Warsaw Talents 2019 – Immigrant Song

“Cat in the Wall”
Immigrant Song: Mileva and Kazakova’s Unflinching Look at Xenophobia in Britain

After two controversial documentaries that didn’t even circulate in their native Bulgaria, filmmakers Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova are back with a feature, Cat in the Wall, that is more tender than it is edgy – a tragicomic and realistic study of social tension, Brexit-era Britain and the immigrant experience. 

Plucky single mother and immigrant Irina (Irina Atanasova) lives in a shabby London housing estate with her young son, Jojo (Orlin Asenov) and her brother Vladimir (Angel Genov). Irina used to be an architect in Bulgaria, but is now forced to work as a bartender to make ends meet. Her sarcastic sibling once had a promising career as a historian, but now spends his time installing TV antennas for a mere 35 pounds a day. They would both gladly offer their expertise to their new homeland, but bureaucracy is a brutal foil – nobody cares what their qualifications are as long as the diploma is in a foreign language.

Despite all the hardships, their family is a happy one – we see them playfully argue about gentrification, joke around in a mixture of Bulgarian and English and make plans for a brighter future. Irina has even saved up enough money to buy their apartment while most of their British-born neighbours live on social benefits. And then, a lost ginger tabby brings xenophobia and hidden conflicts into plain view.

It’s difficult to watch a film about economic inequality and social stratification in London without comparing it to the works of Ken Loach, a director who is almost as famous for his socialist views as he is for his bleak, realistic dramas. The subject matter and minimalist handheld camerawork make Cat in the Wall seem like a perfect fit for Loach’s brand of dark dramatism. Yet, Mileva and Kazakova take a drastically different approach – they acknowledge social issues and inequality without robbing their characters of hope, warmth and humour. They also don’t claim to have all the solutions to society’s problems – in one scene Irina even rebuts a middle-class socialist’s speech, reminding him that Marx’ ideas didn’t do much good for Eastern Europe. This approach is much like the one Spike Lee adopted in his classic feature Do The Right Thing.

As the family’s problems pile up, the once cozy apartment they live in becomes more and more cramped, even claustrophobic. Neighbour turns against neighbour, the oppressed become oppressors and Irina wonders if she is stuck in this depressing place for eternity, much like the titular cat. At times, the symbolism is far from subtle and the characters act like archetypes, but the understated performances from the cast keep the film grounded in reality. Cat in the Wall is a brutally honest piece of criticism of modern-day Britain – one that asks difficult questions and doesn’t let you think for a moment that there could be any easy answers.

Oleksandra Povoroznyk
Warsaw Critics Project 2019