We are in mid-air, falling with the drops of rain, circling in the darkness around the five-pointed red star on top of the Party House in Sofia. It is November 10 1989.
Inside, a circle of luminaries of the old order which is soon to pass – in form, at least – are setting the ground rules for the perpetuation of their power and wealth in the Bulgaria that is to come; from the description, we recognise today’s Bulgaria, still infested with organised crime and corruption and undue influence of covert networks.
Thus the opening scene of Vladi Vurgala and director Ivan Mitov’s Операция Шменти капели (the title defies translation into an equivalent English idiomatic expression, but think April Fool meets hoax meets pranks meets white lies and you may be some way there), a dark satirical comedy that is on its way to be, among local productions, the biggest thing at the box office since Mission London.
But where Mission London was playful, if also skeptical about today’s Bulgaria in its story of corruption and absurdity, Shmenti Kapeli has a harder edge, its humour laced with an acid cynicism. Its police, officialdom and mutri (post-communist organised criminals) are corrupt, ruthless, sometimes buffoonish. Almost everyone is on the make and those who are not are either victims or bystanders, sometimes with not much difference between the two.
Even its principal character, like all the others, is essentially an anti-hero, fundamentally helpless against everything that unfolding events throw against him, from debt collectors to police under orders to show a mutra’s scalp to the European Commission; the fact that he is a victim of a continuing series of episodes of mistaken identity helps him not a whit. The film is not unabashed about dropping violence into the comic action, and the wounds and trickles of blood are this side of cartoonish.
It is hardly a laugh-out-loud film, rather one that wryly amuses an audience with its vision of a Bulgaria that runs, more or less under control, according to a script worked out all those years ago in the last bastion of communist Bulgaria.
It was to see this interpretation, and others, that I chose to sit through a succession of three new Bulgarian films –Операция Шменти капели, Кецове (Sneakers) and Островът (The Island) – not only out of curiosity about the three, given their current talking-point status, but also to see just how the filmmakers sought to depict Bulgaria. We are, after all, a long way from the cinema of Bulgaria under communism (see The Red Screen); today’s movies are subject to questions of funding and other resources, no longer to ideologically-based censorship; filmmakers can be overt instead of carefully discreet in their satire.
There are local television series that have developed strong followings: on bTV, Stolichani v Poveche, a genuinely funny take on people, politics and manipulations in a fictional village near Sofia; Stuklen Dom, the weekly drama series that also has corruption and abuse of power as a central theme and is entering a third season; and on Bulgarian National Television, organised crime series Под прикрите (Undercover), taut, tense, violent and a tour de force that will strongarm the following that it has built up among television audiences to watch its second season. Those notes on what's happening on the small screen aside, depicting these and other topics in today's Bulgaria on the big screen is a different matter.
Can one speak of a new wave in Bulgarian cinema now? Perhaps not, or it is too early to tell; history may mark out the major local films of 2011 as part of a transition period.
Consider one factor; most of those involved in these three films, whether as directors, writers or actors, were relatively young during the final phases of communist Bulgaria. What is before us on screen is the voice of a newer generation, not one from the past seeking to reinvent itself or rehearse the bad old days once more.
Further, the technical accomplishments of modern Bulgarian film are of a high standard; gone are the old days during which sound engineering seems to have been an art not only lost but which appears never to have been found; the cinematography on display gives cause of concern that Hollywood may swoop and commit a few alien abductions of Bulgaria’s camera people.
These technical accomplishments are shown off well in Ketsove and in The Island; apart from that, about the only thing that these two films have in common is that the Black Sea has a place amid the cast of characters.
Of these three films seen in the past three days, Ketsove addresses its audience in the most conventional language of film, with a story at once accessible even without requiring too profound an understanding of today’s Bulgaria but also located in a very specific time and place. It takes a Bulgarian sub-culture, the holiday at the див плаж, the wild beach, and weaves a story around it, placing six characters there, all of them young, vigorous, troubled and – to one degree or another – in trouble; serious trouble.
Add a talented cast and a film-within-a-film device (two of the characters, with a hand-held amateur video camera, interview the others about their identities, fears, hopes and dreams), along with credible dialogue, spoken in the informal, colloquial Bulgarian of the street, and the result is a very watchable 100 minutes or so.
Yet, as with Shmenti Kapeli, this is a Bulgaria in which personal, brutal violence is never far from the surface, of tension and a struggle for survival, of corrupt, intimidating and none-too-bright cops. As to the latter, Bulgarian filmmakers appear to have some very direct messages about a suspicion about authority figures. The title, Sneakers, ultimately is a reference to a desire for escape (of various kinds, for various reasons; early on, heading out of Sofia, one of the characters says, "I hate this city" and he seems to have reason to).
Rooted in real life, even the sketchy spontaneity of a no-budget illegal camp on the beach cannot escape certain realities; along come the thugs on quad bikes hired to drive off the campers by any means necessary.
The actors do a lot with Valeri Yordanov’s screenplay; Yordanov himself, who also co-directed, holds the attention on-screen with a brooding, mysterious performance.
At the end of Ketsove, the question of hope is left unaddressed, but perhaps it was not intended to be (without giving away spoilers, think Thelma and Louise but also think French Lieutenant’s Woman).
We close the film drawing away into the sky, further and further above a widening expanse of the Black Sea. It is the same sea that we will see again on the shores of The Island.
Of the three films, The Island is in many respects the odd one out.
Its two principal characters are, in one case, a foreigner and in the other, effectively so, in various ways.
Bulgaria is a backdrop to the story rather than, as with the other two, specifically at the forefront; the island of the title appears to be more about the insular world of the relationship between the two principal characters rather than about the physical location of Bourgas’s Bolshevik Island where most of the first half of the film takes place. It is a film which challenges, changing its language halfway through, from speaking in the conventions of horror for the first half (spoiler: no gore, just brooding ominous sinister atmosphere) to the second half, which switches to dark satire. It is the most "art house" of the three.
A cautionary note, of course, before throwing caution to the wind and rushing to conclusions. None of these three films is a documentary. Yet, at the same time, especially in the cases of Shmenti Kapeli and Ketsove, content is crammed into them, showing contemporary Bulgarian filmmakers to be ambitious, determined, bursting to communicate, unafraid of taking risks.
With the possible exception of The World Is Big and Salvation Lies Around the Corner (2008), the general run of Bulgarian films appear to be depicting a country of bleakness, where life is poor, nasty, brutish and short of positive figures. Though again, a final question; were it portrayed any other way, would a film have credibility with Bulgarian audiences?
Операция Шменти капели/Operation Shmenti Kapelli
Director: Ivan Mitov
Screenplay: Vladislav Dimitrov
Stars: Hristo Shopov, Zahary Baharov and Harry Anichkin
Directors: Ivan Vladimirov, Valeri Yordanov
Screenplay: Valeri Yordanov
Stars: Ivo Arakov, Philip Avramov, Ivan Barnev
Director: Kamen Kalev
Screenplay: Kamen Kalev
Stars: Thure Lindhardt, Laetitia Casta, Bertille Chabert