All in the family: for Bulgarian filmmakers, international success lies close to home

Daria Vitkova in Viktoria (dir. Maya Vitkova, 2014)

The story of Bulgaria, the country nested in the heart of the Balkans, can and has been told in many ways. As part of the Eastern bloc until 1989, its history shares common ground with its neighbours; since then, its well-equipped film studios and cheap labour have provided both European and American producers with a budget-friendly alternative to shoot both independent and blockbuster projects with equal ease. Sofia and its provinces have provided locations for films as different as Philippe Grandrieux’s La vie nouvelle and the Expendables franchise while local filmmakers have made waves at major European film festivals by portraying the Bulgarian condition with a new blend of realism and artistry.

On the one hand, being Bulgarian means walking the tightrope between past and present. In spatial terms, the country’s cultural and industrial divides have produced a wealthier, vibrant centre and a countryside that functions like a time capsule. It is no coincidence that some of the most prominent titles that have come out of Bulgaria in the last decade have tracked similar tensions. Stuck between a coveted future tense and a demanding past, their protagonists seem to struggle most with the tight grip of patriarchal structures, be they family or other institutions.

On the other hand, this journey is also existential, zigzagging between life, death, and purgatory in the Bulgarian everyday, a faint glimmer of hope that a life beyond those constraints is actually possible. In order to carry out their passage though, these protagonists have to overcome resistance, humiliation, and isolation from the ones they (should) love the most. A number of women filmmakers have either made or co-directed features tracing precisely that struggle for self-affirmation through familial defiance, as Bulgarian cinema builds itself anew, from the ground up.

being Bulgarian means walking the tightrope between past and present. In spatial terms, the country’s cultural and industrial divides have produced a wealthier, vibrant centre and a countryside that functions like a time capsule

Director Maya Vitkova describes Viktoria (2014) as a fictionalised autobiography, inasmuch as it depicts a scission between daughter and mother; an unwanted child (played at different ages by Daria and Kalina Vitkova) and an unwilling parent (Irmena Chichikova as Boryana) are divided by politics. For Boryana, to bring a child into this socialist world is an appalling act, but for Viktoria, regime leader Todor Zhivkov (1954-1989) is a surrogate parent figure. Viktoria was the first Bulgarian feature film to screen in competition at Sundance and still stands out in its presentation of a child protagonist who is only happy because of the regime.

The plot revolves around the eponymous girl, born on the prophetic date of 10 November      1979 – exactly ten years before the fall of communism – with no umbilical cord, making her both “baby of the decade” and a symbol of socialist Bulgaria. Closer to the party leader than her own mother, Viktoria grows up spoiled and joyous until her tenth birthday sees the government collapse in what she experiences as the end of the world. As much as Viktoria is about politics, it’s mostly a film of body politics and abjection. What kind of belonging can you strive for if you have grown up unwanted? Such a question digs deep at the country’s identity as a whole. Therefore, the ambivalences of motherhood become the ambivalences of the motherland; both are impossible to reckon with, even with the passage of time.

Zhaleika (dir. Eliza Petkova, 2016)

Mother-daughter relationships are not much more easily resolvable when the political context is less directly intrusive. A zhaleika is both an object and a symbol. The word denotes a thin, black neck scarf worn by a woman in mourning, and the title of Eliza Petkova’s 2016 debut feature already identifies 17- year-old Lora (newcomer Anna Manolova) and her mother Maria (seasoned actor Snezhina Petrova) as trapped in stagnated roles after the death of father and husband Todor – roles dictated by the customs of small village life. But when rural mourning rites see grief as a public ordeal to be performed, shared, and maybe even evaluated, what is really left for a teenage girl on her own journey of emancipation? A tacit, headstrong Manolova carries the film on her shoulders, as if balancing the weight of generational patriarchal oppression. And the load is heavy, to say the least. It doesn’t take too long for Lora to be seen as neglectful, rude, and plain offensive, just because she sidesteps the various mourning rituals her mother follows like the Scripture. In contrast to the villagers’ surveilling look, Constanze Schmitt’s cinematography showers Lora with attention, in silent close-ups, through ever-so-softly panning camera movements, and, most of all, patient lingering. Transgression is punishable, as in every hierarchy, but this heroine’s self-preservation can be cheered on by the audience.

Zhaleika premiered at the 2016 Berlinale, where it won a Special Mention in the Generation 14 Plus section for its “smart allegory about shifting cultural changes and the collision of new and old values in small town Europe,” per the jury statement. Rebellion, or the struggle for autonomy, is a universal concept, one established in mythic tropes and heroic narratives. Zhaleika asks why the same tropes might not apply for a young woman from the mountains of southwestern Bulgaria, caught between past and future, trapped in a familial cage.

these films have been described by domestic critics as either “not-all-Bulgarian” (since they employ supposedly foreign “arthouse” aesthetics) or “too-Bulgarian” (leaning on a social realism locals know all too well); their warmer reception abroad has been telling

The same year saw another woman filmmaker rise to fame with a debut led by an anti-heroine in a remote part of Bulgaria. Upon first glance, Ralitza Petrova’s Locarno Golden Leopard winner Godless may resemble a pessimistic fable. Set in the country’s northwest, its cold-blooded protagonist Gana (Irena Ivanova) works as a nurse for elderly demented people; on her way out, she steals their identity cards. An abominable act that preys on the most vulnerable, yes – but the thread Petrova weaves is much knottier. Under the guise of Gana’s disgruntled face lies a yearning that’s ever-so-deep: one for love and salvation. Perhaps this paradox was what impressed the Locarno jury, whose unanimous decision awarded Best Film to Godless and Best Actress to Ivanova, a playwright, poet, and director herself. Boxed in a 1.33:1 ratio, her protagonist cannot help but confront her own deficiencies, knowing full well that they were never her fault to begin with. The film could not be further from a villain origin story, nor an apology for good people doing bad things to get by; malice is part of all of the structures in Gana’s world. She just wishes she wasn’t part of that world in the first place. Signalling that inarticulate desire, cinematographers Chayse Irvin and Krum Rodriguez (who also lensed Viktoria and The Father) prefer shooting sideways with a frantic rack focus to counter Gana’s visible apathy.

While all these films have been described by domestic critics as either “not-all-Bulgarian” (since they employ supposedly foreign “arthouse” aesthetics) or “too-Bulgarian” (leaning on a social realism locals know all too well), their warmer reception abroad has been telling. I suggest this mismatch has nothing to do with the fact that, for example, both Ralitza Petrova and Eliza Petkova made their debut features after studying in two of the most renowned film schools in Europe (London’s NFTS and Berlin’s DFFB respectively). Perhaps unequivocal recognition of their artistic qualities on home turf would hit too close to home? I wonder whether this isn’t the same kind of accusation that women artists have been facing for centuries, for choosing ‘feminine’ (read: not-serious-enough) themes. A strict hierarchy underpins such preconceptions; not only between the centre and its periphery, but also between high and low art, or what is dramatically worthy when it comes to film.

Irena Ivanova in Godless (dir. Ralitza Petrova, 2016)

A few years later, a comedy arrived to lay this all to rest. In Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s The Father (2019), winner of the Crystal Globe at the 2019 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, family is a task to be resolved. For the absent-minded Pavel (Ivan Barnev), returning to his small hometown means regression and incapacitation, in the form of helping his father Vasil (Ivan Savov) deal with the recent passing of his wife, Pavel’s mother. The film completes a trilogy of human errors for the husband-and-wife filmmaking duo, begun with The Lesson (2014) and Glory (2016); but what sets The Father apart is its fresh, humorous look on superstitions, customs, and finding refuge in  timelessness. For Pavel, just like Viktoria, Gana, and Lora, growing up is inevitable, whether one needs to rattle the metaphorical cage or make fun of its existence in the first place.

The Father’s awkward intimacy helps recontextualise recent Bulgarian cinema’s use of abjection to explore contradictory feelings towards its own identity. Eastern Europe has often been represented as the primitive other of Anglo-American civilised normality. These films combine the clichéd tropes of Eastern European primitivism, such as violence and poverty, with a rather hopeful, even shy, kind of realism. It may be true that the social monstrosities and miserabilism often ascribed to Eastern European cinema do expose, to a certain extent, the dark heart of a constructed European identity. But seeing recent Bulgarian films through the richness of their ambivalent familial dynamics can also lend a more empathetic look at the heart of darkness, for a change.

Explore our collection of contemporary Bulgarian titles here.

Savina Petkova is a Bulgarian film critic and academic based in London.