November 1988: Berlin's Theater der Westens lends its stage to the first-ever European Film Awards. With the statuette for Best Film in hand, Krzysztof Kieślowski modestly addresses the anxiety in the air in those uncertain times. By uttering the words: "I hope Poland counts as part of Europe", the director fleshes out a painful, inflamed division that has haunted the continent for hundreds of years: that of East VS West. The historical significance of this episode moves me deeply, while also raising a couple of personal concerns – in a similar way, I too hope Bulgaria can also be considered part of Europe. Since its ritualistic founding story, the European Film Awards have been presented by the European Film Academy (EFA) on an annual basis. Today, they are known as the “European Oscars,” analogous to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, its American counterpart. However, the voting process, in the case of EFA, is distributed among both members and audience, which reduces the “exclusivity” factor, characteristic of and increasingly criticized in the case of the Oscars.
So far, a Bulgarian production has not won an EFA, but the nominations have definitely become more frequent in recent years, a fact, which testifies to a stable trend – contemporary Bulgarian cinema has become increasingly more recognisable. Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova’s Cat in the Wall is the most recent example of a film shortlisted without making the final cut of five nominated films. Last year, Nadejda Koseva’s Irina was nominated for a special European Discovery Award, presented by the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI). Prior to “Cat in the Wall”, in 2016 and 2017 respectively, Svetla Tsotsorkova's Thirst and Ralitsa Petrova's Godless also made this category. It seems that the Academy not only takes interest in female-made and led Bulgarian films, but also deems them timely representations of the values they defend. The fact that Bulgarian titles appear in EFA shortlists, and some of them get nominated, can be interpreted in two ways – either as a good fit or a calculated adjustment.
Since its inauguration, the EFA has aspired to promote a community of differences, proud to call itself “Europe.” Within this geopolitical context, however, Bulgaria cannot simply be thought of as one of many, even after joining the EU in 2007. In view of the size of its film industry and the economic factors determining it, Bulgaria belongs to the group of so-called "small" or "peripheral" national cinemas. Although film studies and film criticism alike have recently shown interest in marginalised cinematic traditions, the purpose of such categorisations is to make European cinema fit into the more general definition of "world cinema". However, all these definitions are built on pairs of opposing notions, which, in turn, make up the criteria by which experts (critics or academics) evaluate films. Such are, for example, the dichotomies of art versus commerce, author versus star, critical prestige versus box office success, etc. Indeed, this is how identities are constructed. Similarly, "European cinema" and "Bulgarian cinema" evoke a priori identities, which seem easy enough to fill, while the more pertinent issues remain shrouded beneath such general descriptors. With numerous geopolitical, demographic and technological changes, the film industry has since experienced various crises, which, in turn, have impacted filmic production and distribution in every European state.
What does the success of the two films cited even mean within the realm of contemporary Bulgarian cinema? By being put forward for the European Film Awards, Irina and Cat in the Wall, are recognized, on the one hand, as proponents of the values that the EFA professes, namely a strong sense of identity and a solidarity amidst national differences. In other words, this means that the films are "Bulgarian" only to a certain degree, one that is acceptable but also leaves room for empathy and identification on the part of European viewers.
The process by which universal stories fit into local issues can be traced more clearly by example of festival culture, even though it can be more conservative than expected. Festivals as institutions do not lend their stamp of approval easily and often it’s the institutional character of Cannes, Locarno or Berlinale which predetermines what films fit their slates and sidebars, what projects are sought after and what representations of national identities are in vogue. Within film studies, this phenomenon goes by the name of "self-exoticisation" and applies to cases in which national cinema reproduce a self-critical image of themselves, but one to which the world's film institutions not only respond but also actively seek out. Too often, as in the Bulgarian case, these are stories told in a masochistic way with regards to national identity: gritty realism has become somewhat of an Eastern European trademark. This phenomenon has been definitely exacerbated by the influx of European "New Waves" since 2000, blurring all questions of who is to blame. It remains unclear whether Bulgarian cinema has begun to adapt to festivals, or whether festivals have always chosen what they think "passes" convincingly as “Bulgarian”. Perhaps the alternative lens through which we can read the success of Irina and Cat in the Wall is rooted in the geographical isolationism of the EFA – films made by Europeans are selected and watched by Europeans, which differs to the way global festival networks work.
After appearing at several local European festivals, Irina was shown for the first time in Bulgaria at the 23rd Sofia Film Fest. A few months later, the film toured independent cinemas in Sofia and the country, accompanied by a major media campaign run by Art Fest. Thus, a film that won a dozen European and other international awards and received many more nominations, became available to a slew of viewers simultaneously. My first personal encounter with Irina was at a baby-friendly afternoon matinee. The particular initiative to incorporate the film (which is directed by a woman and features a strong female lead) inclusively, into everyday city life is both commendable and indicative of the film’s social message. This is the story of a woman and mother with boundless empathy and attitude, who in the course of the film learns how to manage loss with an equal dose of vulnerability and dignity. The central theme of the film is motherhood (Irina agrees to become a paid surrogate mother for a rich childless couple), but undoubtedly the female figure is never reduced to this singular dimension.
On the one hand, Irina is a film-reflection of social reality, almost documentary in its storytelling, but it still remains a film driven by its main character, whose name bears the title. The protagonist is present in all the scenes except the one that actually conceals the cause of the accident, which has left her husband Sasho disabled. Irina is irritable and often rude, while performing all her social roles: that of wife, sister, neighbor and labourer. The task of bringing this multi-layered anti-heroine to life was entrusted to young actress Martina Apostolova, a relatively unknown face before, who has won the director’s trust with her theatrical training and utter dedication.
And indeed, Apostolova’s performance as the uncompromising Irina enlivens the script, creating the impression that it was written precisely for her. This role has brought Apostolva numerous awards, including the title of European Shooting Star – an initiative promoting the new faces of European cinema. Undoubtedly, the actress carries the weight of the film on her shoulders and thus, without having a deliberately feminist subtext, Irina reveals in its forthright heroine, not just an image of a woman, but a female rolemodel. With its acerbic tone, lively dialogue, as well as telling silences, the film opens a rift between the heroine and those around her. Such amalgamations testify to the fact that no discussion of emotional states is actually needed when they have to be experienced. Such a sense of verbal helplessness adds another layer to an already marginalised character – the role of a working woman is then conflated with that of a provincial person, whom the wealthier citizens of the capital deem suspicious. Irina's behavior, which is conveyed through Apostolova’s organic yet assertive acting style, safeguards the emotional center of the film.
What transforms the film from a (thematically) local story into a universally readable piece is precisely the clear manner in which Apostolova conveys Irina's ambivalent character. Her heroine suffers misfortunes and consciously chooses to go through hell to provide for her family. Although this sounds like a heroic plot, “Irina” makes it clear that every choice comes at a price, and while the protagonist makes some dubious choices, that very fact makes her a person of flesh and blood. The audience walks alongside her in both her wrongs and rights, in stubbornness and tantrums, and all the while, her face radiates a certain calmness which comes from the conviction that everything is going to be alright if you just give it your best, both good and bad.
The Bulgarian film in this year's EFA nominations was the feature debut of Vessela Kazakova and Mina Mileva - Cat in the Wall. After its world premiere in the main competition of Locarno 2019, the film was shown for the first time in Bulgaria at Kinomania in November of the same year. Even though wider distribution was in slate for March 2020, the release was impeded by the first national-wide lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it never got an equal chance of box office success due to the cinema’s reduced capacity and the anti-epidemic measures, "Cat in the Wall" as well as "Irina" appealed to the general European public because of their humanistic themes, and because of, dare I say, their uncompromising dedication to female perspectives.
Nadejda Koseva herself shares that she grew up without a father and describes Irina (on which she has been working for a total of eight years) as a project dedicated to mother figures. A similarly ambivalent reverence in front of motherhood was also felt in Viktoria (2014), a film by Maya Vitkova, which was a part of the Sundance Festival, a film explicitly dedicated to the director’s mother. However, Viktoria is far more ambitious in its scale, an epic project with political metaphors at work on several levels. Irina's aspiration is more intimate. Cat in the Wall is an equally personal film based on Mina Mileva’s own story of how she picked up a stray kitten that was on the stairs of her municipal block. In interviews, she laughs it off, joking that this is how "life steps into cinema."
Built from personal memories and the ashes of frustration, Kazakova and Mileva's film embraces its geographical specificity with rigorous dramaturgy. By reconstructing the (already fictionalised) narrative in a documentary fashion, fitting the duo’s professional background, the plot unfolds: transforming a personal story into a universal one. In this way, both the characters and the places they inhabit become palpable and expressive on their own. For example, shooting took place at Mileva's Peckham council flat. The South London neighborhood is one of the most eclectic areas which is situated at just the right part of the outskirts, to combine higher crime rates with a certain hipstery appeal. At the beginning of the film, the main character makes fun of her brother, who uses "modern words such as gentrification", and their conversation provides us with a working definition of the term – "when the middle classes move into the working-class neighborhoods and change the local colour." With subtle humor, Cat in the Wall touches upon the politics of intimacy which communal living both dictates and transforms. The phenomenon of the so-called municipal estates provided poor people with a way out of the housing crisis in the early 20th century. The council estates’ austere character can easily be compared to the phenomenon of Soviet panel blocks. The film shows an experience that is shared, and a set of problems which are common. Neighborly conflicts between owners, tenants and/or people on social benefits have both financial and social dimensions. Curiously enough, the Bulgarian protagonists of Cat in the Wall are homeowners, not, as is most common in contemporary film, tenants who are barely scraping by. By comparison, in films of the British realist tradition (such as those of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh), the people which are often victimised by the system lack property ownership, and their identity disintegrates in a sequence of neurotic and traumatic attempts to maintain their financial and psychological integrity.
"Some films are gushing love letters to the cities in which they are set. Cat in the Wall is more of an eye-roll of irritation" wrote critic Wendy Ide in her “Screen Daily” review from Sarajevo Film Festival. The film pulls up a crooked mirror in the face of British society from the point of view of Bulgarian immigrants, thus exposing the xenophobia beneath the surface. That’s why it’s important to mention that the premiere screening of the film in London is yet to come. Cat in the Wall is expected to be screened as part of the annual program of the New East Cinema curatorial collective, its mission to promote films which deal with the construction of post-socialist identities. Cat in the Wall grants Bulgarian immigrants an active and educated role instead of a traditionally precarious one, more in line with social realism. The comedic element is especially important in the development of the plot – the titular cat hides in a hole behind the flat boiler, while the neighbors are trying to make peace and bury the hatchet. Humor, which has long been lacking in Bulgarian social dramas, may well be our saving grace from the cynical traps we’ve weaved for ourselves.
Just as Irina obfuscates its lyricism by presenting a harsh reality devoid of poetry, Cat in the Wall preserves its sense of humor from bile and sarcasm. Both films use meticulous shooting techniques, such as blocking and consistent camerawork, that bring the viewer closer to the characters – a handheld approach and a traditional framing style put the heroines at the narrative center and the sensual periphery. The style is designed to reflect an authentic picture, the liveliness of the characters, so the visuals don’t seem stylised in a typically banal manner. On the contrary, the closeness on screen feels uncompromising, so the formal means of expression must remain as legible, dynamic, and understandable for any audience. Hence, the socio-ethical stake of these contemporary films has one foot (formally) in the mainstream and another (substantively) – in the existential depths of art cinema. Perhaps the most optimistic account of these films’ success is actually a delayed effect of their. Since 2008, the Kazakova-Mineva duo has been leading the production company Activist 38, which promotes new Bulgarian cinema. In 2005, together with Svetla Tsotsorkova, Nadejda Koseva founded the production company Front Film, which put forward titles such as Thirst and Ship in a Room. Such commitment to the future of Bulgarian cinema testifies to a focus on joint work and mutual support, which will inevitably lead to more instances of success in the foreseeable future.
This publication is supported by Bulgarian National Culture Fund