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Success as a chameleon
© Yoana Pavlova
First Publication: altcine
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With the start of Karlovy Vary IFF, Bulgarian cinema takes part in one of the most thrilling selections presented at the Czech festival this year, Variety΄s Ten European Directors to Watch. No wonder the favored title is The Color of the Chameleon (Tsvetat na Hameleona), a film that managed to win for less than a year the hearts of local and international audience, as well as critics – something that has not happened since Eastern Plays (Iztochni Piesi) in 2009. Still, if the main weapon of Kamen Kalev΄s feature debut was its sincerity, the case of The Color of the Chameleon, “über-stylish spy-movie pastiche” about an “imaginary spy network”, is slightly different.

Aside from the fact that both Kamen Kalev and Emil Christov worked as cinematographers before sitting in the director΄s chair, their first films have something else in common too – clever festival tactics. While most Bulgarian filmmakers see European festivals (especially the Holy Trinity Berlin/Cannes/Venice) as the highest instance of quality and success, it turned out Toronto may offer some really good opportunities plus convenient timing. Accidently or not, the breakthrough of Bulgarian cinema at TIFF came thanks to Agitprop and their production The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories, second documentary feature in Andrey Paounov΄s filmography. His next film got a world premiere in Toronto only two years later, and in a way it is thanks to The Boy Who Was a King that the absurd political reality of our country infiltrated the West.

Thus, when last August it was announced that The Color of the Chameleon will be shown for the first time in Toronto, this looked like a logical decision, even for a film posing as Spy Games with post-Warsaw Pact irony. Let΄s not forget, though, that one of the largest communities of Bulgarian or even Eastern European expats is precisely in this city, so no wonder the film was received well, both by people who decoded the sophisticated subject line without any effort and by people whose curiosity was piqued enough to leave the screening room wanting more. It did not matter that The Color of the Chameleon came from a small country on the other side of the globe, narrating on some chaotic and peculiar political past – espionage has never been more topical!

What followed next was a fortunate series of festival participations and awards. In October the film won Grand Prix at Golden Rose in Varna, a large showcase of new national productions and a must-visit for Bulgarian industry professionals. In November, The Color of the Chameleon got a Special Mention at Thessaloniki International Film Festival, a high-quality event that often features new Bulgarian titles, but they usually have difficult time earning a prize due to the severe regional competition. Then, after a stop in Stockholm, the film had quite a tour around US – Palm Springs IFF in January, New Directors/New Films in March, RiverRun IFF in April, with very supportive, even flattering critiques. Meanwhile, in March, at Sofia IFF,  The Color of the Chameleon caused furore which exercised beneficial influence on its local distribution, starting April 5th. Respectively, at the ceremony of Bulgarian Film Academy on May 31st [], the film picked eight prizes, among which –  for Best Feature and Best Director.

It is noteworthy that the opinion of Bulgarian spectators and Bulgarian film critics do not often coincide. In addition, The Color of the Chameleon is not an “easy” film – talkative yet static at the same time, it demands viewers΄ attention on many levels. First of all, a foreigner can easily spot visual and narrative references to Titanic, Casablanca, Taxidermy or the early Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro. For me, however, Emil Christov΄s debut is also a link to other Bulgarian features, such as Tilt (2011), Zift (2008), Avantazh (1977) or the highly popular TV show "Under Cover". Besides, with the intellectual delight of decoding authors΄ intention comes also another game, in which, I am positive, every Bulgarian spectator is eager to participate. The Color of the Chameleon amuses oneself with the common notion that Bulgarian movies are usually theatrical and shot in grey-brown color scheme. Given that through Emil Christov΄s camera passed some of the most important frames in the last 30 years of Bulgarian cinema, he seemed to derive maximum pleasure in turning genre clichés, pompous phrases and masquerade noir into an artistic arsenal – and an enjoyable one. Even the usual cause of disagreement between aesthetes and regular moviegoers in Bulgaria, the way sexuality is being represented on screen, feints with large doses of absurdity and commitment to the concept of power.

Last, but not least, The Color of the Chameleon is a version of the Bulgarian past that conveys sense, order, and romance, but as recent political events in the country proved* this is just another illusion – à la Batko Stamenov, of course.

  Eastern Plays
  The Color of the Chameleon
  The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories
  The Boy Who Was a King
  Emil Christov
  Kamen Kalev
  Andrey Paounov
  Thessaloniki International Film Festival
  Sofia International Film Festival
  Agitprop Ltd
  Sofia IFF Official Site
  New Directors/New Films Official Site
  RiverRun IFF Official Site
  Palm Springs IFF Official Site
  Toronto IFF Official Site
  Karlovy Vary IFF Official Site
  altcine Explore movies by Country People To read
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