Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.
A Review by David Finkelstein.
My Heart is an Octopus or My Father on the Shore of the Black Sea, by Bulgarian filmmaker Neno Belchev, is a one-of-a-kind experimental feature, part fictional documentary, part essay, part science fiction fantasy. Belchev uses every cinematic means at his disposal to examine the legacy of his father, an artist who ran afoul of the communist regime, and how the father’s outsized legend affects Belchev’s own identity as an artist, as well as his relationship to post-communist Bulgaria, with its uncertain shifts from kleptocracy to authoritarianism.
The film opens with a 40 second prolog: analog video is distorted by wavy lines of noise, which give way to a shot of the ocean, tinted purple and brown. In the foreground we see an animation of a young man dragging a body over the beach. (I immediately thought of the giant corpse in Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father.) The sound of electronic noise fades into ocean waves. This prolog, like the overture to an opera, contains all the thematic material of the film: the flow of water and clouds, the distortions imposed by media and memory, the heavy burden imposed on a son by the legacy of his powerful father, and Belchev’s readiness to use any and all film techniques to express his ideas.
Parts the film purport to be documentary. The “documentary” video footage is often overlaid with symbols usually seen in a camcorder’s viewfinder: a framing square, a “record” dot, which remind the viewer of the person behind the camera, choosing what to shoot, and when. We are forewarned: almost nothing in this “documentary” is literally true. The character of the “father,” (usually played by Belchev himself) is one kind of self-projection, and the character of the “son” is another kind. The theme, repeated in variations throughout the film, is that the father is a great man and a great artist, whose potential was thwarted by the regime, while the son is a weak impostor, trying unsuccessfully to follow in the father’s footsteps. For example: the father makes an elegantly powerful political video art piece, but the son’s videos are kitsch. The father makes a musical instrument when he is a child, but the son is unable to play it. A glance at Belchev’s website shows a long list of his professional accomplishments, only underscoring the power that the legacy of his father has for him, and how it distorts his self-image.
An agent of the secret police tries to blackmail the father into working as an informant on other artists, which he refuses to do. The regime ostracizes and isolates him, bringing his thriving art career to a halt. The narrator falls into a diatribe, complaining that the communists ruined not just his parents’ lives, but the economies and lives of all who lived in the Eastern Bloc. “Its always personal,” he explains, as we see a beating heart, shown superimposed over a cemetery.
The film employs very diverse storytelling modes to examine its subject. There are long, lyrical, almost abstract sections, where the narrator is simply walking and looking. Belchev is equally concerned with the texture and feeling of the story as he is with the ideas and events. There is an animated section recounting the mythic, mystical story of the father’s abduction by aliens. There is a crime thriller section, where young Belchev and his friends enact revenge on the former communists by robbing a bank.
Throughout the film, circular discs, representing abstract artworks by the father (they are seen in the father’s studio), overlay many of the scenes, slowly spinning. Like prayer wheels, they indicate a spiritual preoccupation underlying the film, and a circularity of form which constantly disrupts the attempts to tell the story linearly. Belchev also seems to feel that Bulgarian politics are circular, as old regimes continually reappear in new guises.
In a long monolog about swimming, Belchev describes the sensation of floating in water as a way of directly connecting with the infinite universe, a way to escape the petty conceptualizations of the mind and enter into a vast, transpersonal realm of intuition. The father compares this intuition to a cloud, and says that the difference between artists depends on how fully they dare to submerge themselves in the cloud: just reaching in one finger, or fully “flying” inside the cloud. It begins to make sense, metaphorically, that the father, the painter of circular discs, was abducted by aliens.
The fifth section of the film is a stunningly beautiful collage of images, sounds, and words. This section is the most poetic evocation of the film’s themes. The collage includes images of nude women on a beach, beating hearts, animated octopi, Aztec ritual sacrifice, red ink released into water, and clouds filmed from an airplane. The sequence poetically recapitulates the son’s complex burden of debt. The father’s voice, grossly distorted and enlarged like a god, makes ominous pronouncements about the magic ability of the heart/octopus to evade bullets. The father has managed to evade every difficulty that life throws at him, thanks to a flexible, creative and positive attitude that enables to turn each catastrophe into an opportunity.
Despite Belchev’s protests that, compared to his father, he is a charlatan, this section makes clear that he shares both his father’s gifts and his wisdom about life. If a great artist is one who enters the cloud of intuition, in this section of the film Belchev flies freely through the clouds. Throughout the film, whenever the father performs one of his tricky escapes, we see a bird in flight. This section ends with an enormous flock of birds flying out to sea. Belchev’s artistic voice has been freed. Bulgaria may be saddled with a series of repressive systems, but not everything remains imprisoned.
This struggle between father and son can only end in one way, with ritual sacrifice, which the film obligingly provides. Even the father recognizes that for the son to thrive as an artist, he must kill the father, or kill the hero-worshipper in himself. The closing credit sequence, which shows the filmmaker’s midsection as he exuberantly dances to pop music, makes clear that this ritual sacrifice generates a rebirth and a liberation. The film itself is an octopus, stretching its tentacles in many directions, looking for an escape from a prison which is both personal and historical. When an artist has the courage and originality of Belchev, combined with his beautiful ability to create poetic and expressive visual and musical compositions, we all have an opportunity to be reborn.