No Damsels in Distress

in 20th Sofia International Film Festival

by Esin Kücüktepepinar

Three women from different countries behind the camera have chosen for their debuts, shown within the framework of the Sofia International FF Competition, to explore universal themes of elusive happiness and struggles. Their female characters might be suffocating under great pressures and have a hard time to position themselves in society, but nevertheless they are no damsels in distress.

Winner of the International Competition Grand Prix, the Bulgarian film Zhaleika (Mourning) tells the story of Lora, who has to deal with her father’s death while searching for her own place in the world. It is an honest coming of age story, directed by the Bulgarian born, Germany-based young director Eliza Petkova, who remains affectionate towards her Lora (Anna Manolova) and most importantly, never lets her see herself as a victim. There is a scene in Zhaleika, where the 17-year-old Lora suffers her first heartbreak in a delicately composed moment, which captures the brutal pain, caused by a boy she likes, although it affects her consequent behavior, including her refusal to wear a black headscarf as a symbol of the eponymous ‘zhaleika’ or ‘mourning’. This gesture is nothing short of rebellion in the small Bulgarian village – where life, seeped in ancient traditions and rituals, seems to have stopped – and complicates her relations with family and neighbors. Yet, like a typical teenager Lora is focused on trying to fit in with her peers and make sense of life, and this contributes to the uncanny feeling that things are not going to get easy for her any time soon.

Rosa, the protagonist in La Puerta Abierta (The Open Door) – another feature debut by a young woman director – also doesn’t consider herself a victim even though she lives in a no-less complicated environment. Spain-based Argentinian director Marina Seresesky is similarly gentle to her characters, especially to Rosa (wonderful Carmen Machi). Rosa is a middle-aged prostitute, who lives in a small apartment in a run-down area of Madrid with her old, wheel-chair bound mother, a former sex-worker herself. In the spirit of Pedro Almodóvar’s earlier movies, Rosa lives in the company of a transvestite with a heart of gold, and an insane mother who thinks she is a famous actress. Things get even more complicated and bitter-sweet when a new member joins unexpectedly Rosa’s not very typical family. The ‘open door’ literally offers a possibility for happiness to the little orphan girl who seeks refuge and becomes a part of this chaotic, insecure life. The director plays cleverly with clichés by using a trick or two, which turns the story about these three generations of women into a heartwarming tale of social and personal redemption. Moreover, Seresesky does not hesitate to introduce the idea of a savior. Yet here – as in Zhaleika – the male savior figure briefly hints at the possibility for change, and then disappears without a trace, exposing his redundancy among these strong women who, albeit anxious, are survivors, and in no need of knights in shining armor.

Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska has chosen for her feature debut Córki dancing (Lure) to surprisingly and freely mix the horror, fantasy and musical genre. The fable of two beautiful mermaid sisters, Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Milina Olszanska) becomes bloody and violent when they explore the human world as showgirls in a strip club. It is an energetic and refreshing approach about awakening womanhood, seen through the prism of betrayal, broken hearts and frustration. The film thus reveals the way the main characters become blindsided by passion and even forget for a time their true nature, only to explode when boxed in, not unlike the female protagonists of the other two movies, but in a much more powerful fashion. Thus the directors have chosen to not tell stories of personal and social redemption, but to show us individuals, who have embarked on their great and challenging journeys, not damsels in distress.

Edited by Christina Stojanova