As millions of Americans spend their evenings glued to their sets watching presidential candidates debate like it’s a bloodsport, the evening news in Europe continues to document a crisis that shows no signs of subsiding, specifically the enormous influx of Middle Eastern refugees into the Balkans over the last five years. It’s a situation that has flummoxed European lawmakers, placing heavy pressure on local country agencies to care for them. On September 4, when Bulgaria named the 2014 feature film The Judgment as its foreign-language Oscar entry, the image of a Syrian toddler’s body washed up on a Greek beach shocked the world, along with news footage that showed thousands of migrants journeying from Budapest to Germany.
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The Judgment director Stephan Komandarev has had first-hand knowledge of the issue after filming three documentary films over the past 13 years in Bulgaria’s border region with Greece and Turkey where many Syrian migrants were smuggled through for the past 7-9 years. That is the area where The Judgment is set, with all of its characters based on actual people from Komandarev’s documentaries. During production, many of the actors in Judgment met the actual people they portrayed. The movie was filmed in the actual locations, including the steep, 800m cliff from the title, whose real name is also The Judgment, a historic place of execution where people had been pushed to their death through the centuries by the Greeks, Romans, the Turks and Bulgarians.
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“I realized this border was special. Before the fall of Communism, a lot of people — Bulgarians, East Germans, Czechs — who wanted to escape the communist block crossed it to seek freedom. Now, there are thousands of people who are crossing in the opposite direction looking for entry into Western Europe,” Komandarev told Deadline’s co-editor-in-chief Nellie Andreeva at Monday night’s Awardsline Judgment screening.
The film follows Mityo, a widower who agrees to work for his former military commander: His job is to smuggle illegal immigrants from Syria across the border and into Europe; a trek that includes crossing near The Judgment. However, as Mityo faces one last trip, his son Vasko learns about a terrible sin from his father’s past.
The director — an MD who was doing his residency in child psychiatry when he said he was “bitten by the filmmaking bug” and switched careers — set about to make a film that would speak to two generations in Bulgaria, “those who spent half their life during the Communism regime and the period after the fall; as well as the second generation who were born in the free Bulgaria” he said. “One of the main reasons why I made this film; it was something like propaganda in Bulgaria: Let’s not talk about Communism, let’s look to the future.”
Judgment cost $1.8M — a big budget by Bulgarian standards — with joint financing, as well as crews, coming from Germany, Croatia, Macedonia and Germany. All of this served as a reflection on how the migrant situation doesn’t fall on the shoulders of one country, but it’s the responsibility of many in the European Union. At the end of October, the leaders of Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia ,Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Austria and Germany met with EU officials and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Brussels, Belgium, to hammer out a 17 plan on the flow of migration. With certain borders closed throughout Eastern Europe, bottlenecks have created food and aid shortages for those crossing.
Said Komandarev about the ongoing predicament, “All these people are entering Europe because they’re coming from war. They’re coming to save their lives and the lives of their children. At the same time, they’re entering from Turkey through Bulgaria; they’re arriving into the poorest country in Europe. That’s why there’s a lot of tension. Some think it’s the end of the European union. I’m not so pessimistic. Somehow the war must stop so they can return home.”
It took Komandarev five years to secure financing for The Judgment, so for his next movie, he is going low-budget, “so I don’t have to wait another five-years,” he quipped. It plays out over one night through the intertwined stories of the passengers in several taxi cabs. He also vows to return to the border region from The Judgment, possibly to do another documentary. There is another reason, too. “This is the best area for producing great wine in Bulgaria, and I love wine, so I will return,” he quipped.
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