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The 7th Annual Golden Kuker International Festival of Animated Film 9 – 15 May 2016 - Sofia, Bulgaria

In the 7 years since its inception the Golden Kuker International Animation Festival has become an important event in Sofia.  Under the guidance of founder Nadezhda Slavova, the festival continues to grow.  This year 935 short films and 15 feature films were submitted to the selection committee.

In the 7 years since its inception the Golden Kuker International Animation Festival has become an important event in Sofia.  Under the guidance of founder Nadezhda Slavova, the festival continues to grow.  This year 935 short films and 15 feature films were submitted to the selection committee.

Both Nik and I were honored to be invited to be on the jury.   With 10 different award categories to judge, ranging from very short films under 1 minute to feature films, television series, student films, shorts for kids, animated eco films, music videos and advertisements, we had our work cut out for us.

Golden Kuker Award.

   The Grand Prix Golden Kuker Statuette is named after the Koukeri dances which are a symbol of Bulgaria.  The ritual dances date back to pagan times when they were believed to chase away evil spirits and bring health and wealth.  This year it was awarded to the beautifully animated Bear Story by Gabriel Osorio from Chili. It is the poignant story of an elderly bear who tells the tragic story of his life through the mechanical diorama he plays on the street every day.  Bear Story also won the 2015 Academy Award.

The Proiko Proikov Award, the second top prize, is named for the renowned Bulgarian artist, animator, director, and teacher who until his death in 2000 inspired countless young animators.  Our jury unanimously selected The Orchestra by Australian Mikey Hill for the Proiko Proikov Award.  Mikey’s lovely hand drawn 15 minute film, a mixture of humor and pathos, took us into a world where a band of tiny musicians follow life sized characters around and communicate their emotions, fears, and hopes through music.  Elderly Vernon is a lonely man whose crippling shyness causes his orchestra to perform terribly out of tune.  When a new neighbor moves in next door, Vernon and his little brass band of musicians fall in love with their new neighbor and her tiny band of female classical musicians.  Vernon and his ensemble find themselves presented with what looks like their last chance for happiness and they play in harmony at last.  But first they must conquer their stage fright.  The beautifully complex score was composed by award winning Australian composer Jamie Messanger.

The selection of Psiconautos, The Forgotten Children by Alberto Vazquez and Pedro Rivero was a unanimous choice by the jury for the Best Feature Film Award.  The Spanish film is about Bird Boy and Dinky, two teenagers who decide to escape from their island home that has been devastated by an ecological disaster.  Occasionally I found myself forgetting that the back drop for the film is an ecological disaster because they are so beautifully animated. The feature is a continuation of the 2012 short animation Bird Boy which won the 2012 Goya Award.  It doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen Bird Boy because Psiconautos, The Forgotten Children stands on its own as a story.

Preparing for the parade.

On opening night rain didn’t dampen the spirits of the festival goers as we set out on the traditional masked parade through the streets of Sofia.  When we returned to the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts where we were treated to a native folk singer accompanied by a ­­­­­ gadulka player.  The gadulka is a traditional Bulgarian bowed stringed instrument shaped similarly to an oud.  After a welcoming speech by festival director Nadia Slavova this year’s selection committee and International Jury were introduced.  The evening ended with a reception in the theatre lobby which was decorated with panels of comics and animation drawings by students at the National Academy.

Art display by the students at opening ceremony.

This year the festival was held in two locations.  The main site was the Krastyo Sarafar National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2008.  The opening and closing ceremonies and master classes were held there.  Other competition screenings were shown at the Iskar Cultural Center.

My fellow jurors were a delightful group.  Zbigniew Znudzki was producer at SE-MA-FOR until his recent retirement. The renowned puppet animation studio in Lodz, Poland founded in 1947.  Zbigniew garnered an Oscar as co-producer of Peter and the Wolf directed by Suzi Templeton.  I sat on a jury with him last year in Belarus so I already knew that he is a lovely person.  During the festival he gave a master class on puppet animation.  Beginning with an explanation of the use of an armature and discussed each step of the process. He also showed puppets used in his latest project Flipper and Friends.  Much to the delight of the packed audience they had the opportunity to examine the puppets close up after the presentation.

A future animator studying Zbigniew Zmudzki's puppets.

Andronika Martonova from Sofia is a film critic, researcher, and university lecturer in Asian Cinema.  She was a delightful addition to the jury.  Andronika has a vast film knowledge which added a great deal to our discussions.  She also knows Sofia very well and generously shared her knowledge with Nik and I about interesting places to visit and where to find delicious local food and treats.

Bulgarian born animator Rumen Petkov was our jury foreman.  Rumen made his debut as a director in 1973 with his film Miss Island.  In 1982 he created Bulgaria’s first animated feature film Treasure Planet and received the Palm d’ Or in Cannes for Marriage in 1984.

In 1990 Rumen left Bulgaria for Los Angeles where he began work at Animation Cottage Studio.  Since then he has worked as a writer, storyboard artist, and director of numerous episodes of TV series such as Tom and Jerry, Johnny Bravo, Dexter’s Laboratory, and Cow and Chicken.  Rumen, who currently teaches “Direction for Animation” at Cal Arts, encouraged a full audience of young Bulgarian animators to learn the foundation of animation in his Master Class.  He stressed that today everything is possible in the world of animation if you have talent and work hard.

Nik was a fellow juror.  We don’t have the same taste in animation and often we don’t agree after watching a film.  His Master Class “Image and Sound = The Whole Picture” dealt with laying down a good foundation of sound to bring the audience into the film whether there is music or not.  He screened several films that he has created music and/or sound design for and discussed some of the problems he encountered in his work.

Bulgarian animator Dimitar Dimitrov presented “An Animation Studio That Fits in Your Pocket”.  He began by saying that after 20 years of working in animation studios, television, and the game industry, he wanted to make his own film but he could never find the time.  Then “the smart phone found me and I discovered that I had an animation studio in my pocket.”

Dimitar discussed the process that he uses to make his films and the success he has achieved with his smart phone films.  His first film was accepted by 120 festivals and received 20 awards.  Smart phone cinema is becoming increasingly popular as more and more new smart phone festivals are being organized worldwide.

Festival Director Nadia Slavova is not only one of the hardest working people that I know she is also one of the nicest people in animation.  As well as running the Golden Kuker festival Nadia has her own animation company where she creates her films and does commercial work.  She is also an accomplished artist and Nik and I were thrilled to be presented with one of her beautiful floral art works.  During the festival she took time out of her demanding schedule to take the jury members to the Dragalevtri Monastery.  Located in the Vitosha Mountains, the Monastery was established in 1345 by Tsar Ivan Alexander.  The original monastery was destroyed in 1382 when Sofia fell to the Ottomans.  It  was rebuilt in the 2nd half of the 15th century.

Frescos at the Dragalevtri Monastery.

The beautiful church walls are adorned with 15th century frescos along with 16th and 17th century paintings.  The church has become an important repository of Bulgarian cultural records.  Outside of the chapel a path lined with wild flowers, ferns, and tall trees leads to a fountain and a gazebo which houses the community’s large bell.  The chapel and grounds are a very restful place indeed.

Monastery fountain.

Nadia is friends with one of the sisters who used to be an animator before entering the convent.  We had the rare privilege of being invited to tea by her in the residence house.  The sister’s living quarters, built in 1980, has an outdoor patio lined with flower pots and the interior is very cool and serene.

Ruins of the ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica.

Sofia is a historic city with churches and remains from the city’s Greek, Roman, Ottoman, and Soviet occupations.  Nik and I took a free 2 hour guided walking tour of the city.  Our young guide was very knowledgeable and being an actor he added a great deal of theatrically to his historical presentations.  It was amazing to be able to walk among the ruins of the ancient Thracian and Roman city of Serdica which are in downtown Sofia.  The ruins were unearthed when the subway system was being constructed.  At the Serdica subway station a portion of the ruins have been left exposed above ground so that visitors can walk among them but even more spectacular ruins can be seen underground in the Serdica subway station.

Sampling the water at the old bathhouse.

Ever since the Roman period Sofia has been famous for its hot mineral springs with over 40 hot springs in the area.  Unfortunately the public bath which was built in 1913 over a mineral hot spring is no longer functioning as a bath.  The impressive building combines Neo-Byzantine style architecture with the newer Secessionist art elements and touches of Oriental design. Sadly, at the end of the 1980’s, the public baths were closed due to a combination of poor management and loss of interest by the citizens who had private bathrooms by that time.  The building now houses the city’s History Museum.  You can still sample the healthy mineral water at a fountain outside the museum.

Pottery at the Women's market. 

Peppers at the Women's market.

Sofia is one of last truly affordable capital cities in Europe.  With so many historic sites and excellent restaurants I recommend the city as a holiday destination.  A trip to the ancient Women’s Market which is full of fresh produce and houseware is a must.  It is also an excellent place to people watch.  For the more athletically inclined the Vitosha Mountains offer many hiking trails in summer and in the winter there are numerous ski and snowboard trails.

Wooden menu of the Magernitsa Monastery Restaurant.

Dinner simmering on the hearth of the Magernitsa Monastery Restaurant.

One afternoon fellow juror Andronika Matonova, Nik and I met my old friend Nadezhda Marinchevska for lunch.  Nadezhda is a professor at the Institute of Art Studies at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences as well as a one of Bulgaria’s major film critics and the author of several books on the country’s animation.  She has also written about techniques and styles in animated films.  Over sushi we lady film critics had a lot to talk and laugh about.

The Critics - L-R - Andronika Matonova, Nadezhda Marinchevska  and Nancy

Added to all of Nadia’s other accomplishments she is an excellent cook.  The jury’s final discussion luncheon was held at her home in the foothills outside of the city.  It was a feast indeed.  The meat and vegetables were grown on her family farm and the yogurt made by her mother-in-law is some of the best I have ever tasted.  The homemade wine came from Nadia’s next door neighbor.

The jury lunch at Nadia's house - L to R - Nik, Rumen Petkov, Nancy, Andronika Matonova, festival director Nadezhda Slavova and Zbigniew Zmudzki.

All too soon closing night of the festival arrived and the jury revealed our decisions. I owe a warm debt of gratitude to Nadia, her staff, and volunteers for all of their hard work that which made my visit to the Golden Kuker Animation Festival so memorable.

You can read more about the Golden Kuker festival and how to submit your film at


The GRAND PRIX “Golden Kuker” is awarded to: – BEAR STORY – Directed by Gabriel Osorio – Chile

Special prize statuette “Pryko Proykov”  is awarded to:   –  THE ORCHESTRA – Directed by  Mikey Hill- Australia

Prize for the Best Supper short animated film: – JAZZ ORGIE- Directed by   Irina Rubina – Germany

Prize for the Best Short animated film, up to 10 minutes: – BENCHES NO. 0458 – Directed by Ivan Maximov – Russia

Prize for the Best Short animated film, from 10 to 45 minutes: – PIANO - Directed by  Kaspar Jansis – Estonia

Diploma for the Short animated film, from 10 to 45 minutes:– BEFORE LOVE - Directed by Igor Kovalyov – Russia

Prize for the Best Feature animated film: – PSICONAUTAS, THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN - Directed by Alberto Vazquez and Pedro Rivero - Spain

Prize for the Best Episode from TV-series: –  I HAVE DREAMED OF YOU SO MUCH – Directed by  Ema Vakarelova – France

Prize for the Best Student animated film:–  FIRST SNOW – Directed by  Lenka Ivancikova – Czechia

Diploma for the Student animated film: – MY SEASHELL MEMORY – Directed by Yanlai Chen – United Kingdom

Prize for the Best Short film made for kids:– GRUMPY DOES REPAIRS – Directed by  Radostina Neykova ; Sofia Ilieva – Bulgaria

Diploma for the Short film made for kids: – SPRING IN AUTUMN – Directed by Tatiana Koublitskaja - Belarus

Prize for the Best animated Eco film:–  THE BALLAD OF THE HOMELESS – Directed by  Monica Manganelli – Italy

Prize for the Best animated music video: – THE EYE OF THE STORM – Directed by   Masanobu Hiraoka – Japan

Animated Advertisement Film – SGCH – MORGAN’S STORY – Directed by Stefan Wernik – Australia