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GOLDEN ROSE 2020

Review: Fear

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- In his fourth feature, following the successful Losers, Ivaylo Hristov looks at the refugee issue in Europe with fresh eyes

Review: Fear
Svetlana Yancheva and Michael Fleming in Fear

Five years after a rock band disturbed the quiet life of a provincial town in Losers [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Ivaylo Hristov
film profile
]
, Bulgarian director Ivaylo Hristov uses a similarly disruptive apparition in his fourth feature, Fear [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, currently being shown in the competition of the 38th Golden Rose Film Festival (Varna, 24 September–1 October). With the refugee issue having been explored in so many ways in recent features, Fear puts a funny spin on it, cheerfully commenting on both small-town xenophobia and a pan-European attitude towards those less fortunate.

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The screenplay, written by Hristov, opens with the main protagonist, Svetla (Svetlana Yancheva), sealing the door of a school. We learn very soon that she is a teacher and that the school has been closed because in Svetla’s small village, on the border between Bulgaria and Turkey, there are not enough students. But what the village lacks in pupils it definitely makes up for in the number of refugees, and – if Svetla thought her life was not already riddled with enough challenges – everything changes when the strong-willed woman happens upon an African refugee while hunting for rabbits in the forest.

It looks as if Fear was conceived by two screenwriters, one interested in entertaining the audience, the other in exploring the relevant, heart-breaking experiences of a person forced out of his country and destined to fight rejection at every step. Some viewers may be dumbfounded by a number of choices that Hristov makes in his feature, from turning his male protagonist, Bamba (Michael Fleming), into some kind of blabbering hipster, to an ending that conveys a rather peculiar political message. But Fear is obviously geared towards Bulgarian audiences, partly embracing timid nationalistic positions while gleefully exploring provincial ambitions, corruption and incompetence.

Cleverly promoted, the film has a good chance of attracting an impressive audience in Bulgarian cinemas, as Hristov populates his story with various characters that one can easily imagine living an uneventful life in any small village in Eastern Europe, and even in other parts of the world. We have Mayor Gogovska (Miroslava Gogovska), whose already woefully inadequate administrative talents prove completely useless when the village has to deal with groups of refugees on their way to Germany. We have the village dandy Ivan (Ivan Savov), the burly Bochev (Stoyan Bochev), the chief of the local army garrison, and so on, each character seemingly more than willing to get involved in silly adventures. And yes, all of the Bulgarian characters share their name with the actors playing them, but we have no idea why…

Another surprising element of Fear is the peculiar cinematography of Emil Hristov, probably the most sought-after established Bulgarian director of photography, who made a name for himself in the 1980s. Hristov shooting Losers in black and white made sense, but we really don’t understand why he made the same choice for Fear. And when the camera is not static, it seems that the DoP’s only concern was to make the audience aware of where it is, shooting from carts and drones. The result is artificial, if not ill-conceived.

But the most dumbfounding element is the film’s ending. Given that Fear will probably not travel far and wide (as Losers did), we are not afraid of spoiling it, as it is quite relevant for how the story tackles a difficult topic. Rejected by the entire village, Svetla and Bamba head off to Africa, driven on a cart by a mysterious stranger who is played by the director himself. What the audience of Varna seemed to consider a funny ending is actually heart-breaking, as the film’s only two positive characters are shunned by the village (or society?), apparently being seen off by God himself (Hristov, who is supposedly behind every decision in the film). We would need to interview the director to find out more about this peculiar symbolism, as we are afraid it is mere xenophobia packaged in a cheerful, small-town farce.

Fear was produced by Bulgaria’s Profilm.

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