Across the sea, behind the dunes of childhood

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(Premiere of Petrinel Gochev’s “Bulgarian Ship Sinks in a Stormy Sea”)

Fearful sea monsters with numerous tentacles, heroic pirate raids, wandering the world’s oceans, strange deep-sea inhabitants, otherworldly songs of mysterious sirens, geographical discoveries on distant lands, blooming along unknown southern straits – just like Japanese chrysanthemums – white sails, the breath of the tropics in the dying evening… How many images and games of fantasy the pages of “Children’s Marine Encyclopedia”[1] hide! That’s right – the heavy one, with the blue, dense covers, with the many pictures, with the edges of pages tattered by reading and flipping. In my home it sits in a place of honour in the library and was also my favourite. In Petrinel Gochev’s film “Bulgarian Ship Sinks in a Stormy Sea” it is often in the frame – sometimes in the hands of children, sometimes “splintered” on the beach, sometimes carried like a priceless treasure in secret places. Book-sea, book-escape, book-longing, book-salvation…

Among the many weak films at the 40th edition of the Golden Rose Festival (held in September 2022), I firmly believe that “Bulgarian ship…” differed from the general background for many reasons, but unfortunately remained out of the view of the jury. The plot in brief: in the family of little Petyo (Alen Angelov), misfortune happens – the sailor father dies while on yet another distant voyage. His mother (Stanislava Nikolova) sank into depression and could not find a way to tell him the news, so she sent him to his grandfather (Mihail Mutafov) in a small village somewhere on the Black Sea coast. And in the fishing village there is another world full of surprises – one of them is the new friendship with the younger Philip (the wonderful Hristian Manolov). Another – the crazy, artistic family (Gergana Zmiycharova and Dimo Dimov – as Philip’s parents), in which the fishing everyday life, the ubiquitous smell of pure horse mackerel and… the inspiring piety to the Vaptsarov’s verses, inextricably linked to the sea, mix with ease. Another surprise is the children’s opposing “gang”, which makes everyday life full of typical street games and entertainment from the past, away from the technological challenges. The expectation of the father is cherished in Petyo’s little soul: the wooden, handmade boat, a gift from the neighbour (Angelina Slavova) is the “magical attribute” that connects the child’s world with the thrill of return. But the boy does not know that this time he will not run into the strong embrace of his father… As Elitsa Mateeva very accurately notes: “There is death, lie, hatred, sadness, suffering in life, and Petyo passes through them, while the noise of the sea and its sunsets tell wonderful stories about a ship that survives – this is Petyo’s small Bulgarian ship”[2].

In fact, Petrinel Gochev has made a wonderful, warm film in the tradition of classical Bulgarian children’s cinema. In reality, it is speaking much more to adults (audience 40+), who have grown up with films such as “The War of the Hedgehogs”, “Up on the Cherry”, “A Knight Without Armor” and others. The nostalgic, measured note comes from a realistic immersion in the world of childhood, without resorting to artificial fairy-tale and fiction plots. But yes – there is a very delicate extra-realistic, rather imaginary line that exists in some very deep layer of sensation. It is hidden in the nuances of telling the story, the magnificent vision (the film was perfectly shot by the cameraman Rumen Vasilev) and that specific spirit of innocence that confronts the inevitable blows of life and the tragic stage of growing up.

Personally, I was looking forward to the appearance of “Bulgarian Ship Sinks in a Stormy Sea” for several reasons: on the one hand, due to the thematic similarity with “Letters from Antarctica” (2019, dir. Stanislav Donchev) – namely the problem of announcing the death and loss of the parent. Separately, during the preparation of the film, actress and screenwriter Gergana Zmiycharova posted many interesting posts on her personal Facebook page about the story of the plot and especially the autobiographical part related to Petrinel Gochev’s childhood[3]. In fact, the two works – “Antarctica” and “Ship” (in short) – are quite different both as an author’s approach, as narrative strategies and image development, and as cinematic expression and visual immersion in reality. We will not compare them here, because the idea of this text is to outline other accents.

In fact, the theatrical director’s debut feature film cannot be easily framed. The film is not just a work for children or families, it is not just about love for the sea, life, and death, parent/child relationship, children/adults, children/ children. There is a special, charismatic multilayeredness in it, which deliberately, as an artistic decision, is not fixed in clear definitions. There is something very charming about the initial provocations to the viewer. For example – the action is supposed to be in the present tense (you orient yourself by the phones and the fleet), but the overall atmosphere as a worldview is in the recent past, somewhere in the 1980s. The other provocation is the unusual reading and inclusion of Vaptsarov, outside any ideological, political, or historical contexts. One of the most impressive scenes is the family reading of “Letter” with the voices behind the scenes of Gergana Zmiycharova and Dimo Dimov. Outstanding acting performance, masterfully woven into the overall dramaturgy and presentation of the messages.

Petrinel Gochev introduces many delicately hinted theatrical moments, but they do not in any way irritate, but create another, sensitive point of view on the subject of the film. In the corridors of the festival complex in Varna, I heard that he lacks cinema experience and craftsmanship (well, isn’t it a debut?!), and the fault of “Bulgarian ship…” is that it screened three years after “Letters from Antarctica” and almost repeated it and stole it. What made-up absurdity! Let me disagree and find no arguments in these statements. We definitely should not ourselves limit our small cinematography with this type of “reasoning” and so easily ignore the emergence of a new, original author coming from both the theatre and the fine arts. Its debut, cinematic “ship’s rope” is daringly twisted with unclichéd fibres, which contain other fundamental elements. That is what makes the film different, and that is what it should be, and the director should state his touch unequivocally. Petrinel Gochev, like Yasen Grigorov, enriched contemporary Bulgarian cinema with his presence and built on the film language precisely with his specific, poetic and at the same time deep sense of the meaning of the story told. This is how it dissolves emotional tension in the context of children’s worlds and childhood. A complicated complex that should speak to adults. Also – there are so many films made in the world on the subject of death and the child that the appearance in a close chronology of two new Bulgarian works with similar issues means only one thing: emphasizing its importance and the need to expose it through heterogeneous, contrasting, stylistic approaches and thought-mounting constructs. “There are almost no taboos in recent years in screen art for children and teenagers” – Radostina Neykova writes very accurately[4]. Depicting and making sense of death in children’s cinema is a complex problem that authors should address with caution, as it is still considered a delicate and definitely tabooed subject area.

Cinema is the strongest visual mass medium through which messages easily reach a wide range of audiences. When the child is in the lead role, no matter what type of cinema it is, the authors of the film impose their current vision of what the phenomenon of childhood is. This phenomenon is built and upgraded through the dramaturgical and aesthetic principles of the cinematographer. In reality, cinema mimics childhood on the one hand, and on the other hand – it constructs it anew in the frame reality. However, it does not forget that childhood is sovereign, significant and an alternative to the adult world. The main planes of discourse in which the film child is studied through the camera lens are: the child as an object of upbringing; the problem of the child’s initiation; following the norm of traditional values in the “parent/heir” binary opposition; the child’s behaviour towards a certain set of social roles; the expression of child’s own identity; child psychology; the problem of violence between children or the child as an object of violence; children’s collective memory; mnemonic traumatism; memory, forgetfulness and history; the child and the challenges of today’s dynamic world; the child and ecology; the public reaction to a child in distress or a dramatic or even tragic life situation, etc.

The cinematographer interweaves two active layers of the children’s subculture, in different proportions depending on the author’s vision and the specifics of the cinematography[5]. One is related to what the children themselves have created. That is, what forms their world, mythology, worldview, games, dialogues, reactions. The other layer is the creation of adults. Petrinel Gochev in “A Bulgarian ship sinks in a stormy sea” very skilfully operated with both. That is why his film looks so securely across the sea, behind the dunes of childhood, in search… of perhaps the child in him, who has experienced everything that is told in the film. A kind of elegant catharsis. And a very personal work that skips the limes of the autobiographical in a touching, intelligent, and beautiful way. And this must be respected, because not everyone can do it so nobly. It is not easy either… Personally, I welcome the arrival of the theatre director in our cinema and I want to follow his development in our cinematography. That is, I expect his next projects and their realization on screen. I find him endlessly interesting and intimate.

Petrinel Gochev also works great with small actors – and like another of my favourites, Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, he doesn’t make them play in front of the camera, but lets them be themselves; to react in a given scene-situation and dialogue not as their characters, but following their own intuitions, characters and behaviours. Betting on authenticity and realistic-poetic approach ultimately lead to maximum organic results on the screen. “I think children should be spoken about with the same responsibility as adults. This statement is a little misleading, because if we think about how we talk about different people, we will not want to talk about children like that. In fact, it is good to speak carefully and responsibly about adults, then the importance of the child will fall into place. What are children, then? Humans, complete, reasoning in a complex manner, loving in a complex and unknown manner, hating in a complex and surprising manner. The only difference is that they are small, fragile physically and may not know many words.”[6]

This text is a joint publication with “Kino” magazine.

Filmography

“Bulgarian Ship Sinks in a Stormy Sea” – Bulgaria, 2022, 96 min., feature film, children’s, family. Director: Petrinel Gochev

Screenplay: Petrinel Gochev, Gergana Zmiycharova. Camera: Rumen Vasilev

Music: Dimitar Velichkov-Schmidt. Producers: Galina Toneva, Kiril Kirilov

Cast: Mihail Mutafov, Alen Angelov, Hristian Manolov, Vesela Babinova, Gergana Zmiycharova, Dimo Dimov, Stanislava Nikolova. A Gala Film Production with the help of EA NFC and BNT

Remarks

[1] Sakharnov, Svyatoslav. Around the world sailing. Children’s Marine Encyclopaedia. Varna, Georgi Bakalov, 1978.

[2] Mateeva, Elitsa. The endless longing for the blue of childhood. – Culture Portal, 02.09.2022. Available at: https://kultura.bg/web/необятният-копнеж-по-синевата-на-детс

[3] See the interview with Gochev, where this is described: Mateeva, Elitsa. About the radiance of small steps looking for the world of the child. – “Kino”, October, 2022. Available at:http://www.spisaniekino.com/за-сиянието-на-малките-стъпки,-търсещи-света-на-детето.html

Separately, at the film’s press conference in Varna, the director also recounted many interesting moments from the birth of the idea and the writing of the screenplay 20 years ago.

[4] Neykova, Radostina. The taboo of death and modern children’s cinema. – In: Art Studies Readings‘ 2013 – a collection of studies. Sofia, Institute of Art Studies – BAS, 2014, 294.

[5] On this occasion – a very good research compendium gives the following collection: The Child in World Cinema. Children and Youth in Popular Culture (Olson, Debbie – Еd.). London, Lexington Books, 2018. It discusses in depth in several places the specifics of realistic approaches to the problems of the child and childhood in the various world cinematographies. There is a clear emphasis not on the fairy-tale-magic model of American cinema, but on works that focus on adolescents in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

[6] Mateeva, Elitsa. About the radiance of small steps looking for the world of the child. – “Kino”, October, 2022. Available at:http://www.spisaniekino.com/за-сиянието-на-малките-стъпки,-търсещи-света-на-детето.html

Across the sea, behind the dunes of childhood

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