Tag Archives: Bulgarian cinema

The Lesson (Urok, Bulgaria-Greece 2014)

Nade in her classroom.

Nade (Margita Gosheva) in her classroom.

The Lesson is another gem of of European Cinema that seems to have slipped by without too much fanfare. Well done New Wave Films for getting the film into UK theatrical distribution. It’s one of the most accomplished first features I’ve seen and notable as a directing job undertaken by a couple, Peter Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva. He is more inclined to editing and she to scriptwriting. They both directed and were together on set  – but so was their 3 year-old daughter, so they needed good communication with their crew. They were fortunate to get funding from Greece and also extra funding to finish the film for an international release from the German TV station ZDF. Even so, the film had to be made over several weeks/months as funding became available. They had a professional actor, Margita Gosheva, in the lead role of Nadezhda, but many parts were played by non-actors (often relatives or colleagues). Margita Gosheva’s husband Ivan Barnev, also an actor, plays Nade’s husband.

The story

The story is ‘torn from the headlines’ – a technique pioneered by Hollywood studios, especially Warner Bros in the 1930s. This headline referred to the desperate and surprising actions of a teacher. In The Lesson, Nade, a high school English teacher and part-time translator is faced with the kind of dilemma (finding money quickly to avoid losing the family home) that might make her consider any kind of action – and she does things that severely question her own code of ethical conduct. At the same time she is faced with a thief in her class and how to deal with the situation. The filmmakers say that the film is the first in a potential trilogy – the next will feature a railway worker who finds a large sum of money on the railway track.

The style and approach

The film is primarily a realist drama but it also includes elements of comedy (the comedy of embarrassment?) and eventually turns into a thriller narrative. The filmmakers believe that by adding these ‘popular genre’ elements they are able to make the film more, rather than less, realistic:

. . . this is very important point to us as directors and the stories that we want to tell. We want to tell dramatic stories, but with a bitter smile. For example, our previous short film, Jump, was more of a comedy with elements of drama and now it’s the opposite. It’s very important to mix these genres because for us this mix of humour and drama makes the story closer to real life.

Some reviewers have compared the style and approach to that of Ken Loach or the Dardenne Brothers. Like these filmmakers, Valchanov and Grozeva have used experience of making documentaries in their approach to making a fiction feature and they discuss using documentary methods in shooting the classroom scenes. This is also evident in the use of long shots and long takes – especially in the sequence when the rushing Nade discovers her car has run out of fuel and she takes a shortcut to catch a bus.

Loach perhaps uses more melodrama in his films – The Lesson eschews one element of melodrama by dispensing with a music soundtrack. Everything depends then on the sound design which is very good. The Dardenne Brothers do change their approach sometimes to suit the nature of the story (e.g. adding comedy or thriller elements). What is common to all three is the creation of strong characters who find themselves at the centre of events they struggle to control. Nade is in many ways like Sandra, the central character played by Marion Cotillard in the Dardenne Brothers film Two Days, One Night (2014).

The film depends on Margita Gosheva’s performance – the camera is always with her and we are forced to experience her distress while trying to get beneath her veneer of control. It’s a remarkable performance, aided, I think by mise en scène and framing. Nade’s mother has died a few years earlier and she was clearly a beautiful woman. A large portrait of her mother on the wall is often in shot, almost as if she is looking over what her daughter is up to. (Nade in turn has a small daughter who also plays a role in the set of ethical dilemmas Nade faces.

The money

It’s probably useful to know that the currency in Bulgaria is the ‘lev’, which is worth around 40p, so a 10 lev note is around £4 and at one point the hero’s whole future seems to depend on a missing 60-70p.

It’s difficult being a filmmaker in Bulgaria where around ten films are made each year and cinema attendance is only 0.7 visits per head of population. The only source of funds is the Ministry of Culture and there is still the suggestion of networks of the ‘privileged’ that existed before 1989. The film comments on both the economic crisis of 2008 and its aftermath and the possibility of corruption in a small town where those networks from the past may be re-appearing. The Lesson is a co-production with Greece and this seems a good strategy. Following the excellent Thirst (2015) at the London Film Festival last October, also by a female director, it looks like something worthwhile is happening against the odds in Bulgaria. I notice now that Ivan Barnev is in both films and that he played the lead role in Jiri Menzel’s I Served the King of England (Czech Republic/Slovakia 2006).

References

The quotes are taken from interviews and the Pressbook, obtainable via the New Wave Films website: www.newwavefilms.co.uk

Trailer

(Caution: There is a slight spoiler towards the end of the trailer)

BIFF 2013 #18: Faith, Love and Whiskey (Bulgaria/US 2012)

Eli and Val – lovers re-united?

Eli and Val – lovers re-united?

BIFF19logoIt’s the second year of the New European Features competition at Bradford and just like last year there is a Bulgarian entry. The two films are remarkably similar in institutional terms if not in plot and narrative. Avé last year had a director with some US background/training, a young woman with some international experience and a story concerning a journey and decisions about where she wanted to be in the future. All those three elements are also present in Faith, Love and Whiskey. The director is Kristina Nikolova and this is her first feature – although she has been working as a cinematographer for ten years. Her co-writer and editor is Paul Dalio. They met on a course at New York University Film School (there are several stellar names on the film’s “thanks to” list).

In the interview below, posted on YouTube, Kristina Nikolova tells us that the film is partly autobiographical and its title refers to a Bulgarian saying in which ‘Faith, Love and Hope’ is altered to replace ‘Hope’ with ‘Whiskey’. The film marries two strong ideas. One is universal – a romance about a young woman who must choose between security and passion. The director tells us that she thinks the film is more ‘mainstream’ than it is a ‘festival film’. I think that she is right but the specific Bulgarian flavour makes it special. She tells us that many young people leave Bulgaria looking for a better future but that they return each summer to spend a few weeks drinking like crazy and enjoying meeting old friends. I’ve forgotten the reference but I also read a review of the film that quoted an Economist article claiming that Bulgaria was the ‘unhappiest country’ in the world when income levels and happiness indices were correlated. I also found this entertaining article which suggests that the Bulgarian problem is a combination of poverty (comparing income to other EU countries) and a native ‘superstition and fatalism’. It’s easier to be miserable and to avoid problems by going out and getting smashed. Looked at this way, the film’s narrative makes a lot of sense.

Eli (Ana Stojanovska) is a vivacious and attractive young woman who has a relationship in New York, but who has come back to Sofia to see old friends. She meets them in a bar and goes clubbing and soon finds herself back with the wild and romantic Val with whom she takes a trip into the beautiful countryside. Back in Sofia, however, her American fiancée has arrived and is looking for her. On a basic plot level it’s all very straightforward. The romance is well presented. It’s sunny and hot, there are cool streams for bathing and the booze flows freely. The film was shot on Super 16 with saturated colours and it looks great. I also liked the music, much of it guitar music reminiscent of deranged surf guitar or the work of Link Wray. Val (Yavor Baharov) is a charismatic romantic lead on the edge of oblivion and John Keabler is the stuffy but wealthy American. The local culture is represented in several ways that recall Avé. Eli has lost her parents (there is an interesting reference to her mother) and the one person she really cares about is her grandmother who brought her up. Bulgaria seems to be a society of the aged waiting for the return of the young – there doesn’t seem to be a generation between.

One of the best scenes in the film, which seems to sum up the whole narrative, doesn’t involve Eli. She has gone out and left both John and Val with her grandmother. Val is forced to translate for the old woman and the American. We feel for Val who must tell John, in English, how delighted the grandmother is that Eli has found her rich American. The subtitles tell us that Val is translating correctly, avoiding the opportunity to damage his rival. Then at one point he forgets which language he is using and has to stop to correct himself. It’s a brilliant piece of cinema with so many issues about identity compressed into facial expressions and a slip of the tongue.

This is another shortish feature running just 75 minutes and therefore difficult to place into distribution. I think I read that the film was likely to get distribution in Bulgaria but I think it is unlikely in the UK. I decided on reflection (and thinking about the migration issues) that I liked the film a lot. The plot is simple, the theme is important and the execution is very good.

Interview with the filmmakers at Slamdance, February 2012:

BIFF 2012 #8: Avé (Bulgaria 2011)

Kamen and Avé have missed the last ferry across the Danube

Avé is a teenage girl who arrives at a roadside outside Sofia and starts to thumb a ride. Already there is art student Kamen and he isn’t too keen to have competition. Inevitably though, the two get a ride together and the adventure begins. This is a road movie/romance/coming-of-age drama with a leavening of humour, mostly supplied via the performances of Andjela Nedyalkova as Avé and Ovanes Torosian as the long-suffering Kamen.

As the journey continues, Kamen discovers that Avé likes to reinvent herself for every new situation and he tries to separate from her when her fantasies threaten to involve him. But we know he can’t – this is a road movie and they’ll get back together. A prologue has already hinted at Kamen’s need to travel to the town of Ruse on the Danube across from Romania for the funeral of a friend, but it’s some time before we learn the reason for Avé’s journey – and should we believe her anyway?

I’m not sure if I’ve seen a Bulgarian film before but I recognised the region. The ‘Scope digital print looked very good and I enjoyed the film very much. It’s a first feature by co-writer and director Konstantin Bojanov who has previously been involved in documentary production. It was a pleasure to take in long shots of landscapes. Although Bulgaria isn’t at its best viewed from major roads, there is still a sense of adventure and who can resist a story that holds out the promise of a trip to Varna (from whence came Nosferatu/Dracula)? Avé tells us at one point that she has lived in Delhi and that you can find Indian girls in Bulgaria. Again this could be a fantasy but it is a road movie staple, that sense of wanting to be somewhere else. In reality, the distances the couple travel are not very long (300 kms from Sofia to Ruse) but they seem greater in narrative terms.

This interesting interview with the director reveals that the film was completed for around 600,000 Euros and that it s story was partly based on his own experiences. Bojanov has lived in New York for the last 15 years but he tells us that his self-education in films (he was at art school in Sofia) was of 1960s and 1970s European and American New Wave films. He cites Y tu mamá también as the kind of modern road movie he likes – and that makes sense. I’m not sure if Konstantin Bojanov is a diasporic director as such – are there Bulgarian communities in the US? – but his film certainly has both a ‘local’ and a ‘global’ feel. Nice music too.

Avé is a specialised film, not a commercial mainstream film so don’t expect a Hollywood ending. I’m glad about that because it meant I could leave the screening thinking about travelling by train through Bulgaria and wondering what happened to Kamen and Avé. I expect to see more of Andjela Nedyalkova who has genuine star quality. This is one of the six films in competition in Bradford and it stands a good chance of winning. It has already been picked up for distribution by Network Releasing so watch their website for details of screenings.

Here’s a pretty good trailer: