Recently, two feature films have appeared on the Bulgarian cinema scene - Aga (2018) by Milko Lazarov and Letters from Antarctica (2019) by Stanislav Donchev. The former became one of the most frequent guests at local and international festivals, and won many awards; the latter still has modest achievements (quantitatively), but has a chance to break through.
Why and how they conquered Bulgarian and foreign audiences, whether their achievements are accidental - all these questions are going through my head, and I am trying to answer them through this comparative analysis between the two films, so different and yet so close.
I personally witnessed the success of Milko Lazarov's debut Alienation at the Venice Film Festival (2013). The awards there undoubtedly paved the way to the world screens, but also gained foreign producers' confidence for his next film. Milko was in no hurry, he wanted to be sure about the script, which he pitched at many places for funding. Aga tells the story of a family struggling to survive physically in the harsh living conditions of Siberia and to come to terms (or not?) with their inner drama over their daughter who has left them for the city. The result was a co-production between Bulgaria, France and Germany. This is important for the distribution and success of any film.
The viewer can be attracted or doubted from the very title. The original title of Aga was Nanook, which inevitably refers to Robert Flaherty's celebrated Nanook of the North (1922). Soon Milko Lazarov and co-writer Simeon Ventsislavov abandoned it to avoid comparison and association with the American documentary, and to seek their own path to success. Nanook remained just the name of the father. They titled the film Aga, the heroine's first name, who only appears for a few minutes at the end, but the rest of the time gives meaning to her parents' lives. Thus the setting could be anywhere, the messages of the future film universal.
Unlike Milko Lazarov, director Stanislav Donchev has neither previous international awards nor foreign co-producers behind him. He starts from scratch.
In contrast to Aga, Letters from Antarctica states the setting in its title, presumably to attract curious viewers interested in something unusual.Then it turns out that the icy continent is just the backdrop for a family tragedy in which a 33-year-old mother has "sent" her husband, who had died in a ridiculous accident, to Antarctica to hide the truth from their 8-year-old son. This ploy by screenwriters Teodora Markova, Georgi Ivanov and Nevena Kertova works well for the film's success.
In both films the stories are fictional, but the scripts draw on true facts.
Milko Lazarov knows and draws on the research of the founder of visual anthropology, Professor Assen Balixi, whom he thanks in numerous interviews for helping him to create a credible environment in which to immerse his characters.
Stanislav Donchev begins his film with documentary footage shot by cameraman Rumen Vassilev in Antarctica, within the Bulgarian expedition to Livingstone Island, and directly shows the leader of the polar explorers, Professor Hristo Pimpirev, who besides being a consultant plays himself very well. What more genuine a beginning than that to attract and focus the attention of the adventure-hungry viewer. Document and fiction will successfully cross paths several times in the course of the narrative.
And thus, surprisingly to expectations, the film with a female name will be set entirely amid the freezing temperatures of Yakutia, while the one with Antarctica in its title for the most part will be immersed in the city of Sofia.
The setting determines many of the merits of both films.
Aga is a chamber work, looking only at Nanook (Mikhail Aprosimov) and Sedna (Feodosia Ivanova), immersed in endless winter and frost. The cold is melted by the tenderness of the spouses loving and helping each other. Siberia is a place of solitude, of extreme situations one must survive. For daughter Aga (Galina Tikhonova) it is unthinkable to stay in this wilderness, for her parents it is unthinkable to go to the city with her. Their spaces are opposite, their dreams divergent. Aga undoubtedly appeals to the aesthetically sophisticated and educated viewer who unravels (or at least tries to) the many symbols - animals, objects, rituals - with which Milko Lazarov showers his film. There is nothing random for the director, who repeatedly professes "aesthetics above all" and does not cater to a distracted audience, but just the one accustomed to thinking.
Nanook and Sedna's cold and almost windswept yurt is warmer and cosier than the fashionably furnished and decorated apartment in the capital inhabited by the eye doctor Diana (Irmena Chichikova) and her 8-year-old son Nikolai (Simeon Angelov) in Letters from Antarctica. Aga's parents are in a sleigh, Diana is driving a car through the madness of Sofia. Aga and her brother have been enchanted by their father's tales of deer and animals, Nikki hardly ever takes his eyes off the computer. The little transistor is the only "modern" tool in the yurt, the cell phone rules the apartment. In the clear skies of Yakutia, one can see traces of planes, a helicopter, Nanook's son's snowmobile ploughing the snow, and these are the encounters and visions of civilization of the two Inuits.
Far away, with weak internet and no phone, is Antarctica, hence the mother "hiding" her husband there. A plausible fiction justifying the lack of contact between father and son to avoid great trauma to a child. Till yesterday, news such as adoption or death was learned from relatives or neighbors, today it is found on the internet. He is friend, collaborator and enemy, which is highlighted well in the film. The mother herself tells the child that "the internet makes you stupid". This issue with its pros and cons gives a lot to chirp about to diverse audiences, and the film relies on it.
Letters from Antarctica, unlike Aga, is more open to other themes - it extends to the school, the teacher (Maya Baburska) with her methods of education, friendship between Nikolai's classmates, school bullying. Presumably, they would also bring in teenagers who would run away from Aga.
Both films are concerned with the family, a universal human problem close to everyone's heart. Those families are incomplete - in Aga the daughter is missing, in Letters from Antarctica - the father. As he listens to music from the transistor, Nanook says, "The most important thing of all is to preserve forever the family as a whole." Sedna's dream is to visit "the three rocks that look like parents with a child. They will remain forever," she sighs. The mother grieves no less for Aga, who has gone to work in the diamond mine, but tries to be a bridge between her and the unyielding and unforgiving Nanook.
Sed and Aga never see each other, and neither do Nikolai and his father in Letters from Antarctica. The little one is in love with him, constantly looking for him and thinking about him, emailing him and waiting for packages, while Aga doesn't even consider visiting her parents. She's content to send them a diamond through her brother, which they don't pay much attention to because to them the true gem is their daughter herself. Nikki turns the seal's tooth sent to him by his father into a talisman, which will become a bone of contention in the film's action. Mother and son are constantly together, clinging to each other. She tries to overcome her grief, he awaits the return of his father. These dramas strengthen the family's tenuous bonds, temper characters, and spur them on to fight for survival. Anyone in the audience could find themselves in a similar situation. The educational role of the two films in this regard is commendable as they do not offer models for families but provoke thought. Boundless, planetary, universally accessible to all generations within and beyond those shown in Aga and Letters from Antarctica.
In both films, however, the characters' souls are stiff with cold. Nanook and Sedna long to see their daughter in the flesh, the widow Diana and her son Nikki dream of their dead husband and father returning to them. Both reunions are equally unrealisable. Letters from Antarctica begins with a death, Aga ends with one. Stanislav Donchev rushes into his film with this tragedy, Milko Lazarov slowly foreshadows it, accumulates details - the gaping holes in the cracking ice, the ill-fated fishing, the animal blood on the snow are all metaphors that set the stage.
Death always moves the viewer, especially if it is of a young person, unexpected and absurd. This is what the authors of Letters from Antarctica rely on, but without getting maudlin. They are interested in how it is perceived and experienced by the mother, but most importantly by the child. Do we have the right to hide it from him; when is the right moment to prepare him for its perception? As the death also becomes public knowledge, both Diana's parents and her friend are involved in the lie, as well as strangers - the members of the polar expedition. In Aga, Sedna's death is intimate, not circulated on the internet, but no less painful. In the city there is no need to screen the ritual, while in Yakutia the funeral is almost a sacred act. After it, the purified Nanook sets out to fulfill Sedna's last wish and reconcile with his daughter.
Nikolai's reaction is the opposite after he learns about his father's death from the internet. He withdraws into himself and distances himself from his mother.
Some of the most poignant and successful moments, dramaturgically and visually, in Letters from Antarctica are the silences between mother and son and their gradual rapprochement, complemented by the play with various possessions around the apartment. Nikki even became Diana's co-author for her children's book, proud of its success. The mother breaks free of a lie, returns to her son, and perhaps embarks on a new intimate relationship, only hinted at.
For me, the undisputed achievement in both films is the imagery - not just as a background and setting, but as an actor. This is decisive in guiding the audience to watch and immerse themselves in the atmosphere of the works. Milko Lazarov and his cinematographer Kaloyan Bozhilov are not only collaborators, but also friends, which is extremely important for their work. They understand each other without words, which I had the opportunity to see for myself. The two of them travelled around a lot of places before choosing Yakutia for Aga. Its endless snowy expanses, sunny or gloomy, its fauna, its silent or raging nature, are entwined through the camera of Kaloyan Bozhilov (Golden Rose for Best Cinematography and several other individual awards at international film festivals) with the state of mind of the characters. The exquisite taste and precise eye of the cinematographer are evident in both the general plans and the portraits. Aga begins with a close-up of the homus-playing (a folk Yakut instrument) Sedna smiling and winking at the would-be viewer to "invite" them into the story, and ends with the tear-streaked face of the repentant Aga. Kaloyan Bozhilov sticks to the director's parable conceit.
Stanislav Donchev and Martin Dimitrov have also found a common language for the style of Letters from Antarctica. There, the urban setting dominates . The overhead shots of Sofia, mostly wintry and grey, evoke a suffocating feeling that clutches the characters' souls. The camera crawls through the desolate and cold rooms of mother and son's large apartment. Towards the finale, the sun flashes into the frame as Diana and Nikolai are reconciled. Martin Dimitrov (best cinematographer award in Tbilisi and in Albania) is definitely a master of general plans and panoramic shots.
The path of film success begins with sponsors, funding, goes through a title, relevant themes of universal human significance and their visual representation to end in the movie theater.
Aga and Letters from Antarctica target a certain type of audience.Aga is definitely a festival film, rather with an international message, and the Bulgarian viewer should also fit in and recognize it. Conceived as such, it has certainly succeeded.
It is no coincidence that its triumphant march to the world began with its premiere at the closing-night of Berlinale (2018). Then came many other awards and festivals across Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, the Americas, the local Golden Rose, the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar bid, sales and distribution in Europe, Asia, Australia, even New Zealand, North America. In Bulgaria, the film has been seen by 12 000 viewers.
Letters from Antarctica, by contrast, initially seeks a shortcut to mass audiences, to whom it speaks more with its poignant story of lying and its limits, of how to overcome oneself in a tragedy. It doesn't yet have the planetary conquests of Aga but it does surpass it in number of Bulgarian viewers - 20,000. It was warmly received and could be an example of national success. The film is distributed abroad only through digital platforms and Nettera TV+. It has not been screened in cinemas, with the exception of two or three paid Bulgarian screenings in Berlin and Vienna. It has been screened at festivals in Europe, Asia and the USA. Its journey around the world is gaining momentum.
Aga and Letters from Antarctica can be put together in the statement of Georgi Ivanov, one of the writers of Letters from Antarctica - "It is a huge compliment for me when I read that we have made someone believe in Bulgarian cinema again and love it".
This publication is supported by Bulgarian National Culture Fund