Kinoatelje is awarding the Darko Bratina 2023 award to Bulgarian director Stephan Komandarev for his in-depth film opus of documentaries and feature films, which in the past three decades has marked not only Bulgarian but also European cinema with the recognizable narrative of a critical thinker of modernity.
In his role as a chronicler of the socio-political conditions of the working class, Komandarev not only uses the film as a means of criticizing the power structure and protest in the interest of social reform, but with the cinematic language of social realism he persistently reflects on a country at an eternal crossroads, full of contradictions and a painful past. It forces the viewer to question the meaning of ideology and religion, national and ethnic borders, social imbalances and political corruption. The director understands social justice as the key to the transition to a society in which equality and solidarity are fundamental values, and individual dignity is inalienable.
The desire for equality and economic security - social stratification in Bulgaria is enormous - represents the basic narrative in Stefan Komandarev's films. This is also why the viewer is constantly confronted with the despair of an individual in the struggle for bare survival..., or as one of its protagonists says: "Europe" ends here, and never begins.
- Patricija Maličev, program selector of the Tribute to Vision festival
"I joke with my friends that a doctor is always a doctor. In this as well as in the previous film, somehow our patient is Bulgarian society - not only Bulgarian society, but European society, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And of course we try to treat this society with some humor, some drama. It might be a diagnosis, it might be psychotherapy, it might be an autopsy, it might be an operation. [Laughs.] I don't know. The audience will tell. But at least we try, because I think that's the duty of every filmmaker - not so much to entertain, but to raise questions. Present the problems. And maybe something will happen. I believe that film can change things."
- Stephan Komandarev, from a magazine interview Variety
Stephan Komandarev is one of the most internationally recognized and awarded modern Bulgarian filmmakers, he works as a director, producer and screenwriter. He was born in 1966 in Sofia, then still the capital of the communist People's Republic of Bulgaria. At first, he did not decide on studies that would lead to filmmaking, but his choice of study direction was already dictated by the desire to carefully observe and understand, to diagnose the inner impulses of a person. In 1993, he graduated in medicine from the Faculty of Medicine in Sofia and then worked as a psychiatrist at the pediatric clinic there for four years. His drive for social and psychological diagnoses then transformed, changed the discourse: he went to the chair of film and TV directing at the New Bulgarian University, where he received his second degree in 1998.
The very next year, he founded his own production company, Argo Film. They started producing short films, commercials and music videos. His feature debut, Pansion za kučeta (Pension for dogs), which premiered in 2001 at the Berlin International Film Festival, was quickly produced. He then made two documentaries, Hljab nad ogradata (Bread Over the Fence, 2002) and Azbuka na nadejdata (Abeceda upanja, 2003), which explore the borders between villages, countries and religions, and in the cracks between them discover the meaning of community and views into a possibly indefinite future.
Despite the successes, the long-term path to the second feature film was difficult, marked by more stumbling blocks and obstacles than open doors. You wouldn't have guessed that from the film's title. Komandarev's second feature-length defiantly and optimistically says: The world is big and the solution is hiding around the corner. The script for it was created based on the literary proposal of the autobiographical novel by the Bulgarian writer Ilija Trojanov. It was filmed in four different countries and in five languages, Slovenian producer Danijel Hočevar and Vertigo production company also participated in the international co-production. In the film, one of the protagonists was portrayed by the legendary Serbian actor Miki Manojlović, who also later remained in the acting ensemble of Komandare's films. The film was shortlisted for the Foreign Language Academy Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and it also broke the national record for theatrical release, as it was distributed in 93 countries. He then returned to documentary with The Town of Badante Women, a portrait of northwestern Bulgaria, home to Varshets, a town without women. While women earn money as carers of the elderly and sick or "badante" in Italy, men take on all jobs, even those that are otherwise alien to them in terms of gender roles. With the film Sadilišteto (The Judgement, 2014), he moved to the Bulgarian-Turkish-Greek border with a story about current migrations during the Syrian war, which hold a mirror to the flight from the countries of the Eastern Bloc. This was followed by the creation of the "Bulgarian trilogy" about social inequality and moral dilemmas that plague Bulgaria and Europe more broadly. As part of the trilogy, the feature films Posoki (Smeri, 2017) and V krag (Krogi, 2019) were created, the first of which premiered in the Un Certain Regard competition program, a section of the Cannes Film Festival. As he says himself, in these films he is interested in "drawing a realistic picture of modern Bulgaria." Before finishing the trilogy, he also made the documentary Life from Life (2021), which focuses on the difficult and long-term wait for organ transplants in Bulgaria. His new drama Blaga's Lessons, which is the final part of the Bulgarian trilogy, will have its world premiere at the international film festival in Karlovy Vary. He once again focused on modern social reality, this time through the eyes of a retired teacher who becomes a victim of a phone scam, which forces her to work for phone fraudsters. "Conscientious presentation and understanding of reality is the first condition for changing it, the only condition for active action," says the director. Komandarev lives in Sofia, is a lecturer at the film department of the New Bulgarian University, a member of the Association of Bulgarian Film Directors, the Association of Bulgarian Film Producers and the European Film Academy.
THE BULGARIAN TRILOGY
The story of Blaga holds a mirror up to a number of aspects of our society, such as the Bulgarian pensioners abandoned to a humiliating existence. After working their entire lives, today their life is genocide, agony and misery. Meagre pensions, no access to basic 21st century privileges such as normal food, adequate medication, medical care, and heating at home. Pensioners are also the main target and the usual victims of the obscene Bulgarian phenomenon known as phone scams. The dreams of a decent life have long since been replaced by a struggle for primitive everyday survival. This film touches upon the loneliness of the Bulgarian pensioners where most of them are separated from their children and grand-children. Their descendants are far away, searching for a living in the capital or in far-off countries. Blaga, exploring the complete moral crisis our society is caught in, is the third film in our social trilogy, following Directions and Rounds.
Bulgaria, Macedonia, Germany / 2017 / 103'
A road movie through the dystopia that is present day Bulgaria. At a meeting with his banker, a small business owner, who drives a cab to make ends meet, discovers the bribe he will have to pay to get a loan has doubled. The ethics board that reviewed his complaint about extortion now wants its share of the action. At his wit’s end, he shoots the banker and then himself.
The incident sparks national debate on talk radio about how despair has taken over civil society. Meanwhile, five taxi drivers and their passengers move through the night, each in hope of finding a brighter way forward.
Bulgaria, Serbia, France, 2019, 106'
Sometimes tragic, often amusing and acutely true-to-life portrait of a society losing all sense. Sofia, November 9th, 2019. Night. As the country prepares to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the regime change in Bulgaria, three police patrol cars roam the streets of the sleeping city.The police officers on their rounds take us on a journey through a society that is still looking for its purpose and identity after three decades of transition. These are scenes of survival and failure, of lives saved while others are lost, of generosity dissolving into social cruelty and indifference. The elusive preservation of dignity seems to be the sole point of getting through the night.
Alphabet of Hope
A secluded mountainous area, away from the Bulgarian-Greek-Turkish border. Most of the population there fled to Turkey in the 1980s, when the Bulgarian authorities sought to convert the Turks into Slavs. Only a few remained. The film focuses on several families, Christian and Muslim, and the problems they face in educating their children. They have to travel 140 kilometers every morning to the only remaining school, even in heavy rain and snow. A school of St. Cyril, which is visited by Bulgarian, Turkish and Roma children, a school van driver and a local doctor inspire hope that even in the middle of this desolate landscape it is possible to coexist.
The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner
Bulgaria, Slovenia, Germany, 2008, 105'
After the car accident, Alex can't even remember his name. In order to restore his memory, the charismatic grandfather Bai Dan (Miki Manojlović) from Germany takes him on a trip to Bulgaria, the country of origin. In twists and turns between places, time and means of transport, grandfather and grandson cross half of Europe and play backgammon. An ancient game leads Alex to learn about who he is. Fate is the dice we hold in our hands and life is a game between chance and skill. The script for it was created based on the autobiographical novel by the Bulgarian writer Ilija Trojanov. It was filmed in four different countries and in five languages, Slovenian producer Danijel Hočevar and Vertigo production company also participated in the international co-production. The film was shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Film Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and it also broke the national record for theatrical release, as it was distributed in 93 countries.
The Town of Badante Women
Bulgaria, 2009, 70'
A town without women. The men look after the children, cook, do the washing and… wait for money from their wives who work abroad. The Bulgarian town of Varshets is the site of a staggering social experiment. Many of its women work as “badante” in Italy, taking care of the old and the sick. The social structure of Varshets is changing and the transformations – some dramatic, others humorous – are everywhere: in the pubs, in the families, in the local brass band… And at the bus station, where once a year the women arrive for holidays.
Bulgaria, Germany, Croatia, Macedonia, 2014, 107'
Mityo has lost everything that matters to him: his wife, his work and his hopes. And now he’s losing the trust of his only son, Vasko. Out of desperation, Mityo agrees to smuggle illegal immigrants from Syria through a steep mountain pass into Bulgaria. One last trip remains. Left at the mercy of the Judgment Mountain, and in desperate need of help from his ever more distant son, Mityo will soon discover if he can be forgiven for a terrible sin committed 25 years ago.