Flickering light, water over film skin. the sound of the wind on the watercoloured like a sunset or a redness that comes from the heat. you are absorbed by the light of the day walking through the window, travellers. you watch her hands linked together like an old tree, the house shaded by soft limbs of cedar.
she looks at the corner of the room, the sounds of insects and birds chirping. wasp body floats in the water, full of shadows and plant debris fallen from the sky. follow the grain of the wood with the blade of the axe, making a sound for punctuation. to live your own life, to have your own reasons and faith in them: she looks at you with the bells chiming, she says, foxes, wolves, bears, they are all different in the wild.
Melodic and irregular, the sound of bells invokes the opening and the ending of Ralitsa Doncheva’s short film “Baba Dana Talks To The Wolves” (2016). Interwoven with other ambient sounds, they form a richly textured soundscape which includes both sheep bells and church bells from the old monastery, as well as the sounds of laying hens, of songbirds and insects, of the wind buffeting, a clock ticking, and fragments of conversation with Baba Dana, her lone voice singing in Bulgarian.
The underlying rhythm of this work has me thinking about heartbeat and resonance. It strikes a sound of something within me. It stirs a murky and layered homesickness, a longing for slowness outside of the city—a feeling coloured by my grandparents’ homesickness for the west coast of Norway, and my mother’s homesickness for the rocky lakeshore of Northwestern Ontario, on Treaty 3 territory, where she grew up.
Filmed over three summers, and on three separate trips, the making of this work focused on forming a meaningful relationship, as Ralitsa spent many weeks living with Baba Dana, an 85-year-old Bulgarian woman, and sole keeper of the Zelenikovski monastery and surrounding woodlands. The monastery is a day’s hike from the nearest village, with no electricity and no water, and while the decision to work with 16mm film was in keeping with these practical limitations, Ralitsa says it also “felt more natural to her (Baba Dana’s) way of living and to her choices.”
Though Ralitsa now lives and works in Montreal, she was born and raised in Bulgaria, and this film is connected to two other films she has made—reworking and retelling different stories from that country. While “Unfortunately It Was Paradise” (2013) pulls clips from 1970’s Ukrainian documentary films and Communist propaganda films, and “Desert Islands” (2018) is a film she made with her father, revisiting the place where she was born, she says “Baba is sort of a fairytale but with a dark twist… because it is this beautiful place, and there is something very seductive about this idea of living close to nature—the light and the sound and everything. And yet, this is a place that is falling apart. It’s a place that might not be there tomorrow, and she (Baba Dana) might not be there tomorrow…”
This sense of fragility and decay is a constant throughout the film, and as Ralitsa describes her process in more detail, it becomes clear that vulnerability has been communicated not only in her choice of images but in a residual effect from their physical making. Every stage of the work involved surrendering control—from shooting the film on an old hand-cranked Bolex camera, to hand-processing the film back in Montreal, and gathering material over the course of several years, struggling to find ways to fund the project. She says, “With this type of work, it’s about the relationship as much as it’s about filming. As I’m getting closer to her (Baba Dana), I’m also getting closer to the celluloid… Time becomes a part of the process. Time becomes an ingredient.”