Andrei Paunov: Georgi and the Butterflies (Georgi i peperudite), 2004

reviewed by Gergana Doncheva© 2006

Pieces of Dreams

Seldom does a film manage to tell a gloomy story in a bright way, but the 60-minute documentary Georgi and the Butterflies (2004) shot by the young and promising director Andrei Paunov completely subverts conventional notions of how a bleak lunatic asylum could be represented by showing it in an unexpectedly light-hearted manner. At first glance, the title comes across as a curious attraction. Cinema-goers, accustomed to avoiding potentially unattractive titles, are provoked and feel a little confused after watching the film. In fact, their bewilderment is fully justified: whenever it comes to depicting mentally ill people or abandoned children, the long-established documentary tradition relies on a certain rigid iconography.

Nikolai Volev’s Home No. 8 (Dom No. 8, 1987), a film that fully utilised the customary cinematic vocabulary of suffering and sympathy, was one of the first Bulgarian films during the era of state socialism that attempted to show the miserable plight of mentally ill teenagers committed to a state-subsidised institution. Made seventeen years later and tackling a similar topic, Georgi and the Butterflies could no longer rely on having much resonance in the context of post-communist society—that is, in a world inhabited by people whose sensitivity has grown callous in a period of what seems to be an almost endless transition, who live immersed in everyday despair and are fed up with hearing bad news all the time. So Andrei Paunov chose a different strategy.

Having spent a couple of years planning his ambitious project, the director was extremely lucky when he received the financial support needed to allow him to realise his idea at a documentary festival in Amsterdam. The members of the jury were genuinely enthusiastic in backing a production that promised to approach the well-known problems of post-socialist countries from an unusual angle. Instead of presenting heartrending scenes or focusing on poverty and its tragic consequences on the socially vulnerable individuals left at the mercy of fate in so-called “homes for mentally ill adults,” Paunov introduced spectators to an extraordinary man—Dr. Georgi Lulchev—a psychiatrist and administrator of one of these institutions, located in the little village of Podgomer.

Dr. Lulchev, or just Georgi, plays a dual role in the film: he is the main protagonist, but very often he shifts to providing a voice-over narration, in which he passionately shares information with the audience on all the obstacles he has previously faced and the failures of his numerous business ventures. The doctor does not complain; on the contrary, every effort he undertakes to make things better motivates him even more. He is convinced that the only solution for improving of his patients’ poor quality of life is to run some kind of small local enterprise on the territory of the home. Over the years, Georgi Lulchev has been involved in countless efforts to launch such an enterprise—from a snail-breeding farm to ventures breeding pheasants and silkworms to a bakery for healthy soy-bread. “These activities,” he points out, “would generate revenue but at the same time they would develop regular habits and skills.” A contemporary Don Quixote, [1] set to fight not against windmills or fantastic giants but against an indifferent state bureaucracy and increasing human alienation, this incurable dreamer is captivated by the traps of a Kafkaesque reality.

State institutions remain silent when Dr. Lulchev appeals for help to furnish the new residential building that has begun to wear down because of systematic under-funding. A few episodes feature the Dutch Ambassador in Sofia—a metaphorical figure epitomizing the faint hope that necessary actions may come through Western charity. The Ambassador carefully listens to the proposals being put forward, but despite his obviously good intentions he behaves very cautiously: no promises are made or false expectations are raised. Nevertheless, Georgi keeps dreaming and spectators are swept into the magic aura of his unbounded optimism and rejection of the deep-seated common sense that frequently dismisses all exciting projects as unfeasible. Who can say whether an unrealised project would be ludicrous or a work of genius?

Andrei Paunov relates the story with a broad smile without confining it to a specific genre. Viewers are free to interpret Georgi and the Butterflies to their own taste—as an absurd comedy or as a trivial tragedy. Unlike fiction films, where the protagonists belong to a made-up world, the characters in Paunov’s documentary are real people and this fact is of utmost importance in understanding the film’s role as a mediator among the estranged members of a deeply divided post-socialist society. By creating a web-site that features lots of information not only about the documentary but also provides Dr. Lulchev's contact details, the filmmaker enables viewers to make financial contributions to Georgi Lulchev’s home for the mentally ill if they wish to do so.[2] Thus, the film exists on two levels: first, as a documentary film that tells a great story and, second, as a means of communication that has the potential to bring together people in need (like Georgi Lulchev) with potential benefactors, in this way advancing the cause of the filmmaker far beyond abstract compassion. In doing so, Andrei Paunov demonstrates a possible way that social communication and mutual solidarity within a national community can be restored. The director glues together the broken pieces of Georgi’s dreams and gives them new life. He sincerely believes in the unending optimism and energy of individuals like Dr. Lulchev, who, indeed, move the world ahead no matter what levels of apathy or negativity may surround them. The film’s positive message, in part, secured for it the Silver Wolf award—one of the most prestigious critics’ prizes in documentary filmmaking—at the Amsterdam documentary festival in 2004.

Gergana Doncheva, National Academy for Theater and Film Art (NATFA), Sofia, Bulgaria


Notes

1] Georgi and the Butterflies received the 2003 Don Quixote Award (Cracow, Poland).

2] See the official web-site of the film.


Georgi and the Butterflies, Bulgaria, 2004
Color documentary film, 60 minutes
Director: Andrei Paunov
Screenplay: Andrei Paunov
Cinematography: Boris Misirkov and Georgi Bogdanov
Production: AGITPROP, with the support of National Film Centre (Bulgaria) in association with Channel 4 (UK)

Andrei Paunov: Georgi and the Butterflies (Georgi i peperudite), 2004

reviewed by Gergana Doncheva© 2006

Updated: 08 Nov 06