Away from the Shore
Directed by Kostadin Bonev | Review by Prarthana MitraDemocracy without dissent is as good as dead—it is this fervid and despondent totalitarian state (both national and psychological) that Bulgarian filmmaker Kostadin Bonev interpolates to feed his latest feature Away from the Shore. The film adopts an all-too-familiar trick of using theatricality to depict the high drama of life in a repressive regime and seamlessly navigates between the two, throwing the audience off guard at times. But there’s more to Bonev’s meta-theatre that that.
Ostensibly set in the critical period of Communist breakdown across East Europe—when collective upheaval swept away Soviet-bloc governments in the Balkan states one by one—the events unfolding over the course of Bonev’s film suggest that they precede the fall of the Bulgarian dictatorship in 1989.
But in the director’s own words, the cinematic value of Away from the Shore is insured by the rampant censorship of art even in the twenty-first century, as artists still struggle to produce critical and disparaging works in fear of today’s authoritarians governments.
At the centre of its action is exiled and egotistical playwright Zlati, played with inimitable poise and disillusionment by Penko Gospodinov. Driven from Sofia, the political and cultural capital of Bulgaria, Zlati finds himself directing a provincial theatre troupe to stage his new play “Gulls off the Beach” despite courting several dangers and challenges.
On a surface level, the film solemnly and sympathetically portrays Zlati’s complex inter-personal relationships with former friends, foes, colleagues, lovers and well-wishers. On a more immediate level, he is battling vicarious forces, both political and personal, that pose grave threats to his life, career and security.
On yet another level, the actors who participate in Zlati’s drama offer the film its tour de force with their own dynamic personalities and the spillage of their onstage struggles onto real life. The three most important women in the film, Stoyan, Rumi and Vicky are played by exceptional actors, each embodying intuition, pragmatism, wisdom and denied motherhood; Vicky gently reprimands Zlati in one scene.
There are no fairy-tales, she says. “Fairy tales are conceived of old men with questionable sexuality.”
Which brings us to the play within the play—the key to unlocking Bonev’s layered drama. Zlati, unable to abdicate his political responsibilities, has penned another licentious play (despite possibly being expelled for the last one). Replete with sailors and priests, backgammon and ballads, fools and crooks, “Gulls off the Beach” runs like a parable. And as with all parables, Zlati’s script too is suggestive and offers comeuppance to the wrongdoers.
So when The Stump is elected as the captain of the fabled ship, it is to highlight the dangers of handing over the reins of governance to a megalomaniac. With the sea as a microcosmic placeholder for Bulgaria, the conflict on the ship soon comes to represent and even get in the way of the conflict offstage. The lines between world and stage are especially blurred due to exceptional use of the theatrical mise-en-scene: edit, set design, light and costumes, in that order.
History and memory play two very important roles in shaping the screenplay and dialogues. Most of the characters dabble in nostalgia: some fondly, others wistfully. These conversations offer a window into much of what’s happening and bridge the gap between the present and the past.
That, in turn, develops the mood and atmosphere of the film, exposing the characters and their shortcomings. Just as the Stump’s orders get in the way of crew’s daily routine, so does the Interior Ministry’s constant surveillance and demands, obstructing the natural development of Zlati’s production.
The playwright and his cast members struggle with putting up a different play to comply with the Party’s wishes with actors of its choosing. Meanwhile, the ship runs out of food, and utter anarchy follows, fomenting a revolt against the tyrant captain. The crisis in Zlati’s play, presented in direct concurrence, thus brings Zlati, Bonev and the viewer face-to-face with an interesting conundrum.
Will the revolutionary fervour of Zlati’s play leap from the pages and take on the oppressive regime? That is for the viewer to find out. But the film effectively holds up a mirror to suggest the need for free speech. For Bonev who believes that cinematic reality is more real than that surrounding us, Away from the Shore, therefore, serves to exemplify how art can awaken reality to action.
Prarthana is presently in between odd jobs and obtaining her master’s degree in literature. She loves modern poetry and meditative cinema. Based out of Calcutta, Prarthana observes people, football, films and enjoys writing about all three. Of late, she relates to Frank Ocean’s music. Her writing experience consists of writing for various sites such as Try Cinema, The Indian Economist, Doing The Rondo, Saintbrush and various academic journals.