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New Bulgarian cinema: the young directors taking up the mantle from the generation of ‘89

New Bulgarian cinema: the young directors taking up the mantle from the generation of '89
Still from Light Thereafter, dir. Konstantin Bojanov (2017)

In the late 80s, Bulgarian film was in rude health. Then the New Wave broke. Now a fresh generation is coming together for the first time since the Cold War to bring their cinematic vision to the world

31 May 2017

Several days before the closing ceremony of the recent Sofia International Film Festival, Bulgarian media published an open letter signed by numerous filmmakers and producers from the country’s younger generation. In an unprecedented public gesture of solidarity, the group demanded changes in film industry legislation: more micro-budget productions; clearer mechanisms and increased responsibility in the decision-making procedure for state financing; and placing directors in the centre of the filmmaking process. Kamen Kalev, Konstantin Bojanov, Dragomir Sholev, Eliza Petkova, Ralitza Petrova, Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov, Theodore Ushev — many of the names who have provoked international buzz in the last decade, as well as four aspiring producers (all of them women) could be found on this petition.

During Sofia IFF’s awards gala, Ralitza Petrova, whose first feature, Godless, was among the big winners of the night, took the opportunity to address the audience and repeat the open letter’s requests. Right behind her, the head of the international jury, Romanian New Wave maestro Cristi Puiu, was smiling in approval. Onstage Ralitza Petrova was backed up by another power duo, Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, who also picked prizes for Glory. This home turf victory for the two best Bulgarian films of 2016 served as yet another insistent declaration from the young generation.

As significant as this might be, discussions around contemporary cinema in Bulgaria are never easy. They usually revolve around shady privatisation deals for studios and venues, election scandals at the National Film Centre, a partisan atmosphere within the community, and the most unforgivable sin the eyes of the common taxpayer: lack of creativity in the face of opportunism. These problems are no different in other countries of the New East, where the industry relies heavily on national subsidies. Cristian Mungiu — Palme D’Or winner with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days — shocked the West recently by revealing he has to self-distribute his own work in Romania. But Bulgaria is a much smaller country than Romania, with a language spoken by around 12 million people worldwide. Most do not believe that the international recognition Bulgarian films enjoyed in the socialist era could ever be replicated, even if the pre-1989 hardships involved in taking them abroad to festivals and distributors no longer apply.

Had local filmmakers followed the example of Romania and stood together in the public sphere, things could have been different today. Whether or not there is a Bulgarian “New Wave” has been debated for years. The last time critics had an affirmative answer was in 1989, when a group of talented and angry young men made their debuts: Ivan Cherkelov’s Pieces of Love with its late socialist flâneurs; Krassimir Krumov’s Exitus, set in a landscape of psychological and moral decay; Svetoslav Ovcharov’s Judas’s Metal and Petar Popzlatev’s I, The Countess, which focused on marginalised people from the not-so-distant past. This old New Wave now occupy different places in Bulgarian culture — some withdrew from filmmaking, others became nemeses for newer generations (if tabloid blowouts are to be believed).

Discussions around contemporary cinema in Bulgaria are never easy

Still, the generous celebration of the first centenary of Bulgarian cinema in 2015 increased the visibility of the matter on a social, economical and political level. At that time, Petar Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva mentioned in interviews that they had founded an artistic group called Raketa along with several other Bulgarian filmmakers. Now, when their second feature, Glory — another exploration into the borderline existence of the underprivileged — is being screened in more than 40 cinema theatres across France, the possible ripple effect of this small fellowship is being felt.

This is precisely the reason why the above-mentioned open letter is so crucial in the context of contemporary Bulgarian cinema. Apart from being unanimously ratified by the Raketa collective, it was supported by plenty of filmmakers whose funding tactics usually take them abroad alone. So when I get in touch with Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, my first question is about Raketa and its influence on the dynamics of the Bulgarian film community. In a joint statement, the two tell me that they see Raketa as a creative circle, not as a unit for “administrative battles” — the idea of organising such a big group of cineastes and activists is better explained by shared “irreconcilability with the current system”, one that does not permit the production of more than five or six full-length features a year. “The desired changes are not anything new, these are things that have been discussed for quite some time among fellow filmmakers. And now we just had the opportunity to openly outline these ideas.”

The present political atmosphere of uncertainty in Bulgaria — the result of EU directives — is not particularly conducive to positive change. According to Grozeva and Valchanov, experts in no-budget and low-budget cinema, the law should allocate 40 per cent or more of all film production money to micro-subsidies, so the country can wrap at least 20 full-length features a year. They call this “existence minimum” in order to have a functioning industry with genuine variety in terms of ideas and genres, which, in their opinion, would bridge the gap between generations of viewers, as well as between directors of arthouse and commercial cinema.

How do these kinds of propositions look, however, from the viewpoint of filmmakers who have worked outside of the country? Kamen Kalev studied at La Fémis, the prestigious Parisian film school, and has been celebrated in France for two super-stylish shorts that premiered in the Critics’ Week at Cannes (Get The Rabbit Back and Rabbit Troubles), the raw energy and authenticity of his first feature (2009’s Eastern Plays), and two more films featuring French stars Laetitia Casta (The Island) and Melvil Poupaud (Face Down). He holds back from commenting on the details and prefers to address the question in general terms: “There is plenty of work ahead of us, most important to me is the fact that we are looking in the same direction and that we want things to happen the right way.”

The present political atmosphere of uncertainty in Bulgaria is not particularly conducive to positive change

Eliza Petkova, whose Zhaleika was selected and awarded as a German production at last year’s Berlinale Generation, admits she is “delighted by the quality and the variety of films produced in the last few years by Bulgarian directors,” and adds: “the preservation, or better yet the growth of this palette of auteur cinema is part of every contemporary culture’s riches.” Her debut film about a rebellious teen who lives in a small mountain village but craves the world outside can easily be read as a metaphor for an entire generation. Konstantin Bojanov, known for his international career as a visual artist, is also in favour of the auteur model that allowed him to explore modern adolescence in Avé (2011) and Light Thereafter (2017): “Cinema, or at least the type of cinema that interests me, is a form of art, and as such it affects society as a whole.” Avé was shown in Critics’ Week at Cannes in 2011, Light Thereafter in Rotterdam at the beginning of this year. Bojanov elaborates: “Many Bulgarian directors also play the role of producer, and as producers they could be even more effective in securing necessary creative space within the national film industry.”

Theodore Ushev, a National Film Board of Canada darling recently short-listed for an Oscar for his animation Blind Vaysha, is more elusive in his response: “Manifestos are a call for awakening, for change. Some succeed to a certain degree, others don’t. Either way, they are useful exercises in defining collective needs in otherwise individualistic pursuits.” He calls the idea of auteur cinema “a beautiful utopia. This is what manifestos are for — aiming for everything, wanting to achieve at least something. The last big “auteur film”, Apocalypse Now, was made in 1979. Nowadays, Coppola makes wine…”

Today’s Bulgarian prodigies may not wish to be thought of as a “wave”. But perhaps it is time all the same to reframe Ushev’s pessimism. After all, comparative veteran Stephan Komandarev is not usually considered an “auteur”, yet his latest, Directions, was the first Bulgarian title to be screened at last week’s Un Certain Regard section in Cannes since the fateful year of 1989.

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