A tempest of far greater proportions than a teacup has been brewing in Bulgaria in recent months thanks to “Uncle Tony, Three Fools and the Secret Service.” Produced and directed by Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova, the documentary is a sympathetic portrait of late animator Antony Trayanov, who, according to “Uncle Tony,” was shafted by colleague Donio Donev so that Donev could take credit for the country’s best-loved animated films. The film also baldly states (with plausible corroboration): Donev was Secret Service. The brouhaha that’s ensued is overshadowing this strong though imperfect film, deserving of fest play even without such controversy.
At home the docu played in the capital from November 2013 until early July of this year – unquestionably a record. While co-produced by Bulgarian National TV, it’s been harshly criticized by the Bulgarian National Film Centre and the Union of Bulgarian Filmmakers, which have claimed that the directors falsified statements. In addition, Donev’s family is claiming the right to ban the film for defamation, and for the use of clips they say are their intellectual property.
Unremarkably, it seems fairly clear that people screaming over the film’s supposed calumny come from generations whose careers, like those of Trayanov and Donev, were formed during Soviet times. Given the nation’s unwillingness to explore the deeply disturbing amount of collaboration that existed — and still exists — between entrenched apparatchiks and their web of informers, the only surprise here is the number of younger members of the film community saying they’ll no longer play the game. If ever a nation needed a kick in the pants to examine how members of the Soviet-era elite continue to exert an unconscionable amount of control, it’s Bulgaria.
But what about the documentary itself? The story it tells is straightforward until the last quarter, when the helmers lose a necessary clarity in the timeline and throw in sequences best described as filler. Mileva attended animation classes with Trayanov in the early ’90s, when he was already sidelined by filmmaking bodies. An immensely popular teacher, Trayanov was known as assistant to Donev, the country’s leading animator, who accumulated shelves full of international awards before his death in 2007. In “Uncle Tony,” Mileva and Kazakova trace the story of both men, interviewing colleagues who seemed perfectly aware that Trayanov was the real creative talent behind the films.
Not that Donev was unskilled: All agree he was a terrific caricaturist, but it was Trayanov’s animation that brought the characters to life with a marvelously kinetic style in which movement burst in rhythmic glissandos. Deeply influenced by art history and the diversity of films he saw during his studies in Belgrade, Trayanov worked with Donev at Bulgaria’s animation studio, and the two created a hit together in 1970 with “The Three Fools,” which was followed by a series of spinoffs. Donev, however, had connections at the top, and took creative credit for their collaborations. By the late ‘70s, after a string of successes, Trayanov wanted equal billing and found himself fired. For three years he worked in construction, then found a job working in children’s TV animation (the docu is far too hazy about this period); as a teacher, he was shifted about and then sacked.
“Uncle Tony” benefits enormously from Trayanov’s warm, energetic presence (he died shortly after shooting); whether he truly lacked bitterness, as seems to be the case from the docu, may be questionable. It might have saved the helmers a lot of grief had they shown (or been able to show) Donev’s confidential dossier, revealed in 2003 and apparently laying bare his lengthy career as an informer for the Secret Service. Still, there’s just enough corroborating testimony here, along with one of his reports, to banish doubt from most audiences’ minds. As an added bonus, there’s Dimitar Tomov, chair of the animation department at the National Academy for Theater and Film Arts, tripping over himself in Kafkaesque prevarication when he tries to deny that Trayanov ever gave classes at the Academy.
Black-and-white re-creations of Trayanov’s teenage years are superfluous, and this screen time would have been better spent covering his later career. Tantalizing glimpses of thousands of his drawings, and delightful clips from his films, should help to make his work better known abroad after its initial positive reception, and the docu makes good use of the wealth of material. Music, too, is cleverly used, conforming to the style one would expect from the era while also adding an emotional undertow. “Uncle Tony, Three Fools and the Secret Service” is one of those rare gadflies whose sting is causing a massive allergic reaction on the thin skin of Bulgaria’s filmmaking elite, and it’s to be hoped, once the irritation subsides, that fresher blood may prove less corruptible.