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 june 2009

The art in persistence

Yoana Pavlova

I would never forget the look on the officer's face, when I went to the police station in Rotterdam to report my missing wallet – she took a glimpse at my passport, saw the name of my home town and sighed: “Oh, Varna, such a wonderful city! I spent my vacation there several years ago!”. Varna, the second largest city in Bulgaria, is considered the best place to live in our country, according to a recent sociological survey. Those who have the chance to inhabit “the paradise”, however, face the contrast between the posh summer holidays and the long grim months in between. In general, the high living standard in Varna is limited to material goods and the obsession to be good looking, so many young people with ambitions to achieve more move to the capital or emigrate to other countries.

One would conclude that in a city with more than a million population many would be attracted at least in cinema, but since 1989 most theaters have been transformed into bingo halls. As for cultural initiatives, they are usually outsourced from Sofia. Therefore, I was truly surprised when I heard about association Perde two years and a half ago. Perde means “curtain” in Bulgarian and coincidentally or not, their first events were held almost anonymously. In March 2007 they announced in a very modest way a screening of short films in the cult Comix club, the biggest and most famous club for electronic music in Varna. The location was selected perfectly, as utilizing in full the building of the former cinema, Perde experimented with simultaneous multi-screen projections plus DJ sets. Soon this party atmosphere drew a dedicated fan crowd.

Shortly after the project's beginning, the media discovered that behind Perde hide four friends: Aleksandar Nikolov (filmmaker), Lyubomir Sergeev (photographer), Radomir Ivanov (musician), and Viara Ivanova (fashion designer). They formed the association as an attempt to revive the interest in audiovisual arts. Their goal was to create a challenging environment for young talents in Varna and to encourage them to stay in Varna. In fact, among the four directions Perde intended to develop, only cinema broke through. So, in the last two years Alexandar Nikolov and his fellows organized regular monthly screenings of various programmes, supported by international cinema movements like Future Shorts and KINO or by local short film festivals like Filmini and In The Palace. In the meantime Magdalena Marinova stepped in as PR and I started receiving regular updates about side events, such as script writing workshop or outdoor screenings combined with a live VJ graffiti set.

In the spring of 2009 Comix is occupied by “Flowers of the Koran”, a Middle East full-length panorama, already featured in Sofia by association Pozor. The screenings are advertised in Varna under the label of Artin Vision, but “with the support of Perde”. Luckily, I had the chance to watch one of the movies (Mohsen Makhmalbaf's “Scream of the Ants”) and to meet Aleksandar and Magdalena in person. I shower them with questions. I also used to organize underground screenings in Sofia several years ago, so I am familiar with all the difficulties. In addition, I was curious as of what motivates two young people to throw so many efforts for the intellectual well-being of city where the majority of people thinks it is a waste of money to visit a big screen premiere if you can watch the same movie on HBO in a few months.

The passion for art guided Aleksandar and Magdalena ever since they were kids, when they met at Katya Papazova's theater studio “The Golden Key”. They played on stage for many years, but it turned out they both will not become professional actors. Magdalena oriented herself to philology, while Aleksandar chose filmmaking. As he jokes, he is totally pro-Varna, so when both moved to the capital to study, he still found a way to stay connected to his favorite city through the Sofia branch of Varna Free University. Later on, when he had to shoot his graduation film, he came home, just to realize that there are practically no acting agencies or facilities. The cinema industry has been focused in Sofia for many decades, even though Varna is a very palatable location. In fact, only the local TV stations offer some working conditions if one decides to advance in the field of audiovisual production.

While dealing with basic logistics in the name of his diploma, Aleksandar reconnected with old friends who also shared his interest in art. This is how Perde was born in the winter of 2006-2007. The young filmmaker admits that his commitment to the project is based on his professional ambitions, but the other members could not afford to devote too many resources for their sections, because they all pursued other career paths. Nevertheless, all united under the flag of cinema and Aleksandar believes the attitude of young people towards noncommercial movies changed a lot in the last two years. Magdalena acknowledges that people recognize her on the street and often inquire about the next screening. Aleksandar adds that now he thinks of the next step, so when he compiles a programme from Bulgarian movies, he strives to pick up the best, hoping that young viewers in Varna will get jealous and eventually motivated to shoot something better. I comment that Johnny Oddball's idea for short film challenges is very popular in Sofia and helps many young artists find their voice, so I wonder if Perde has ever thought of organizing such an event. The answer is affirmative, but Alexandar is clear about the fact that it is too early.

I still wonder what is the role of Artin Vision and what is the difference between this organization and Perde. Aleksandar explains that he launched Artin several years ago as an independent production company. Initially, he gathered a semi-professional crew and filmed a few low-budget shorts. “Big Fish” for example was in top 10 of In The Palace 2008. When I ask what is it to shoot a movie in Varna with the voluntary help of friends and acquaintances, Magdalena (who participated as an assistant-director) recalls some very tough moments. A new chance appeared after the script writing workshop Perde organized in the autumn. Aleksandar chose Daniela Ovcharova's text and developed her story into his last short: “In Vitro”. This film will have its debut in the new edition of Balchik's festival.

The idea for “Flowers of the Koran” was also purposely carried out by Artin Vision. Aleksandar and Magdalena understand that Perde targets young audience – mostly teenagers who lack the interest to watch movies from an exotic culture, especially dealing with serious topics. For the regular audience of the late night shorts the high-quality Middle East panorama means “too much drama”. Thus, Artin changed the tactic: requested institutional aid from the municipality and provided for large media coverage. Besides, it was announced that the screenings will take place in “the ex-cinema Georgy Dimitrov” instead of “Comix club”, because middle-aged citizens of Varna are more familiar with the old notion. Indeed, while watching “Scream of the Ants” it occurred to me that one must have a special affection for arthouse and experimental cinema in order to appreciate the poetical style of Mohsen Makhmalbaf. May be this is why the viewers were older than 30 years. And not many.

Anyway, Aleksandar is an optimist. Right now, he is aware that he cannot make a living only out of filmmaking, so willing or not, he has to focus on family business – real estates. Magdalena is rather cautious due to the general exodus from cultural events and the domination of the worldwide financial crisis. Yet, both of them dream for constructing a real film studio and even pavilions outside of the city. I can only wish them luck.


Yoana Pavlova graduated Cinema Studies at NATFA and works as a freelance film journalist and critic for various media.