Every winter in Bulgaria, hundreds of figures descend on snowy forests and village centres in strikingly elaborate costumes. An ancient pagan tradition known as Kukeri, traditional rituals are performed mostly by men, but sometimes women, to scare away evil spirits. It’s a sacred part of cultural life that’s survived since the fifth century, outliving the Ottomans, Christendom and communist rule. It’s also the subject of Daniel Ali’s and Jacob Schühle Lewis’ latest film of the same title, Kukeri, a near 10 minute film exploring exploring the strong tradition in south west Bulgaria.
The project came about much like most of Daniel’s projects, after months and months of Googling some pretty weird stuff. After a great haul of research however, he finally narrowed down his interest to a subject that would connect with an audience, in this instance, Kukeri. He tells us: “There is often no personal connection per se to the subjects of my films, more of a desire to share the stories of unique and unseen communities and individuals around the world.”
He came across the tradition of Kukeri a couple of year previous to making the film with long term collaborator Jacob. Crediting the discovery of the subject to a combination of luck and persistence, for Daniel there are a number of things to consider before launching on the actual production of a film. Uncovering a unique angle for one, not to mention working out practicalities and logistics. As for being a freelance filmmaker with a wife and kids who independently funds at least one film a year, Daniel has learned the value of going with the flow. He adds, “quite often fate plays an important role.”
After reaching out to local production companies, Daniel and Jacob were connected with local families involved in the practice. Deciding to focus on one family in particular, chosen for “their commitment and involvement to the Kukeri practice,” Daniel was particularly drawn to the way women were heavily involved in Kukeri with this family. Historically, Kukeri is a male-dominated ritual and women would not be involved, taking more of a supporting role. But as we can see in this film, Margarita takes centre stage in this family’s dedication to the festival.
The short hopes to speak to viewers on several levels of narration; using perspective, visual effects and editing to enhance the story. “I want to make work that is not only informative and educational,” says Daniel, “but also beautiful and captivating to watch, hear and experience.” His influences include the likes of Kahlil Joseph, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Andrew Kotting, who all do this masterfully, and also cites Joshua Oppenheimer, Ron Fricke and March Singer for their work in the filed of documentary film.
When it came to accurately representing the Bulgarian community, it was important for Daniel and Jacob to get the atmosphere and facts spot on. They sought to capture the historicism of the tradition and on a deeper level, the act of keeping family heritage alive. On this, Daniel says: “It was made clear to us that one of the main reasons the family still observed these ancient rituals was because they were proud of their roots and they felt it was their duty to keep the traditions alive in order to respect their ancestors. Even if they didn’t fully believe in the mystical roots to the rituals, they still felt it necessary to go to the financial cost and effort of creating the outfits as well as preparing and performing the yearly customs.”
Offering the audience a glimpse of both the contemporary and traditional roots of the Kukeri practice, Daniel and Jacob worked closely with the family to represent how the family interpret Kukeri today. “Essentially,” he finally goes on to say, “we wanted to portray a side of the Kukeri believes that cannot simply be Googled or found on YouTube, and offer the audience a glimpse into an ancient world which is only witnessed and experienced by the very people who uphold these sacred traditions.”
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.