The Phenomena of the New Bulgarian and Romanian Cinema By Gulnara Abikeyeva

in 16th Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema

by Gulnara Abikeyeva

The Competition Program of the Cottbus Film Festival highlighted why this year’s festival was focused on the films from two East European countries – Romania and Bulgaria. The cinema of those two countries was the most unique and filled energetically with new film language free of labels.

The exact dates of births can be given for Romanian and Bulgarian cinema. More accurately the moments when the films were completely acknowledged by worldly film-experts: May 2005, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea Domnului Lazarescu) by Romanian director Cristi Puiu, in Cannes, was shown. The film received Grand Prix in the program Un Certain Regard.

In July 2006, Karlovy Vary, the Bulgarian take-off was marked by Christmas Tree Upside Down (Obarnata Elcha),by directors Iwan Tscherkelow and Wassil Shiwkow. This film was awarded with the special prize in the international competition. The main prize of another competition program The East of the West was awarded to the film Monkeys in Winter (Maimuni Pres Simata), by director Milena Andonova.

However, it is not possible to talk about the new waves in the cinematography of those countries by looking at one or two films. That is why the Cottbus Film Festival had showed the best Romanian and Bulgarian films of the last five to six years. The paths of development of those cinematography’s vary: while Romanians are emphasising their shocking history, Bulgarians are putting the puzzle of national history and culture together. It seems that the first path is brighter, fascinating while short and decadent. The second path is dimmer, but in a cultural sense more fruitful.

For instance, three Romanian films 12:08 East of Bucharest (A Fost Sau N-A Fost?) dir. Corneliu Porumboiu; The Paper Will Be Blue (Hirtia Va Fi Albastra) dir. Radu Muntean and The Way I Spent the End of the World (Cum Miam Petrecut Sfarsitul Lumii) dir. Catalin Mitulescu are dedicated to the last days of Ceausescu’s regime and what those days meant for the Romanian nation. Those films are of extremely documentary-nature and stylistically remind one of chronics or a news report. The special phenomenon is The Death of Mr. Lazarescu . The Documentary-nature of the film is squared and becomes an art method. Nevertheless, the main characteristic of this cinema is the shocking stories. For example, the story of the The Death of Mr. Lazarescu can be retold briefly: a sick person died before receiving medical aid because the doctors did not take the necessary steps in taking care of him. The script of film The Paper Will Be Blue can be told in one sentence: young soldiers of military patrol, having gone through one of the hardest nights of the revolutionary turmoil of 1989, were accidentally killed the next morning. The directors are eliminating the sense of mystery from the very beginning by revealing the story-climax at the beginning of the film. If one was to season the film with a fair share of black humour, the recipe of modern Romanian cinema will turn out to consist of the shocking story, horrifying documentary-nature and the ability above all to laugh at it.

There is no doubt that such films are memorable as phenomena and can’t be forgotten. The foreground consists of: novelty, freshness and shock. However cinematography cannot be afloat exceptionally because of these phenomena. In this sense, Bulgarian cinema is of a greater interest to me.

In the film Monkeys in Winter, the novelty of the film-language is lacking, however there is epic breathing that has been interrupted twenty years ago. There is a quite confident touching narration. The film tells life-segments of Bulgarian women in three generations: 1960s, 1980s and the beginning of the 21st century. Despite the absolutely social context of these stories, characters and environment are extremely national. This is shown through the image of landscapes, music, display of characters of heroes and other elements.

A greater touch of national culture is felt in the film Christmas Tree Upside Down. The strong advantage of it is made so masterly that the structure of the film and its maintenance start to reveal itself only in the middle. The film consists of seven short stories which are not connected to each other; while, at the same time, a multilayered cut of a modern Bulgarian society shows through them.

The first short story Calf tells about the rich elderly person who lives in Canada, but he feels neither roots, nor family. Having returned home, he invites the neighbours to celebrate his birthday and to send a daughter the video of how good it is at home, in Bulgaria. In reality, it is a sad short story about the broken families and only the general ceremony – cutting the calf – unites people. A slow rhythm, almost documentary-like creates the sensation of a modern reality and the family here exists as a model of society.

The second short story is The Wooden Angel that talks about a young pregnant woman that has come into the town from the village. She has no place to move in; there is no place to spend the night. The unique sympathising person is the train-station cleaning lady, who the young woman gives the angel, leaving to sacred places. It is unknown what will happen to the teenaged girl that expects a child. And the short story involuntarily directs the observer towards the possible scenarios on the future of the country, because a child is a symbol of the future generation.

The third short story refers to is Socrates. It is made into dialogues between two prisoners recalling the destiny of Socrates, conversation on categories of ‘freedom’ and ‘imprisonment’. Simultaneously, this short story sends us to the historical past of Bulgaria.

The fourth short story The Ship is a key to understanding the entire film. It tells the story of a Roma, who arrived on the coast and founded their camp. This story of a life from a zero-cycle is like a tuning fork on which the tone and sense of the entire film keeps. Though Roma children, playing, have got the dredge left nearby, and have slightly broken the tense tent. The idea behind it is that at any moment and in any place the life can be constructed and begun all over again.

The fifth short story – The Boar – tells about a fifty year old person of the lost generation. He still listens to Deep Purple at night, but cannot find family happiness in any way because he is lonely. First he splits a bush and then commits a suicide. This is a metaphor of a weak state presented in a man.

The sixth short story is The Drum. There is no actual story; however there are people’s faces at some national holiday and the rhythm of a drum calls everyone to dance. The documentary-nature of the film shows through.

What did those six short stories tell us? The family has broken up. The future is not clear. The past is great, but is forgotten. A society is like a ship that is thrown from a wave onto a wave. The statehood is weak. The national rhythm, however, is present. The melody is appealing, people are dancing and moving. This is a reflection of a life which is not possible to muffle, to break and to stop. And the authors’ message will come in the end – in the seventh, bridging short story when the pine-tree is cut, at last, and is brought to the main square of the capital. It is well-rooted in the ground and the Christmas toys are lit: a calf, a wooden angel, Socrates, a ship, a boar and a drum.

Not a turned upside down pine-tree, but a well established Christmas tree symbolises a universe, a holiday, a returned order. It is the hope that all deprivations and difficulties are an inevitable way to the well-being of people. This unusual film signifies that Bulgarian cinema is on the rise and soon there will be more and more artistic masterpieces.