Theodore Ushev calls The Physics of Sorrow his “most personal film to date,” which says a lot since he literally put his own blood into 2015’s Blood Manifesto. “This is the book that I would write if I were a writer,” says Ushev about Georgi Gospodinov’s novel of the same name that inspired the film, which premieres at TIFF and the Ottawa International Animation Festival in September. “It was a book for my whole generation.”
It’s easy to see why the film resonates with the Bulgarian-born, Montreal-based NFB animator. Ushev delivers a thought-provoking parable told in haunting images of encaustic wax painting, a technique from antiquity never attempted before in animation. The film offers melancholic ruminations on life, death, love, home, immigration, legacy and memory as an unknown soldier, voiced by Xavier Dolan in the French release and Rossif Sutherland in the English version, reflects upon his youth in Bulgaria and his later years in Montreal. The film proves Ushev to be the most exciting animator of his generation.
The film marks Ushev’s second Gospodinov adaptation after Blind Vaysha (2016), a fable about a girl with one eye in the future and one in the past, brought him an overdue Oscar nomination. However, Ushev calls Blind Vaysha an “in-between film” that offered a respite from Sorrow. “Making The Physics of Sorrow was very demanding physically and psychologically,” he says.
“I took six months off and the result was Blind Vaysha. In a sense, I was ‘cleaning my bushes’ by making this film,” says Ushev, although it forced him into six months of dizzying interviews inspired by Vaysha’s success. “Returning to Physics of Sorrow was like my escape to my labyrinth,” laughs Ushev. “It was going back to the minotaur in me,” he adds, referencing the haunting image that blurs men with beasts throughout the film.
Despite the film’s personal nature, Ushev notes that, like Gospodinov’s book, it isn’t strictly autobiographical. “It has some elements from my life, but it also has elements from my friends’ lives,” explains Ushev. “I was stitching together the stories of my generation, getting lost skipping through a maze of fleeting memories and emotions.”
Stylistically, the film resembles Ushev’s Lipsett Diaries (2010) with its dark whirlwind of tormented thoughts. “Dramaturgically, the book is told in capsules,” says Ushev. “I had to create logical connections between different stories by building the crescendo. In Lipsett Diaries, everything was falling apart and in flashbacks because that was the nature of [Arthur] Lipsett’s mind.” While Lipsett Diaries draws upon Lipsett’s oeuvre to imagine his inner mental turmoil, Sorrow melds Gospodinov’s book with myriad histories to create an impression of lives connected in chaos.
The maelstrom of memories lets the narrator revisit love at a carnival, horror on the battlefield, and life as a fruit fly—key moments that encapsulate a generation’s pain. “This film is like a time capsule,” observes Ushev. “In time capsules, there is always some kind of order, even a very abstract one.” This order appears through recurring series of objects evoked by the narrator, like a plastic dinosaur from his daughter or a candy wrapper that embodies love lost.
Time capsules inspired Ushev’s technique, which involves heating beeswax and shaping it into pictures coloured with bleach and pigments. “This technique was used in the portraits on Egyptian sarcophaguses,” explains Ushev. “Egyptian tombs and coffins were the first time capsules. They would put everyday objects alongside the buried person with an encaustic portrait on top.”
The director says that the relatively small canvas (30 cm by 42 cm) offered a rewarding challenge. “It gave a tonality to the film because you cannot go into details,” observes Ushev. “It’s impossible. I really liked this aspect because memories never have sharp vision.” Hazy patches inhabit the impressionistic images, which become lucid when seen whole.
The unprecedented technique means Ushev underwent considerable trial and error until he approached his father, Asen, an artist to whom the film is dedicated. “He knew the recipe from long ago,” says Ushev. “Then things started to work out. I became a kind of expert.”
The final act sees the narrator return home to visit his father, an ailing artist. Despite autobiographical overtones, Ushev says that father and son differ. “He was an abstract painter in the style of Bauhaus and the constructivists,” says Ushev. “Very industrial. His influence on me was more in terms of his life’s philosophy than his aesthetics.”
The connection of fathers and sons also appears in the voice characterization. Manuel Tadros echoes his son Xavier Dolan in the French film and Donald Sutherland joins his son Rossif in the English. Ushev says he began working with Dolan (who narrated Lipsett Diaries) after declining to narrate himself because he didn’t want speakers to have discernable accents. “It’s like hearing your inner voice,” says Ushev. “When you think, you never have an accent. You have the perfect voice. It was crucial for the voice to be passing through the train of his memories.”
The idea to have Tadros voice Dolan’s elder arose while the younger actor was recording. “There is a sentence in the film that says, ‘I am us,’” explains Ushev. “There is a multiplication of the ego of the personality.”
Dolan’s pensive narration captures the lost hope of a generation in contrast with Tadros’ gravelly ruminations, while Rossif Sutherland conveys a brooding melancholy against his father’s wistful authority. “This was our biggest achievement,” admits Ushev. “Both of them know what I’m talking about. Being a son of an artist, Xavier dealt with this problem. Rossif Sutherland dealt with being the son of a famous actor. We spoke the same language.”
While the language of Ushev’s films is frequently political, both visually and thematically, his Trump-era Gospodinov adaptations have a richer fire. Ushev says the timing is no coincidence. “I was born in a time full of hope—in 1968,” observes Ushev, born in the same year of protests as Gospodinov and the anonymous narrator. “Our lives entered another time that was extremely fruitful and happy: the end of the Cold War in ’89 when all the walls were falling. We thought it was a new era of free movement, free exchange. Suddenly, we ended up going back to the darkest time when there is a constant struggle for the liberty we had before. I wanted to do this film to show how far hate speech, aggressiveness and a lack of dialogue can bring us.”
Like Blind Vaysha, The Physics of Sorrow asks how one can evolve while inhabiting the past. The progression of the film, including its evocative soundtrack featuring Wolf Parade’s Spencer Krug and ’80s Montreal band Men Without Hats, propels the protagonist forward as he learns from history without carrying it with him. “I see my films as propaganda posters on the wall,” observes Ushev. “This is the propaganda of the human spirit.”
Looking to the future, Ushev, who is preparing his first live-action feature, speculates that Sorrow is his last NFB film, not simply because of “the situation,” but also since the waiting list of filmmakers means it’s time to step aside. The “situation” to which Ushev refers is the pivotal moment the NFB faces after over 250 filmmakers, including Ushev, signed a letter protesting the renewal of chairman Claude Joli-Coeur, citing declining working conditions for artists. “It’s always been a war zone between the artists and the administration,” says Ushev. “There’s been a lack of dialogue between artists and upper management for a long time. Every one of us has to take steps to find a way out from this labyrinth.”
However, Ushev notes that his working conditions were never better than while making Sorrow, although he admits the Oscar nomination probably helped, and credits his producers, particularly long-time collaborator Marc Bertrand, for making an environment that inspires creativity. “If it were not for the NFB, I couldn’t have made this film,” says Ushev. “This is the biggest laboratory in the world for filmmaking. This freedom not to be commercial is very crucial for the development of cinema in Canada.”