The second edition of the Pravets Film Festival took place in Chitalishte Zarya on June 12, 2020, showcasing 10 short movies made by Bulgarian high school students from all over the country. Creator of the event is Shauna Ricketts, who taught English as a Fulbright| America for Bulgaria Foundation ETA at the Aleko Konstantinov Foreign Language School in Pravets in 2018-2019. This year she navigated the organization of the festival remotely from New York, with the help of her mentor teacher Stefka Atanasova, her colleague Tsanko Tsolov, and this year’s ETA in Pravets, Sophie Louaillier. Shauna has a B.A. in Sociology, Political Science, and Urban Studies, from the State University of New York. Shauna worked at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and has been writing and producing short films since returning from Bulgaria. Currently she works in New York as an Associate Producer for the documentary film, Instant Life, which is funded by A24.
Shauna, what makes you passionate about film as a medium for creative expression?
Throughout my life I have always been fascinated by the way that people interact with each other, their environments and their feelings. I tend to notice the visual subtleties of behavior and how those behaviors reflect larger ideas. No matter what age I am, I gravitate towards using art as a way to express the complexity of these ideas. The symbolism and depth that films are able to cover in a short period of time is absolutely astonishing. Every decision that goes into making a film is significant, from the colors of clothing to the repetition of a specific word from a certain character, and contributes to what the audience absorbs.
Tell us a little bit about all of the “behind-the-scenes” work you had to do this year – what were the main challenges of organizing the festival remotely, how did you find and convince people to get involved as judges, what was the process like of mentoring and supporting students remotely as they were building their stories?
The main components of organizing the Pravets Film Festival remotely were judge outreach and communication, advertising and informing the public, advising filmmakers and collecting films, creation of advertisements/invitations, general communication with people organizing on the ground in Bulgaria and creating the international address that was delivered digitally at the festival. As you can imagine, managing all of the moving parts of the Pravets Film Festival remotely during a global pandemic presented a few challenges. While planning the Pravets Film Festival, I was also working for my job in New York and the time difference presented limitations in terms of when we could meet. In New York, it would be 3pm and I was doing work for my job while trying to coordinate zoom meetings for people in various time zones. At times, I would have to respond to urgent questions from filmmakers and judges that were time sensitive. I basically had to be available at all times to make sure that everything was running smoothly and that students felt supported throughout their filmmaking process.
Organizing the festival during COVID-19 made the planning of the festival logistics even more complicated. We were unsure if the festival would happen in real life or if it would just be digital. Staying up to date on the COVID-19 guidelines in Bulgaria was critical, while also making sure that the festival itself and the filmmaking didn’t cause any harm to the community. The call to go through with the Pravets Film Festival involved a lot of thought and care.
The Pravets Film Festival had 16 international judges this year. I had started recruiting judges informally in January and February when I was in Utah at the Sundance Film Festival. There are so many people in the international filmmaking community that see the value in a festival like this which is incredible, but at the same time people are busy with their daily lives and jobs so it is a lot to ask for them to provide commentary for 10 plus films. Some of the judges served on the committee last year as well! I am grateful to all of the judges who took time out of their lives to help our filmmakers grow.
What were some topics students chose to explore in their films this year, and what were the main criteria for the judges when choosing the best picture?
This year we had a range of topics covered in the films submitted. Some students used the corona virus and quarantine as a premise for their films, exploring what life and relationships in the future might be like as a result of the global pandemic. Other filmmakers incorporated topics that included crime investigations, extreme sports, stream of consciousness, artistic processes, the life of a teenage acrobatic, fulfillment in life, bullying and guilt. Judges were given a specific set of criteria to rank the films. The categories the films were ranked in were originality/creativity, story, cinematography, performances, sound/music, and integration of selected elements from element list.
The idea of the film festival is strongly supported by the Pravets community, your host school’s administration, the local cultural center, and Pravets municipality – do you see a third edition of the event taking place next year? How would it be different?
There will absolutely be a third year of the Pravets Film Festival!! The festival has developed a lot from the first festival to the second festival. The international address that was presented at the festival was born this year due to the remote planning of the festival and I would like to incorporate that again next year. We were able to include an additional award this year to promote innovation and that will remain as an award next year! I am working on creating a scholarship fund through the Pravets Film Festival platform to assist students who otherwise cannot attend university due to financial reasons. There is a lot of potential for the Pravets Film Festival to expand, specifically by having workshops, involving Eastern European filmmakers and having Q&As with our student filmmakers. The future of the Pravets Film Festival is looking very bright!!! We also welcome anyone that has ideas or wants to get involved to contact firstname.lastname@example.org
What keeps you connected to Bulgaria and the small town of Pravets?
Though I am across the world and in a different time zone, I still feel extremely connected to Pravets and grateful for the people that I was able to spend time with when I was living there. When COVID-19 led to remote learning in Bulgaria, I reached out to see if there was anything I could do to help out the English teachers. I ended up creating a video for the 9th graders explaining what life in New York was like at the peak of COVID-19 and how I was spending my time during quarantine. Knowing that the 12th graders were disappointed about having their senior year taken away from them, I talked about my high school experience in the United States and went through some old yearbook photos in a video that I made for them. All of the students who watched my videos wrote letters to me and I had a back and forth with the students. It was really nice to formally hear what was going on with them since I wonder about how they are all doing in school and in life.
A few of my students have applied to various English programs and I proofread some of their essays and gave them advice. One of the students is coming to the US as part of the YES program.
Stefka is always sending me updates about things that are happening in Pravets and including me in things that are going on in the school. She invited me to a zoom call where 12a presented their digital stories. I am thankful for Facebook for allowing me to stay connected with her and everyone else in Pravets.
Organizing the festival is just another way that I can stay close to Pravets! I plan to come back to Bulgaria at some point to visit Pravets (maybe the next film festival?)!
Interview by Iliana Dimitrova