Do we still need national heroes?

A discussion of Deyan Bararev’s Botev is an Idiot by Ana Grgić

The modern society with its endless museums and archives, selected and selective commemorations and remembrances, does it suffer from too much memory and can forgetting be good? The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, raised some central questions on the use of history in his work: How much history is good for you? To what extent is it life-affirming? When is time to put history aside and act? Deyan Bararev seems to re-propose the very same questions in the context of contemporary Bulgaria through his short film Botev is an Idiot.

The film uses the pretext of a controversial essay written by a pupil called Vasko, on the Bulgarian national hero Hristo Botev, which the school teacher finds unacceptable, with the aim to raise questions about national heroes and memory, the contemporary social and political situation. The 9 minute film takes place in a school classroom, but its theme transcends the strict universe of solely teenage angst, and provides a critical commentary on the contemporary Bulgarian society.

Bararev’s short film dares to question the Bulgarian national hero and the significance of such figures for the present society, through a demystification of the hero mythology. Heroes are historical constructs, which can change over time, and we need to question their relevance in the current context, seems to suggest Bararev. Now, Hristo Botev is a mythical figure in the Bulgarian National Revival (18th – 19th century) and is considered to be one of the greatest Bulgarian poets and revolutionaries in the national struggle for independence against the Ottoman Empire. His status as a national hero and martyr is commemorated each year on 2nd June, when air raid sirens throughout the country resonate, to honour Botev and all those who died fighting for Bulgaria’s freedom.

The teacher embodies the older generation and the educational system, which re-proposes strict national narratives, while Vasko, the male student represents the younger generation struggling in the unstable political, social and economic situation in the contemporary Bulgaria. Is difference of opinion possible in the current political climate, and can the young people make their voices heard? Bararev’s film stands out as a strong voice among the usual apathy of young people in East Europe, reflected in Vasko, who speaks out, defending his views and questioning the dominant opinion, while the camera travels revealing the rest of the class, as distracted and concerned only with the superficial (putting on make-up, writing notes, scribbling). When one student proclaims he would still die for Bulgaria, his reaction is met with derisive laughter by the other students.

Vasko is framed by the photographs of Botev and other Bulgarian literary/national figures while delivering his monologue through his point of view, evoking ills of today’s society, young people’s options and the idea that one needs to fight back with love. These portraits preside over his head with authority and the weight of history which oppresses Vasko (and other young people), underlined by dramatic music, while the tension and urgency to re-act builds up. The accusation against the teacher of poisoning the educational system through the repetition of models without reflection is met by a slap on the face, while Vasko’s counter-response is a kiss.

The film, shot in one long take, gives the impression of cuts due to skilful framing technique and the rhythm/pace created by alternating between close ups, a travelling camera and wider shots. The circular structure of the film returns the discussion to the blackboard, where the statement is no longer completed (“Botev is an idiot”) and open to interpretation and alternative answers.  The fact that the film has met with various opinions, and provoked strong reactions among the Bulgarian spectators, is evident from the comments on You Tube below the video itself (which has over 133,000 views already).

In conclusion, Botev is an Idiot questions the relevance of our national memory, through a provocation and debunking of a national hero, leaving its spectators with a reflection upon the significance of the national rhetoric and the educational system which propagates the same model repeatedly without questioning. Thus, is the need for historical awareness impeding important and necessary societal change?


Ana GrgicAna Grgic (1981, Montenegro – Croatian) is a doctoral candidate and researcher at the University of St Andrews, working on preservation, cultural memory and early cinema history in the Balkans, under supervision of Professor Dina Iordanova. She recently contributed to the The Film Festival Yearbook 5: Archival Film Festivals (2013) edited by Alex Marlow-Mann, and regularly attends film festivals in the Balkans. She has been on the Jury for the Best Critic Award at the Online Short Film Festival for Balkan Young Filmmakers altcineAction since 2013. In 2011, she received her Master Degree from the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris III, with a dissertation on film restoration and cinematic image-matter. Prior to this, she worked in film production at the Italian studio Cinecittà and in visual effects post production on titles like Andrei Konchalovsky’s The Nutcracker and the second season of HBO’s Rome. She also assisted in curating the Peter Greenaway film programme at the Australian Cinémathèque,  and the contemporary video and cinema practice ‘The View from Elsewhere’ at the Gallery of Modern Art (Queensland Art Gallery, Australia) in 2009. Her current research interests include Balkan cinema, archival theory, film preservation, art history, philosophy, memory and cultural studies.