Usually, the topic of minority or majority Bulgarian co-productions is unfailingly broached at discussions and roundtables. Typically though, such issues are always hovering at the periphery of attention, shouldered aside by seemingly more significant or lingering flaws of the filmmaking system. The discussion would more often than not focus on funding problems along the majority-minority co-productions axis.
On the bill of this year’s March edition of Sofia International Film Festival (SIFF) were four films with Bulgarian majority co-producers and teams and five works with minority Bulgarian co-producers. Six of these participated in several competitions receiving awards. This fact prompted me to consider their qualities, which alongside the producers, funding and the national traditions depend above all on the talent of the creative teams.
Câini/Dogs (France/Romania/Bulgaria/Qatar, dir. Bogdan Mirică) is a Western-style movie. Foreign cinemagoers seem to associate the Balkans with the Wild West. The picture’s subtle suspense develops slowly, but enchantingly. As Prof. Ingeborg Bratoeva-Darakchieva observes, the visual representation of the Romanian part of Dobrudja is reminiscent of the scenery of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkey/Bosnia and Herzegovina) by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The landscapes are vast, pretty and endless, but dismal. The characters and their actions are in tune with these contrasts. To label the work as an Eastern, there is a sheriff or rather (taking into consideration the local realities) a police officer, who is terminally-ill.
I already reviewed Glory (Bulgaria/Greece, dirs. Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov), Godless (Bulgaria/Denmark/France, dir. Ralitza Petrova) and Hristo (Bulgaria/Italy, dirs. Grigor Lefterov, Todor Matsanov), so I’d now just emphasise the fact that these are majority Bulgarian co-productions that landed at SIFF 2017 already having successful festival performance (especially Godless), both nationally and internationally. They didn’t go unnoticed by the SIFF juries and Glory received the Domaine Boyar Award for Best Balkan Film, while Godless scooped Sofia City of Film Grand Prix Award for Best Film in the International Competition for debut and sophomore film.
Light Thereafter (Bulgaria/Belgium), also a majority co-production and Konstantin Bojanov’s sophomore film following his debut Avé, had its Bulgarian premiere at the Festival after being premiered in competition in Rotterdam. Its visual artistry is radically different from the abovementioned films, presenting a sharp contrast to their hyperrealistic aesthetics and perhaps this was the reason why the juries left it out in the cold. Hopefully, should the team carefully work out their festival strategy, the picture will elude such an attitude at other destinations. The movie tells the story of a boy, who has the great inherent sensitivity of an artist in the quest for his true self in an already globalising world with blurred borders between the countries unlike those between people. Spectators face a colourful tapestry of characters down the boy’s path to adulthood. Their encounters with the boy whip up various emotions in him and that is why their names are taken as titles of the chapters of the film. Thus the chaotic, on the face of it, storyline is welded together. These characters appear episodically but they play a key role in reflecting the main protagonist’s inner world. These characters are played by Margita Gosheva, Elitsa Mateva and above all, by Thure Lindhardt, whose performance is convincing and balanced.
Mrs. J (Mirjana Karanović) also faces an existential problem due to the trauma she suffered rather than to her age. In Requiem for Mrs. J (Serbia/Bulgaria/Macedonia/Russia/France, dir. Bojan Vuletić), the complexity of being is shown via a series of very long shots including perfect intraframe compression. Close-ups are almost missing except those of Mrs. J and the character, who offers her ‘friendly’ advice about an easy way out. Their faces are the only ones worth to look insightfully at. The hopeless story of a desperate character evolves into a social commentary on public administration through the subtle implication of black humour.
A Stinking Fairytale (Serbia/Bulgaria, dir. Miroslav Momčilović), is on the other end of the emotional spectrum telling, very much like Hristo, the story of two hobos. Still, the meeting points are just a few. The characters in the Bulgarian movie are in a state of a continuous collision, whereas in Momčilović’s work the narrative is built more traditionally and narratively. Moreover, the Balkan, Serbian and particularly, the sense of humour of Miroslav Momčilović, who derives inspiration from long observations of homeless people, are an indelible part of each scene, even of the most dramatically charged. In Lefterov/Matsanov’s story the moments, when the tramps are having fun, arouse pity and repulsion. Through the eyes of Momčilović, everything is lighter and more colourful. The Serbian down-and-outs are a funny and romantic bunch of oddballs. Their having fun is more of a clownery not that skilfully performed by the otherwise good actors. Though the director says that the film has no happy ending, the end still is a fairy-tale one.
The opening film, King of the Belgians (Belgium/Netherlands/Bulgaria, dirs. Peter Brosens, Jessica Woodworth) also relies of fairy-tale-ish moments, following an imaginary Belgian monarch (Peter Van den Begin), who travels incognito across the exotic Balkans. Extremely imaginary episodes: Turkey joining the EU, Belgium splitting into two countries and a solar storm striking earth and causing aviation disruption and communication loss almost immediately take the audiences to the parodic world created by the directors. A series of comic situations of varying potency follows. In Toni Erdmann (Germany/Austria/Switzerland/Romania, dir. Maren Ade), a powerful comic volley, perhaps one of the best in the movie, has been achieved through the Bulgarian mummer’s costume. Mummers pop in out of nowhere ‘at an unearthly hour’, thus seeking and achieving exotic mysticism. Some other inaccuracies stemming from the fact that all the Balkan countries have been filmed in Bulgaria alone, might annoy local audiences, but have been left unnoticed by the apparently and undoubtedly skilled West-European filmmakers, who made the movie.
The latest edition of SIFF that may help us tune with great precision to the contemporary world but above all, to European film, has clearly highlighted an increasing number of features made in co-production with Bulgarian co-producers and teams. Both the majority or minority co-productions evince either good or satisfactory European quality. Some of these are even more than that. This trend apparently provides Bulgarian filmmaking with a good chance and back to the questions in the beginning as to whether its is prestigious enough or not to be minority co-producers, I think it is worth a try regardless of whether or not such movies are deemed at festivals to be part of our national filmmaking. At least we are acquiring technical, creative and producing experience and in some cases, even the minimal participation might open doors in the future towards more significant achievements. In this sense, Bulgarian producers and financial institutions face a difficult selection of projects to be supported.
(This paper was delivered by the author at a roundtable on the New Bulgarian Film and Its Festival Performance, mounted by Kino journal and held at Sredets Hall of the Ministry of Culture on 9 May 2017)
Photos: SIFF, www.siff.bg
 Bratoeva-Darakchieva, Ingeborg. New Art Film on the Balkans: Transterritoriality and Intertextuality, a paper at the International Conference Art Readings 2017: Crossing borders, New Art module, held at the Institute of Art Studies, BAS, 3–5 May 2017
 Spasov, Rosen. Golden Rose 2016: Seeking the golden mean or not?, http://artstudies.bg/platforma/?p=845&lang=en, 19 October 2016
 Glory received also the Award of the Bulgarian Guild of Film Critics.
 Godless received also the Award for Best Bulgarian Feature Film.
 This is his second role in a Bulgarian film after The Island by Kamen Kalev.
 Requiem for Mrs. J received the FIPRESCI Award at SIFF 2017.
 Miroslav Momčilović’s A Stinking Fairytale opened the Balkan Competition at SIFF 2017. SIFF Newsletter, 5, 13 March 2017, pp. 1-2