reflects her own life, but in an exaggerated form. To this, she added the idea of political influence on the private lives of Bulgarian families.
She says: "When the regime ended within a year, the number of divorces was amazing. It came out that the couple would have different views. One person would be a democrat and the other a supporter of communism."
The film's production, like the movie character, had a troubled birth. One producer was fired for skimming money, after which Vitkova had to turn to lawyers to win back the rights to her own creation.
But once that was sorted, everything went well. The film was shot mostly in Sofia, with a few scenes shot in Venice, Italy.
There was no time for rehearsals. But she briefed the actors intensively, asking them to read the books that inspired the story, including those by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and others in the genre of magical realism.
After that, Vitkova found that not speaking to her actors at all during filming felt more natural to her, a habit that the cast found a little unsettling. But for some reason, that confusion led to better performances, she says.
Irmena Chichikova, as the strangely distant mother Boryana, has, in particular, garnered good notices.
The scenes unfold slowly in the 155-minute production. Shots are held for longer than usual and there is little dialogue. Soundtrack is used sparingly.
Vitkova says: "If I could have made it without any words at all, I would have. I really liked the idea of making a silent film."
She is single and has no specific desire to have children of her own for now.
She says: "My nieces, who play Viktoria, grew up in front of my eyes. You saw all the good things and the mistakes the parents made in bringing them up. That is my perspective on parenthood."
She adds with a laugh: "I think I have the potential to be a good parent. But I don't know. I might be a horrible mother, who knows?"
VIKTORIA (2014, M18)
Where: Golden Village Suntec City
When: Tomorrow till May 24
Admission: Tickets at $12 from GV. For the full schedule and details, go to www.euff.sg
This article was first published on May 13, 2015.
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