An Unexpected Revival of a Genre

in 13rd Sofia International Film Festival

by Ingeborg Bratoeva-Daraktchieva

The Bulgarian entry Zift earned a ‘special mention’ in the International competition, and the Kodak Award for best Bulgarian film, adding two more prizes to its long trophy list. Zift isthe most acclaimed, the most awarded, and the most discussed Bulgarian film of the year 2008. The triumphant course of the movie started at the Moscow International Film Festival last summer, where Liv Ullmann praised it as “an outstanding blend of action and caustic satire of Bulgaria’s totalitarian past of the 1960’s”, while bestowing the debut director Javor Gardev with the best director prize. The film also won the top prize at the 28th Bulgarian Film Festival “Golden Rose” last October, and another five awards at the same forum: the director of photography award, the special jury award for film montage, the Bulgarian Film Critics award, the best supporting actor award, and the award for best movie producers. Zift has already been shown at about a dozen international festivals; it was nominated for the European Film Academy Awards, and was the Bulgarian entry in the Oscar foreign language film competition. The first feature film of a small, Sofia based production company, this low-budget movie (about 700,000 Euros), financed by the Bulgarian National Film Center and the Bulgarian National Television, has also won its way to the hearts of the local audiences, making a remarkable box office by Bulgarian standards. Shown in the last four months on just seven domestic screens, Zift has sold so far over 40,000 tickets. And when illegally placed on two Bulgarian web sites at the end of January, the result was roughly 40,000 downloads in only 48 hours.

What are the reasons for this success? After all, Zift is just a black and white Bulgarian homage to the American film noir, a new variation on an old Hollywood genre and just another postmodern puzzle of well-known cliches. Why is this blatantly stereotypical movie so important for the Bulgarian cinema now? One could find adequate answers to these questions by solely considering the context within which the film was released in the autumn of 2008.

For two decades since the fall of the Berlin wall, Bulgarian filmmakers have been reflecting intensely on the communist past, but, more or less, within the confines of the old Socialist Realist ways, only inverting the good — bad positions of the characters. Therefore neither the stories, nor the way they were told or their visual style have so far demonstrated a genuine break with Social Realism, imposed on Bulgarian cinema 60 years ago (1948) by an official decree. The makers of Zift have madea seriousattempt to cut the ties with this tradition in a challenging, stylish and artistic manner. Therefore Zift triggered such polar reactions among the Bulgarian film critics’ community and provoked an extensive discussion. The debate revealed at once serious, mostly generational, political contradictions and artistic disagreements within the film critics’ guild. Pundits, who have built their carriers defending the Social Realism tradition and are still clinging to the ideological illusions of their communist youth, have disowned the artistic values of the film. Conversely, some of the younger critics have eulogized the picture uncritically, turning a blind eye to its faults. Without going all the way with the latter, I consider Zift one of the best Bulgarian movies made during the last 20 years and agree with a colleague of mine who called it the “perfect black and white satire of our totalitarian past.”

Based on the eponymous novel of Vladislav Todorov (a Bulgarian writer residing in New York City since the early 1990’s) Zift is structured asa kaleidoscope of genres through which director Javor Gardev provocatively examines Bulgaria’s communist past. Playing with the clichés of film noir he constructs a surreal world and takes us on a journey back in time to a bizarre totalitarian reality via the delusional flashbacks of the main character. The communist period is restored without observing any biding authenticity. Shot in the cinematic tradition of suspense and brutality, the film is remarkable for its ironically bitter symbolism and its exceptional cinematography. The director of photography Emil Hristow, one of the best Bulgarian cameramen, shot the movie in color and transferred it into black-and-white during post-production. Hristow used 35mm, 16mm and 8mm cameras, elaborate lighting, and 3D animation to achieve an “authentic setting of the ruins of socialism”. And I believe we have mostly him to thank for the fantastic atmosphere of that dark era, created on screen.

The director Javor Gardev (with degrees in philosophy and theatre, and already a name as theatre director) reconstructs the communist past in an ironic manner — unlike those of his East European colleagues who prefer to critique totalitarianism via exceptive dramatics. Moreover, using a well-known Hollywood genre formula, Gardev succeeds in telling a complex tale about the existential delusions of men, whose message transcends the confines of social criticism. The multiple levels of meaning therefore create an artistic puzzle, which circumvents the conventions of genre cinema — noir and social melodrama — placing the film neatly in the category of art cinema. For these reasons I see Zift as the ultimate break of a whole generation of Bulgarian film-makers with a period, marked by restrictions and scattered observations of reality, and as a symbol of their approach to a new era of confidence, creativity and artistic freedom.