Pauline Boudry, Brigitta Kuster, and Renate Lorenz: Copy Me, I Want to Travel, 2004

reviewed by Velina Petrova© 2006

When filmmakers set out to do a hugely ambitious project, filmgoers get to see either an impressive product, or one whose ideas are impressive even if the execution is not. Filmmakers Pauline Boudry, Brigitta Kuster, and Renate Lorenz set out on just such an ambitious project: to tell the story of the computer industry in Bulgaria and to explain how women got written out of that story. They took along three Bulgarian women programmers who now live abroad, trying to make it in a field that is doubly slanted against them: they are foreigners and they are women in a male-dominated industry.

The product, Copy Me, I Want to Travel, takes us to Bulgaria, the programmers’ native country, where we go on a journey of discovery. Interviews, documents, newsreel footage from the 1980s, and reenactments tell the story of how the Communist government, before 1989, made the computer industry one of its flagship projects, investing heavily in human and material resources, and even breaking its rule of isolation from the Western world to import information and know-how. And know-how it did import: the most advanced computer put together in Bulgaria, the Pravetz, was a reverse-engineered copy of the Apple computer—a public secret at the time, but no secret today. IBM computers were also copied, as was Microsoft software, for which no royalties were paid. In the official parlance of the time—now comical because of its obsolete understatement—the Pravetz was “one hundred percent compatible” with Apple. With the backing of the government, the computer industry boomed; the microprocessor factory, located in Communist president Zhivkov’s hometown of Pravetz, made for a thriving and prosperous community which he liked to show off to foreign visitors. The capacity of the microprocessor factory in Pravetz was about 120,000 computers a year—quite a feat for a country of about eight million people with limited markets in the Eastern Bloc, despite the fact that Bulgarian computers were also exported to North Korea, India, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

Women did important and creative work in the field—as the interviews with current and former male leaders and managers of the industry reveal in the film—even if in the newsreels of the time, women were relegated to supervising the machines that were meant, in the Communist utopia, to replace humans in menial labor. Many people received training and education, starting as early as high school, to join the booming computer industry. Together with brains, however, evil geniuses also developed: Bulgaria is reputed to have produced the highest number of computer viruses that make the rounds the world over. In fact, the title of the film is taken from the words of one such evil genius, the Avenger, the still-anonymous virus writer from Bulgaria who inflicted damage on a truly global scale, appropriately writing “copy me, I want to travel” into one of his creations.

After 1989 came the brain-drain, as thousands of programmers, software and hardware specialists, hackers and virus writers left the country in search of greener pastures abroad. Little wonder, then, that when the filmmakers visit the Institute for Computer Technology, they find no women to interview: all are in Canada, South Africa, Australia, Germany… The microprocessor factory in Pravetz, unable to sell its computers after 1992, turned to producing plastic buckets, and the town of Pravetz, once prosperous, fell to ruin together with the factory.

Why do we assume that the Avenger, the infamous, anonymous virus genius, was a man? Why did Communist-era archives and newsreels cut women programmers, electronic engineers, factory managers, and other computer specialists out of the picture? These are the questions and the overarching theme that Copy Me, I Want to Travel poses. The official policy of gender equality in the workplace was certainly not perfectly implemented; it also backfired for women since they were pushed not only into the double shift, but also into fields and industries that made that double shift all the harder to do. As the woman who set up the mass production of circuit boards in the Pravetz plant puts it in the film, women in Communist Bulgaria carried three watermelons under one arm: the good political activist, the good wife and mother, and the good worker. Women were also effectively written out of the history of the computer industry in Bulgaria. Today, very few remain in Bulgaria, and those abroad have taken a serious step down in their careers: for instance, one of the programmers who participated in making this film went from designing computer chips to taking a job attaching them to boards. They also work for men who treat them as if they are men: as one of the women says in the film, her male co-workers call her “one of them dudes,” tell her that code written by women is simply bad and that she should not come to work in a skirt so as not to distract them. There is little to show for the women who contributed to whatever brain power and success the computer industry had in Bulgaria before 1989.

Since women have long been short-changed in the computer industry and in just about any other industry, even in societies where gender equality was official Communist Party policy, kudos to these filmmakers and their programmer friends for holding up a mirror. Kudos to them for raising these questions and for getting women—and especially men—to talk about them on camera. And kudos for digging into histories, official and oral, and for being so ambitious with their project.

Yet, while watching Copy Me, I Want to Travel, I almost wished that they had not been so ambitious. The film is replete—one could even say, crowded—with themes, questions, and references that remain unexplored and often unclear. Reenactments add little to the points this film makes. For instance, while people tell the story of the booming computer industry in Pravetz, a woman is shown diving into a pond to fish out computer chips; but it is unclear what this scene refers to. Similarly, the discussion of how computers and software developed in the US were copied in Bulgaria is accompanied by a reenactment showing a man and a woman surreptitiously switching identical briefcases. What is this supposed to illustrate? At one point, one of the filmmakers launches into personal storytelling of her limited knowledge about her distant Bulgarian roots, mainly centered on the infamous Bulgarian umbrella designed with a loaded tip to inject poison when opened near a person (which, by the way, was used to kill Bulgarian writer and London émigré Georgi Markov). But this is never explained in the film—and rightfully so, since it, like her distant Bulgarian roots, really has little to do with the computer industry or the women in it.

Having the benefit of a native’s hermeneutical knowledge of Bulgaria and watching the film with an American friend, I found myself constantly explaining conversations, references, and symbols that do not translate readily beyond the Bulgarian context and are not explained or related back to the story of the women. At the very end of the film, almost as a coda—but one that does not function very well—the three filmmakers and the three programmers talk under a banner that reads: “We pretend to work, our bosses pretend to pay us.” This is an old saying in Bulgaria describing the conditions of work in Communist, state-owned industries and factories: the lack of a work ethic, the low quality of work, low wages, no rewards for initiative, and the like. But this is never explained in the film. Does this banner refer to back then in the computer industry? Or to now, for programmers and engineers who take jobs well beneath their qualifications? These questions remain unanswered.

More problematic than the red herrings that the film raises with its references and symbols are the critical questions intertwined with the position of women that also remain unanswered. Asked to accompany a journey of discovery and learning, viewers are left instead with too many topics and curious possibilities packed into a short time and left unexplored. For instance, how did propaganda come to replace history in Communist countries and how did this really affect women—not in cutting them out of some archival pictures of computers, but in their social, economic, and political positions; in the lack of feminist movements in Eastern Europe and in the outright contempt for such movements held even by women themselves? What did the treatment, back then, of women’s work as inferior, as merely a supplement to their roles as wives, mothers, and maids leave as a legacy for today in terms of the deeply internalized attitudes, beliefs, and opinions people carry? If their male bosses in software companies get to discriminate against them as women, what is the state, no longer dominated by a Communist party, doing about that? Or about the ruefully lacking respect for and defense of intellectual property, starting with blatantly copied software and hardware before 1989 and extending into the intellectual property, including by women, created today?

To be fair, it is easy to criticize a film for something it does not do and perhaps did not intend to do. As far as films about Bulgaria are concerned, and more specifically about women in Bulgaria, and to top it all off, about women working in male-dominated fields in Bulgaria, Copy Me, I Want to Travel is a real achievement. And while my native knowledge of the context is an asset with the unclear references and symbols, it is also probably the main reason for my dissatisfaction with the unanswered questions. But to add to these questions: Balkan—Bulgarian included—cinema has a long history of films shot through the Western-outsider’s gaze or through that of the native son (or in this case, daughter) who returns home after living abroad to direct that gaze at local people, customs, and histories. And here—in a backward, underdeveloped little country that thought that it could have a competitive computer industry, that blatantly violated intellectual property rights, women’s rights, and just about any other human right—this gaze finds the hidden treasure of smart, accomplished women. It does not explore their reality, their context, their lives beyond their recollections of a few stories from the computer industry and a few comments on being a programmer today. How does a film made by women about women, ostensibly to empower women, come to terms with the fact that its gaze—of Western outsiders and Westernized natives—is inherently disempowering? While I applaud Copy Me, I Want to Travel for raising difficult issues about women’s positions and roles, I also cannot but add this question to my list.

Velina Petrova, Emory University

Copy Me, I Want to Travel, Germany, 2004
VHS, color, 68 minutes
Producer: Renate Lorenz
Production: Medien Produktion/ZDF
Distributed by Women Make Movies

Pauline Boudry, Brigitta Kuster, and Renate Lorenz: Copy Me, I Want to Travel, 2004

reviewed by Velina Petrova© 2006