On 23rd July 1943 Nikola Vaptsarov, a 32-year-old former naval machinist and communist collaborator, was found guilty of his part in a plot to supply arms to Bulgarian antifascist military groups and shot dead by firing squad. At the time of his death, he had published a single volume of poetry, its print limited to around 1500 copies, more of which had been given away than were sold. Not long after the communists took control, Vaptsarov’s work was reassessed and its socialist overtones, as well as the author’s martyrdom, proved as popular with the new regime as the sublime verse did with the public; within a few years he was lauded as one of the greatest and best-known Bulgarian poets of all time.
The new documentary Vaptsarov: Five Stories About a Shooting attempts to shine some light on the events that led to that fateful day in 1943 when Vaptsarov’s life was cut short. The culmination of four years of research, the film traces Vaptsarov’s artistic development and involvement with communist and antifascist groups in Bulgaria from his early encounters with the mysterious revolutionary “Doctor Mayler”, through his years in the Varna naval military academy (which was later named in his honour), to his eventual collaboration with militant cells in Sofia.
The question to what extent Vaptsarov was himself an ardent communist, as with many questions surrounding the details of his life, remains unresolved, despite the years of meticulous research. After his rapid rise to posthumous fame, the poet’s mother was continually shunted around the country by the Party to speak about his undying loyalty to the cause. The film presents excerpts from an interview with her in which she speaks of her son’s longstanding membership of and dedication to the Party, but we are told that there is no material evidence of this. It seems that Vaptsarov was a far more casual revolutionary, providing assistance to various groups without any formal ties. He was certainly a fairly amateurish one: the film explains how, in stark contrast to his fellow radicals, Vaptsarov always used his real name in secret communications and held cell meetings openly in his own flat within earshot of his pregnant wife.
In all of its surprising facts and intriguing mysteries, Vaptsarov’s is certainly a story that deserves to be told, and film-maker Kostadin Bonev does a good job of transferring the reams of correspondence and bureaucratic paperwork into a visually appealing piece of cinema. Where the film falls down though, is in its failure to cater for those (this reviewer included) without a preexisting familiarity with the poet, his life and work. While it does provide a number of examples of Vaptsarov’s poetry (read by the narrator as well as elegantly presented in animated cyrillic type) it presupposes far too much knowledge of Vaptsarov’s legacy and Bulgarian twentieth century history, which alongside the sheer number of characters that are introduced and woven into the thick web of the film’s plot over its 70 minute runtime, make it a documentary which is as confusing as it is informative for the average non-native viewer.
Five Stories About a Shooting is undeniably well-researched and sleekly-presented, and to someone with an educated interest in Vaptsarov, communist poetry or modern Bulgarian history will be a genuinely illuminating and thrilling watch. To the average viewer though, it may ultimately prove a frustrating experience.
Kostadin Bonev’s Five Stories about a Shooting (2014) was brought to you by the Bulgarian Cultural Institute, London.