A few years ago, Sofia's film festival was little more than a local rock festival with some videos showing. Ronald Holloway takes a look at this growing international event, paying special attention to Bulgarian films.
More than just another hale-and-hearty film event to fit the modern age, the Sofia International Film Festival (SIFF) under the enterprising Stefan Kitanov has doubled its size almost every year since founded in 1997. Originally, SIFF was little more than a "rock fest"—a spontaneous happening specializing in films about music, while at the same time providing a playful platform for local and touring bands, including the festival's own band with Kitanov himself as the lead singer wielding a wicked acoustical guitar. The audience loved it—and asked for more.
Soon, with an extra input from Stefan Laudyn, the "rocker director" of the Warsaw film festival, SIFF in 2002 became a member of the growing European Coordination of Film Festivals (ECFF), hosted an International Critics (FIPRESCI) Jury, and capped this off last year by launching a competition for first and second feature films. Today, Sofia can safely lay claim to being the key international film festival in southeastern Europe.
The proof is in the numbers. The 7th SIFF drew an audience of 60,000 for its varied program of 176 features, shorts, documentaries, tributes, special screenings, retrospectives, and student films in six scattered venues—plus a rerun of selected films from the Sofia program in Bourgas, a port city on the Black Sea. Organized by veteran award-winning filmmaker Georgi Djulgerov (of course, he was born in Bourgas!)—Bourgas now rides the skirt of Sofia as a permanent adjunct to the Bulgarian festival scene.
The 8th SIFF (4-14 March 2004) got off to a fast start with a packed house in the National Palace of Culture for the opening night screening of Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi (Japan), all the more attractive since Kitano had been honored with a retrospective tribute the year before. However, this was the first time I have ever viewed a film with three lists of subtitles on the screen: English, Serb, and Bulgarian—a happenstance that occurs only in the southeast due to cooperation among Balkan festival directors and the benefits of beamed subtitles for a large viewing audience. Given that Zatoichi, awarded last year at Venice and Toronto, is an entertaining tale, the story of a blind samurai who cleans up a border town, the extra subtitles didn't much hamper the viewing pleasure.
The next evening, the festival celebrated the grand re-opening of the Dom Na Kinoto (Cinema House) with the guest appearance of German actress Katja Riemann for the gala screening of Margarethe von Trotta's Rosenstraße (2003), for which Riemann had been awarded Best Actress at Venice last year. Previously the venue of the Union of Bulgarian Filmmakers, the Cinema House is now an arthouse programmed by Yanko Terziev, the director of the Bulgarian Film Archive.
The visit for the Rosenstraße screening brought back memories. Back in 1981, the year Bulgaria celebrated the 1300th anniversary of its founding with a series of historical epics, I sat next to Nevena Kokanova, the doyenne of Bulgarian screen (best known for her role as the tragic heroine in Vulo Radev's Kradetsat na praskovi / The Peach Thief, 1964), in the loge now used by the computer crew for the beaming of subtitles. The event back then was the state premiere of Zahari Zhandov's Boyanskiyat maistor (Master of Boyana, 1981), a fictional account of how the renowned frescoes in the small Boyana chapel near Sofia were painted by an unknown artist in 1259. Let it be added that the late Nevena Kokanova was as gracious in person as she was attractive on the screen.
When one considers that nary a feature film was produced in 1999, New Bulgarian Cinema has leapfrogged into the present rather dramatically on the backs of four auteur directors: Iglika Trifonova (Pismo do Amerika / Letter to America, 2000), Kostadin Bonev (Podgryavane na vcherashniya obed / Warming Up Yesterday's Lunch, 2002), Lyudmil Todorov (Emigranti / Emigrants, 2002, co-directed by Ivailo Hristov), Stephan Komandarev (Hlyab nad ogradite / Bread Over the Fence, 2002), each of whom had won recognition abroad with the aforementioned films and are currently at work on new productions linked to international partners.
Stephan Komandarev was present at this year's SIFF with a second impressive documentary on village life in an isolated area: Azbuka na nadejdata (Alphabet of Hope, 2004), a moving account of children traveling up to 140 kilometers a day to reach the last remaining school that services 16 villages in a mountainous region. By an odd coincidence, this region on the borders to Greece and Turkey—previously a "no man's land" in reference to the elongated strip separating those two countries from Bulgaria—is now nationally famous for the "No Man's Land" wine (red and rosé) grown on vineyards planted on the now abandoned strip in a pure natural environment.
Among the dozen new Bulgarian features and shorts seen at the festival (approximately half of the year's production), Ivan Nichev's Patuvane kam Yerusalim (Journey to Jerusalem) a Bulgarian-German coproduction, features some finely sketched cabaret scenes performed by a group of traveling magicians. Following the same general route depicted by the veteran director in his Zvezdi v kossite, salzi v ochite (Stars in Her Hair, Tears in Her Eyes, 1977), a tale about a traveling theatre group at the turn of the century, Patuvane kam Yerusalim chronicles the flight of two orphaned children, German Jews, on their way to Varna in 1940 to catch a boat to Palestine.
This was the route taken by thousands of Jews from Bulgaria and Central Europe to escape the Holocaust just before the borders were closed. Georgi Djulgerov's Hubava si, mila moya (You're So Pretty, My Dear), a documentary about four jailed prostitutes, is another sure bet to reach international festivals. Djulgerov, a teacher at the Sofia Film & Theatre Academy, has a knack of blending fiction with reality—in this case letting the women tell their own stories in a poetic context of make-believe.
Zornitsa Sophia's Mila om Mars (Mila from Mars), programmed in the International Competition and also winning the award for best Bulgarian film at the festival, introduces a talented young director with a background in both cinema and the visual arts. It also introduces a shooting-star acting talent in Vessela Kazakova, whose broad range of expression is allowed to run free in Mila ot Mars. Kazakova plays a mixed-up teenager who runs away from a criminal relationship to hide among oldtimers in an isolated village on the border—the same "no man's land" visited by Stephan Komandarev for his documentary Azbuka na nadejdata.
Svetla Tsotsorkova, who studied filmmaking in London and Sofia, is another directorial talent to watch. Zhivot s Sofiya (Life with Sophia), her diploma film at the Sofia Film & Theatre Academy, stars two of Bulgaria's best known actors, Svetlana Yancheva and Ivailo Hristov (the co-director with Lyudmil Todorov of the award-winning Emigranti), in a 20-minute short about a village wife waiting in vain for the return of her husband from work abroad. Her kindly neighbor, forced to observe her descent into insanity with feelings of longing and compassion, makes fumbling attempts to see things as they really are. Praising the film's "feminine sensibility," an international jury selected Zhivot s Sofiya for the Jameson Short Film Award.
Altogether, 130 features, documentaries, and short films from 40 countries were programmed at the 8th SIFF. Broken down into catch-all sections—Main Program, Galas & Avant-Premieres, European Screen, Irish Film Season & Neil Jordan Tribute, Bulgarian Features & Shorts, Balkan Showcase, World Screen, Documentaries and Short Films, Wong Kar-Wai Retrospective, and a Tribute to Rangel Vulchanov (the "living legend of Bulgarian cinema")—the selection pretty much mirrored the tastes of today's committed cineastes.
Last, but not least, Stefan Kitanov launched the first Sofia Film Meeting (SFM). Modeled after similar programs at festivals in Rotterdam, Mannheim, and Tallinn, the aims of the SFM are "to meet European filmmakers and to help them to establish contacts for future films." Since a part of the SFM program is "Pitching for Second Feature Films," invitations were extended to directors who had already participated at Sofia over the past three years with a first feature film.
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