The full-length feature film Cat in the Wall (Bulgaria/UK/France) by Mina Mileva, Vesela Kazakova (production: Actvist 38) surprisingly received the national Golden Rose Debut Award ‘2019, Varna, ‘for the taken social stand and creative interpretation’. The film was well positioned on the international festival circuit at such prestigious film festivals as those in Locarno, Sarajevo, Valladolid and even won the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Award in Warsaw. It was widely covered in a number of rave reviews in Variety, Cineuropa, Screen Daily. The film enjoyed audiences’ strong interest at the Q & A sessions following the screenings held abroad.
Which, alas, was impossible to happen in Varna because Bulgarian and especially outside-the-capital audiences are reluctant or rather got out of the habit of attending and partaking in national events. It is a sad fact that recently, there are almost no spectators at the national Golden Rose Bulgarian Feature Film Festival and Golden Rhyton Bulgarian Documentary and Animated Film Festival: yet another alarming, depressing, unflattering and maybe protesting outcome of three decades of a never-ending transition to democracy, which Bulgarian film ought to cope with. Active discussions between authors and audiences following the screenings, when adequate questions are asked and opinions are expressed, can be very interesting and beneficial to the entire community. They are a critical clue to the socio-cultural relationship with filmmaking and the degree of commitment, demonstrating receptive attitudes, audiences’ curiosity and their needs. Audiences are part of the film processes after all, because they are the end users. Films are made for them, aren’t they?
Bulgaria community of film critics and researchers, however, seemed to have reservations about the success of Cat in the Wall, and let’s hope that they will have a change of heart following the film’s theatrical release, for it appears to be somewhat unjust.
Cat in the Wall is an ironically dramatic and socially critical story about the life of Bulgarian immigrants in a Peckham council sink estate, in southeast London. Irina (Irina Atanasova), an architect and a single mother of a boy, shares her small flat with her unemployed brother (Angel Genov), a well-qualified historian. The world seems to have flocked to this British block of flats housing denizens from all over the globe, many of whom scratch along, sponging off the welfare system. While Irina’s brother is doing odd jobs, she toils hard to eke out a precarious living, switching all sorts of jobs. As her colleagues from the former socialist countries in Central Europe have proved more hireable, her experience in and talent for architecture earn her a meagre salary and she has to supplement by toiling in a stifling bar in London, doing shift work.
The situation is further inflamed when Irina adopts a ginger tabby stray cat she finds in the communal areas of the building. Disputes with neighbours are flaring up one after the other, in an overwhelming avalanche, not only over the cat, but also because of an inadequate decision of the council to replace the windows and doors of the entire block of council flats.
The story, based on Mina Mileva’s real life events, was initially filmed in a short version.
Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova humorously define their movie as a politically incorrect comedy-drama. And they are absolutely right. Cat in the Wall offers an entirely new representation of an immigrant, unknown by now to Bulgarian film: that of an integrated Bulgarian feeling no nostalgia for home, having no intention whatsoever of returning home and making every effort to struggle against social discrimination. In Bulgarian post-totalitarian film, the problem of otherness appears more often than not to occur within the paradigm of the Foreigner, of the Other, who is outside the Bulgarian identity. The main focus is explainable in the light of the historical processes in Bulgaria. Yet, with Mina and Vesela, the perspective of the interpretation is inverted. While in most of the works the construct Foreigner/Other is steeped in Bulgaria’s own geographic reality, more imagined than represented, in Cat in the Wall it’s the other way around: the latter reflects in a comparative aspect the turbulences of two political crises and their implications: Brexit, on the one hand, and Bulgaria’s transition, on the other.
To a great extent, comparing and underscoring to the point of exaggeration the contrasts between I and the Other, the Foreigner are a working formula, used effectively and attractively by Bulgarian feature film, both short and full-length. Often too local, the representations of identity risk being unappreciated by wider foreign audiences. On the other hand, broadening the context and bringing forth regional problematics place the film at another level, perhaps more understandable within the area of Balkan and SEE film. The quest for and an adequate positioning of the universal messages, adeptly dialogising with the global screen and audiences turned out to be a much more difficult task. It is this challenge that Actvist 38 directorial duo met.
Their full-length debut relevantly talks through the phenomenon of Brexit in the mentality of the British people and their negative attitudes towards it, given rise to by the media that manipulate public opinion over immigrants from Eastern Europe. It is little wonder that British critics compared the film to the Loachian style and admitted that foreign filmmakers having such a deep insight into and providing such a thorough description of the situation were a rare occurrence. And British film sees it difficult to authentically portray itself problematically. The background to Cat in the Wall is globalist critical and its tone is ironically absurd. The underlying message is elegantly conveyed: British people seem far more marginal, nervous, confused, hapless and even inadequate that the Bulgarians. Though the latter have much more serious reasons for being like that after 45 years of socialism and three decades of a never-ending transition, which leads to nobody knows whither. It is a fact that this rendition is unusual and unconventional to Bulgarian film.
The disintegration of the EU societies, distortions of market economies, existential insecurity, switching levels of living standards, sponging off the welfare system, lacking social skills (in a micro-community in a block of council flats as well), aggression and vulgarity that have no national identity because they are the same everywhere, all this bubbles up in Mileva/Kazakova’s feature debut. Cat in the Wall is all about fears that build walls dividing people and bar their ability to feel empathy, tolerance, understanding and dialogue. The very title of the film goes beyond the situation of the storyline to function as a generalising metaphor for the entire message.
There is a specific claustrophobia of the ironically dramatic suspense in the directorial duo’s full-length debut. Cat in the Wall is solved in the chamber codes of the prevalently interior spaces and creates a precondition for the theatricality of the solutions. The directors surmount the static character of the vision through the very strong emotional charge carried by the purposely chatty, dynamic dialogues, reaching, at certain points, hysterical intentions. The characters of the personages are somewhat even and one-dimensional, without any dramaturgic delving deep into their heart of hearts. Still, maybe this was an intended effect used to take off the exploited main thrust of the subject of immigrants as witnessed in contemporary Bulgarian film. Freed from nostalgic laments for home and melodramatic enthusiasm for ethnocentrism, Cat in the Wall makes an uncompromising, realistic, quasi-documentary observation of ordinary life. This is the reason why it is socially recognisable to wider audiences, both Western and Eastern European. Breaking the genre models, it is definitely a step forward in the successful positioning of Bulgarian film within the global film context.
The article is part of an extensive study published in Balkanistic Forum journal (http://www.bf.swu.bg/BF-eng.html), 3, 2019. The study Your communism is not ours: The contexts of post-totalitarian Bulgarian film and Mina Mileva, Vesela Kazakova’s disobedient films is available at: https://www.ceeol.com/search/journal-detail?id=1069