One American in Stradzhitsa: Bulgaria Is Incredibly Beautiful Country with Huge Opportunity
An interview of Novinite.com and Novinite.bg with American filmmaker in Bulgaria, Raymond Steers.
At times when a large number of Bulgarians covet a green card and finding a new better life in the US, one American has chosen to leave the "promised land" and settle in Bulgaria.
Meet Raymond Steers from Portland, Oregon, now a resident and homeowner in the small, central Bulgarian town of Stradzhitsa.
Tell us something about yourself. Who is Ray Steers?
That's always a hard question to answer, but I guess you could say that I'm currently a filmmaker. Although in the past I have been a musician, singer, songwriter, guitar player, audio recording engineer, analog and digital electronic designer, and most recently a Linux system administrator and design consultant for a few software companies in the US. So it's a long list of stuff that I am trying to reduce down to one main focus now.
How did you end up in Bulgaria?
Long story short, I had traveled around Europe a little, about 7 or 8 years ago and I realized that I just felt more at home than I ever did in the states. When I got back to Portland I was only there a few months and I knew that I needed to start looking for another country to live in. A few people I knew said that Bulgaria was really beautiful, and I did some research and found that there were lots of films being made here also, so I took a trip to Istanbul and then a bus to Burgas and rented a car and drove around and found this very old house in a small village with the most amazing view ever.
Do you miss the US?
Not really. I mean to say that I miss seeing my friends in person, but I talk to them all the time and keep up with them daily over the internet, but 'America' I don't even think about, except sometimes the little things that are not important. Like when you are in a store here and you ask for something and they don't have it, or are out of it, have no idea when they will get it again, and they refuse to help direct you to another store that might have it. I think the first word I learned here was "Nyama." But it reminds me to stop thinking like an American or I am setting myself up for failure, so I suppose it's a good thing to some degree.
What is daily life in Stradzhitsa for an American from a big city?
I was never a very good American, so perhaps I am not the right one to answer that. This is probably hard to explain, but what I mean is that I grew up in Hawaii, which is the USA but it is not 'America' really. It is a US state but the culture is so completely different. It's all the cultures of the entire Pacific Rim mixed together speaking broken English and eating weird food. It's not the Hawaii you see on TV.
What do you do to keep busy? A town like Stradzhitsa can be boring...
There is an axiom that only boring people get bored, and I think that is very true. I can't get bored I have too many things to do. Right now I am scanning and editing about 2000 meters of 35mm film that we shot for a TV pilot in Portland right before I moved away. And I am finishing the script for a feature film I wrote and am directing, called IMMUNITY, which will be shot here in and around my village. It's a black and white film noir psychological thriller. Casting for that is about to begin in a few weeks in Sofia. I am really excited about that because the dialog is mixed English and Bulgarian and I have never directed actors in a foreign language before, as well as the chance to shoot in actual black and white film stock it totally different. Then there is the traveling cinema I am putting together which takes projectors and a big screen around and shows films to people who usually can't see them on a big screen. So boredom is something I don't have to worry about.
You also recently launched the balkan talent database. What does this project involve?
Yes balkantalent.com is up and running now! The site is a place for anyone with some sort of artistic talent to go and either find jobs in the arts or create a profile that will let people who are looking for talent to find them. I wanted to start casting for this new film and so I went to craigslist.org like I would normally do in the US and thought that I would just post the auditions there. Everybody in the states does this and actors and musicians etc., all check it pretty often. Of course, I found out that here it exists but is totally unused, and it's not in every place in the Balkans anyway. So I started talking to some actor friends of mine here, and some other people in Skopje who are models and musicians to see how they find people for projects, and I kept getting the same answer which was 'well you just have to know everybody' which I don't. So I pitched the idea to lots of people and they all seem think it was valid, and so I built it.
It is a public service, no cost, no ads, and it will stay that way forever. It's not my interest to make money on the internet. I'm making films; I'm interested in art not business. If you go there you will see I am the first one using it by posting auditions for my film, which has worked great so far as I have had lots of great submissions from actors and actresses.
Just in the past few weeks since we launched we have over 200 people signed up and they are mostly actors from Sofia. Pretty much all of those people were signed up by Huben Nurev who is an actor friend of mine, also from Sofia, who has been incredibly helpful. There are some models and people from Skopje that I met when I was there who have signed up also, but we expect that it will grow fast once we add as many of the other Balkan languages as possible, besides Bulgarian and English.
The site allows you to search for people with lots of detail. If you want to search for an actor who taller than 180cm and is between 26 and 29 years old with long curly black hair and can ride a unicycle while juggling hatchets and singing in Croatian then you could search for that. Seriously it sounds funny but it is a database so that kind of thing is possible.
Sounds very interesting... Does it make casting and talent agencies obsolete, are you in competition with them?
Not at all. You have to realize that there is a big section of artists who are trying to get started by making very small projects where either the budget is zero and they just need experience, or the budget is comparatively small, say less than a few thousand leva, and this allows them to find people they would not normally be able to. Agencies offer a bunch of important value added services like holding auditions, and contacting and screening talent for you. As well as they usually know their talent personally at some level and that insight you cannot replicate with a database.
With all these projects, have you had the time to travel around Bulgaria?
Not as much as I would like yet, but yes I have been to all the bigger cities and to places like Shipka pass and Perperikon. I am looking forward to spring to go see lots of the other amazing sites we have here.
Have you made Bulgarian friends?
All my friends are Bulgarians! I mean that I actually don't have a single friend here who is a foreigner. I have friends here in Lyskovets and in Veliko Turnovo, and Strajitsa. The mayor of my village too, her entire family has been really, really good to me. I am trying to get to know my neighbors more also, which is getting easier as my Bulgarian gets better.
Was there any red tape in arranging your residency status?
An entire roll of red tape yes. I was here 90 days and then was forced to leave and go to Skopje and rent a little apartment and just wait for 2 months while the Bulgarian Embassy processed my visa application. Which is completely retarded when you think about it. I am not blaming the Embassy in any way, they actually were great and got it done weeks ahead of time, but how stupid is it to make a rule that says you have to go to another country to give them paperwork (a LOT of paper work) which they are just going to process through Sofia anyway? They almost forced me to go back to the USA and apply there, which would have been crazy expensive because it would mean I would had have to stay in New York or Los Angeles.
What do you like best about Bulgaria?
It's incredibly beautiful here. The people are by and large really great. That there is still a huge amount of opportunity here. I know that there is this tendency for many Bulgarians to be somewhat pessimistic and think that there is no opportunity here at all, but I disagree. The complete and total domination by large corporations doesn't exist here. The highly invasive laws of recent years that have created a virtual police state in US are not the same here.
What is the worst about Bulgaria?
That corporate domination and police state politics are coming. Six years ago when I started coming out here every six months for a few weeks at a time to work on my house there were no huge American style stores that sold big screen TV's and stuff that you could not afford. There was no McDonalds in VT. There were also no fat kids. Now I see few here and there. Pre-packaged food and video games make fat kids, period. Bulgarians, like Americans 20 years ago, are now being sold this 'American / Western European' dream. Which does not exist. It is a fantasy. Big cars, cheap gas, and Walmart, only sound good until you realize that you have to pay for them by killing all the small businesses, racking up credit debt, and making education and health care cost a fortune. If you think the American dream is real then you should turn off your TV and get on a plane to the states and talk to some of my friends. They are intelligent, articulate, educated people in the prime of their lives, and yet many of them are in massive debt for education loans, are working in coffee shops without health insurance, and turn the corner every time they see a cop in the rear view mirror." I see that happening here eventually and it scares the crap out of me.
Any tips for other expats in Bulgaria?
Learn Bulgarian. It's not an easy language, and I am still struggling with it, but it is rude to live in someone else's country and not speak their language. I meet people who have lived here 10 years and still don't speak Bulgarian and it boggles my mind. So perhaps this is my chance to apologize publicly to everyone who I meet who looks at me funny when I mix up the sex of words and say stuff like "malko vrata."
This interview in Bulgarian
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Welcome aboard, Ray.. When Bg looks better than Hawaii or Portland's Pearl District, then we have truly arrived !!
Bela Tarr already did the communist noir theme, and "Letter to America" brought us up to date, so will be interesting to see if your approach, with input from so much local Balkan talent, can create a surge in Bulgarian film making.. Good luck..
I think the clue is in the title. "One American" out of 300 million (even more if you include the other North Americans and South Americans) and that one is from Hawaii.
It is all subjective. Sure there is beauty here but no more so than in the Americas and there is more chance of finding it marred by garbage strewn around here.
And "they actually were great and got it done weeks ahead of time, but how stupid is it to make a rule that says you have to go to another country to give them paperwork (a LOT of paper work) which they are just going to process through Sofia anyway?"
Well. it's called not being a EU citizen. Imagine how we feel wanting to go and live in the U.S. Why can't we just move there and apply to remain while we are there? Oh, and, how come they processed it more quickly for you? How do you know what "weeks ahead of time"is anyway?
And, internet availability? I lived in small town North America 15 years ago and got better internet access (cable there) than I do now (los antenna).
Have a nice time in Bulgaria but I think(and sure it is my opinion but) you are fooling yourself if you think life here is any better than in the US. Ask any expat Bulgarian living in the US (and I bet there is a hell of a much higher percentage of Bulgarians living there than there are Americans living here).