Submitted as Bulgaria’s official candidate for the Oscars, Zift is the striking directorial debut of Javor Gardev, whose theatrical background did not prevent him from conceiving and realising a film exuding cinematic knowledge from every frame. Mixing the aesthetic codes of noir with the absurdist provocation of sots-art (Soviet Pop Art), Zift follows Moth, an innocent man who was thrown into jail just before the communist coup in 1944 and is released on parole in the totalitarian Sofia of the 60s. The film plays on the binary opposition between the austerity of an oppressive regime and the murky atmospheres of the noir genre, here injected with a destabilising amount of irony (a diamond is secretly embedded in the oversized penis of an African statuette). The genre deconstruction parallels the critique of the pompous faÃ§ade of Soviet sternness, sublimating the artistic project into the shiny black immanence of the zift (shit), whose meaning is as saturated as its coloration. The film possesses the rare gift of inventiveness and implies an artistic distance towards the sort of fare that crowds our polluted screens, and yet, besides a screening at the East London Film Festival we will probably be denied any further opportunity to enjoy this fine piece of filmmaking.
Celluloid Liberation Front met Javor Gardev in the entangled scents of Istanbul, eager to understand why being dangerous keeps you alive…
Celluloid Liberation Front: For a first-time director you handle the codes of film noir very confidently. Where does this confidence come from?
Javor Gardev: I researched the film noir genre extensively with the screenwriter. We watched lots of films from the 30s to the present, and like a sponge I absorbed all the constitutive elements of the genre. I also attentively watched over and over entire sequences in order to grasp the creative structure and the editing logic behind them. This preparation work resulted into a 280-page script where the whole film, sequence by sequence, image composition included, was written down in full detail. The image composition and the lighting were also prepared in advance with the director of photography with whom I looked for a compositional balance between the aesthetic process and its position within the montage, but also within the broader alchemy of the whole film, soundtrack included. It’s also interesting to note that the creative crew behind the film (except the DOP) is entirely constituted by first-timers with whom I had already worked with in theatre; the young music composer started writing the soundtrack when the film was still being shot.
CLF: Does the twisted deconstruction of the noir genre somehow parallel the critique of a totalitarian and austere regime?
JG: Yes, sure, the film is in fact very much influenced by Sots-Art (an avant-garde artistic current developed in 80s Russia) whereby the pompousness of the Soviet iconography was being undermined by placing it within absurd and ridiculous settings and situations. I proceeded along a similar perspective, trying to articulate what I personally call ‘grotesque social criticism’, that is, poles apart from Socialist Realism, the deconstruction of the faÃ§ade certainties of the regime as much as those of a cinema genre. For example, in Zift there are Bulgarian folk stories injected with a dose of black humour and irony that function as a provoking challenge to today’s Bulgarian society in relation to its communist past.
CLF: How did the idea for Zift come about?
JG: The film is based on the first fictional book by Vladislav Todorov (the screenwriter of the film). His previous work in philosophy and cultural anthropology has included some interesting speculations about the symbolic overproduction of appearances in order to cover up the scarcity of goods characterising the Soviet era. The hard-boiled genre is also a novelty on the literary landscape of Bulgaria, and I immediately thought that the book was extremely apt for a cinematic adaptation.
CLF: Why not for a theatrical one?
JG: The book is very evocative in terms of landscape, it needed images, I couldn’t possibly have adapted it for the stage. Furthermore, the writer was iconographically influenced by cinema when writing the novel.
CLF: At some point, the main character hears ‘tobacco-stained voices’. I really liked this ‘sonic image’ and I thought it was representative of your eloquent aesthetic approach. Were soundtrack and photography conceived in close connection?
JG: All the filmic inputs are conveyed together, we worked with the idea of a choral composition, always looking for a harmonic balance between the different elements. The smells of the movie are conveying its moods.
CLF: Which elements from your theatrical background helped you in realising your first feature?
JG: The timing of dramaturgy is surely one of them. Editing helps you a lot in cinema, but the management of the perception of time and how to make it work during the screening in order to interact with the audience is something I learnt in theatre.
CLF: Do you think it is different to direct an actor on stage and on set?
JG: Yes, definitely. On set, there is no continuity. In theatre, once the actor has entered the role it is easier for him/her to maintain it, but on set the actors are continuously interrupted. Hence it becomes much harder to keep the necessary concentration that the character requires; it’s very easy to ‘lose the role’. Cinema is a synergetic work, therefore a more fragmented one, where acting is built around different temporal coordinates.
CLF: How was the film received in Bulgaria and abroad?
JG: In Bulgaria, it was very successful, it was a box office record and even did better than the US blockbusters, and as soon as it leaked on the internet it was downloaded 42,000 times in two days. Nonetheless, it also sparked a bit of controversy since parts of the Bulgarian audience couldn’t deal with that kind of irony challenging their certainties. The film has been shown to critical acclaim in many festivals (Toronto included) and will be distributed in two very big markets, Russia and the USA.
CLF: Does the concept of national cinema concern you?
JG: Not in strict terms. Bulgaria is very concerned with this concept, but I believe that it brings up ideological predispositions that transcend cinema to go into ‘politics’. I wanted to engage the audience in a non-representational debate about Bulgaria’s past and its effects on the present, trying to figure out the metastases paining a social body burdened by its communist past.
CLF: Your film reminded me aesthetically of Lang’s M and the dense chromatism of Jean-Pierre Melville. What are your filmic influences?
JG:Early Kubrick, Dassin, Ritchie, Tarantino, the Cohen brothers and Russian avant-gardist Aleksei German.
CLF: What does Zift represent for you?
JG: You mean the film or the zift itself?
JG: (Laughs) I expressly overloaded the word with meanings so the film would reflect this signifying density covering the holes of reality, sticky entrapment, the shit of life, the inability to get rid of it… the Zift.
Interview by Celluloid Liberation Front