Georgi Dyulgerov: Lady Zee (Leydi Zi), 2005

reviewed by Iskra Bozhinova© 2006

What is Lady Zee, the latest film by Bulgarian director Georgi Dyulgerov (born 1943), about? I think the best way to understand and appreciate this film would be to compare it with Rosetta (1999) and The Child (2005), the two Palme d’Or winners directed by the Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. The three films draw their plots and inspiration from the lives of young people who, for one reason or another, have ended up living in almost total social and economic exclusion. The protagonists are marginalized youths who do not possess anything, material or intellectual, that could guarantee them status or a place in the social hierarchy. Bruno, the protagonist in the Dardenne brothers’ The Child does not feel the slightest impulse to strive to become part of the well ordered, rational, and structured world that surrounds him.

Here, ultimately, lies the main difference―in fate and fortune―between him and his Bulgarian counterparts. The protagonists of Lady Zee are equally marginal figures, but in a different way. The main character, Zlatina (aka Lady Zee), and her friends from the home for abandoned children are only too willing to engage in dreams about the future. When asked what they want to be one day, all the girls say they hope to be either folk singers or models; the boys opt for becoming policemen or football players. The impromptu survey reveals their desire to fit in and participate rather than succumb to the social exclusion that most likely awaits them. These children prefer to dream about the fabulous life that will reveal itself to them beyond the fence of the orphanage, which has been their home for as long as they can remember. Yes, in their immature judgment they invariably choose occupations that will bring maximum prosperity for minimal efforts. But they should not be blamed for their naiveté: the alluring glamour and questionable glory of all these sensational folk divas and footballers that mesmerize these young people come from commercial TV channels. Television is the main source of their dreams; it supplies role models for myriads of poor and uneducated young people who dream of prosperity and self-fulfillment. Even if they are setting their sights quite low, no one can deny their determination to seek a place in society and to fight for it if necessary.

The teenage Zlatina is smarter than most of her peers. She understands that just dreaming to be somebody is not enough; being recognized and accepted as a truly significant person is a lot more complicated and difficult to achieve. Most of the children in the care home do not know who their parents are and, even if they knew, that would hardly make a difference. Some vague hope drives Zlatina to seek her biological mother; her intuition tells her that if you acquire parents and a family, you already get a foot in the door that opens to that other, real life. Zlatina hopes that finding her family will give her the chance to become a proper part of society. Yet, the encounter with her mother―a dark-faced Romani woman―comes as a shock. The discovery that her family―her mother and her late father, who was murdered in a brawl―are Gypsies makes her hopes vanish instantly. Zlatina immediately takes on an inscrutably alienated mask and hastily parts with her newly found relatives. With such an ethnic heritage, all her efforts to break through into the world are bound to fail, not only because she now knows that she is a Gypsy (even though, with her blond hair and blue eyes she does not look like one), but because the people in her family are poorer than poor, occupying a position that is even more marginal than her current social standing as an orphanage child.

But there is even more: in Bulgaria, like elsewhere across South Eastern Europe, Gypsies are usually perceived as a group that does not easily adapt to commonly shared values and social rules. A close-knit and impenetrable community, Gypsies are self-sufficient and stick together, following their own laws and customs that often appear to be asocial. The thought of the social and economic exclusion associated with the Gypsies can be read on Zlatina’s face without her speaking a word. Her aspirations lie far beyond the confines of a possible assimilation within her newly found Romani kin. She is the product of new times, where blood and belonging do not matter much and can easily be ignored.

Zlatina’s next step is to seek a way out and, in doing so, she becomes much more similar to the other orphanage girls: like them, she knows that a love (and sex) affair with a man of prestige and career can catapult her to a different, much higher social standing. She hopes that Nayden, a young prosperous man who comes to visit the orphanage, will get her all this. They share a similar life story: like Zlatina, Nayden was abandoned as a child and grew up in various orphanages, but then became successful as a shooting champion—famous, respected, and most importantly, not forgetful of the place where he started off. He has returned to the care home bringing along not only gifts, but also a genuine friendly feeling and compassion for the home’s inhabitants. During the shooting session that Nayden organizes, Zlatina reveals an astonishing talent for sharp-shooting. Nayden immediately offers to be her coach and to train her at his own shooting range in the capital, Sofia. Lady Zee eagerly embraces this chance, hoping she will soon rub shoulders with “real people.”

And, indeed, she soon ends up in the real world—only it is one that is full of swindlers small and big, petty thieves and home-grown mobsters, each of whom vigorously pushes some clandestine business dealings. It appears that her beloved Nayden doesn’t mind having a finger in every pie and seems to feel fine amidst this scheming crowd; yet he comes across rather awkwardly and most often turns out to be on the losing side in the big money game. Nayden never manages to get much wealth; similarly, Zlatina never manages to achieve the high flying career in shooting he had promised her. After a single sexual encounter with Nayden, Zlatina’s love evaporates. He no longer feels much for her either and stubbornly resists her plans to flee together and to get another, better life somewhere far away. What Zlatina has perceived as sexual attraction on his part turns out simply to be human solidarity for the deprived, a desire to help a girl whose ambitions are larger than life. The explanation of Nayden’s incongruous character comes only at the end, when he rushes to rescue Zlatina from the horrid and outlandish brothel where she has ended up, driven again not by a desire for personal gain but by sympathy with the socially weak.

The most selfless and devoted accomplice to Zlatina’s whims and misguided ambitions proves to be the quiet Lechko, a young Gypsy boy from the orphanage who follows her like a dog, everlastingly awestruck by her pale skin and piercing blue eyes. She is the only thing that matters in his life and he lives by one law only: her happiness is his happiness as well. But Zlatina soon abuses Lechko’s affection and sheepish devotion in what will become her third and last attempt at social success—acquiring money. Lechko and Zlatina’s ludicrously silly money-making adventures end tragically as the pimps they try to cheat not only get back the money they have paid for Zlatina, but also beat her severely and sell her to a whorehouse somewhere outside of Bulgaria.

None of Zlatina’s three attempts to fit in and move up is even partly successful; instead, she keeps falling lower and lower. Why can’t she make it? There are many possible explanations; after all, many others have also failed in their attempts to find a place in the sun. Such tragic failures are surely not unique to Bulgaria. One possible explanation in this particular case may be that Zlatina was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. But is there a choice as to when, where, and to whom one is born? Like the Dardenne brothers, Dyulgerov, one of the most respected veterans of Bulgarian cinema, is an incurable and compassionate humanist, which is probably why at the end of the film—even if somewhat abruptly and hastily—he gives Zlatina a momentary chance to be enlightened, to learn a lesson and discover a deeper meaning in her bitter experience, to come to terms with herself and humbly accept whatever destiny has in store for her. Zlatina, thus, has a chance to make decisions and to realize her intrinsic worth and virtue.

Plots about poor and disenfranchised people usually come across as melodramatic. Dyulgerov avoids this trap by offering an inventive way of representing recognizable life situations, conflicts, and characters. Authenticity and plausibility loom large without drowning the film in excessive fly-on-the-wall scrutiny or in meandering narratives. The film is composed like a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces of which highlight in turn psychological details, philosophical metaphors, or reportage-type observations. The underlying tune in this stylistic polyphony is the sound of real life, as if untouched by the cineaste’s intervention. With the exception of Nayden (played by the only professional actor in the film, Ivan Barnev) all members of the cast were indeed brought up in a care home for orphans or abandoned children. Dyulgerov not only “used” them to create his artistic vision, but also made each of them confident that one is the true master of one’s own fate. The self-reliance and assurance that Zlatina could not get in the film, actress Aneliya Garbova may be able to get in her real life.

The film has been screened at many international festivals, and was particularly acclaimed at the New Montreal Film Festival and at the Sarajevo International Film Festival, where it received the Jury award, as well as the audience award, The Heart of Sarajevo.

Iskra Bozhinova, Neofit Rilsky Southwest University, Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria

Lady Zee, Bulgaria, 2005
Color, 104 minutes
Director: Georgi Dyulgerov
Screenplay: Marin Damyanov, Georgi Dyulgerov, and Svetlana Komogorova-Komata (verses)
Cinematography: Radoslav Spassov
Music: Mira Iskarova and Hristo Namliev
Production Designer: Vanina Geleva
Cast: Aneliya Garbova, Ivan Barnev, Pavel Paskalev, Roussi Chanev, Vanina Chervenkova, Isus Borislavov, Emil Stefanov
Production: BNT, Borough Film, Boyana Film

Georgi Dyulgerov: Lady Zee (Leydi Zi), 2005

reviewed by Iskra Bozhinova© 2006