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Most people that I know don’t really enjoy sitting on festival selection committees, but watching 14 or 16 hours a day of animation is my idea of heaven.  I was delighted when festival director Nadezhda Slavova invited me to Sofia, Bulgaria to sit on the selection committee for the Golden Kuker Animation Festival which will be held on the 4th through the 10th of May in Sofia.


Most people that I know don’t really enjoy sitting on festival selection committees, but watching 14 or 16 hours a day of animation is my idea of heaven.  I was delighted when festival director Nadezhda Slavova invited me to Sofia, Bulgaria to sit on the selection committee for the Golden Kuker Animation Festival which will be held on the 4th through the 10th of May in Sofia.

In front of the President's Palace

This year along with the competition screenings, children’s programs, and workshops the festival will mark 100 years of Bulgarian cinema.  To commemorate this milestone, special screenings and events are planned at the two Golden Kuker screening venues: the beautiful Sofia Museum of History and Natfa Cinema House.  The premier of The Golden Apple, a 24 episode series, will also take place.

At the National Theater

During the 5 day selection process we watched over 750 films to make up the festival’s various categories.  I don’t want to write about the films that the selection committee watched because all of the delightful surprises should be saved for the festival, but I can assure anyone who is going to attend the Golden Kuker Festival that they will see excellent films. 

My two fellow selection committee members, Radostina Neykova and Yury Sekulov, are both respected members of the Bulgarian film community.  Radostina gave me a copy of her latest film Grumpy Does Repairs.  The delightful children’s animation is about a shapeless ball of dust and lint that lives inside of an old rotting wardrobe.  He hates beauty, joy, and most of all light.  When an annoying sunbeam keeps disturbing his sleep, he decides to renovate his home to get rid of all of the light.  Of course, his “improvements” have unexpected results.  Radostina used sewn cut outs to bring the children’s book by Georgi Merdzhanov to life.

My other colleague, Yury Selkulov, is a well-known animator.  He is also active in computer game and interactive productions.

Even with all these films to watch, Nadia made sure that she took me on a tour of her beautiful city. We attended a performance given by the noted pianist Valentin Stamov, who provided live piano accompaniment for three Charlie Chaplin films using Chaplin’s original scores.  At the reception after the concert I had the pleasure to meet Boryana Mateeva, head programmer at the Bulgarian National Film Archive.

Like many people outside of Bulgaria I didn’t know a great deal about the country’s rich animation heritage before my visit.  Boryana gave me a DVD titled Bulgarian Classic Cartoons 1960-1983.  Professional animation in Bulgaria can trace its beginnings back to 1948 when an animation department was started at the Bulgarian Cinematography.  The first films were created using hand-drawn art or puppets.  They were primarily children’s tales based on folk lore and influenced by Disney’s films.

At the end of the 1950’s and throughout the ‘60’s, children’s films were replaced by philosophical parables for adults, without dialogue but heavy on intellectual humor.  Many of the films used parables alluding to failures in social life or ridiculing unpleasant characteristics of the nation.  Animators were the only people working in film at that time that were able to work unhindered by ideological censorship by cloaking their satire in parables and Aesopian language.

A prime figure during this period was Todor Dinov.  His films won numerous National and International prizes at festivals.  In 1965 Margaritkata/Daisy garnered Dinov the Best Animated Film Award at the 6th Cannes International Film Festival of Young Cinema.  It is still a mystery why the film won a Young Cinema Award when it was clearly aimed at adults.  In the film a square shaped little man tries to cut down a daisy.  When he fails he becomes more and more enraged.  His methods become increasingly brutal.  In the end the daisy only responds to the love of a child.

The Sofia Film Studio was established in 1971 and became the home of a new wave of rebel animators.  These angry young men of Bulgarian animation were interested in global issues and existential plots.  Eschewing folk tales and parables, the anger toward the system that Anri Kulev displayed in Hypothesis and the sarcastic attitude of Slav Bakalov’s 1979 Caw!  are typical of the black humor and existential plots that prevailed during this period.

A new generation of animators emerged in the 1980’s.  Their work was aimed at a much broader audience and frequently used main stream humor.  Such young animators as Sotir Gelev and Velislav Kazakov carried on the tradition of the Bulgarian Animation School, but added unconventional techniques for the time such as computer animation and mixing live action with animation as opposed to the traditional hand drawn films.  At the end of the ‘80’s film production had reached 55 or 60 new films per year and helped to establish the reputation of Bulgarian animation abroad.

The 1990’s brought about a sudden decrease in the production of animation due to social and political changes.  The transition to a market economy forced many young animators to migrate.  Velislav Kazakov worked at Richard Williams’ studio in London in 1991-92 and then moved to Montreal where he still lives and works.  Theodore Ushev graduated from the National Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia and began work as a poster artist in his native country.  In 1999 he moved to Montreal where he has gained a reputation as a major animator who has garnered numerous international awards.

Bulgarian animation is springing back to life with yet another crop of promising young animators.  While watching films submitted to the Golden Kuker Festival there were several short animations and a feature film from Bulgaria.  The festival will also premier The Golden Apple, a new animated series created for prime time television by Dimmitar Petrov and a team of young Bulgarian animators.  So far 24 episodes of the 24 minute long series have been completed.  The fantasy series is based on European mythology and folklore.  The Golden Apple is a legendary wish granter which appears only once every century.  The series hero is a 14 year old girl who goes in search of the apple to help her parents. 

The 6th Golden Kuker International Animation Festival will host the Design School of the London College of Communications and the University of the Arts in London along with over 20 special guests.  Sadly I will not be able to attend the festival this year because I have already accepted an invitation to sit on the jury of ANIFILM in Trebon, Czech Republic but Nadia has already invited me to be part of the 2016 jury and I am really looking forward to returning to Sofia and discovering more of its hidden treasures.

Meeting the Pink Elephant in the park

There are no words adequate enough to thank Festival Director Nadezhda Slavova for her generous hospitality.  The meals she created introduced me to traditional cuisine and new taste treats created with home grown meat and produce from the country home Nadia and her husband live in.  I will never forget the delicious, thick yogurt made by her mother-in-law.  So many lovely memories packed into 5 days.

Nancy with festival director Nadezhda Slavova

If you want to discover the rich history of Bulgarian animation as well as seeing the best of contemporary animation be sure to attend the 6th Annual Golden Kuker International Animation Festival in Sofia from the 4th through the 10th of May.  You can find out more about the festival at: