I will spare readers further repetition by beginning this text with sketching out the key topics broached on several occasions during the festival and intensively repeated later as a response to the event: the issues of the competition selection, lack of spectators in the hall, but the higher average quality of the shorts and the growing sensitivity of young authors to social problems and humanism. Those willing to read about these may well surf the Web.
Dimitar Nikolov as homeless Hristo
Paradoxically, but symptomatically, the films that have ignited the most heated discussions, opposing opinions, causing even ‘scandals’ within the festival, have a critically low potential to reach wider audiences. The thematic trio of Glory, Godless and Hristo, presenting the lives of extremely marginalised characters, some of them hovering on the brink of what is defined as an average human being, assembles a scathing jigsaw of hyperbolised hyperrealism, seeking to represent both film as such and Bulgaria’s realities. Internationally, festival juries, comprising filmmakers who, generally, make similar films, have appreciated the undisputed cinematic merits of these works, which merits, indeed, are beyond a shadow of doubt. Still, the unattractive subject matters coupled with almost unwatchable authorial approaches, would once again antagonise audiences. We are stuck in the same vicious circle: We’ve made terrific movies, but there are no audiences willing to watch them. Hardly would anyone even care to look at them. The general public ought to see the skilful following of the path of a vagrant. I do mean it. Dramaturgically and technically, Hristo by Grigor Lefterov is the best of the three movies and Dimitar Nikolov’s performance in the role of homeless Hristo, is comparable with achievements well beyond our national borders. Dimitar Krumov and the rest of the supporting actors have also built significant characters. In an interview for the festival newsletter (3 of 22 September 2016), Grigor Lefterov said that he needed a strong moral argument to apply for public funding for his movie. The story of the homeless boy is really a socially necessary film, though followed by a paradox to be disregarded by the general public that has supported its production financially.
The tracking shots (excluding the moments when the characters are running, a very outdated technique allowing to see nothing) and the still dominating style of the Romanian new wave are the best options for authenticity in exposing that segment of the society, the mishaps and hopeless moral efforts to make a fresh start in a wretched life. Fervent admirers and the most outstanding representatives of this film style in Bulgaria are Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov with their Glory. After receiving a number of distinctions at festivals with their feature debut, The Lesson, but being cold-shouldered by the audiences, the directorial duo took a different approach to their sophomore film of the inspired-by-headlines trilogy. A number of dramaturgical lines are broached, presenting a larger number of far more multilayered characters, which supposes more action. In the opening scene, the camera is once again glued to the back of a poor railway worker (Stefan Denolyubov), but then the story promptly takes other turns, excluding this method. With a special sense of humour, Grozeva and Valchanov show a funny-sad reality. Balancing on the brink of subtle mockery of their character, they succeed in not deriding him, owing, to a large extent, to Stefan Denolyubov’s brilliant performance. Owing to the multilayered dramaturgical development and Margita Gosheva’s peremptory performance, her protagonist is a vulture and a victim at the same time. The System is fleshed out by showing its inner personal strife. I think that of the three movies, Glory has the greatest potential to reach wider audiences for the abovementioned reasons.
A scene from Godless
Of these, Godless by Ralitza Petrova is the most unconvincing because of its sham hyperreality and the appliquéd ending. Purely geographically, there are neither couloirs in Bulgaria for off-piste skiing and snowboarding, nor caves underneath the surrounding cliffs to be used by local coppers or tough guys to punish their victims. Even if there were that wouldn’t be cost-effective. Still, assuming that the cinematic space is metaphysical and the action unfolds at a hypothetical latitude, imbued with human waste (a hypothetical space), the final scene is supposed to show that the ground opens up to engulf an innocent tourist, the son of one of the villains. ‘Poetic justice’, as they would have put it in Hollywood. Such an assumption though disagrees with the hyper-realistic key in which the story is staged.
Yana Marinova would do anything for love
Labyrinths of Love by Vladimir Shterianov and Holidaymakers by Ivaylo Penchev follow a different track. Their target audiences are at risk of developing a mental disorder if forcibly made to watch the abovementioned pictures. The former, a compilation of trivial love stories feels like being made by a fresh graduate rather than by a filmmaker born in 1965 like Vladimir Shterianov. His directorial experience though has proved enough to let him use the lofty amounts, which the Russian Federation allots for making the ‘right’ movies. The onscreen outcome: attractive vision, a wide range of technical devices, a number of characters set in various luxurious locations. All this comes at a price, of course, so, the Russian flag would unfailingly pop up every now and then, and it is only natural that romance blossoms between Russian lady-killers and Bulgarian beauties. Though in reality it seems to be the other way round. At the press conference after the screening, it was noted that the movie served well as a feature-length advertising of Russian real estate companies in Bulgaria as well as a number of other policies of the empire’s expansion. The conversation took this turn because of technical glitches with Russian dubbing over Bulgarian lines, inadmissible when presenting a film in the competition at a national feature film festival. Shterianov excused the mess with shortage of funds causing bewilderment as subtitling is cheaper than dubbing. A chance latecomer, a Russian graduate promptly came to his rescue calling the attendees names, and the press conference, ‘a Russophobe get-together’.
When it comes to absorption of funds, the things with the audiences’ favourite Holidaymakers are rather murkier, as it was hinted but waved aside at the press conference. I have no intention to go into the books of account of any of the productions––that’s the job of the relevant authorities––still, we have tangible results visible onscreen and open to commentaries. In this particular case, the results are rather low-key and humble in terms of vision and action. The narrative compiles sketches and tourist jokes performed by a constellation of TV stars at whose appearance spectators would laugh their heads off. Dramaturgically, the film is fraught with oversights (an environmental activist dreaming to sleep at a hotel) and annoying clichés (a gay man pouncing on every male in his path), but its weakest point is its lengthy running time (120’), which, when it comes to the target audiences for the genre, is far from a manageable watch. A positive aspect of the film is Georgi Strezov’s splendid music, recorded with a symphony orchestra, which is not a common occurrence in Bulgarian film.
Monkey by Dimiter Kotsev – Shosho and The Singing Shoes by Radoslav Spassov are opting for the golden mean between the above extreme trends. Monkey is more successful in this sense, trying to reach out to spectators without undermining their self-esteem, saddening and amusing them at the same time, provoking their deep emotional involvement. The film is theatrically released and we’ll soon have at least a faint idea of how this affects cinema attendance. Monkey is a positive and playful film about growing up. The cultural references and quotations in it are an unburdening jigsaw puzzle of post-modern symbols used to disguise the main dramatic line. Little Iva’s (Radina Borshosh) imagination helps her to cope with an inevitable shock. The performance of all the kids in the movie is in fact traditional to Bulgarian film: unadulterated, moving and lovely.
Raya Peeva as Lea Ivanova
The Singing Shoes also does not shun wider audiences. The movie has an ace up its sleeve in attracting spectators: the incredible story of the iconic jazz singer Lea Ivanova, to whom Bulgarian culture and history as a whole is deeply indebted. Bulgarian film, in particular, periodically does her justice. Structurally though, Radoslav Spasov’s work may have trouble with spectators. Due to the specifics of its story telling the life of Lea Ivanova, the movie depicts several different eras. The periods in the singer’s life are featured by four actresses (Kiara Stolarski, Donna Bangiozova, Raya Peeva, Ernestina Shinova), but dramaturgically, these periods are not proportionally divided. The middle part, which features her in the height of the romance with Eddy Kazassian and her relations with the Bulgarian Communist Party and the secret services, is the most intense. This is where slip-ups begin to creep in: sluggish action and overburdened young actors (Raya Peeva and Julian Petrov), which at times affects their otherwise compact performance. The references to the history of Bulgarian film are auto-hedonism, intended for the guild, but eventually these add up to the excessive length and when it comes to general audiences, the running time is not precisely a manageable watch.
A scene from Memories of Fear
If creating an impression above that I happen to dislike compiled screenplay structures, I am going to confute it right now. This festival edition’s surprise and my personal favourite was Memories of Fear by Ivan Pavlov, following the uniform way of life of two radically different characters. This is a poetic satire, which does not fit into any of the conventional patterns listed above. The sluggish timelessness in the picture, the life as it happens, is an old, though not nostalgic but rather a critical memory. A colourless and soundless ambience envelops a mosaic of life stories controlled by coppers. Colour, if any, is in the flags, the emblems and the placards. The air of those 45 years under communism has been captured with extreme precision and though enough was allegedly enough, that period is still determining our lives.
So, after the digression, to get back to the question in the title: should we seek the golden mean or a balance between the festival trends and the popular taste of the ever so undemanding mass audience? Ultimately, the awards put things straight: the jury members decided as winners typical festival-oriented films; critics were in favour of abstractions, while audiences voted for a pure all-star comedy. I believe that cinematically, the most worthwhile are the movies that have found a happy medium, failing to receive awards. These have a great deal to show to both types of audiences and their authors have more or less succeeded in finding the golden mean.