SOC NOIR

by Sylvia Choleva; photography by Dragomir Ushev, archive

Director Javor Gardev on the unbearable lightness of success, how to make a new cinema genre, and the director's rights and obligations

Javor Gardev

For Javor Gardev – loved by some and disliked by others (probably with equal strength) – 2008 has been a successful year. Zift, the 35-year-old director's first film, went to its first international festival, in Moscow, and won the Best Direction Award. Soon afterwards Gardev's second child was born. Zift later became the Bulgarian Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination, and was also pronounced as historic (at least by its fans) due to its introducing a new genre in cinema – Socialist Noir.

Gardev is better known as a theatre director. His theatre productions –Quartet, Marat/Sade, The Pillowman, Bastard, The Old Woman from Calcutta and Valentine's Day – have always been provocative and sold out quickly.

His career as director started in second grade, when he directed his friends in The Three Musketeers. Later, almost simultaneously, Gardev became a Master of Philosophy at St Kliment Ohridski Sofia University and a Master of Direction at the National Academy of Theatre and Film Art (NATFIZ). Previously he had acted in a children's troupe, a students' theatre and various TV productions. He wanted to become an actor who "is both the lead actor and tells all the other actors how to play their parts." He decided to become a director in 1992, when NATFIZ started an experimental class taught by Ivan Dobchev. A succession of performances and awards followed. He worked on co-productions with colleagues from France and Germany, recorded his own audio and video projects, and entered the area of conceptual art with his Visual Police, a video performance. He worked in a team with dramatist Georgi Tenev and artist Nikola Toromanov, establishing with them the Triumviratus Art Group.

Javor Gardev is an interdisciplinary artist who is unafraid to change the media he uses. "My real love is the search for meaning. Theatre and cinema are just the media I use to share my progress from time to time," Gardev says.

On the screenplay of Zift Gardev worked with Vladislav Todorov, a cultural anthropologist who graduated from NATFIZ and did a doctoral degree at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and another at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, where he now teaches. Todorov has written a number of articles and several books, including the novel Zift. He wrote the film's screenplay.

Zift tells a criminal story that takes place in a single night. Moth is released from jail, where he ended up shortly before the 9 September 1944 Communist coup. It turns out that things have changed a lot outside the "slammer" – it is the black-and-white, totalitarian world of the 1960s. He has other things on his mind: he was wrongfully convicted of murder and now wants to settle some old scores. It becomes a story of love, passion and chase.

The genre of film noir has been a serious source of inspiration for Javor over the past couple of years. To prepare for Zift, he obsessively watched most of the good American, French and Italians examples so that he could get to know the history of the genre. His fans assessed the result as Snatch meeting Sin City. It was a long time before its premiere in October when Zift became the most talked about and contradictory event of the year. This means a lot for a film whose name is derived from the tarry chewing gum of children in the 1960s.

A scene from Zift

A scene from Zift

You moved from theatre to cinema. Is there a difference?

There is a huge difference, but it is in craftsmanship. Generally, the difference is not essential. What matters most is not how a film is made, but what the audience that watches it feels. You have to master certain technical skills, which is not so difficult after all. You either have something to say – and the desire to say it – or you don't.

How do you think would a Western audience appreciate your film? Would they understand the age of Bulgarian Communism?

The film relates to them in genre terms. Socialist art is of course exotic, but apart from it this is a completely recognisable film noir. We had a test show of the film at the American University in Blagoevgrad. About 100 people of 10 different nationalities watched the film and filled in a questionnaire. The answers showed that students from countries such as Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Moldova recognised the codes of the film on an equal scale with students from the United States and Germany. This was very important for us.

In theatre you always work with almost the same actors. How did you cast the actors for the film?

I have my own casting method. In Zift the actors are a configuration of faces that has not appeared in Bulgarian cinema. I had the feeling that Zahary Baharov was the man for his role, so I did no casting for Moth. The same applied also for Vlado Penev and Misho Mutafov. It was the opposite with Tanya Ilieva, who is a model. It needed casting to find a particular type of presence. I think we struck home – she did a brilliant job.

On set of Zift

 

On set of Zift

Do they look like Communist-era faces?

This is phantasmal aesthetics; it is no copy of life as it is. It constructs a reality made on the benchmarks of Communist material culture. But this world is slightly twisted and is, rather, its stylised re-creation. It has some very recognisable signs, and the picture is black-and-white. So it has something that makes you view it not as a realistic, documentary reflection of that world.

In Bulgaria everything is divided among different guilds. How did the cinema people react to the fact that a theatre director, though a well-known one, had stepped into movies?

I can't say that I have met with any severe aggression. I don't often come into contact with people from the cinema circles to be able to acknowledge their reaction. I don't think in terms of guilds; I believe there should be certain distinct fields inaccessible to other people.

Some say that Zift has Tarantino's drive. Tarantino learned how to make movies by watching movies. He did not study film direction: he worked in a video rental shop where he watched films all the time.

This is how I studied cinema too. But it is not just a matter of watching. At some point afterwards you have to approach things analytically, watch them as the man behind the camera does, analyse the structure of a shot, how it is edited, and then begin dissecting the film.

Isn't it dangerous then to lose the outlook of an ordinary filmgoer and its innocence, and view the film as a mathematical equation?

Yes, it is, but this is how you should begin. I saw a huge amount of genre films and I watched them exactly from this analytical standpoint. My understanding of how the film noir genre is "put together" did not come from somebody's explanations, but from my experience.

On set of Zift

On set of Zift

You are working on another screenplay with Vladislav Todorov – an anti-utopia.

For now, this is only an idea. It is a story that takes place in a constructed reality again, a reality that reflects some Bulgarian traits. It is the same in Zift, by the way: It is a film noir, but it describes Bulgaria all the time – the Bulgarian mentality, the Bulgarian type of communal life, the Bulgarian type of communication, the Bulgarian type of character – this can't be taken away from it, regardless of the genre.

Norwegian writer Lars Saabye Christensen says that to be known internationally you have to be local.

I fully agree.

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