This may be the comeback of the decade. In her first film role in almost 30 years, Bulgarian actress Eli Skorcheva — who had gone into self-exile from cinema, changing careers and working odd jobs including as a cleaning lady – stars in Blaga’s Lessons, which earned her the Best Actress Award at this year’s Karlovy Vary Film Festival and is Bulgaria’s 2024 International Film Oscar submission.
The movie by Stephan Komandarev also won the Grand Prix Crystal Globe at Karlovy Vary and just added the Grand Jury Prize at the Rome Film Festival.
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Like Skorcheva’s accidental first foray into movies in the late 1970s with a lead role that made her a star, her successful return was not planned; it came courtesy of her dog. (More on that later.) Her triumph with Blaga’s Lessons also may have been foreshadowed by Baba Vanga, the famous Bulgarian blind mystic credited with predicting 9/11 along with other major world events.
Ever since she got past her childhood fascinations with careers as a Navy pilot, astrophysicist or archeologist, Eli (pronounced Eh-lee) knew she wanted to be an actress. Her builder father had other ideas though, and he quietly pulled her documents from the college prep high school she had applied to in her hometown of Plovdiv. Instead, she had to enroll in a vocational high school specializing in building and construction.
She reluctantly went there and discovered a surprising talent and love for math. But the detour didn’t deter her from her dream career path and, after graduation, she applied to the Bulgarian National Academy For Theater and Film Arts in Sofia during a time when some 1,300 girls competed for a single spot.
On her first day visiting the Academy, she was scouted for a bit part in a TV series that was filming the next day. She only agreed to do it after she was promised transportation by the production so she could get back in time for her Academy audition.
However, filming ran late, and she didn’t get a car. By the time she finally made it to the Academy, her group had been called.
Despondent, Skorcheva heeded advice by the doorman to go to the nearest clinic, fake an illness and get a note from a doctor. She passed the acting test and got back on track with the Academy entrance exams, sailing through them despite having no formal training — focusing on theater and swearing off a screen career.
“The chaos, no one knowing what they are doing exactly, I didn’t like that at all and it made me vow to never again get involved with cinema,” she said about that first experience on a film set during an interview conducted in Bulgarian.
Her disdain for movies was so strong, she refused to submit her headshot to the national film casting database, as required of all Academy students.
Despite her best efforts “to hide” during her sophomore year, Skorcheva was cast as the lead in Adaptation, a three-part movie for television, after an exhaustive search involving every young actress in the database and beyond proved unsuccessful. She turned down the audition for a month until she got the script and loved it, a rule she has stuck to her entire career.
Skorcheva got the lead in the movie, which was a big hit, making her a star overnight and earning her the first of many national acting awards. A string of high-profile film and theater roles followed.
As her acting career was flourishing in the 1980s, Skorcheva took risks supporting causes in opposition to the Communist regime, including a hunger strike in solidarity with Czech dissident (and future president) Václav Havel and a petition against the government’s campaign to force name changes on Bulgarian Turks.
She also lent her face and voice to the democratic movement after the fall of Communism in 1989, later pulling out once opposition parties made it to parliament and the government as she says she does not want to be involved in politics.
In the early 1990s, amid economic woes during Bulgaria’s bumpy democratic transition, government financial support for the film industry dried up.
“That was a devastating blow to Bulgarian art. For a period 8-10 years, there was no cinema, it was dead,” Skorcheva said.
With no films and plays largely backed by rising oligarchs and organized crime bosses, she decided to leave the business.
“Everything that was offered to me was a huge compromise,” Skorcheva said of her motives. ”I didn’t want to fade away slowly and be humiliated; I wanted to leave with body of work I am not ashamed of while I am still at the top of my career.”
Skorcheva worked for an insurance company and earned a degree in management and marketing for the insurance business. She also did a stint at a construction firm, putting her high school education to use.
“I’ve never been afraid of any line of work; I am ready to try anything when necessary,” Skorcheva said. “And it’s always been very important for me to do my best in everything I take on because there is no embarrassing work, just an embarrassing way of doing it.”
Following eight years spent caring for her ailing parents (both suffered from dementia), after their deaths she found herself “in a deep hole, financial, physical, emotional, psychological — but also social.” She took a job supervising a company’s custodial staff where she would regularly clean alongside her team.
Skorcheva was still working the cleaning job when she filmed Blaga’s Lessons. Feeling forgotten by the new generation of Bulgarian filmmakers, she had pretty much stopped contemplating a professional acting comeback by that time.
Still, “I hadn’t stopped acting, I did it in everyday life, including communicating with my dog,” she said, smiling. “I speak on his behalf with relatives and other people.”
In addition to helping her keep her acting spark alive, Skorcheva’s rescue dog, a French bulldog named Jerry, also helped her land her comeback movie. While taking him to a nearby dog park for his daily walk, Skorcheva was approached by a fellow dog owner who recognized the former film star.
He turned out to be a veteran casting director who, amid their regular discussions about the state of the Bulgarian film and theater business while walking their pooches, asked Skorcheva to join the roster of actors at his agency. She agreed. The first movie he approached her about was Komandarev’s Blaga’s Lessons.
As she always does, Skorcheva asked to read the script first. She devoured it and signed on for the role the same day.
In Blaga’s Lessons, a dark social-realist drama which Deadline’s review says “packs a punch not seen since Lars von Trier or Michael Haneke in their provocative prime,” Skorcheva plays Blaga, a recently widowed retired teacher who falls victim to telephone scammers. Getting no help from authorities, her bank or her estranged son after losing all her money, Blaga takes things into her own hands and turns the tables on the criminals who duped her in a story that “takes an unexpectedly shocking turn at its harrowing climax.” (You can watch a trailer below.)
For a cheerful and positive person like Skorcheva, embodying Blaga wasn’t easy, she admitted. In doing so, she left vanity at the door, only wearing moisturizer on screen the entire movie.
However, getting in front of the camera after a 30-year absence wasn’t hard.
“The experience I had accumulated over that time had made me better,” Skorcheva said. “It was easier to work and much more enjoyable.”
She hopes people will go see Blaga’s Lessons. (A list of the remaining Los Angeles screenings is available below).
“It’s interesting to watch because it’s a thriller, social but thriller,” she said. “Also, there is a very dark sense of humor which I like a lot. And I think the movie is very relatable because every adult person, no exceptions, feels guilt toward someone old around them over something they have done or failed to do, over something they have said or failed to say when were supposed to.”
Skorcheva first watched the finished film at its world premiere at Karlovy Vary; it exceeded all her expectations.
And while she is happy about the awards, “the most wonderful experience in Karlovy Vary was not when they handed me the statuette, it was when the film ended at the premiere and the people started clapping and stood up,” she said. “The standing ovation continued more than 10 minutes. That emotional wave of recognition, of love, of admiration, when it is passed from a person to a person, it grows. I was at the center of those 1,400 people and received that emotional tsunami; it was incredible.”
Skorcheva’s newfound international success at age 69 dusted off a decades-old prediction by the late Baba Vanga that when the actress would get old, she would be given “golden keys.” Skorcheva doesn’t know exactly what that means, but many have interpreted her holding the trophy on the Karlovy Vary stage as a fulfilment of the prophecy.
Since Blaga’s Lessons, Skorcheva has done a short film and has turned down three feature offers. She hopes there will be more after the movie officially premieres in Bulgaria later this month. Meanwhile, she is working as an assistant to the manager of a children’s hospital in Sofia.
“I have to work, I don’t have pension,” Skorcheva said, referencing a major fire years ago that destroyed the employment records of Bulgarian film actors like her, leaving them without retirement documents.
She says she is too proud to jump through hoops and beg for social security after having worked most of her adult life. “I prefer to work until I’m able to, until I can still breathe, but won’t accept pittance,” she said.
As for her own lessons, standing up for what she believes in and doing things her own way is a big one.
“Secondly, I’m thankful for every single thing that has happened in my life because they all taught me valuable lessons, brought me a joyful or sobering experience and led me to Blaga’s Lessons.”
Looking to the future, she said, “I’m just full of expectation, and whatever happens, I have no problem starting new things. None.”
Thursday, November 2, 7:00 PT
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Q&A following the film with Dir. Stephan Komandarev
Reception with Dir. Stephan Komandarev
Saturday, November 4, 2023 at 7:00 PT
Crescent Screening Room
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Reception with Dir. Stephan Komandarev
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