Tadjik Baimurat Allaberiyev (37) sings Jimmy Adja

May 3, 2010 at 11:09 pm

The song is from the popular Indian film Disco Dancer (1983), a response of sorts to Saturday Night Fever; the original clip from the film can also be seen on YouTube. A Tadjik citizen of Uzbek origin, Baimurat is a guest worker in Russia, where, in 2008, he became a local viral sensation that has been compared to the Susan Boyle phenomenon in the UK. Born near the Afghan border and having worked as a cotton picker, he now works in a storeroom in a shopping centre in Kolomna, central Russia. His overnight celebrity status secured coverage in The New York Times and other high profile media around the world; he also had the opportunity to state his opinions on the enormous popularity of Indian cinema in the former USSR.

Why is this clip of particular interest to me? Because
– first, it shows a cinema viewer from a remote country; we know very little of the film viewing habits of the audience in Tadjikistan.
– second, the subject is a migrant worker who lives in diaspora. We thus learn what film material has been available for him to view. I would speculate he may have seen the 1983 Indian film in a cinema and perhaps, later on, on a DVD. He says he learned the song from listening repeatedly to a cassette.
– third, it points at the fact that his popular culture preferences are not as commonly believed and in this case reveal that a Bollywood product is definitely more popular than, say, a Hollywood blockbuster.
Thus, it is yet one more example that feeds into my interest toward Cinema at the Periphery. In Korea, there is even a dedicated Migrant Worker Film Festival, which caters to this type of Gastarbeiter audiences.*

© Dina Iordanova
4 May 2010

*Hwang, Yun Mi, ‘Under the Migrant Lens: Migrant Worker Film Festival in South Korea,’ In:Film Festival Yearbook 2: Film Festivals and Imagined Communities >, 2010.

New Book Announcement: Moving People, Moving Images

March 12, 2010 at 4:50 am

Co-written with my colleagues William Brown and Leshu Torchin, Moving People, Moving Images: Cinema and Trafficking in the New Europe is the first title in our new series on Cinema and Transnational Discourse (St Andrews Film Studies, 2010). The next title planned for the series will look into the wide range of cinematic representations of international terrorism in cinema.

We hope to find a wide exposure for this volume, far beyond the narrow film studies field (it is no accident that this was also the best-selling title of all the books we introduced at the recent multiple book launch event at the BFI Filmstore on Southbank in London). It is a volume on the representation of human trafficking in international cinema, and even though it is a ‘film studies’ work, we believe it is really of interest to much wider circles as these are matters of immediate concern to social workers, migration specialists and activists. The book discusses a range of films, both feature and documentary, reflecting the situation with human trafficking in a great variety of countries — from Turkey to Sweden, from Sri Lanka to Greece, from Serbia to Italy, from North Africa to Spain, and so on.

ISBN (13): 978-1-9066-7803-6 (paperback)
180pp.
Price £17.99 (UK), $29.00 (US)
Available for purchase by clicking through to St. Andrews Film Studies bookshop

The volume is divided in three parts, which include respectively general essays; close analysis of fifteen important international films on trafficking; commentary on the political aspects of the usage of these films in the context of activism.

Here is a more detailed Table of Contents

PART ONE. Landscapes
William Brown – Negotiating the Invisible
Leshu Torchin – Foreign Exchange
Dina Iordanova – Making Traffic Visible, Adjusting the Narrative

PART TWO: Close-Ups

In-depth analyses of The Bus (Turkey/Sweden, Tunc Okan), The Guardian Angel (Yugoslavia, Goran Paskaljevic), When Mother Comes Home for Christmas(Greece/India/Germany, Nilita Vachani), Wesh wesh, qu’est-ce qui se passe? (France, rabah Ameur-Zaimeche), Poniente (Spain, Chus Gutierrez), Spare Parts (Slovenia, Damjan Kozole), Promised Land (Israel/France, Amos Gitai), Ghosts (UK, Nick Broomfield), It’s a Free World… (UK, Ken Loach), Import/Export (Austria, Ulrich Seidl), Love on Delivery and Ticket to Paradise (Denmark), The Silence of Lorna (Belgium, Dardenne Brothers) and Taken (France, Pierre Morel).

Part THREE: Traffic Jam
Film, Activism, and Human Trafficking

Excerpts of reviews:

Moving People, Moving Images tackles human trafficking, one of the most serious consequences of the massive movement of people enabled by post-Wall processes of economic and cultural globalization in Europe. While immigration, migration, exile, and the illegal movement of people have been the subject of much work in film and media studies recently, few volumes would take such a bold stand in favour of the possibility of filmic activism. One of the attractions of this book is precisely that it refuses to tread lightly and tentatively across the well-established divide between cinematic representations and socio-political issues. It makes a provocative argument for the political effect of films and proposes that human trafficking should not be the rightful, let alone the exclusive, domain of governments, NGOs, activist organizations and the social sciences.
— Aniko Imre, University of Southern California

Moving People, Moving Images is a groundbreaking and much-needed study of the intersections between film and human trafficking. Through a sophisticated and versatile approach, and against the backdrop of theories of economic globalisation, transnationalism, post-colonialism, identity and modernity, it offers a theorisation of human trafficking that engages with a range of published work on social and critical theory as well as on film studies…. This volume is both a complete and valuable teaching tool, and a precious resource for future research, and sets the agenda for more work in this all-important area.
— Laura Rascaroli, University College Cork, Ireland

Available for purchase by clicking through to St. Andrews Film Studies bookshop

Gorbachev ad for Louis Vuitton, 2007/2008: Why am I Obsessed with this Photograph?

May 2, 2009 at 12:18 am

The first time I came across this advert about two years ago, it was displayed on a full page of broadsheet South China Morning Post (I was visiting Hong Kong*), but I have since seen it in Financial Times and in a variety of glossy lifestyle magazines like Monocle. Back then, I thought for a second, how interesting it is that now older men are being used for advertising. My second thought was that this man looks somewhat like Gorbachev. It was only in the third instance that I realized it not only looked like him, it WAS him! I must admit, it came as a shocking realisation to me. But why? Hasn’t Gorbachev become by now just another one in the line of celebrities like Sean Connery, Catherine Deneuve, Keith Richards, Steffi Graf, and Frances and Sophia Coppola, who posed to Annie Leibovitz for the other adverts in this successful promotional series?

The photo is clearly created for a certain context, but the act of someone like me seeing it opens up a host of other memory frameworks. Why am I still obsessed with this photograph? Maybe because it shows him in a car that is taking him somewhere, away from the Berlin wall seen in the background**. The man is checking out, he is leaving, and thus denying us his assured paternalistic presence. We, the losers, are left alone whatever follows.

Gorbachev announced the end of the Soviet Union and checked out. Communism collapsed. Many people across the Eastern Bloc were ill prepared for the knock-off effect on work and domestic routines that followed. Those who had nurtured an idealized image of western prosperity were startled by the increasing economic disparities within their once egalitarian universes. Confronted with the collapse of ideology and memory frameworks, many were plunged into an identity crisis.

I am clearly not the only one who is obsessed with this photograph. I discover a similarly-titled blog entry, Pourquoi suis-je obsédé par cette photo ?, on the site of a Canadian Francophone writer called Patric Lagace, who evidently saw the photo on the back of his copy of The New Yorker. Remarking that he can barely imagine a more bourgeouis-looking image than the one of the former communist leader turned luxtury promoter, Lagace writes:

Or, voilà, je suis obsédé par cette photo du nouveau « visage » de LV, j’ai nommé l’ancien (le dernier, en fait) secrétaire général du Parti communiste soviétique, Mikhaël Gorbatchev. Je veux bien que Gorby fut l’homme de la perestroïka, l’homme qui a amorcé un virage, mais ça reste l’homme qui représenta, jadis, le monde communiste. Bref, je n’ai de cesse d’étudier cette photo, qui est à l’arrière de mon magazine New Yorker de la semaine. Donc, il y a ça. L’association Gorby-luxe. Mais il y a que la photo est prise devant le Mur de Berlin. Il y a un je-ne-sais-quoi de troublant. C’est peut-être le sac plein. C’est peut-être la légende sous la photo, vaporeuse comme toutes les phrases de campagne de marque. C’est peut-être que ça symbolise une époque formidable de la grande aventure humaine, cette époque dans laquelle on vit. Je veux dire, un ancien chef communiste qui nous vend de la gogosse de luxe, moins de 20 ans après la chute de l’URSS. Vous m’auriez dit ça en 1986, j’aurais ri de vous (enfin, pas moi, j’avais 14 ans, mais vous comprenez ce que je veux dire). Bref, un ex-kamarade qui devient on ne peut plus bourgeois. Je ne serais pas surpris que, de mon vivant, un pape lâche le Vatican pour devenir producteur de télé-réalité…

Lagace’s post has generated eighty three reactions in the comments***. I admit I had no idea that, as one of the commentators remarked, this was not the first array of Gorbachev into advertising. In fact, it transpired, the man had already done a Pizza Hut ad in Moscow, featuring a group of Russians who ave gathered for lunch at the Pizza Hut restaurant near the Red Square and concede that Gorbachev is the man who brought them freedom, so that they can eat this pizza to the end, and shout ‘Long Live Gorbachev!”. Here it is:

The Gorbachev ad run in a number of male luxury lifestyle magazines. My copy of the Monocle from February 2008 displays it with an inscription below the picture, which reads: ‘A journey brings us face to face with ourselves. Berlin Wall. Returning from a conference’. Futher below it says: Mikhail Gorbachev and Louis Vuitton are proud to support Green Cross International (an environmental charity started by Gorbachev). It is a fine, understated advert, which has probably brought some proceeds to the Green Cross, and which is no flashier than the set of Marc Jacobs-designed set of Louis Vuitton trunks (pictured) that were dragged across India by Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody and Luke Wilson in Wes Anderson’s recent Darjeeling Limited.

© Dina Iordanova
2 May 2009

*It happened in October 2007, in Hong Kong, in the afternoon. I was at the at Holliday Inn on Nathan Road, in the very center of materialism, a place surrounded by innumerable shops selling everything imaginable, from Tahitian pearls to h-tech electronics. The buffet at the Viennese Cafe is one of the best deals in town, with mountains of raw oysters, a delicacy of an acquired taste for the local Chinese who mount piles of them on their plates and keep coming for more as soon as more emerge from the kitchen.

** Media reactions to the ad mostly focused on the fact that the magazine that shows from the half-opened bag, alongside the pale-salmon shade of FT, features an article on Litvinenko’s murder. NYT called it a ‘visual joke’.

*** Some of the commentators refer to other situations, like an imaginary Jello ad which plays on the images of an exchange between Dalai Lama and the Pope and somebody else wonders what are Gorbachev’s real motives to do such a shoot, probably not money — precisely like one wondered back then what were his real motives undermining the communist system. Like it is typical for comment press, all sorts of comments and agendas come to the surface here — touching on issues of spirituality, capitalism, aesthetic, commercialism and so on, but there is no unique voice to dominate the discourse. Someone remarks that the ‘sfumato’ quality of the image is the reason for triggering a specific unacknowledged nostalgia. Someone who has even copyrighted his comment speaks of Mephistophelian quality of the photo? The post is made on Le Vendredi 21 Septembre 2007, 7h44 in reference to the NYT article Gorbachev Made Me Buy it. on July 26, 2007, pre-announcing it.

Talk at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio

April 28, 2009 at 12:34 am

As a lover of modern architecture, the dosage of exposure to wonderfully landscaped and designed modern spaces was a feature that defined my recent visit to Columbus, Ohio, as a really enjoyable trip. Led by a stereotypically dismissive pre-set attitude to the Midwest, I had not set my expectations very high, so I was in for a nice surprise. The hotel on the edge of campus, Blackwell Inn, was completely emancipated from the American kitsch that you would normally see at any other hotel in mid-America. The geometry of the pathways and landscaped grass rectangles that I was seeing through my room window was incredibly stylish, and so were the shapes of the new dark brick buildings that framed it. Most of all, I was truly thrilled to realise that the talk which I had come to give, was to take place in the main auditorium of the Wexner Centre for the Arts (pictured), an award-winning modern design achievement by architect and philosopher Peter Eisenman, the man who created the unevenly-leveled blocks of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. It was a great experience in architectural discovery, as I did not know what to expect, so I was truly pleasantly surprised. It reminded me to an experience more than a decade ago when a visit for a talk to Minneapolis took me to the modern art museum there, on the Mississippi river, and provided my first encounter with the architectural style of Frank Gehry. This was at a time when Gehry was not as widely known as he is today, even before the unveiling of his museum in Bilbao (and many other structures that he did later on). It was some sort of design revelation for me. Same with the Wexner.

I had spent the previous day at the Easton open air mall, engaged in the ultimate American experience — shopping. At the large Barnes and Noble store here, I came across a nicely priced and richly illustrated book entitled Masterpieces of Modern Architecture (Wonders of the World). It would have made for a good gift for my son, who is quite interested in these matters (and who has been to many of the places pictured in the book). Still, I was wondering if I could carry such a bulky and heavy item across continents. While pondering over this, I kept browsing through the pictures in the book, mostly showing buildings in Asia, the Arab world, and Europe. America did not seem to feature very prominently. Yet, as I flipped through the pages toward the end, the book opened somehow ‘spontaneously’ on a spread that revealed a panoramic picture of — guess what — the Wexner Center! Looking at the table of contents, I realized that this photograph of the Wexner was one of a total of only five examples that the authors of the book had considered worthy of inclusion here from across North America. Quite a prominent sign! And I was looking at this photograph while standing here, on the ground in Columbus. Of course, it was a clear sight what I should do. I bought the volume; it is now in my home in Scotland, prominently placed alongside the other nicely illustrated albums in George’s collection.

This second photograph shows the interior of the museum, where the reception after the talk took place. To the left is the entrance to the large room which is used for talks and screenings (that night they also screened Andrzej Wajda’s deeply personal Katyn). My talk was entitled ‘History for Losers: Cultural Historiography and Popular Culture in the ‘New’ Europe’. It was given as an opening keynote for the Slavic conference that the Centre for Slavic and East European Studies here organised. Unfortunately, I could not stay on for the conference that was to follow, as I was headed back already the next sunny morning, after a nice walk around the campus. The flight to Newark was great, as the cloudless sky allowed for incredibly clear views over the Great Lakes and then, descending into New Jersey, toward the Manhattan skyline as well as the Statue of Liberty (which one cannot see as easily, normally). In spite the suppressed irritation I was harboring on entry to the US, after having had to fill out scores of forms that no one seemed to have checked as they were asking me all over again for the same details, in addition to taking my fingerprints, I was leaving in a good mood. And yes, to be honest, passing the US immigration took less than ten minutes now (in comparison, two-three years ago it was more like an hour).

Dina Iordanova
28 April 2009

Post-Communist Visual Culture and Cinema, PG conference at St. Andrews, March 2009

March 30, 2009 at 11:35 pm

When we begun planning for this AHRC-sponsored conference with the main organiser, Lars Kristensen, we never expected that the call for papers will meet with such a wide ranging response from among the postgraduate community. We had thought that there would be about twenty or so PhD students who would be interested in attending, but it was more like sixty who sent in abstracts; there were many more who got in touch via the Facebook group and who will now be members of the network that was launched as part of the event. Well done!

Academics involved in the event posed for this picture (except the keynote speaker, Prof. Andrew Wachtel of Northwestern University, who was present only for the opening night). From left to right here one can see John Cunningham (Sheffield Hallam), Ib Bondebjerg (Copenhagen), Ewa Mazierska (Central Lancashire), Brian McNair (Strathclyde), John Orr (Edinburgh), Dina Iordanova (St. Andrews), Fiona Bjorling (Lund), and Lars Kristensen (St. Andrews).

Students had traveled from as far as Latvia, Estonia, Albania, and the USA, as well as from many other countries, to present at the conference. At the end of the beautiful sunny spring day, which they all opted to voluntarily spend in seminar rooms listening to presentations rather than taking a walk on the breezy seaside, the participants posed for this picture. The programme of talks given during the day can be found at this link.

It was encouraging to realise that there is such a wide variety of people working on matters related to the cinema and the visual culture of post-communism. Presentation I attended covered themes from Baltic film industry to Croatian heraldry and Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals in former Yugoslavia, from cinematic representations of Russian migrant women in Turkish cinema to post-communist Czech comedies and Prague as a cinematic global city. Hopefully, we will see more published writing on these matters soon.

© Dina Iordanova
28 March 2009

The Closing of Pyongyang International Film Festival, September 2008

March 26, 2009 at 12:34 am

I came across this interesting item on You Tube, featuring the closing ceremony of Pyongyang’s IFF last September (see also Jamie Bell’s piece on the history of this festival, in a recent issue of Sight and Sound). The festival has been in existence since 1987 and clearly is one of the festivals that has got an idiosyncratic and interesting agenda.

I also re-post here the report that comes along on You Tube, which tells us of the films that won awards — mainly Chinese and Iranian titles (a film by Xiaogang Feng and by Rakhshan Bani Etemad), but also The Counterfeiters (Austria) and Elizabeth I-The Golden Age (UK) and Atonement (UK), as well as Czech Empties. The first two films also won awards at the Oscars and at the BAFTAs, while Jan Sverak’s film got the audience award at Karlovy Vary last year. So, not much difference in the taste of North Korea’s comrades and that of audiences and academies in the West. And the range of exposure to international titles is not much worse than the one viewers at most festivals in the West would get.

Pyongyang, September 26 (KCNA) — The 11th Pyongyang International Film Festival which opened on September 17 was closed with due ceremony at the Pyongyang International Cinema House on Friday. Present at the closing ceremony were Yang Hyong Sop, vice-president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Ro Tu Chol, vice-premier of the Cabinet, Kang Nung Su, minister of Culture who is also chairman of the festival organizing committee, Pak Kwan Ho, chairman of the Pyongyang City People’s Committee, and others, foreign delegations and delegates and members of the international jury of the festival. Present there on invitation were diplomatic envoys of various countries, embassy officials and staff members of missions of international organizations here. At the ceremony the results of the screening of the films presented to the festival were announced by the jury and awards were conferred upon the successful films. According to the results, award for the best film and directing and technical awards for full-length film were conferred upon the Chinese film “Assembly”, award for scenario of full-length film upon the Iranian film “Mainline”, award for shooting and fine art upon the British film “Atonement”, award for acting upon the actor who played the main part in the Bosnia-Herzegovina film “It’s Hard to Be Nice,” award for acting upon the actress who played the main part in the Iranian film “Mainline” and award for music upon the Indian film “Tale of a River”. Award for directing documentary and short films went to the German documentary “Chamame – Music, People, Poetry”, award for composition to the DPRK children’s film “The Oriole’s Song”, award for shooting to the British documentary “Earth”, special award of the International Jury of the Festival to the Czech film “Empties” and the Chinese documentary “The Imperial Garden”, special award of the Organizing Committee of the Festival to the Russian film “The Irony of Fate ” (continuation) and the Chinese film “The Tender of Feeling”. Awards for special screening were conferred upon the German film “The Counterfeiters”, the Russian film “Mukha”, the Swiss film “Vitus”, the DPRK film “The Kites Flying in the Sky”, the Chinese film “Good Man”, the French film “Aurore”, and the British film “Elizabeth I-The Golden Age”.

© Dina Iordanova
26 March 2009

Golyamoto noshtno kapane/The Big Night Bathe (Bulgaria, 1980), dir. Binka Zhelyazkova

March 10, 2009 at 1:01 am

An e-mail from a British colleague prompted me to prioritize the viewing of this DVD, which I recently purchased for 3 Bg leva in the Sofia supermarket near where my parents live. As I promised to lend him the film, I thought I should view it before sending it off, just to refresh my memory of it and see if the feeling of serious reservations that it had left me with on first viewing (now nearly 30 years ago!) would change.

The British colleague is interested in Binka Zhelyazkova’s work in general, and for a good reason: she is one of the major feminist directors from Eastern Europe, but, unlike Vera Chytilova or Marta Meszaros, she remains virtually unknown. The man had tried to approach the cinematheque in Sofia to check if they would consider making Binka’s work available, and had received a polite response written in good English which was informing him that, yes, they could produce copies and DVDs and in general help with availability, only they would do this if he could please make his own arrangements toward presenting them with letters from two other Bulgarian institutions that would give the cinematheque authorisation to go ahead with making the material available. Needless to say, the colleague dropped it all at this point (as most other researchers would); seeing this correspondence gave me an interesting glimpse into the absurdities in treating cinematic heritage that everybody working on these matters is constantly confronted with.

Now about the film itself. I still think i is a really week one; I could not help it being truly annoyed by the cartoonish characters, the slow pace, and lack of dramatic tension. If I remember correctly, the plot of the film is based on a real story. During the shooting of a film set in ancient Thrace, a bunch of friends organise a midnight swimming party on the seaside set. Drunken, they decide to play a game where one of them climbs on a stone with a rope on his neck and a sickle in his hand. The others are dancing in a circle and at one point somebody kicks the stone underneath the hangman; to save himself he is supposed to manage cutting the rope with the sickle. Two of the ‘victims’ make it, but in the third instance the young man does not manage to cut the rope and hangs. This is the culminating event in the film, which is preceded by a long (and tedious) build up of what are supposedly character studies of those involved, and is followed by an equally tedious investigation. It is all supposed to expose the drunken and promiscuous environment and the moral decline (of mature socialism) that leads to the sad loss. One of the subplots is the love affair between young gorgeous Ninel and Sava, a relationship that is seriously tested by their class differences (something that would normally not be supposed to exist under socialism). Another subplot tackles ‘The Little Prince’, the son of a highly placed party apparatchik who has just been demoted (so all speculate how their friend will be affected), yet another story included to expose the moral corruption within socialism. All protagonists are good looking, well-to-do, successful, and sexy; yet their problems are not deeply suffered and there is no dramatic development to build up to the moment of the hanging; the 150 min. length of the film can hardly be justified.

Golyamoto noshtno kapane (1980) is scripted, like Binka Zhelyazkova’s previous film, Baseynat/Swimming Pool (1977) by her husband Hristo Ganev, who is responsible also for the script of A byahme mladi/ We Were Young (1961), a film that won the top award at the Moscow International Film Festival but was nonetheless shelved afterwards and created a number of problems both for the director and the screenwriter.* One should immediately say that the script is probably the film’s biggest liability. It is supposed to have been a daring statement of sort, as Hristo Ganev enjoyed the reputation of a dissident writer, and it is probably not politically correct to declare his work weak (especially, as I can imagine, he has probably seen at least some of his work suppressed by the authorities). However, i simply cannot help it calling the script what it is: a feeble work of screenwriting. While it is clearly intended to critique the moral decline that reigned over mature socialism, as revealed here through the disorientation of this lost generation, the film is heavily dominated by small talk dialogue that should have been cut down in order to allow the director use at least some of her imagination. A pity that she does not appear to have had the strength to resist the weak script and take charge.

The second liability is the poor acting. Not much could have been done there, however, provided the heavy dialogue dominates it all. The actors are selected from among the promising new generation of VITIZ gaduates: Nikolay Sotirov (a Mathew Modine look-alike), Yanina Kasheva, Tania Shahova, Lyuben Chatalov — all actors who showed promise but were then affected by the downturn in cinema that came about at the end of the decade when they had launched their careers. For who knows what reason, there are two foreign actors in the cast (not that their presence is logically required, nor that they contribute anything to the performance, as they are both more than boring): Polish Malgorzata Braunek who plays the jaded masseuse Zhana, and Lithianian heart-throb Juozas Budraitis, whose supporting role barely has more than ten lines. I would speculate that the reason these two were in the film is that they simply wanted to spend a paid vacation on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. The main ‘acting’ is in the heavy dialogues between Nkolay Sotirov (Sava) and Yanina Kasheva (Ninel) and is meant to expose the rift between profound inherent values of carrying morality that is still intact in the provinces (he is taking care of his ill mother in the beautiful mountain hamlet of Melnik) and the inherently corrupt mores exemplified by English-language-school graduate Ninel and her friends, an urban crowd from the capital (new bourgeoisie, so to speak).

There are moments of greatness in this film, however, remnants of Binka Zhelyazkova’s trademark avantgardist brilliance: the occasional low camera shot, the bird-eye view scenes, the filming of animals (killing of birds and crabs), the drum, the dry tree on the stony seaside. These are, however, too few, to compensate for the overwhelming boredom. With the abundance of close up shots of beautiful semi-naked bodies among sand dunes, this film somehow kept referencing in my mind to a relatively recent Vera Chytilová work, the equally weak Vyhnání z ráje/ Expulsion from Paradise (2001), which, even if made more than twenty years later also evolves around sand dunes and relationships, and looks very similar in its beach stories, aesthetics and concerns.

I must confess to taking a profound dislike to all novels and films that feature a group of similar protagonists, and where the focus is on the group dynamics — be it taking place in a boarding school, a student dorm, in a madhouse or, like here, among a group of young people on their summer holidays. It is a large topic that I am not going to go into and which I am mentioning mostly because, strangely enough, it seems it was this kind of group dynamics films that dominated the early 1980s of Bulgarian cinema. The earliest one seems to be Binka Zhelyazkova and Hristo Ganev’s Baseynat/Swimming Pool (1977), about a bunch of young people confronting issues of moral decline, very similar and equally dialogue-heavy as The Big Night Bathe. Then there were films such as Vulo Radev‘s Adaptatsiya/Adaptation (1981), probably the best of this range (about a bunch of young people belonging to a psychoanalysis group), Lavina/ Avalanche (1982), based on Blaga Dimitrova (a bunch of young people forced to confront their moral foundations when challenged by nature), and Rangel Vulchanov‘s A sega nakade?/And Where Do We Go From Here? (1986), about a bunch of young people searching for a moral compass in life. The cycle probably came to an end with Ivan Andonov‘s Vchera/Yesterday (1988) where the bunch of young people affected by a moral crisis put it all squarely on the vicious socialist system. What is noteworthy is that all these films scrutinizing the moral decline in the young generation were made by members of the older generation, directors and writers born in the 1920s and the early 1930s; members of the generation that was being scrutinised (my generation actually, born in the 1960s) simply never had the chance to make films on these matters as by the time we came to maturity, the end of socialist funding for cinema hit and severely limited the chances to develop robust and prolific filmmaking careers. Thus, we never had the chance to give a cinematic response to the diagnostic that older filmmakers were imposing on us.

When I look back now, I realize that I probably hated these films as my life was not particularly different from what was shown in it. We had all adapted to the socialist system which we were not finding particularly onerous, as long as we could go abroad once a year and spend three weeks by leisurely exposing our naked bodies on the cliffs near the village of Varvara, where, for many years, the dry tree used as a prop for the hanging in The Big Night Bathe was still standing. We were passing by it every day, on our way to the nudist beach, and then also on most nights, on our way to the late night parties that were full of alcohol, locally sourced and prepared food, and heterosexual sex: pretty much the same stuff that is seen in the film.

* See my piece on these matters: Iordanova, Dina. “Binka Zhelyazkova” In: Censorship: A World Encyclopedia (ed. Derek Jones), London/Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publ., 2001, vol 4, pp. 2705/6.

© Dina Iordanova
10 March 2009

Nie sme na vseki kilometar: A personal memoir

January 7, 2009 at 1:04 am

During a recent visit to my native city of Sofia, Bulgaria, I heard that the Socialist Party (formerly Communist Party) which had just held its 47th or so Congress, has been in the media with a clip using motives of the famous TV series Na vseki kilometar (1969). As this film is associated with a host of memories for me, I could not help it but searching for the clip on YouTube. Here is what emerged:

The man who jumps on the tram is actor Stefan Danailov, who played the lead role of Sergei/Major Deyanov in Na vseki kilometar. (The protagonist was an underground anti-fascist conspirator who always managed to outwit the police and pull off whatever he had planned to do.) There was a well-known episode in the original series where Sergei jumps on a tram, like in this present clip. Using the reconstruction of this familiar visual trope and casting the same actor, who is now nearly forty years older, is a good approach to the clip’s target audience, which consists of die-hard former communists and by those younger Bulgarians who, supposedly, believe in the continuity of the socialist tradition. Actor Danailov himself is now part of the governing coalition, and has enjoyed a relatively good reputation during his mandate as culture minister (prior to entering politics he was mostly busy appearing in various Italian productions, most notably as a bad guy in the seventh installment of Italian mafia TV series La Piovra). In the clip featured here, he talks to the ‘tram driver’ who is, in fact, Sergey Stanichev, the current socialist PM of Bulgaria, a guy of whom I have got no personal views as he has appeared on the country’s political scene in a period over which I have no immediate observations (my understanding is that he is some sort of typical aparatchik). Stanishev turns to Danailov, who is breathing heavily after having jumped on the tram in a well-familiar Sofia setting (‘tramvaycheto v gorichkata na Pionerskiya dvorets’), and comments: “Things are not like before, eh?” Danailov replies: “Well, they are not. Yet the ideas and the dreams remain the same!” An elderly man who is riding on the tram approaches, calls him ‘Sergei’ (the name from the TV series), and, hand on heart, confirms that he is all up for these same ideas and dreams. Inspiring indeed!

Now, I am still significantly younger than the two old men appearing in this video, yet I am old enough to have a host of memories triggered by the viewing of this clip. So maybe in a move of nostalgia, I went on checking if there was anything from the actual Na vseki kilometar on YouTube. And there was, to my surprise: a two-minute long clip featuring the opening scene and credits of the series (where also the well-known tune sounds). It is posted on YouTube by someone from Vietnam, who testifies as to the film’s popularity there (a theme in which I have persistent interest, namely the wide international exposure of some of the East European productions in the specific transnational context of the so-called Second and Third world, see comments in my piece on Estonian Viimne Reliikvia on these matters). Here it is:

Kosta Karageorgiev, the actor who appears here as the young shooter who is killed at the beginning, is also singing the song (a well-recognizable tune in the Bulgarian context; most folks of my generation would know the lyrics by heart). A Woody Allan look-alike, this bespectacled nondescript charmer enjoyed real popularity when I was a child (He was in many childrens’ programmes, known as ‘bate Kosta’; I see from the imdb he has died in 1998, which means that he has not lived beyond his mid-50s).

Karageorgiev was mostly a singer, and one of my earliest memories involves him. My mother was working in the childrens’ department of Radio Sofia at the time (must have been around 1965), and one day she took me to the studio with her; she was to be recording some songs for a radio show she was preparing. The singer she was working this day happened to be Kosta Karageorgiev (who was already a well known TV personality alongside the ubiquitous bat’ Climbo, Kliment Denchev, who was painting on glass in the show and later disappeared by emigrating to Canada, where he also largely disappeared for the artistic profession).

I must have been about 6 years old. The actor approached me and asked me what was my name, and I replied ‘Kostadina’ (my full name). To which he said: ‘Hm, how is it possible then that we have not known each other so far if we have the same name (‘adashi’), all people by the same given name must know each other.’ I was smitten and extremely pleased at the same time. I had never heard anything like this until then, so I took what he said by face value: it would be, indeed, great, if all people by the same given name knew each other. It was only a few years later that I realized this was not really the case. Still, even today I sometimes hear myself producing the same comment when I see children who share the same name — maybe because the friendly comment of the actor back in my childhood is so deeply entrenched in my early memories.

The other personal memory linked to Na vseki kilometar must be from around 1968. We lived in Lozenetz; the house was at the bottom of a hill-street on which a tram runs. One day the traffic was blocked for the same of a film shoot. I was all happening opposite our house, so I was able to look on as much as I wanted. This is the first time I had the chance to see how films are made and to realize how many takes one does for a single sequence in a film. The scene represented a tram descending the steep street, and a young man jumping out of it while the tram is in full motion. They shot probably more than twenty times the same thing: the tram would ascend the hill and then head down down, and the actor would jump out of it at one point, and run parallel to the tram until the acceleration of the tram’s motion wore off. And then all over again and again. I cannot say who was the young man jumping out of the tram. It might have been Stefan Danailov himself (he was an unknown young actor at the time, so I could not have possibly recognize him; he only became a well-known face after the huge popularity of the series), or it might have been a double. I was, of course, looking to see the scene when the film aired on TV, but I do not think I ever saw it. They may have removed it, thus deleting the celluloid equivalent to this memorable day of my life altogether. In any case, I will always remember the sweet feeling I had on that day while looking on, of being part of something in the making that was to come on later, of witnessing the process of creating a film. Who knows, it might have been experiences like this that have led me to become who I am today: an on-looker, a critic.

As to the series itself, I do not remember many details. In my mind, it links with the Romanian films by Sergiu Nicolaescu on Inspector Moldovan — not because the plot or protagonists were the same, but the spirit, the exploitation of the policier genre (and also because I have seen these more recently than Na vseki kilometar). There was this good looking, sleek and superior Sergei/Deyanov, who always outsmarted the cops. There was the unforgettably popular peasant-partisan Mitko Bombata, played by beloved comedian Grigor Vachkov, some of whose lines in the series would then enter into wide for popular circulation. And, of course, there was the intelligent cerebral policeman Velinski, played by respected theatre actor Georgi Cherkelov (this was such a superb performance that the actor, who was mostly known in the capital as he was playing in theatre, and not across the country, was regularly being referred to not by his real name, but by the name of the protagonist whom he played in the series, so high was the degree to which audiences were identifying him with the role). Otherwise, the film was a typical historical propaganda fare, painting the resistance pretty much in black and white and remaining silent on all the awkward issues related to the period of WWII and its aftermath. What else can one expect from the Sixteenth Soviet republic in 1969? (I hear that this is a period where all the countries in the East of Europe have lived through ideological stagnation which reflected their reaction of well-grounded fear from the iron grip of the Soviets in the aftermath of the Prague invasion). In any case, back then this would not have been my assessment as I had no clue of any of these contextual aspects; I have become aware of them at a much later point. As far my personal recollection for back then is concerned, I was a child enjoying the entertainment that was on offer. And it was fun.

© Dina Iordanova
7 January 2009

Ceský sen/ Czech Dream (Czech Republic, 2004, dir. Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda)

December 2, 2008 at 11:50 pm

What does the European future hold for people in the ‘new’ Europe? Two film students from Prague’s FAMU, Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda, raise this question in their diploma project, the documentary film Czech Dream (2004). A clever renunciation of the overblown media hype over Europe in the run up to EU’s accession, the film chronicles an outrageous hoax that the filmmakers pulled on their fellow-citizens. As the film unravels, Klusák and Remunda put in motion a massive advertising campaign for a non-existent hyper-market which they call Czech Dream and for which they erect a fake façade in the middle of an empty field outside the capital. On the appointed day, thousands of enthusiastic Prague consumers flock to the place, in anticipation of finding great promotional bargains. Their eagerness, however, soon turns into bitter consternation.

The scenes of outrage at the end of Czech Dream come accompanied with the filmmakers’ commentary, which compares their despicable prank to the way in which East Europeans sheepishly bought into unsubstantiated propaganda and flocked toward joining the European Union. Czechs and other ‘new’ Europeans knew well that they were not the most esteemed partners Europe wanted; they also suspected that Europe would not be as generous as it seemed. Yet, they hushed whatever hesitations they had and rushed into the accession. But what if the pledge of prosperity turned out an empty promise? Czech Dream is a documentary with a point.

© Dina Iordanova
3 December 2008

Buy at Amazon