One of the more important developments cinematically over the past decade has been the emergence of social criticism films in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. Generally, the films focus on the continuation of elite privileges under new neoliberal regimes. One of the more remarkable Russian films is Yury Bykov’s “The Fool” that I reviewed for CounterPunch in 2015 and that thankfully can now be seen on Youtube. The fool is a plumber named Dima studying construction engineering who after seeing cracks in the building where he works and lives concludes that they can widen to the point of bringing down the building over the heads of everybody within it. When he brings the emergency to the attention of local officials who don’t want to spend a penny on evacuating the tenants, they launch a vendetta to crush him and cover up their shady deals that led to the defects in the first place.
Bykov has described his film as a treatment of the central dilemma facing his country: conscience versus survival. Now playing at the Film Forum in New York is a Bulgarian film titled “Glory” that is closely related to Bykov’s film thematically. Like Nima, Tzanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov) is a humble worker—a railway lineman who we first see setting his watch meticulously to a radio announcement before going off to work. This is important because linemen must be aware of the exact time to the second to avert oncoming trains.
After synchronizing his watch, Petkov meets up with his co-workers on the railroad tracks they are assigned to maintain. Walking a few dozen or so yards ahead of them, he stumbles across a most remarkable find: millions of dollars in Bulgarian currency strewn across the tracks—its origin unknown. Unlike the rest of his crew or most Bulgarians for that matter, Petkov thought the natural thing to do was contact the police.
His altruistic act turned him into an instant celebrity, something that the state railway corporation—the Bulgarian Amtrak in effect—decided to turn to its advantage. The head of its PR department is a woman named Julia Staykova (Margita Gosheva) who is the quintessential post-Communist hustler. Her main interest is to make an amalgam of this most unusual worker’s idealistic behavior with that of the crooked top executives she serves.
When she goes out with a cameraman to interview Petkov, she is disconcerted to learn that he is a very bad stutterer. Her plans to turn him into a photogenic icon are thwarted by this as well as his overgrown beard that she urges him to trim. She is also not very happy with his shabby clothing. Why couldn’t this hero be more attentive to superficial details? When Staykova returns to her office, she and her underlings laugh at a tape of the interview. They agree with her boss that his stuttering practically outweighs his strengths as a human being but they are stuck with him anyhow.
Next on the PR agenda is to stage a ceremony where Petkov will receive some meaningless awards. Before the cameras roll, he sits next to the director of the railway company who will bestow the awards. Petkov cannot resist letting him in on what the average worker thinks, at least an honest one. He asks why the workers are owed back pay and when will they receive it. He also offers information about theft of railway resources by employees such as selling purloined locomotive diesel fuel on the black market. The director squirms uncomfortably waiting for the ceremony to begin. Where did Petkov get the nerve to bring up such nettlesome questions? Didn’t he understand that when it comes to conscience versus survival, it is survival that must be victorious?
At part of the ceremony, Petkov is to receive a new watch to replace his Slava (Glory), a keepsake from his father whose dedication is engraved on the back of the dial and one he has relied on for his work as a lineman. The Slava watch-making factory was established in the Soviet Union in 1924 and perhaps might be a symbol of the proletarian solidarity that men and women like Petkov foolishly still believe in.
Petkov grudgingly puts his watch in Staykova’s care while the director presents him with a cheap, brand-new watch that does not even keep accurate time. Meanwhile, Staykova misplaces the watch and keeps putting Petkov off as he grows increasingly worried over the possible loss of an heirloom that also has such practical value. The clash eventually spills over into the corruption issues that Petkov raised with the director to the point of turning him into a victim of forces deeply rooted in the Bulgarian bureaucratic capitalist machine dedicated to survival rather than conscience.
“Glory” is a tremendous film and likely to make it my best of 2017 feature films. It is also one that puts a spotlight on the discontent that is ripping apart the fabric of eastern Europe society. In 2013, protestors blockaded the Bulgarian parliament in protest of the corruption that “Glory” dramatized. The NY Times reported:
Metodi Litsev, 34, who has participated in the protests, compared them to clashes in Turkey and the Occupy movement, saying, “If there weren’t protests in Taksim or Wall Street, we might not have found the moral example to seek our emancipation.”
As it happens, this protest movement ebbed just as it has in the USA. Elections were held a couple of weeks ago that resulted in a victory for the incumbent GERB party (“Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria”) that is roughly equivalent to the party in power in Kiev and that stepped down in 2013 because of the street protests. Its leader is one Boyko Borisov, a former Communist whose claim to fame is mastery of the martial arts and playing soccer. Historically, many wrestlers, martial arts experts and secret agents with such skills had been pampered under Communism. Once the system collapsed, they became unemployed just like samurai warriors during the Meiji Restoration. Many like Borisov became politicians while others went to work for organized crime. As GERB’s leader, Borisov emphasized the need to end corruption in Bulgaria. Journalists have dismissed this as purely for show since he has been linked both to the Bulgarian mafia and white-collar criminals like the railway chief in “Glory”.
How bad is corruption and poverty in Bulgaria? Bad enough to drive ten men to self-immolation in 2013 as the protest movement was at its height, just like the Tunisian fruit vendor Tarek Bouazizi in January 2011. Vice Magazine reported on the self-immolation epidemic in 2013 :
Some say the inspiration for it all was a 36-year-old photographer named Plamen Goranov, who burned himself on February 20 in front of City Hall in Varna, a resort city on the country’s Black Sea coast. According to investigative journalists, Varna’s commerce is controlled by a business group called TIM, which the former US ambassador to Bulgaria, James Pardew, accused of racketeering, prostitution, and extortion in a 2005 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. TIM, he said, was the “up-and-coming star of Bulgaria’s organized crime.” Plamen set himself on fire to protest TIM’s alleged relationship with Varna’s mayor, Kiril “Kiro” Yordanov. Before he set his body aflame, he propped up a sign demanding the “resignation of Kiro and all the city council by 5 PM.”
Can Bulgaria’s Socialist Party bring such misery to an end? This party emerged out the country’s ruling Communist Party that renamed and remodeled itself after the system collapsed in 1989. Whether it has much to do with Scandinavian type social democracy is open to question. Most Bulgarians would probably liken it to Greece’s Syriza.
Then there is Bulgaria’s Donald Trump, a businessman named Veselin Mareshki. Like GERB, he represents himself as an enemy of corruption. He calls his new party Will, maybe having Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” in the back of his mind. The NY Times described him as “a blunt-talking anvil of a populist who preaches patriotism, strict immigration controls, friendlier relations with Moscow and, above all, the need to ‘sweep away the garbage’ of a corrupt political establishment.”
If I were a Bulgarian, I’d shy away from GERB, the former Stalinist party and their Donald Trump. What’s the alternative? I’d say young people who exemplify the values of the fictional hero of “Glory” as well as the directors of that film.