A chronicle of my experiences as a Peace Corps Community Organizational Development volunteer in Bulgaria.

Monday, September 26, 2005

The Road to Balchik

Right after I started the Film Club, I saw an article about an International Students Film Festival and told the kids about it. As I've mentioned, the Film Club takes place in the Roman Rolen School in Stara Zagora. This, it turns out, is one of the elite high schools in Bulgaria. Kids from all over the region compete to enter the school and only the brightest and most motivated are accepted. When they learned that there was a competition for student films, they immediately decided to produce an entry. Their plan is to get a film ready for the entry deadline in June 2006 and win the Festival in September 2006. As one of the girls said, "Of course we'll win! What is the point of entering if we don't win?" Never mind that to date they have made exactly zero films and have never seen any of the films that students have made, they will enter and win.

The Film Club, which began in January, melted down during the year and over the Summer became a group of a dozen girls who wrote scripts and began burning up video tape. From this group of twelve, there are three eleventh class girls and two tenth class girls who have become the core of the team that is working on next year's Festival film. They've come up with a terrific story line and are struggling to put it into a working script.

It seemed like a good idea to see if I could take a trip out to Balchik to check out the Festival and get an idea of the quality of the films being entered by students from all over the world. All of the entries were from students enrolled in film programs in universities, none were made by high school students. All of the entries were made using professional level equipment, none were shot with handheld digital camcorders. Most were the result of years of study and experience, none were a first effort. I wanted to help set the girls' expectations to a more realistic level, so I planned my trip out to Balchik. Balchik is a resort town on the Black Sea, about 20 minutes north of Varna. I planned to stay at Sara's place and commute back and forth to Balchik for a couple of days and then return to Stara Zagora armed with intelligence about the state of the competition which I'd then share with the girls.

The girls decided that they would rather see the competition themselves so we hired a minivan and driver and left Stara Zagora at 5:30am for the five hour drive to Balchik. We would go up and come back the same day but we'd be able to see about 20 films while we were there. The seven girls all piled into the two back rows of seats leaving the driver and me the three front seats to ourselves. After an hour or so of riding, I asked the driver to stop so I could get a cup of coffee. Steffi (our team's Producer) was becoming carsick, so she moved up front and sat by the window which moved me to the middle with the gearshift between my knees. She rolled the window down to get some air but the driver, a cheerless soul, kept insisting that she roll it back up or the tuhchenie (see previous post on the Dreaded Tuhchenie) would kill us all. I didn't want to be vomited on so I worked out a compromise position which allowed Steffi to lower the window enough for a stream of fresh air and she rode along like a puppy with its face in the wind.

The driver never said a word and spent the ride listening to the Bulgarian version of the Crop Reports on the radio. From time to time the reception would fade and he'd have to search the dial for another Crop Report. As he'd go by music, the girls would perk up and ask to leave it there so they could listen. He'd just ignore them and go on until he found the droning monotone voice that seemed to make him less miserable than usual. I finally asked him to put some music on for the girls and reminded him that I was paying him for the trip. He promptly turned the radio off. 'I'm paying the bill' doesn't seem to carry the weight over here that it does elsewhere. However, the girls were happy and excited and managed to attract the attention of a car full of boys traveling right behind us, so the radio was forgotten.

We got lost in Varna. This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the quirky manner of road signage in Bulgaria. The signs lead you, with remarkable efficiency, into the most desolate and remote areas of a city and then they disappear. Being lost in the slums of Varna did nothing to improve the driver's toxic disposition but he was a professional so he began to ask directions of passersby. Unfortunately, he would only stop to ask men and only men well into their eighties and then only if they were visibly drooling on themselves or conversing with their own shadows. After an hour or so of wandering, we stumbled onto the road to Balchik and twenty minutes later we all got out of the van at the wrong site. The van immediately drove away.

On its own website, the Festival proudly announces that the venue is the "Palace Complex" in Balchik. There is indeed a Palace Complex in Balchik but if you ever go to the Festival (and I recommend it) pay no attention to this claim because the Festival is actually in the Chitalishte, a building located as far from the Palace Complex as it is possible to be and still be in Bulgaria. I was forced to call the driver and have him come back to take us to the Chitalishte, which did not improve his mood in the least. So, we finally arrived at the Festival just as the morning session ended.

That gave us time to wander around the town and to get some lunch. Then, finally, we went to the Festival and saw some films. The films were in three broad categories; fiction, documentaries and animation. We watched movies from 2:00pm until 6:30pm, met the Festival's organizers and talked with a few of the filmmakers. I quickly realized that these films were way out of our league. They were excellent and we don't have the skill or equipment to compete with them, but the girls were having a ball and were discussing every film like professional critics so who was I to rain on their parade?

Then it was time to herd 'em up and head 'em out. As we were leaving to find the van, Nikki noticed that a party was to begin at 11:30pm and go until dawn. Most of the participants would be there and it was to be hosted by a DJ known as "Porno BPM". They all assured me that their parents wouldn't mind if they stayed for the party. In fact, if their parents had only known about the party to begin with they would have likely insisted that the girls attend. I expressed a measure of skepticism. They earnestly assured me it would be okay. I pictured myself talking to their fathers the next day, "Well, Mr. Ruskov et al, Nikki said you wouldn't mind if I let her stay in Balchik overnight to go to a party hosted by the notorious Porno BPM".

"Get in the van", I said.

"But we want to stay for the party. Why do we have to leave?", they asked.

I used the most famous argument in adulthood, "Because I said so!" and we left.

The ride home was great. They quickly forgot about the party and began to discuss movies and all the other things of interest to seventeen year old girls. Then they began to sing. They sang songs in English and Bulgarian. Did you know that "My Darling Clementine" has 25 verses? Neither did I. At one point I looked back to find that all seven girls were sitting on the rearmost three seats with their arms around each other singing away like drunks in a bar, but happy drunks. This, of course, bothered Mr. Sunshine to no end so he kept putting the volume up on the radio. The girls just sang louder. His picture is in the dictionary next to the word 'curmudgeon'. I turned off the radio and he just glared at me but left it off.

As we pulled back into Stara Zagora I asked the girls how they felt about next year's Festival after seeing the films. Stancho said, "We are more certain than ever that we'll win next year's competition!" That's funny, I thought she saw the same films I saw. All the girls immediately agreed and are determined to finish their script this month so we can get going on their film. They do have a great idea for a short film...at least as good as any we saw in Balchik.

"Oh", Steffi added, "and next year we'll be eighteen, so we can definitely stay for the party."

"Uh, well, you see, Mr. Ruskov, it's like this....."

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