Ottawa Animation Festival: Into the labyrinth with Theodore Ushev

A scene from The Physics of Sorrow by Theodore Ushev. Courtesy NFB

The Bulgarian-Canadian animator Theodore Ushev is an Oscar-nominated artist whose latest work, The Physics of Sorrow, is being screened during the 2019 Ottawa International Animation Festival. He spoke with ARTSFILE about his life, his art and his latest film.

Q. Please tell me your personal story. 

A. I came to Canada from Bulgaria in 1999. I was invited here three times before finally moving, after having won the Corel design competition. An advertising company invited me to work at a charity auction, where my work was shown alongside works by artists like Michael Snow, and many others. I remember it was at the Château Laurier hotel in Ottawa.

I applied for a permanent resident visa and here I am now. The funny thing is, just before my last “tourist” trip to Ottawa, a Canadian embassy visa employee (who was an art aficionado, by the way) said to me, “I’m seeing you now for a third time, why don’t you move to Canada?” And at first I said no, but then I had to call him back and say, “I’ve changed my mind, I actually would like to move there.”

I’m still looking for the name of this embassy employee, who changed my life — to say a big “thank you” to him for pushing me toward the greatest decision of my life: moving to Canada.

Theodore Ushev. Photo: Stephen Ballard

Q. Please tell about your career as an animator. 

A. I studied stage design and props in high school, then graphic design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia. I had no intention of becoming an animator, even though I had taken some animation classes at the academy, and even made a small film that won an award at a competition in Belgium at the time. Then I forgot about animation…

It wasn’t before I arrived in Canada that I got the desire to start animating again. The push and inspiration came from a small, independent video library next door to me. I rented some obscure, experimental DVD collections, and thought, wow, I wanna do this! The NFB came later; I’d never heard of them before. I just wanted to make films like Maya Deren, Vertov, the Quay brothers, Švankmajer.

Q. There are two films of yours that are connected to the writer Georgi Gospodinov. Can you tell me a bit about the Oscar nominated Blind Vaysha.

A. It was actually a side project of my latest film, The Physics of Sorrow. When I’m making something big and profound, I need to be able to put it aside for a while, so I started this small tale of a film about a girl who only can see the past and the future, but not the present. And it turned out pretty big — the film got an Oscar nomination. You never know what a film will bring you. But yes, it seems we work quite well with Georgi Gospodinov; somehow his writing style corresponds to my drawings, in a very strange way. He writes the same way as I draw my pictures — with an immediate sense of urgency to make an impact.

Q. Tell me about The Physics of Sorrow.

It was inspired by Gospodinov’s novel The Physics of Sorrow, which deeply touched me. That was the starting point. Later, it evolved into a more personal story, but I still used his witty, visceral phrases.

It is a time-capsule. A labyrinth. A man in search of his identity, happiness. So he just tries to capture his sadness, to make it more immediate, tangible, so that he can bury it.

A scene from Theodore Ushev’s film The Physics of Sorrow. Courtesy NFB.

Q. The theme of immigration is front and centre. Why? 

A. In our time, when everyone is moving, I thought I needed to talk, to try to find something that can create a base, some solid ground under our feet. It was my personal experience, you know, this feeling that you’re rootless, that you’re somewhere but not exactly, your body is separated from your soul. You feel OK, but there’s always something missing. So my film is a quest for this missing part. Is it childhood? Certain places? The abandoned toys and objects from that time? Memories?

Q. The myth of the Minotaur is part of your thinking. Why?

I see the Minotaur as a symbol. A metaphor for our hidden fears, complexes… Everyone has his own Minotaur inside.

Q. Is there a personal interest in Greek myths?

A. Because of the conflict between the Gods and ordinary people. It is like the fight between the tiny individual and the almighty systems of power. It is an eternal struggle.

Q. Your father was an important figure in your life. Tell me about that.

A. My father was an amazing person and human being. He fought for his art (he was a painter as well, who struggled to make his art because he created abstract, industrial paintings at a time when only socialist realism was allowed in the Communist countries — worker-oriented, propaganda art). He’s in the film too. I’m very sad that he won’t see the film; he passed away shortly before I started editing it. It was a shock for me, it was almost impossible for me to finish it. I remember bursting into tears while editing the film.

Q. You come from a country that was behind the Iron Curtain for many years. Has that existence influenced this film?

A. Absolutely. My childhood was a happy one, but in a very limited space. We had very limited resources, goods, objects. We had a constant deficit, not only of food but also information. We had to fight to capture any light coming from the other side of the Iron Curtain. And everything we got — music, posters, books, jeans, shirts from the other, more colourful, happier side of the world — was like a museum piece. I remember getting my first “Western” sneakers: a pair of Adidas made in … Romania. I couldn’t sleep all night, and the next day the entire school came to see me, proudly standing on the schoolyards in my new shoes.

I remember fighting over a block of Toblerone chocolate with my sister. It was the same with art. Every Western art magazine my father was able to find was like a bar of gold for me. This is probably where my obsession with objects comes from. We lived like Minotaurs in a cave, in a labyrinth of unfulfilled desire for sunlight and a little freedom. The Communist era was dark and scary.

I’m going to tell you a funny story.

Canada was far, far away. Everything I knew about this country involved that great pianist, Glenn Gould, whose name I’d heard only because he performed in Moscow. And the music of Rush and Saga — I loved them! So, when I first came to Canada, the immigration officer asked me, “So, what do you know about Canada?” And I answered him by singing a line from “Tom Sawyer.” He was stunned and speechless. He just said, “Enjoy!”

Another scene from The Physics of Sorrow. Courtesy NFB

Q. Why use encaustic painting technique?

A. The encaustic technique was one of the first used to paint realistic portraits, on Egyptian tombs. They survived, intact, for centuries! These portraits of the dead were created on the sarcophagi of mummies, with everyday objects from their life placed inside. Basically, these sarcophagi were the first time capsules ever. Because of them, we now know so much about the life of the Egyptians, the Pharaohs. As I wanted to create a time-capsule film, from my generation to the future one, the encaustic technique was a good conceptual choice. The only problem was that no one had used this technique before to animate. So I had to “reinvent” the technique, so that I could use it to animate, to move my images. It was not an easy process. Very physically demanding, it was like a workout.

Q. This film is 27 minutes, your longest. That’s a lot of work. Did you do much of the work yourself?

Every single frame of this film is painted and crafted by me. I don’t use additional animators; my working methods are based on mistakes. I can’t tell others how to make mistakes and turn this into a creative process.

In town: Screenings of The Physics of Sorrow take place Sept. 27 between 9:15 p.m. and 10:35 p.m.; Sept. 29 between 3 p.m. and 4:20 p.m. At the ByTowne Cinema.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.