Joya Berrow is a documentary director and producer. Through her work, which has been featured on National Geographic, Nowness and VICE among other platforms, she seeks topics that will promote human welfare and contribute towards a greater consciousness to protect our environment. Led by the richness of the land, the sea and the sky, her subjects often lead her to remote places, as she unearths stories that serve to educate and cause us to reflect on the way we are choosing to live our lives.
Here, she talks us through the process of going on a last-minute shoot in Bulgaria to capture the rhythm and mythology of an early summer's rose harvest.
My latest film, Every True Person of Kalofer Without Freedom Can’t Live, is a stream-of-consciousness that transports you through the Rose Valley of Bulgaria, following the process and ritual of the rose harvest. Along the way, we encountered multiple characters and explored their symbiotic connections to the land – how they continue to find freedom and a way to survive from it.
I wasn’t able to visit beforehand on a recce, so we just winged it and found characters along the way.
The harvest only happens once a year, for four to six weeks in May and June – the precise time depends on the climactic conditions in the valley. Three hours outside of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, there are two towns – Kalofer and Kazanlak – and anywhere between those two towns is the Rose Valley. There’s a mountain range on either side of the valley, and the mountains keep it humid, protected from the wind and shaded, too, from the rising sun during the early morning. There are lots of different forces all working together to help create the harvest – however, each year is a total gamble, they’re completely reliant on Mother Nature. This lends every part of the process a spiritual and otherworldly connection.
The rose is the symbol of the valley, it really defines the area. It does so much for the economy, whether that’s in the production of the roses themselves, the oil that is distilled from them or through tourism. There aren’t many places in the world like the Rose Valley and it’s strange that it’s not better known within Europe, as it’s an incredible phenomenon. I first found out about it through my dad three years ago. I couldn’t get out there immediately, but did some research and loved how much of a ritual the harvest is – it’s not just one individual or company doing something on their own, it’s about so many different people and elements coming together. This May, after speaking to one of the local distilleries for the second year in a row, they told me the harvest had started. I couldn’t bear to miss it, so I decided with the production company BRAVÒ that I would be going. They were excited to support it and I went out there with Lucy Jane, the Director of Photography, and Lily Colfox, Creative Consultant. The film was executive produced by Ivan Olita from BRAVÒ. Everyone pulled together; it was super last-minute.
There isn’t much online about the harvest – no film, just photos – and I wasn’t able to visit beforehand on a recce, so we just winged it and found characters along the way. Back in London, I’d looked on Google Maps, found Kalofer and thought it looked like a great place to start. When we arrived, I got a few pointers from the Airbnb guy and then we just drove around, speaking to everyone in a bid to understand the process and weigh up who’d be good to include in the film. A lot of the time, we’d aim to visit anywhere that had a distillery. The way you’d figure that out was to visit a village and literally just sniff the air. The smell of roses is so strong from those places; they distil tons of them. That was pretty magical, to be able to find your locations by smelling the air.
If a film is too claustrophobic, you can lose all the sense of curiosity and the space you need to reflect on the themes of the narrative.
While filming, we spent a lot of time with the rose pickers, who work every day in the valley from around 4AM until about 10AM – as soon as the sun gets too hot, the essential oils in the roses start to evaporate, and the whole aim is to get the most oil you can from every single bud. What interests me most is that there aren’t many traditional practices that haven’t been totally industrialised, with machines doing the jobs of humans. Rose picking is something that only skilled people can do, with determination and a desire to be out in the field so early in the morning. Many of the pickers are women and the whole process and atmosphere is quite feminine; in the moonlight, in the morning, you can smell the roses and everyone’s weaving along the line, chattering to each other.
There was a language barrier to a certain extent. However, one morning we found a woman up in the rose fields and as we were chatting to her we realised we all spoke Spanish. We went back to her time and again, she had this amazing little scene of women she’d introduce us to. Eventually, we went to the National Park Centre, as we really needed a translator and fixer in the second week. They set us up with a wonderful local woman named Victoria, and she helped us a lot.
We used small cameras, and would never immediately begin filming, we spent days getting to know some of our characters.
I didn’t want the film to be too linear, more of an overview of the whole process. It became an exploration, a journey – going with the flow just kind of connected it all into something that felt immersive, mystical and spiritual. If a film is too claustrophobic, you can lose all the sense of curiosity and the space you need to reflect on the themes of the narrative. It was important too that there were only three of us – any more and we would’ve lost a lot of intimacy. We used small cameras, and would never immediately begin filming. We spent days getting to know some of our characters, hanging out with them in the rose fields, going out for food together, so that there was a relationship there before we started filming. You don’t always have the possibility to do that, and with other characters we had to act more immediately, but I prefer to get to know someone very well off-camera first – I would advise anyone to take this approach wherever you can.