Sofia parties down

New pioneering spirit slowly emerging at event

LONDON This year’s Sofia Film Festival showed that while Bulgarian cinema is still struggling to please auds with more accessible fare, festgoers are finding the lively bars and restaurants of the city quite accessible. And if the unusually high number of Bulgarian films screening at the 10th edition of the festival was anything to go by, a new pioneering spirit is slowly emerging.

It’s far too early to talk about a new Bulgarian wave — there were three local pics, for example, that all ended on what seemed like the same cliff overlooking the Black Sea with the film’s protagonist staring into the waves. But then again, depression as a lifestyle seems understandable when you live in a crumbling ex-Soviet housing project and make $200 a month.

Yet, there’s also something to be said for the bittersweet Balkan melancholy that characterizes most Bulgarian films. As the animated short “Black on White” by Andrei Tzvetkov proves, black humor about the harshness of life is not only incredibly charming, it can also be a unique selling point.

“The problem with Bulgarian filmmakers is that they don’t make films for an audience. The same goes for the Romanians,” says a seasoned indie producer. “The only countries in Central Europe that actually have a tradition of pleasing an audience are the Czechs and the Serbs.”However, due to the influx of foreign producers into Central Europe, local filmmakers are getting newly inspired. While Prague, Romania and Hungary are now attractive destinations for producers, Bulgaria (where production costs are on average 30-40% lower than in the West) has become the stronghold of Avi Lerner’s Nu Image/Millenium.

Nu Image’s recent purchase of the former state-run studios Boyana in Sofia caused an outcry among the old guard of Bulgarian filmmakers. But Nu Image Bulgaria topper David Varod says the company will support Bulgarian filmmakers, particularly the young generation, which is learning the ropes of commercial filmmaking by working on Nu Image productions. “Culture is only worth something if people go to see it,” he argues.

A similar effort to commercialize the film industry has already worked in Romania, where young people who trained on foreign productions are now moving into directing. Romanian production outfit and service provider ProMedia is producing a Romanian-language “West Side Story”-type musical titled “Love Song,” with a contempo version of Balkan gypsy tunes instead of Gershwin. It’s helmed by Theodor Halacu Nicon, who trained as a first assistant director on ProMedia’s foreign productions.

Gypsy bands are to Bulgaria and Romania what the Buena Vista Social Club is to Cuba. They’re proof that something unique and deeply emotional is hiding under the post-Communist debris. Now if only the Bulgarian film industry could get into the Balkan swing.