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BERLIN 2016 Generation

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Zhaleika: Fighting tradition


- BERLIN 2016: Eliza Petkova’s debut feature portrays a world stuck in time, where you have to follow the ancient rules or suffer the consequences

Zhaleika: Fighting tradition
Anna Manolova in Zhaleika

A partnership project between two film schools, the Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie and the New Bulgarian University, Eliza Petkova’s debut feature, Zhaleika [+see also:
film profile
, has been shown in the Generation sidebar of the Berlinale. The low-budget production boasts one of the youngest crews ever invited to the festival, and it tells the story of Lora (Anna Manolova), a teenage girl from a small Bulgarian village who has to fight a world of traditions in order to find her true self.

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Right from the very first sequences, two things are obvious: Lora lives in a very traditional world, where both softness and rebellion are despised, but she doesn’t feel at home there. As she witnesses a scene where dozens of elderly villagers wait in vain for their monthly pensions, Lora says, “I won’t queue for my pension. They will bring it home to me. That’s how it works in normal cities.” Her critical voice is met with astonishment by other youngsters, as they know perfectly well that things don’t change that quickly.

Lora’s life is altered when her ill father, Stoyan (Stoyko Ivanov), dies. If until that point the girl’s “antics”, her ripped jeans and her behaviour were a mere nuisance for her family, Lora’s reluctance to wear the “zhaleika”, a scarf worn as a sign of mourning, will incur the wrath of her mother and neighbours. If cheese has been made in the same way for thousands of years, why would there be other forms of mourning accepted?

DoP Constanze Schmitt shoots the film like a documentary: sometimes the audience has the impression that the camera was left on, catching glimpses of real life in the unnamed village. It is effective: old people will wait for their pensions until the end of time, while men will spend their evenings (or their days and nights) at the pub. In this immovable world, Lora is a sharp knife desperate to cut through the social lead, a toxic metal unwilling to take the shape she wants. Aware of this conflict, the audience keeps wondering: will the knife cut through, or will it stop, blunt and defeated? The story does not centre on the “if”, but rather on the “when” and the “how”.

Petkova builds her story on contrasts: old and young, loud and quiet. After a traditional song performed by old ladies, she shows Lora watching a video on YouTube and singing a hit with her best friend, Elena (Boyana Georgieva). The screams following the death of her father give way to a shot of the majestic hills surrounding the village, while the shocked comments of old villagers when Lora strolls around without her “zhaleika” are dulled down with shots of a green forest.

Although the story suffers because of a certain predictability, the screenplay written by Petkova does not allow any room for excess: Lora’s path feels true, and this is helped by the fact that a generous number of characters are played by the villagers of Pirin. Even if some of them cannot stop looking directly into the camera, and a certain Aunt Sijka would deserve the Bulgarian equivalent of a Golden Raspberry, their role is more to fill the screen with a world that breathes at a different rhythm. And that they do perfectly.

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