Radoslav Spassov: Stolen Eyes (Otkradnati ochi), 2005

reviewed by Yana Hashamova,© 2006


Radoslav Spassov’s Stolen Eyes depicts the sad encounter and the tragic love between a young Bulgarian man Ivan (Valeri Iordanov) and a Bulgarian-Turkish woman Aiten (Vesela Kazakova) in the late 1980s. During this dark period of recent Bulgarian history, the last communist regime conducted an assimilation campaign aiming at erasing the ethnic and religious identity of the Bulgarian Turks: they were forced to adopt Christian names and forbidden to speak Turkish, to show any ethnic signs in their dress code, and to celebrate Muslim holidays. Since the TV mini-series Burn, Burn, Little Flame (Gori, gori, oganche; dir. Rumiana Petkova, 1994), which aired more than a decade ago, Stolen Eyes is the first Bulgarian film that attempts to unravel the events and to apologize for the ethnic assimilation pursued by the communist party. Unwilling participants on the opposite sides of this political operation, Ivan and Aiten meet under dramatic circumstances and their lives become tragically interwoven.

Stolen Eyes opens with narrative titles describing the ethnic cleansing orchestrated and carried out by the communist leadership in the second half of the 1980s. The film opens on 29 May 1989, a date that marks the end of the years-long campaign. The documentary feel is further reinforced by the authentic voice-over of Todor Zhivkov, the former Bulgarian prime-minister, who appealed to Turkey to open its borders and absorb the protesting members of the Bulgarian-Turkish minority, thus, compelling them to emigrate after having humiliated them. The voice-over accompanies images of congested traffic at the Bulgarian-Turkish border. With long takes the camera shows endless melancholy lines of cars overloaded with people and luggage. Ignoring the warnings of her brother (Nejat Isler), Aiten leaves one of the cars and heads back to Bulgaria, where she joins her grandfather, the sole settler of a deserted village.

In a flashback the film shows Aiten a few years earlier and follows her through the shattering days of the assimilation campaign, when government representatives escorted by soldiers raided all areas inhabited by ethnic Turks forcing them to change their names. The assimilation campaign is shown from the point of view of Ivan, a new recruit serving his mandatory military duties. The director offers several scenes that reveal Ivan’s reluctance to participate in the ethnic cleansing and the authorities’ manipulations in exploiting national sentiments and fabricating stories of threats to the stability of the state. Thus, Spassov implies that not only Aiten, but Ivan, too, is a victim of communist policies and practices.

Because of his extraordinary visual memory Ivan is pressured into accepting the assignment to keep the official seals for the new identity documents of the Turks. Hoping to disrupt the process of abuse, the schoolteacher Aiten (who is also a married mother of a little girl) attempts in vain to destroy the seals. Her action brings her closer to Ivan who is fascinated with her conviction and courage. In this part of the film, the personal story of Ivan and Aiten is overpowered by background trials. Spassov constructs poignant scenes of identity rape: cynically, government officials impose random Christian names, new birth places, and even different dates of birth; they erase the names from Turkish tomb-stones; and they force the re-named citizens to celebrate their new identities.

Aiten’s husband’s death early in the events and her brother’s protest and hostility toward the officials deepen her conflict and make her reject her new name, Anna. Led by her convictions, Aiten opens a mosque that has been sealed, and leads women and children who attempt to block the road of the soldiers enforcing the new regulations. Tragedy strikes when Aiten’s little daughter gets lost in the crowd and is run over by a tank. It becomes clear that Ivan was driving the tank, causing the girl’s death in his panic and bewilderment. Shocked, he loses his memory and is placed in a mental institution. Soon thereafter Aiten finds herself in the same clinic.

Through cross-cutting, Spassov interweaves scenes of life in the mental hospital with earlier scenes of Aiten’s protests and Fatime’s death as Ivan tries to recover his memory. After his release from hospital, determined to seek repentance and a relationship with Aiten, Ivan moves to the deserted village where she lives with her grandfather. Aiten’s immediate reaction is hostile. Later on, however, she overcomes her animosity and gradually grows to accept and love Ivan. One of the last scenes shows Halil, Aiten’s brother, who comes back from Turkey to take his sister over the border. He overhears her speaking to Ivan after lovemaking and viewers see him leaving the house with a gun in his hand. A shot would have been the natural outcome of the scene, but the director refuses to portray a vicious cycle of violence. Instead, Halil angrily throws away his gun and kneels shocked, recognizing the tragic mistake he could have made. Spassov decides to end the film with Aiten and Ivan content and in love. The image of their new house, standing between the village’s mosque and church, becomes a sign of the filmmakers’ hope and optimism for ethnic peace in Bulgaria.

Despite this uncharacteristic (and criticized) happy ending, the film is emotionally moving with its honest concern for the past humiliation of the Turkish minorities in Bulgaria and the hostilities it awakened. For most of the film, the director’s composition is imaginative and astute, the camera work is competent, and the performances by Valeri Iordanov and Vesela Kazakova are captivating (although her presence is somewhat less persuasive because in spite of her efforts to learn Turkish, her voice is dubbed in parts of the film). Yet Kazakova’s performance is convincing and arresting when she projects Aiten’s dilemma: to continue her life in Bulgaria and at the same time to keep her human dignity. Despite the unnecessarily prolonged second half of the narrative, the film powerfully conveys sympathies for the heartrending destinies of the Bulgarian-Turkish minority. While the cameo appearance by Rangel Vulchanov, a prominent Bulgarian director, makes the scenes in the mental institution—during which Ivan obsessively draws the eyes of Aiten and her little girl—interesting, these scenes are too long and superfluous.

It is interesting to note that Radoslav Spassov, Bulgaria’s best-known cinematographer in the 1980s, worked on Liudmil Staikov’s Time of Violence (Vreme na nasilie, 1988), a historical saga that was commissioned by the state and appeared at the time of the assimilation campaign. The film depicted an episode in the sixteenth century of the Ottoman Empire’s involvement in the Balkans. Here, the Ottoman Turks were portrayed as sadistic and heartless violators of Bulgarians’ rights to their Christian religion. Scenes of rape and torture, preceding the forceful conversion of Bulgarians to Islam, were the focal point of the film, although most historical sources testify to mainly voluntary religious conversion in the Balkans. It seems that now, fifteen years after the end of the socialist regime in Bulgaria, Spassov has tried to offer an impartial view of the ethnic interactions in Bulgaria and to unveil the destructive impact of official practices, as well as the dangers of social indifference.

Yana Hashamova, Ohio State University

Stolen Eyes, Bulgaria and Turkey, 2005
Color, 111 minutes
Director: Radoslav Spassov
Screenplay: Radoslav Spassov, Neri Terzieva
Cinematography: Plamen Somov
Production-designer: Georgi Todorov
Costume-designer: Boriana Semerdzhieva
Music: Bozhidar Petkov
Cast: Vareli Iordanov, Vesela Kazakova, Nejat Isler, Itzhak Fintsi, Iliiana Kitanova, Stoian Aleksiev, Maria Kavardzhikova, Deian Donkov, Anani Iavashev, and Rangel Vulchanov.
Producers: Galina Toneva, Kiril Kirilov, Atilla Yucer, Karem Altug
Production: Gala Film and Yaka DDE Film
Awards: KODAK award for Best Bulgarian Feature Film at the Sofia International Film Festival 2005; Best Actress award for Vesala Kazakova at the Moscow International Film Festival 2005.

Radoslav Spassov: Stolen Eyes (Otkradnati ochi), 2005

reviewed by Yana Hashamova,© 2006