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Motherhood/Motherland: The Case of Bulgarian National Cinema

Viktoria (Maya Vitkova, 2014) [courtesy of Big World Pictures]

EssayPart of Issue #4: From Behind the Wall

Even after the watershed moment of 1989, the fall of the Berlin wall, internal tensions haven’t ceased to further divide Europe along axes both East-West and North-South. An elusive notion of “Europeanness” (with the EU in mind) and a striving for unification are simply contradicted by the reality of this heterogeneous map. A singular version of “Europe”, or “European cinema”, does not exist in itself, and attitudes towards national cinemas reflect this precisely. Examples of small-nation cinema and “cinema of the periphery” question the adequacy of such paradigms in accounting for underrepresented nations. “Minor” cinemas are often pushed to the side-lines in the larger debate of what “European” actually means (as a geopolitical, geographical, or semantic signifier), as the festival darlings usually turn out to be German, French, Italian, or maybe Austrian or Spanish. On the other hand, the film festival fare produced by smaller (and less advantageous) nations such as Romania, Serbia, or Bulgaria oftentimes succumbs to what can be described as an ‘auto-ethnographic urge’—a projected self-image of the way a given country perceives itself to be seen through the imaginary lens of the rest of the world. The films that go against this trend may be few and far between, but they do destabilise a dynamic that has been kept in place by an almost-perpetual rehashing of known (male) filmmakers as iconic national examples, while pointing to larger shifts across the cinematic world map.

As part of what was the Soviet Eastern Bloc, Bulgaria emerged on the map of European cinema together with its specific historical context. Most importantly, its underfunded film industry has been greatly affected by the historical currents of the 1990s, with the collapse of its state-socialist system of production and exhibition. The traumatic historical past, intermingled with poor economic conditions, has resulted in a rather static, deprecating trend in contemporary Bulgarian cinema. However, while domestic audiences and critics demand a more affirming image of the poorest EU country, some Bulgarian filmmakers tend to dig deeper into the stasis caused by post-socialist trauma. The most interesting of these examine the important similarities between dealing with the past and the mother-child relationship, starting from a belief that motherhood can help us better grasp the concept of motherland, or understand why Bulgarian cinema suffers a more enduring identity crisis.

Viktoria (Maya Vitkova, 2014) [courtesy of Big World Pictures]
Maya Vitkova’s 2014 film Viktoria opens with a rather dystopian state-wide celebration: an infant girl born without a belly button has been crowned “baby of the communist decade”. “We no longer need umbilical cords,” a proudly recited statement echoes through a room full of saluting devotees as Todor Zhivkov, the one-and-only Bulgarian socialist leader, declares a new future for mankind without any ties to the past. The film explores the strenuous relationship of its two protagonists—mother and daughter—in different stages of their lives, throughout the years between 1979 and 1994, encapsulating both socialist and capitalist times. Before 1989, Bulgaria was one of the Soviet Union’s so-called “satellite states”, its identity defined in relation to or against the ruling body. Communist ideas were embodied in the socialist republic (or “workers’ state”) that celebrated high morals of equality and work ethics. Viktoria offers a stark portrayal of the socio-economic ripples and the disillusion with the socialist regime in its decline, pairing archival footage of demonstrations and protests with a familial story of forgiveness. The film taps into nation-specific themes such as post-socialist trauma, significantly without a hint of its flipside, socialist nostalgia.

Viktoria is a film about national politics, as told through the female body, its narrative hinging on a lack of a belly button. While the character of Viktoria (portrayed at different ages by Daria Vitkova and Kalina Vitkova) is defined in relation to her mother, Boryana (Irmena Chichikova), their individual bodies explicate (and perform) alternative ways of relating to the national regime. The youthful yet unaffectionate Boryana is the subject of the film’s first half and she does not waste any emotion on a world she deems wrong. Her quiet protests are shown in long, static takes whenever she retreats to the shabby bathroom, door locked, for a clandestine puff, her cigarette carefully lit with a Statue of Liberty figurine lighter. Social rebellion here is pictured through tokens of the West (foreign cigarettes, of course), a gesture which is as oppositional as her (seemingly repeated) efforts to not conceive a child. The camera does not shy away from scenes of physical disturbance of the naked female body to showcase rejection, showing Boryana douching as part of an attempted abortion. The refusal to bring a child into the world is now commonplace for anti-natalist discourses related to ongoing ecological disasters and the precarity of late capitalism. Back then, the supposedly perfect system of equality and brotherhood provided a not too dissimilar feeling of suffocation.

Aligning with Boryana’s point of view, the first half of the film is full of scattered nationalistic symbols: through her eyes, the spectator readily recognises (loathe) the disciplined bodies marching on Labour day, especially the crowds of schoolchildren that look exactly alike, in uniforms and with bows adorning the girls’ hair. On a larger scale, Viktoria seems troublingly lacking in dialogue, but communist mantras echo through speakers, animating large spaces shot through a wide lens, giving the audience the treat of a proper spectacle. With hints of dry humour, the absurdity of these heavily stylised compositions shines through, exemplifying how the film’s ideological criticism is executed in a way that’s both personal and nuanced. At the same time, the unquestioned presence of bodies (anonymous men, women, children) in these parade scenes clashes with the film’s otherwise haptic visuality. Framing intimate moments (such as sex or giving birth) in long shot amounts to a construction of a rather theatrical atmosphere with the sense that someone is always watching. The film’s spectator is, in these cases, a moral witness to a personal ‘spectacle’, discrediting the public one staged by the regime.

Viktoria (Maya Vitkova, 2014) [courtesy of Big World Pictures]
In these carnal sequences, bodily fluids—serving as symbols of maternal abjection—and their visual representations give Viktoria the characteristics of a so-called ‘corporeal’ or ‘affect’ cinema. The theme itself acquires a political function, as Eastern European films lend themselves to such analysis quite readily because of their preoccupation with topics like reproduction, memory, migration, and trauma in general. It is through the stylistic hallmarks of the affect film (extreme close-ups, soft-focus, trembling camera, aligning the spectator’s body with the character’s body) that Viktoria employs bodily representations (of a pregnant mother) to discuss a social phenomenon within its historical context. A couple of stylised, tightly-framed sequences slow the film’s pace down to a skin-crawling phobic dream. Their formalism provides a counterpart to the gritty realism that permeates the picture. A sequence showing a God’s eye view of a bath, with blood flowing and mixing with the water, signalling the upcoming birth, unfolds at an unnervingly slow pace, building up spectatorial tension in a way reminiscent of slow cinema. Postpartum, Boryana’s breasts cannot seem to lactate and milk becomes a banned substance in the family home. Towards the film’s end, wandering into the surreal, it is precisely milk that pours down from the sky, absolving Boryana of her maternal contradictions. Although such an analysis of motherhood has to do with the physical disposition of pregnancy, it is presented as one of many ways of approaching womanhood, without exclusively tying it to any single notion of either femininity or motherhood. As observed in other Eastern European films (Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) and Ágnes Kocsis’s Pál Adrienn (2010)), many directors of the post-1989 generation resort to bodies as important symbols: either docile or disobedient, in a correlation with post-socialist identity formation, albeit in an allegorical way. Yet where the body is concerned, allegory becomes flesh and theory becomes practice—a political stance nevertheless.

Even though all of Viktoria’s narrative is told retrospectively, the affective play on duration signals an impotent last call of resistance. In this way, motherhood is both contested and embraced as a last resort for revolt against the system. When discussing motherhood and pregnancy in relation to problematic aspects of national identity, Viktoria provides just one way of looking at things, one that is tinged with abjection: an attraction to and repulsion from the past as part of oneself, what psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva describes as “a land of oblivion, that is constantly remembered.”

Viktoria may not have a belly button (calling everyone else’s one an “ugly wound”), but her umbilical cord is a direct line to the Party leader’s headquarters. Being crowned baby of the decade, Viktoria embodies all the nepotism of the communist era: her parents are granted an apartment to live in, a new car, and the girl herself has her birthdays celebrated under the party flag, with all the government officials smiling and giving gifts. Growing up in such circumstances may look like a joyful childhood, but under the shadow of arrogance and privilege Viktoria ends up estranged from her mother. While Boryana symbolises the Eastern European fetishism of the West and the subsequent desire to start a new life in this promised land, her own daughter seems deeply rooted in the regime which prevents her from living the life she’d prefer. And to not have the possibility of preference, that’s a lack of privilege that many working-class Europeans can empathise with.

Viktoria was a critical success at Sundance and on the world festival circuit, proving that a specifically Bulgarian film can have a more universal appeal, while at the same time, through the depiction of the mother-daughter relationship, being demonstrative of Bulgaria’s relationship with the past. It is, nevertheless, a displaced analogy, relegating the past to a future generation, a child bearing all the characteristics of a bygone era to make peace with. Present and past become interchangeable, and the fluidity of spectatorial identification reflects the tensions embedded in contemporary Bulgarian cinema in relation to its more profitable, yet ideologically-conditioned past.

The Bulgarian film industry has shrunk tremendously since the fall of its socialist regime in 1989, as production fell from 25 titles to roughly four or five per year. In recent polls in which critics and audiences named their favourite Bulgarian films, not a single one made after 1989 made the top ten. Similarly, as people’s enthusiasm for the post-Soviet democratic transition declined, so did the enthusiasm for filmmaking and film watching. As film scholar Dina Iordanova rightfully observes, “Bulgarian cinema’s identity remains confined to the past, when filmmakers had to be politically conformist but still enjoyed a chance to be prolific.” Back in the day, strict censorship resulted in the proliferation of proudly nationalistic historical epics on the one hand, and touching romantic comedies on the other, with only a few filmmakers enjoying international fame, the most exciting example being Binka Zhelyazkova. She was the first female filmmaker in Bulgaria and her film The Last Word (1974) competed for the Palme d’or. You may have come across her name, as she opens Mark Cousins’ latest opus—the 14 hours long Women Make Film (2018). Of course, her films were banned in Bulgaria and are better known internationally than at home, although efforts have been made to change this, such as Elka Nikolova’s documentary Binka: To Tell a Story About Silence (2009). An attempt to revive the talk around Bulgarian female filmmakers, albeit a long-overdue one, was led by Adela Peeva, an award-winning director, whose documentaries focus on topics of Balkan and Bulgarian identity. She single-handedly curated the first (and only) film season dedicated to women in Bulgarian cinema, as well as an archive website (biographies and filmographies of all women filmmakers included). Sporadic as they are, attempts have been made to reckon with the national cinema legacy, but a canon inclusive of women is still to be assembled.

Irina (Nadejda Koseva, 2018)

The most recent female-directed award-winning film, Nadejda Koseva’s Irina (2018), tells the beguiling story of its eponymous protagonist—a mother supporting her nuclear family in the outskirts of a small Bulgarian town with a low-income job, sex work, and surrogacy. Irina (Martina Apostolva) is brazen, stubborn, and utterly devoted to familial ties, even after she finds out her sister Ludmila (Kasiel Noah Asher) and her husband Sasho (Hristo Ushev) are having an affair. A response that no one would expect frames her as a character brimming with venomous irony: throwing a party for the couple caught in the act. With its headstrong anti-heroine as a surrogate mother, the film strays farther away from the stamp of Eastern-European “poverty porn”, as absolution lurks around the corner.

The theme of motherhood here is inextricably entwined with that of livelihood. Desperate after losing her ill-paid job and her husband being seriously injured in an accident, Irina decides to use the only available asset she can afford to raise money: her body. The politics of sex work though are not explored in depth. A short episode sees her first being knocked down by another woman, the town prostitute, to be told “There’s only room for one of us.” However, the scene quickly turns cheerful, showcasing Koseva’s masterful command of tonal shifts, when the prostitute offers Irina a large glass of expensive whisky, and they drink to a truce. Sex work here is not simply equated with a despondent bid to earn money. Instead, the film swiftly turns the tables on such presumptions and actually contributes to destigmatising the labour of sex workers.

After seeing a job advert on the internet, Irina decides to become a surrogate mother for a middle-class couple. Relying on her physical capacities (“I’m healthy, I’ve already birthed a child, I can have yours as well”), she transforms her body into a means of (re)production under her own command, even if she is legally bound to give up the child. As alienating as its aftermath can be, childbirth is, literally, an act of labour. Even though the existential implications overlap with the Marxist ones, this act of labour is inherently empowering for Irina as a mother and employee at the same time. While the film presents Irina as detached and quiet, rarely framing her as interacting with her own child, her image as a mother can be deduced by the care for others she exhibits. Keeping within working-class needs and interests, securing her family’s financial needs can be read as a projection of care. However, even while she submits her own body to a commercial service, her character is not subjected to a moral sanction, as she repeatedly states “I’m not a commodity of yours!”

Irina (Nadejda Koseva, 2018)

Both films explore women as resilient mothers on the edge of precarity, an image deployed for redefining national identity and reforming national memory. Indeed, a lot of memory work is woven into the female characters of the films, with Viktoria offering a comprehensive overview of a 30-year period, while Irina illustrates the a-historic potential of forging new narratives. Viktoria’s missing belly button is symbolic of a surrogate birth and a similar detachment from orthodox historical narratives and views; a gesture of revolt and ambivalence towards memory, redirecting existing narratives in an individuated, feminist manner. In a way, neither of these women would be upheld as exemplary. However, the self-reflection put into work here is proven to be a potent source of criticism to both national ideals and preconceived notions of womanhood. Bulgaria is, nevertheless, a country with a strong patriarchal order implicitly and explicitly supported by its political structures. Machismo blasts on the news whenever government officials address women in power, sexism prevails in advertising (an enormous scandal was caused by a Student TV network portraying women as nothing more than coffee-making secretaries), and then there’s the country’s ongoing struggle with domestic violence and the refusal to ratify the Istanbul convention which legally delineates violence against women and by extension reinforces women’s rights.

Both Viktoria and Irina are successful attempts to break the ossification of concepts such as the nation and the national, by decentring subject-analysis and spectatorship. This is done in a manner that escapes the dichotomy of “self/other”. Rather than adjusting its characters to accord with a certain kind of transnational or universal heroine, these contemporary Bulgarian filmmakers turn their eye to the past, openly criticising regimes of image-formation that have nurtured a repetitive narrative of self-affirmation. In an act that can also be described as ‘tough love’, the relationship to one’s past, on a national level, cannot be simply rewritten, it demands suffering and tending to like a wound that refuses to heal.