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Q&A with Theodore Ushev

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Theodore Ushev is deservedly carving a reputation as one of Montreal’s most acclaimed experimental animators. Having moved to the city in 1999 after graduating from the National Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia, Bulgaria (where he was born) he was quick to expand on his existing career as a graphic designer by venturing into the world of animation. Numbered amongst his successful short film work produced by the National Film Board of Canada are Tzaritza, Sou, The Man Who Waited and the Genie Award-winning animated documentary Lipsett Diaries which explored the work of experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett. Over the course of the last eight years he has directed three shorts – Tower Bawher (2006), Drux Flux (2008) and last year’s Gloria Victoria – that make up The 20th Century Trilogy. As a multimedia artist he has produced work for musicians such as David Gilmour and Public Symphony and recently created the installation piece Third Page from the Sun to accompany this year’s Sommets du cinéma d’animation in Montreal. Skwigly caught up with Ushev at Sommets to get some insight into his intriguing, politically-minded process.

Gloria Victoria by Theodore Ushev, National Film Board of Canada

Gloria Victoria is currently being screened around the world and is part of a trilogy of films looking at the connections between art and power. Can you tell us what tempted you to look at this?
I did it completely unconsciously. I woke up one evening thinking about my father – who is an artist as well – who had dealt with the autocracy and the totalitarian regime of the country I was born in, Bulgaria, which was a communist country at the time; we had a lot of problems. I just sat, remembering, thinking of how he dealt with those things. That’s how it started, basically.

GVposterThe films have an energy and strength to them and seem to highlight the triumphs and failures of industrial and cultural changes. What links connect these films?
Basically all of them are inspired by certain books, most of them sociological or philosophical. For example Gloria Victoria was pretty much inspired by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, which discussed the problems I mentioned – the conflict of civilisation, the war, democracy, things like that. So basically they are art films but at the same time they are very political films.

Your films have wonderful scores that work with – and often lead the viewer through – the narrative of the film. How do you choose the musical score to your films?
The composers I used for the music in this trilogy (Georgy Sviridov, Alexander Mossolov and Dmitri Shostakovich) had similar problems with the authorities, with the totalitarian system. They were exposed, some of them were even put in prison and labour camps. The problems with artists and power has always been very persistent in society and the system, even now artists are representative of intellectual individualities. They were always the frontrunners of society and they always had problems with power – actually, some of them were serving the power and the others were against it. It’s always been that relationship between the two, the conflicts were very interesting, and that’s what got me started.

Tower Bawher by Theodore Ushev, National Film Board of Canada

When you began work on Tower Bawher was it always the plan that it would become the first of a trilogy?
No, it was not planned, I just wasn’t able to stop myself from continuing. After the first film came the world economic crisis, during which I visited Germany and saw some of the old abandoned factories and met some of the former workers, most of them Turkish workers who were now unemployed. It really showed how the industry collapsed, and what’s left after is just a smelly, rotten corpse of the industry. The nature is destroyed, human lives are destroyed and nothing’s left.

Tower Bawher looks at the work of many Russian constructivist artists such as Rodchenko and Stenberg, why did you choose to look to these artists’ work to celebrate and visually discuss the philosophy of the Constructivism movement?
Firstly because I love the works of the Russian constructivists but also because those in particular were prominent figures as artists serving the ideology, they really believed in the Khmer Rouge in such a way that they created beautiful pieces of art. So sometimes the idealism of following something which is not good for the people creates beautiful art, art which was destroyed from the revolution. This is also the case with the French revolution, for example, where the brightest minds were executed. That’s what the artists and the society and the system and the revolution does.

Drux Flux by Theodore Ushev, National Film Board of Canada

Can you tell us a little about the main cues for Gloria Victoria’s visual style?
With Tower Bawher I drew on Constructivism while the second film Drux Flux has a lot of Italian Futurism. In Gloria Victoria there’s a lot of German expressionism and I was also very influenced by the English avant-garde movement Vorticism. In the build-up to the film I remember I was visiting London for another festival and saw a huge exhibition of the Vorticists in the Tate Gallery. It influenced me a lot, visually, for Gloria Victoria, because the Vorticists were very involved in war commentary, they were very concerned with what happened with the military conflicts during the war.

All your work, including your illustration, has tactility and an organic quality to it. Are there any other artists that inspire you?
Pretty much all the movements of the European avant-garde, also the Amercian avant-garde from the beginning of the twentieth century and after. That’s why the trilogy is named The 20th Century Trilogy, although actually it’s more of a metaphor as I think that the films are for this century as well, it’s just I didn’t want to be so ‘present’ with the reality that I deal with. Mainly because the problems that exist within these films were inspired by my life, going out and seeing what’s going on, so I just used some of the inspiration from the avant-garde as I think they’re very clearly pointing to the problem. Those are not narrative films, they’re construction films with a concept and structure to them; Everything builds around that structure – and the structure of the music as well – so they aim for emotions and feelings and not just the brain.

Watch our exclusive video interview with Theodore Ushev discussing his installation piece Third Page from the Sun below:

Written interview questions by Laura-Beth Cowley, video interview conducted by Ben Mitchell.
For more info on Theodore Ushev’s work you can visit his official site. To watch/purchase his previous films check out his NFB fimography page. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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