13th Sofia International Film Festival
Dilys Powell (1901-1995), the venerated doyenne of British criticism, taught me a lesson I never forgot. One afternoon on the Croisette, some three decades ago, we interrupted our discussion on D.W. Griffith and John Ford, two of her favorite directors, whom she had writen at length about in the Sunday Times and Punch.
I wanted to hear her discuss the pros and cons of what we had seen among the Cannes competition entries.
So, brashly, I reached into my shoulder bag and pulled out my freshly penned Variety report on the first half of the festival. It was loaded with pungent flowing commentary for a dozen Cannes entries, some of which appeared to me to be sure candidates for Palme laurels, others just trendsetters.
Dilys paged through my lengthy ledger of opinion snorting without raising an eyebrow. Then let me have it right between the eyes: “Ron, one film can make a festival!”
She was, of course, right. That year, we hadn’t seen anything very impressive up to then at the Palais press screenings. But the “Dilys scissors” wasn’t a lesson I could take to heart during the world’s most respected film festival.
So over the years to follow, I still kept to my shotgun approach to Cannes film criticism on the assumption that this is what our trade newspaper readers wanted to read. To say nothing of a hidden fear that I just might overlook the Golden Palme winner in my scribbling.
The case was different, however, when it came to the lesser film festivals. Here, as Dilys pointed out, one film could indeed make a festival memorable. My subsequent reports on these events were often written with the Dilys Powell scissors in my head.
And it paid dividends at the 13th Sofia International Film Festival (5-15 March 2009).
Sofia was packed with reruns from the major festivals, films that I had already seen and mostly written about. And although the directorial tributes to Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders were welcomed relief, still they were rather run-of-the mill for a conscientious critic.
The one film that caught my eye was Europolis: The Town on the Delta (Bulgaria/Austria), a documentary by Bulgarian filmmaker Kostadin Bonev. Those 80 minutes stayed with me for the rest of the week.
Europolis is based on a 1933 novel with the same title by Eugeniuu Botez, an engineer by profession, who was then serving as the commandant of the harbor town of Solina. Botez chose to tell Solina’s story under an anonymous pen name Jean Bart and with good reason.
At that time, his fictional “Europolis” (read: Solina) on the Danube Delta at the Bulgarian-Romanian border was a booming seaport with ships arriving daily from around the globe. Jean Bart, however, prophecized in no uncertain terms the slow death of Solina, although, back then, this lively town in the early 1930 was populated with a peaceful community of ethnic nationalities, mostly seamen, from across Europe as far away as the British Isles.
Jean Bart was soon proven right. Shortly after his controversial book appeared in print, the seaport did begin to die. First, from the aftermath of the World War One. Then, due to the approaching clouds of World War Two, a calamity that would eventually split Europe in two.
In Kostadin Bonev’s Europolis: The Town on the Delta the ruins of the seaport offer token evidence of what once was. A glance at the town’s cemetery reveals a population of Greek pirates, British sailors, French cooks, and Bulgarian coal workers hired to stoke the vessels’ boilers, and you name it.
A few oldtimers are still around to tell tall tales of times past among them, a pegleg tailor, a gravedigger, and a former smuggler.
Their memories are the stuff of legends and adventure. The story of a lost Europolis before the European Union would fulfill its dream of destiny.
Europolis: The Town on the Delta was, indeed, the one film that made Sofia a festival for the books.