New Bulgarian Features: The Popular vs. The International

in 16th Sofia International Film Festival

by Alison Frank

Audiences outside Bulgaria don’t have much opportunity to watch Bulgarian films. The Sofia International Film Festival is exciting, then, because it gives festival guests a chance to see what they are missing. The residents of Sofia, too, eagerly pack public screenings at the festival, showing a clear appetite for domestic cinema. It’s easy to see why: of the Bulgarian features that I saw at this year’s SIFF, two of the three had an understandable appeal for native audiences. Sneakers (dir. Valeri Yordanov and Ivan Vladimirov) and Faith, Love and Whiskey (dir. Kristina Nikolova) treated universal themes, touched on issues of current national concern and were shot on location in Sofia and beautiful Bulgarian landscapes dear to local audiences. Yet it is this popular appeal that most threatens the success of Bulgarian cinema abroad. Whether the audiences who are interested in world cinema are assumed to be uninterested in mainstream cinema (foreign or domestic), or because each nation has enough mainstream fare of its own to satisfy local demand, popular European cinema rarely transcends national borders.

Sneakers follows a group of young people who ‘sneak’ away from their problems by setting up camp on a beach for the summer. The film does have a serious side, examining the social problems that the characters have left behind (drunkenness, violence, etc.). It also raises a different issue, one that disrupts the group’s carefree life on the beautiful, natural, publicly owned beach: a couple of hired thugs on dune buggies keep telling them to move on, and the beach is under threat of private ownership and commercialisation by a German developer. In Faith, Love and Whiskey, there was more insistent reference to an issue which touches many Bulgarians: emigration. Should young people be pushed to pursue success and wealth abroad, or is a simpler, perhaps even greater happiness to be found at home with a familiar culture and language, surrounded by family and old friends? While their examination of relevant contemporary themes might seem to qualify these films as serious, their general spirit is both too popular and too inward-looking for them to find international success.

Like Guillaume Canet’s Little White Lies (Les Petits Mouchoirs), Sneakers feels too much like watching a video of someone else’s holiday: however beautiful the scenery and however endearing the characters may be, you find yourself asking what the purpose is. Similarly, in Faith, Love and Whiskey, a young woman named Neli agonises over a choice which has little importance. It is obviously difficult for her to choose between her current life in New York with her loving, ambitious and responsible American fiancé and her old life in Sofia with her grandmother and a laid—back, slightly crazy high school sweetheart who still loves her. Either choice could conceivably offer her a happy life, so it’s hard to care much about which she chooses. The film’s open ending reinforces the viewer’s feeling of detachment, rather than provoking reflection as open endings normally do.