A comparative analysis of some of the themes in the Bulgarian short films Shame (2018), Wild Garlic (2019) and So Close Away (2020)
by Jay Townshend-Sherriff
These films have a lot in common, and thus were chosen to be shown together in The Bulgarian Bliss screening event – a part of the FASE (Film and Screen Events) film festival curated by final-year BA Film and Screen Studies students at UAL’s London College of Communication. I was involved in the curation of The Bulgarian Bliss. As a warning, the following text does contain plot spoilers.
All three of these films are works of fiction about thirty minutes in length, with So Close Away being based on a true event. Bulgarian is the spoken language for each, and Bulgaria the main setting. Subtitles available in English. Wild Garlic is the only film shot in colour.
The stories’ settings are all contemporary, and it’s nice that the release dates follow on from one another for the sake of harmony. They are also all quite dark in terms of character, irrespective of being shot in black and white or not, with each following a principal male struggling with their emotions. Shame follows a schoolboy nicknamed “Macho”, first name Mario, seeking the love of a female pupil while trying not to draw attention to the fact that his mother works at the school as a humble cleaner. This goal of his fails, hence the film’s title. Wild Garlic has a hitman as the protagonist who similarly feels shameful, though clearly more about his own occupation. So Close Away focuses on two male prison escapees, but particularly the less dominant one who seems emotionally fraught.
The screening event’s name, The Bulgarian Bliss, is thus a dab of mockery at the seriousness of the films, with the films themselves certainly including their own sense of humour for much the same reason of including a bit of irony. For example, the hitman in Wild Garlic acquiescently offers an old woman he meets at a train station a much-needed lift in his car. An odd act of kindness from a man who kills for money, especially as the woman appears nothing like him in terms of character. The humour continues when he abandons the woman, only to soon change his mind after finding her bag his car.
Shame ends with an unanticipated space rocket blast-off that sends the schoolboy Macho up into the sky. A comic moment, but it seems appropriate in a way because it’s as if the runaway moment is what he was always planning to do if things didn’t work out, which they didn’t: his love interest begins hanging out with older, supposedly cooler, school pupils instead.
So Close Away also ends in a runaway moment, though in a far more prosaic manner by comparison. This last-mentioned film could also be considered the more serious out of the three. There is however still some irony between the contrasting characters of the two escapees. One brutal, dominant and seeking revenge; the other longing to see his father and hide from the authorities. The dialogue works on this interplay.
Travel is another theme that occurs across all three films, no pun intended. In Shame, Macho is seen walking everywhere in the snowy landscape. More than once however, we see him look longingly at an older male student riding a motorbike with a girl on the back of it. Macho’s love interest being one of these girls later in the story.
The other two films are centred more on two characters travelling by car, with Wild Garlic having a train included as well. The cars in these films are very similar – both compact 5-door hatchbacks. Relatively cheap cars, but they give the users the ‘power’ to travel long distances with ease. Important in Bulgaria since it’s not a small country by European standards, and is not densely populated. Less people living there than in London as of 2022. Practically the first thing the escapees do in So Close Away is seek the hatchback and drive away.
Macho in Shame finally gains the power of travel at the very end of the film, in the form of the rocket. Not quite the motorbike he yearns for during most of the story, which would have given him a way to commute, give people lifts, and generally show off this asset, but a rocket is a powerful form of transport, nonetheless.
Along with emotional struggle, loneliness seems to be a theme across all three films also. All the principal males appear not to have anyone close to convey their emotions to, at least not for very long. Macho loses his love interest who would have filled this role. Meanwhile, he is ashamed of his mother’s occupation, and his father is a drunkard who doesn’t live with him.
The old lady in Wild Garlic is oblivious to how her driver tries to earn a living. The hitman has to contend with himself about the decision to go ahead with a hit or not after leaving the old lady at her home. In the end, he runs away from the deed and consoles himself alone.
The more timid escapee called Theodor in So Close Away manages to get away from his prison partner and meet up with his father, but really only to say goodbye before leaving the country in order to continue hiding from the authorities.
Escape is clearly a theme all three films have. So Close Away has this throughout, but each film has it at the ending: the rocket blast-off, the hitman’s reneging of his contract, and Theodor’s flight from Bulgaria.
There is also a play between young and older characters in the films, with the young being in the emotional struggle. In each film, the older character or characters seem more or less unaware of the extent of the emotional struggle affecting the younger, central character. In Shame there is Macho and his mother, in Wild Garlic the hitman and the old woman, and in So Close Away Theodor and his father, Biser. Nothing much indicates a strong emotional connection between the younger and older characters in the films, but in the case of Biser, the man understands why this connection is lacking between him and his son. During a television interview that is watched by Theodor in hiding, the father responds to the interviewer’s question: “Do you consider yourself a failed parent?” with “Yes”. Biser goes on to say: “I wasn’t at home… at lot… and… and so… you lose your child.”
Despite the theme of escape, almost all the scenes in the three films take place in Bulgaria, though they don’t speak a great deal about the culture there. All three stories are personal ones, with little perspective outside the main characters, and these characters interact with few others. Not that it matters for the stories. And all the films are fairly captivating in their own way. Sometimes due to the way a scene has been created, rather than the plot itself. That said, the main characters in the films are strong which of course is important in fiction. Certain filmic elements have also been well crafted.
I wasn’t the one to select these films, and I didn’t exactly get to choose working with them due to a rearrangement of curation, but I found these films to have firm identities and a surprising number of traits in common. They complement each other well as a unique short film collection. Feel free to check these films out and try The Bulgarian Bliss experience yourself.