Bulgarian native and writer-director Andrey Paounov is an acclaimed figure in recent documentary filmmaking. His films, all produced in his homeland, tell the stories of determined individuals who represent a local community in an increasingly international sphere. His first documentary, Georgi and the Butterflies (2004), shares the dreams of one man to organize a collectivized farm, threading together themes of sanity, compassion, and optimism. The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories (2007), his next film, follows the exciting journey of a hopeful town towards a nuclear future and all its inherent global implications. Paounov was awarded the Silver Wolf at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam for Georgi and the Butterflies, and such attention has allowed his works to screen at such competitive festivals as Cannes and Toronto, where his most recent film, The Boy Who Was a King (2011), premiered.
The Boy Who Was a King proves Paounov is capable of tackling increased scope, as it documents the socio-political rise and fall of one man over seventy years, from the rumblings of World War II through to today. The provocative title refers to Bulgaria’s controversial but widely recognized Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, one time king and later prime minister of the country. Born into Bulgarian royalty in 1935, Simeon would ascend the throne at merely six years of age, when his father died of surprising heart failure, to rule a country at war and allied with Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Shortly thereafter, when the Soviet Union invaded Bulgaria in 1944, Simeon and his family were exiled, not to return to their home until the late 1990s. A newly liberated Bulgarian people called for their rightful king to regain authority, voting him their prime minister and making Simeon the first figure ever to lead a country from atop a once monarchal but eventually democratic political structure.
Paounov tells Simeon’s tumultuous story of royal rise and decline through archival images and video of Simeon’s childhood reign and later democratic campaign, as well as numerous vignettes symbolizing or addressing national understanding of his authority. One sequence following the taxidermy of a royal coyote reads as a metaphor of Simeon’s followers, preserved over time and resistant to change while awaiting the return of Bulgaria’s legal king. More personal interviews with rural, common Bulgarians reveal, however, the controversy over Simeon’s legacy and public image. While most accounts proliferate adoration for the young king before his exile (indeed, Simeon is sure the USSR did not execute him in fear of violent revolt by the Bulgarian people for a beloved youth at that time), there remain scenes of contemporary units, such as Bulgaria’s dwindling Socialist Party, that demand Simeon’s repeated exile after his recent return. There are also numerous instances of unrestrained support for Simeon, Bulgaria’s child king or “doll king,” as some refer, including images of his face tattooed on supporters’ limbs or a dedicated fan who mails him pocketed suits designed from estimated measurements.
Overall, Paounov does not shy from presenting Simeon’s opposition or over-enthused supporters in the film, though it may be hard to argue that The Boy Who Was a King is attempting objectivity. The inquisitive and sympathetic tone Paounov employs in his exploration of Simeon’s life is reasoned with the extraordinary circumstances under which Simeon was thrust into power. Simeon himself is careful to mention various times that the “circumstances of life” influenced his political involvement, not personal scheming or planning. But it is challenging to break from this compassionate approach to Bulgaria’s most-recognizable politician as Paounov avoids detailing Simeon’s actual politics. We are left without the specific actions of his time as prime minister, besides improvement in public relations, to comprehend how a portion of Bulgarians would turn on their idol and demand his resignation so quickly.
Nevertheless, The Boy Who Was a King provides a fascinating, non-fictional tale of one man and how his relationships with numerous sectors of the Bulgarian people have informed international perceptions of a nation for many decades. Themes of destiny, relativity, and patrondom arise in an interesting reflection on national and personal identity and how they intertwine.
(Time for a confession and endorsement: I actually viewed and critiqued The Boy Who Was a King in anticipation of the fifth annual Disappearing Act Film Festival, which is a wonderful program focused on bringing more obscure European cinema to light in America. The festival will screen The Boy Who Was a King at 8pm on April 20th, 2013 in the Bohemian National Hall of New York City with a special Q&A follow-up with director Andrey Paounov. I urge everyone to attend, as it will be a very fascinating, provocative evening. Further information, details, and directions to this event are available at the Disappearing Act blog, where this review is also featured.)