Post-Communist Bulgaria is a bleak place. Well, that’s the impression that one would get if Eastern Plays was the only yardstick you had to go by. Kamen Kalev’s sombre 2009 drama gives an insight into the mundane reality of everyday life in a suburb of Sofia, with the focus being on two brothers in particular. Itso, the elder of the two, played by Christo Christov is a recovering drug addict whose monotonous days are punctuated by the daily trip to pick up his methadone prescription from the clinic. Ovanes Torosian plays Georgi, who is the stereotypical lost youth, spending his days playing computer games and his nights getting cheap tattoos plastered on his body, whilst falling in with a far-right rabble led by the menacing ‘Fish’ (Chavdar Sokolov).
The tragedy in Eastern Plays is played out not only on screen, but in reality. Christo Christov isn’t really acting; Kalev was unable to find an actor to play the part of Itso, so Christov, who was a recovering drug addict at the time of shooting, ended up playing himself. What we see as Itso’s make-shift art studio was his actual residence. Where the element of tragedy comes into play, however, is that the real Christo Christov died just before the release of the film from a drug overdose. It was his acting debut and finale all in one, and the depth and grittiness he brought to the film truly made Eastern Plays one of the greats of modern Bulgarian cinema.
Where Kalev excels is linking the brothers’ tales together. Itso begins to fall in love with the Turkish daughter (Saadet Aksoy) of the father (Kerem Atabeyoglu) who was attacked by Georgi’s far-right group down a dark and secluded Sofia street. However, despite the differences between Georgi’s attempts to find belonging and Itso’s attempts to find love, there is a clear relationship between these two brothers. Looking out at the countryside from their prefabricated housing complex on the edge of Sofia, we get an idea of just how society and those in it have affected their lives.
Kalev’s work is not as refined as many Western European or American flicks. The scenes are raw and the lighting is off at times, but in Eastern Plays Kalev has created a film which seems to transcend the screen. He was bold in giving Torosian and Christov the leads in what were their big screen debuts, but the pair excelled in their roles. It isn’t polished; the script is sometimes lacking, and there are imperfections in the cinematography, but this only serves to strengthen the film. It reflects the imperfections of post-Communist life in Bulgaria, and it is no surprise that this film was selected as Bulgaria’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in 2009.
Eastern Plays is not a film that won awards based on its cinematography; it won them on account of the incredible work by the two lead actors, as well as Kamen Kalev in making a film which is not only entertaining, but also believable.