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The theme of success is a useful prism to observe the shortcomings and achievements of Bulgarian cinema in recent years. Most of all, their content can be analysed through it and this can turn out to be more meaningful, because audience success or festival awards are usually something ephemeral or temporary and accidental.

Beyond the factoids around awards and festival accolades, success with audiences or complete silence from both critics and audiences, I find it far more interesting how filmmakers understand success and what they preach with their films. Regardless of the fact that they probably dream of plenty of viewers and wouldn't turn down some uncritical widespread recognition either. But some films deal with just that - does success, as we are taught to understand it, bring happiness to the characters? And is each one of them looking for it where they failed, fighting fiercely for reparations? Or is success simply a different path to understanding one's own vocation, far more peaceful and independent than the others?


That is why in Bulgarian cinema films about spectacular and catastrophic failure seem to tell us more about the real success and the experience of it than the one telling stories on success itself. Success as a theme is always dubious and rather provides us with films in which, if not dramatized, problematized, success would leave us indifferent and unaware. After all, who cares about the drama of the achievers in life? Personal happiness may be a goal, but it is not enough for the hero of a Bulgarian film. No matter whether we hide it or gloss over it, Bulgarian cinema demands its characters’ commitment to the common good, lack of selfishness, at least an attempt to meet a heightened criteria for existence.

Because of the above, or for other, more profound reasons, some of our authors' understanding of life's victories is more complex, spiritual, and distanced from the accepted models for doing so. Well, art is also a struggle of notions and visions of success and achievement. But it is just as often dialogue, complicity, partnership between authors, films, struggling for the same thing. Many artists, not without impunity, attribute their understanding of success to their characters, sometimes too lofty and smarmy. But that's why they shouldn't be held to account for not seeking easy recognition with their film. We shouldn't expect the filmmakers to be less complex than their characters, nor to not share their most intimate and harrowing experiences, however flawed or immaculate.


In view of success, its cost and the ambition for it, subdued by other circumstances or patronized by them, I focus on the films 3/4 and Away from the Shore. In the former, a teenage girl, devotedly involved in music, takes success too seriously but sublimely enough. In the latter, success isn't something purely charged with dedication. It's a matter of balance - being manipulated and being able to manipulate in turn, otherwise you perish. If you have power, you want to be listened to, and if you're a middle-aged artist, you just struggle to be heard. In Kostadin Bonev's film there are young actresses with a dubious future and a clean past. In Ilian Metev's film, the notions of the future are too untainted by life experience.

These two films can be juxtaposed in analogies of any order - as films by directors with more festival awards than audience success. The authors are of different, even contrasting, ages, but they seem to legitimize success and its understanding in its various phases and times, while at the same time, with some common burden, tearing apart the interior and exterior of the Bulgarian dream of success. Success not at any price - if it is a matter of integrity (Away from the Shore), and at any price if it be high, and a matter of a dream (3/4).


"Ilian Metev's 3/4, his feature debut, widely acclaimed at prestigious festivals like Locarno, focuses on a character in the first phase of her life, with a neurotic desire for success. The young girl is mature enough to understand the true meaning of music, the excellence in it, but far from reaching it. All paths are supposedly open - she auditions, there are competitions across the globe, but her high inner standards prevent her from conquering them. Life around her - humble living and food, a single father and an all-too-playful brother, only distract her from her quest for deep concentration that would launch her to the top. Who hasn't gone through that... Everything irritates her. Everything except the concentration for total victory and perfection - her brother's teasing, her father's dilemmas - an aging professor, also with overly ambitious and theory-blind students. One of them so earnestly protests that no one has yet discovered the secret of the black holes, while he is being lectured and taught... All of the above distracts her from the path she is following diligently, consistently, daily and obsessively. Life constantly interferes, her relatives support and help her, seeming to get in her way. She understands everything about music, but not about life.

Her flippant brother, who is constantly picking on her, has to swallow his defeats without any perks - a street fight, petty friend betrayals, loneliness. However, it seems he might be more equipped for success than his sister, with her almost bare ambition, bolstered only by technical exercises.


In the film we find extremely gentle, delicate, discreet or rather polite and too emotionally presented variations on the theme of talent and success. As long as it has to "go through the heart", as the heroine's mentors keep repeating. But the young girl has the heart for fame and profundity, inspired only by the success and achievements of others - her musical idols. And not by the everyday failures of the people in her family. No, she's standing on the window frame, staring into the woodwork, as ready for the complete collapse of her dreams as she is for the dizzying success. Not that it's a prerequisite, but the filmmakers hold in anacrusis that very piercing moment in life when everything is possible and impossible.

This film, of course, is not destined for mass success. It is a gesture to those who are suspicious of the beautiful lightness of the problem. And to those who have long experienced it for themselves.


Away from the Shore is worth examining in detail, but here we are interested primarily as a lexicon for the variants of success and failure. In it, these are related to manipulation, to victory that proves temporary and dubious, and to the hero's frantic desire to make life's experiences of no use to him. Rather, to be ignored so as not to interfere with his creativity. There are cases like this. Based on a novel by Evgeny Kuzmanov and the life experience of a theatre director like Nikola Petkov (co-writer), Kostadin Bonev's film seems to be a kind of group confession about anti-therapy. Of people who have known failure, silence, prohibition, as well as the ephemeral sweetness of victory, which is always ambiguous because it is never enough.

Bonev chooses as his main character a director from the times of totalitarianism, forcefully exiled from Sofia to a provincial theatre, where he is again subjected to strong pressure from the authorities. They set him conditions and censor him. On the other hand, the actors, for one reason or another, try to manipulate him. He has to master the purely coercive pressure from above, even the police pressure, and come to terms with the desire of those below to succeed - to earn money for a house, to get a job in the capital, to get on his head and determine the beginning, the ending, the treatment and everything else. Integrity and talent are important here, but the hero finds himself entangled in an awful lot of other dependencies and causal relationships. Alongside this is the unfolding of a failing, scattered love life. Devoted to the spiritual, craving only to have a voice, not even to fight for prizes and money, he is mocked even by the biggest drunk in the pub, who, unlike him, brags about grandchildren. And so on until the hero is on the verge of suicide. A former star of the theatre scene (Tsvetana Maneva) explains to him that Goebbels has seen her performances and showered her with applause and compliments. Perhaps the silent protagonist appreciates her remark - sometimes success can be insulting and embarrassing to the artist.


This film, of course, is not destined for mass success. It is a gesture to those who are suspicious of the beautiful lightness of the problem. And to those who have long experienced it for themselves.

Beyond all these associations and variations on the theme of success and its cost, there is an interesting parallel plot about a ship in Away From the Shore. There, a fan of uniforms, like Goebbels, and like some contemporary characters on the TV screen, seizes power on deck easily, cruelly and irresponsibly. His success is complete because he uses the fear of some as a weapon against others. Stefan Valdobrev may cower in front of the mirror in a tutu, but he manages to turn his lazy staff into obedient workmen. While the discredited and banished director tries to embrace the whole - the actors, the stage manager, the party secretary, the prima donnas - in order to succeed in staging his play, the new captain enforces total obedience as well as provoking rebellion. The director achieves the same. What is the difference between the two?

Bonev's film is explicit: the sailors on the ship begin to become more and more aligned, more and more like each other. Both in obedience and in mutiny. In the film, this process is literally shown with a certain clownish make-up, which gradually covers the faces of all the sea wolves like a mask. But there is a danger that the actors, both mastered and won over to the director's side, will become the same. Gradually they turn into grim harlequins. Individual success can corrupt, unify others, those around. It corrupts as much as failure because it can push in harmful directions and is dangerous to character.


This nuance can be pondered endlessly and with many analogies, but it is important for us  once again to realize that the myth of success, luck, and good fortune is most often sabotaged by honest and sincere artists. With all their sincere consciousness, talent, taste and experience.

Away From the Shore is not a film that aims at mainstream success. That it enjoys some festival success doesn't make it a festival film. Rather, it's a confessional type of film - about the costs of success and failure, and a story about the illusions surrounding them. From people who know a lot more about it than they say and would say. Stuff that weighs on them but also gives depth, fleshes out the stories they tell us, puzzles us temporarily and perhaps leaves us with something to figure out in the future.

Apart from anything else, described above or not, the theme of success and failure can also be reduced to a catalyst for the biggest problems of a society in which almost everyone we meet has long since given up motivating, moralizing or balancing.

Success, the personal kind, can scald or distort the ambitions of many, even if it is not the fruit of compromise, as sometimes happens in life. And anyone who is able to develop personal criteria for success must be fully prepared for failure. Many of our more mature artists find no reason to hide their more sophisticated, patient and intelligent understanding of the nature of this delicate matter.


Supporting materials on the subject, which we have all been using for a long time without even knowing it:

"No one realizes himself completely. Everyone's life is ultimately a failure. "

"I shun success not because of it, but because of those who have it; I am ashamed to be like them."

"A man who dominates others loses his own freedom."

"All writers want to be liked, only for some of them it is also important who likes them."

"Every strong feeling is superstitious. "

"A writer is also defined by what he does not allow himself to write."

"The work of the artist must be selfless. That is why all true fame is posthumous."                                                                                                                                    Atanas Dalchev

This publication is supported by Bulgarian National Culture Fund