This is the second of a loose trilogy of Bulgarian films about social issues in one of the newer member countries of the EU by the team of Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. I reviewed the couple’s earlier film The Lesson (2014) here. The second film follows the first in looking for ideas in local newspaper stories which are then used as a stimulus for developing more complex dramas. The first film seemed to me a social realist drama which used some familiar genre tropes at certain moments. I thought this second film was slightly different in bringing together two central characters whose stories mesh in interesting ways and which was mostly coherent in engaging with genre ideas. I’d need to go back to the first film to check, but it might be that the camerawork by Krum Rodriguez is this time ‘looser’ with hand-held shallow focus in the modern style rather than the ‘documentary observation’ of The Lesson. Some of the same crew and the two principal actors reappear from the first film.
The punning title needs translating to reveal its significance. It refers to both the recognition of a ‘hero’ in the tradition of the worker-heroes of the era under communism and to the object which is used to represent that recognition – a traditional Russian wristwatch with the brand-name ‘Slava’ or ‘Glory’. The worker in this case is Tzanko Petrov, a ‘linesman’ on the railway who checks the track and in particular the rails and their attachment to the sleepers. One day he discovers a pile of banknotes lying on the track. He quickly decides to alert the police. This action is brought to the attention of the ministry of transport and in particular the energetic and relentless Julia Staykova, the head of public relations. She immediately begins a media campaign which will see Tzanko summoned to Sofia where the minister will present him with a new watch. But Tzanko is not ideal PR material. He is a loner with a speech impediment. Julia herself is also distracted by her own personal issues and in particular her current infertility treatment. Added to this is the context of corruption in the operation of the railways – the reason why celebrating Tzanko’s public-spirited action is so important for good PR.
Out of this promising mixture of narrative threads Grozeva and Valchanov have created a black comedy which works on many levels, shifting from moments of near farce (more trousers being dropped for non-sexual reasons than I’ve seen for a long time) to sometimes quite sad and sometimes quite brutal episodes. There is an open ending, but one with little hope that all will end well.
Julia Staykova is played by Margita Gosheva, the teacher from The Lesson and again she gives an excellent performance as the driven Julia. Stefan Denolyubov, the moneylender in The Lesson unrecognisable behind long hair and a wild beard, plays Tzanko. His is an equally good performance in a role which, like Gosheva’s, requires a wide range of skills. In the Press Book on the New Wave Film website, the directors suggest that they first thought of the PR boss as a man. I was surprised because in the UK I tend to assume PR people are very often women. I think they made the right decision in the end.
The EU does play a role in the narrative, if only because the corruption on the railways might cause problems for future EU support which is being discussed in the background as the events unfold. Otherwise the main social issue in the film is perhaps the extent to which traditional (or perhaps ‘pre-1990’) Bulgarian society is coping with global modernity, whether it is mobile phones being answered in the fertility clinic in the midst of consultations with a doctor or the frantic attempts of a TV crew to present the best image of the railways in an online news report. Tzanko is a little behind these changes as a rural worker, though possibly only because he still has a human touch. Crucially it is the loss of his Russian watch with the engraving on the back representing his father’s love that he really cares about.
There were just a couple of puzzling moments in the film. At one point a prostitute appears and I wasn’t sure why. And the infertility treatment baffled me as I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. Otherwise I was engaged throughout. I watched the film in a new cinema, part of a multi-purpose arts centre. The disadvantage I discovered was that the removable seating (to convert the venue for theatre and music events) creaked and groaned as people came in late and I lost concentration during the opening scenes. I’m increasingly concerned by the new kinds of auditoria that are being opened – I haven’t yet ventured into an Everyman or an Odeon de Luxe with squidgy sofas and tables. Oh, how I pine for the artplex in Nimes with a comfortable seat, complete darkness and no distractions! Still I was grateful to see Glory in one of the handful of venues to risk a subtitled film in the ‘Awards’ season. Don’t miss it if it comes your way – this director couple have real talent.
The Lesson is another gem of of European Cinema that seems to have slipped by without too much fanfare. Well done New Wave Films for getting the film into UK theatrical distribution. It’s one of the most accomplished first features I’ve seen and notable as a directing job undertaken by a couple, Peter Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva. He is more inclined to editing and she to scriptwriting. They both directed and were together on set – but so was their 3 year-old daughter, so they needed good communication with their crew. They were fortunate to get funding from Greece and also extra funding to finish the film for an international release from the German TV station ZDF. Even so, the film had to be made over several weeks/months as funding became available. They had a professional actor, Margita Gosheva, in the lead role of Nadezhda, but many parts were played by non-actors (often relatives or colleagues). Margita Gosheva’s husband Ivan Barnev, also an actor, plays Nade’s husband.
The story is ‘torn from the headlines’ – a technique pioneered by Hollywood studios, especially Warner Bros in the 1930s. This headline referred to the desperate and surprising actions of a teacher. In The Lesson, Nade, a high school English teacher and part-time translator is faced with the kind of dilemma (finding money quickly to avoid losing the family home) that might make her consider any kind of action – and she does things that severely question her own code of ethical conduct. At the same time she is faced with a thief in her class and how to deal with the situation. The filmmakers say that the film is the first in a potential trilogy – the next will feature a railway worker who finds a large sum of money on the railway track.
The style and approach
The film is primarily a realist drama but it also includes elements of comedy (the comedy of embarrassment?) and eventually turns into a thriller narrative. The filmmakers believe that by adding these ‘popular genre’ elements they are able to make the film more, rather than less, realistic:
. . . this is very important point to us as directors and the stories that we want to tell. We want to tell dramatic stories, but with a bitter smile. For example, our previous short film, was more of a comedy with elements of drama and now it’s the opposite. It’s very important to mix these genres because for us this mix of humour and drama makes the story closer to real life.
Some reviewers have compared the style and approach to that of Ken Loach or the Dardenne Brothers. Like these filmmakers, Valchanov and Grozeva have used experience of making documentaries in their approach to making a fiction feature and they discuss using documentary methods in shooting the classroom scenes. This is also evident in the use of long shots and long takes – especially in the sequence when the rushing Nade discovers her car has run out of fuel and she takes a shortcut to catch a bus.
Loach perhaps uses more melodrama in his films – The Lesson eschews one element of melodrama by dispensing with a music soundtrack. Everything depends then on the sound design which is very good. The Dardenne Brothers do change their approach sometimes to suit the nature of the story (e.g. adding comedy or thriller elements). What is common to all three is the creation of strong characters who find themselves at the centre of events they struggle to control. Nade is in many ways like Sandra, the central character played by Marion Cotillard in the Dardenne Brothers film Two Days, One Night (2014).
The film depends on Margita Gosheva’s performance – the camera is always with her and we are forced to experience her distress while trying to get beneath her veneer of control. It’s a remarkable performance, aided, I think by mise en scène and framing. Nade’s mother has died a few years earlier and she was clearly a beautiful woman. A large portrait of her mother on the wall is often in shot, almost as if she is looking over what her daughter is up to. (Nade in turn has a small daughter who also plays a role in the set of ethical dilemmas Nade faces.
It’s probably useful to know that the currency in Bulgaria is the ‘lev’, which is worth around 40p, so a 10 lev note is around £4 and at one point the hero’s whole future seems to depend on a missing 60-70p.
It’s difficult being a filmmaker in Bulgaria where around ten films are made each year and cinema attendance is only 0.7 visits per head of population. The only source of funds is the Ministry of Culture and there is still the suggestion of networks of the ‘privileged’ that existed before 1989. The film comments on both the economic crisis of 2008 and its aftermath and the possibility of corruption in a small town where those networks from the past may be re-appearing. The Lesson is a co-production with Greece and this seems a good strategy. Following the excellent Thirst (2015) at the London Film Festival last October, also by a female director, it looks like something worthwhile is happening against the odds in Bulgaria. I notice now that Ivan Barnev is in both films and that he played the lead role in Jiri Menzel’s I Served the King of England (Czech Republic/Slovakia 2006).
The quotes are taken from interviews and the Pressbook, obtainable via the New Wave Films website: www.newwavefilms.co.uk
(Caution: There is a slight spoiler towards the end of the trailer)
Thirst opens with a long shot of a road snaking its way up a hill towards the camera position. The credits appear to the left of the ‘Scope frame and in the distance a figure is running up the road towards us. I was immediately struck by resemblances to other films such as Zvyagintsev’s The Banishment or Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak which start in similar ways.
The running figure is a teenage boy who it later turns out has to run 4,000 steps each day to prevent the heart attacks suffered by his father who monitors the lad’s progress from his position up a tree (where he sneaks a crafty fag). When the boy stops he spots a young woman and an old man by the side of their truck. The fifth principal character is the boy’s mother who has moved into her father’s old house at the top of another hill. She earns the family’s money by washing the bed linen from hotels (presumably in the valley below). Each day a driver delivers soiled sheets and collects the washed and ironed replacements. The only problem is that there is a drought and each day the water supply is disrupted, making the washing business increasingly difficult to manage. But the girl and the old man are a water drilling outfit. She divines where the water is and he organises the drilling. Problem solved – or is it?
There is certainly a strong indication that this is an ‘elemental story’ with possible ecology issues as well as metaphorical meanings. Asked about ecological questions, the debutant director Svetla Tsotsorkova replied that she hadn’t thought too much about them. The story was actually inspired by her own family memories – her grandmother had washed sheets for hotels. Another question in the post-screening discussion was: “How does this film relate to Bulgarian cinema more generally?” Tsotsorkova replied that perhaps it did resemble films made in Bulgaria during the 1960s and into the 1980s. It has a timeless feel with little dialogue and unnamed characters. The two younger characters are played by non-actors and the older characters by veterans of Bulgarian cinema. Working with a much older male screenwriter, Tsotsorkova gradually refined the script and the film as screened runs 90 minutes.
The family on the hill has a settled but restricted life before the arrival of the father-daughter water drillers. They have different ‘thirsts’ for all kinds of things besides water to wash the sheets and their ‘Eden’ is eventually destroyed when they seek to quench those thirsts. The girl in particular is a fascinating character and her back story works well with an excellent performance to suggest an ancient story of disruption of the family unit. The LFF audience clearly enjoyed the film which works wonderfully as an aesthetic experience as well as a gripping tale. It’s a remarkable début film that will stay with me for a long time. Reading various interviews with the director after the screening I was intrigued to see that she name-checked Andrea Arnold as a filmmaker she admires and thinking about the connection I can see that though the films are very different, Arnold’s work on something like Wuthering Heights does share the same sense of people and places.
I hope this gets UK distribution. Properly handled there will be an audience for a film of this quality and I’d like to watch it again.
It’s the second year of the New European Features competition at Bradford and just like last year there is a Bulgarian entry. The two films are remarkably similar in institutional terms if not in plot and narrative. Avé last year had a director with some US background/training, a young woman with some international experience and a story concerning a journey and decisions about where she wanted to be in the future. All those three elements are also present in Faith, Love and Whiskey. The director is Kristina Nikolova and this is her first feature – although she has been working as a cinematographer for ten years. Her co-writer and editor is Paul Dalio. They met on a course at New York University Film School (there are several stellar names on the film’s “thanks to” list).
In the interview below, posted on YouTube, Kristina Nikolova tells us that the film is partly autobiographical and its title refers to a Bulgarian saying in which ‘Faith, Love and Hope’ is altered to replace ‘Hope’ with ‘Whiskey’. The film marries two strong ideas. One is universal – a romance about a young woman who must choose between security and passion. The director tells us that she thinks the film is more ‘mainstream’ than it is a ‘festival film’. I think that she is right but the specific Bulgarian flavour makes it special. She tells us that many young people leave Bulgaria looking for a better future but that they return each summer to spend a few weeks drinking like crazy and enjoying meeting old friends. I’ve forgotten the reference but I also read a review of the film that quoted an Economist article claiming that Bulgaria was the ‘unhappiest country’ in the world when income levels and happiness indices were correlated. I also found this entertaining article which suggests that the Bulgarian problem is a combination of poverty (comparing income to other EU countries) and a native ‘superstition and fatalism’. It’s easier to be miserable and to avoid problems by going out and getting smashed. Looked at this way, the film’s narrative makes a lot of sense.
Eli (Ana Stojanovska) is a vivacious and attractive young woman who has a relationship in New York, but who has come back to Sofia to see old friends. She meets them in a bar and goes clubbing and soon finds herself back with the wild and romantic Val with whom she takes a trip into the beautiful countryside. Back in Sofia, however, her American fiancée has arrived and is looking for her. On a basic plot level it’s all very straightforward. The romance is well presented. It’s sunny and hot, there are cool streams for bathing and the booze flows freely. The film was shot on Super 16 with saturated colours and it looks great. I also liked the music, much of it guitar music reminiscent of deranged surf guitar or the work of Link Wray. Val (Yavor Baharov) is a charismatic romantic lead on the edge of oblivion and John Keabler is the stuffy but wealthy American. The local culture is represented in several ways that recall Avé. Eli has lost her parents (there is an interesting reference to her mother) and the one person she really cares about is her grandmother who brought her up. Bulgaria seems to be a society of the aged waiting for the return of the young – there doesn’t seem to be a generation between.
One of the best scenes in the film, which seems to sum up the whole narrative, doesn’t involve Eli. She has gone out and left both John and Val with her grandmother. Val is forced to translate for the old woman and the American. We feel for Val who must tell John, in English, how delighted the grandmother is that Eli has found her rich American. The subtitles tell us that Val is translating correctly, avoiding the opportunity to damage his rival. Then at one point he forgets which language he is using and has to stop to correct himself. It’s a brilliant piece of cinema with so many issues about identity compressed into facial expressions and a slip of the tongue.
This is another shortish feature running just 75 minutes and therefore difficult to place into distribution. I think I read that the film was likely to get distribution in Bulgaria but I think it is unlikely in the UK. I decided on reflection (and thinking about the migration issues) that I liked the film a lot. The plot is simple, the theme is important and the execution is very good.
Interview with the filmmakers at Slamdance, February 2012: