Lubomir Bakchev, man of iron

By Ariane Damain Vergallo for Leitz Cine Wetzlar

La Lettre AFC n°289

[ English ] [ français ]

In the 1970s and 1980s, Bulgaria is one of the most communist countries in the world. The "Russian Big Brother" does not even bother to dispatch an occupation army there as the Bulgarian population fully adheres to the system. Propaganda is beyond effective and one risks one’s life at the mere hint of a protest.

Hence, when impetuous 16-year-old Lubomir Bakchev decides to set up a union at the Merchant Navy School (which he enlisted in as a sailor) in order "to defend ourselves from abusive teachers", he is strongly advised to “stay put for [his] own good.”
"I don’t even know how come I’m still alive”, he now says. “I didn’t comprehend then that I was living in a totalitarian system."

At the age of 18, Lubomir Bakchev convinces his brother to flee abroad without informing their parents whom he always considered mere strangers.
"I didn’t have a happy childhood." They spot a parking lot where truck drivers spend the night and sneak into a truck heading for Greece where they will stay about a month. Then they decide to walk across the border into Yugoslavia, take the train to Skopje – but they are arrested in Zagreb and handed over to the Bulgarian authorities.

Lubomir Bakchev - Photo Ariane Vergallo, Leica M, Summicron-C 100 mm
Lubomir Bakchev
Photo Ariane Vergallo, Leica M, Summicron-C 100 mm

Luckily, their trial turns out to be thisclose to a travesty as their father, a teacher, happens to be very close to the prosecutor… who ends up defending rather than accusing them. Lubomir Bakchev gets away with nine months of suspended imprisonment – the only way out of which is opting for a military service that is akin to forced labor. For the conscripts’ only task, day in day out, consists of crushing concrete slabs with a mallet. "I was a zombie."

Lubomir Bakchev has but one goal, one obsession : to run away again. Granted a leave, he tries to flee to Istanbul on a rubber dinghy, but he is stopped at the Turkish border and sent back to a maximum security jail reserved to repeat offenders - he will stay there for almost three years, sharing his cell with a man who has been locked up for seventeen years !
Fortunately, we are at the end of 1989 and History marches on. In November, the Berlin Wall is torn down. In late December, Nicolae Ceaucescu, the iron-fisted ruler of the adjacent country, Romania, is arrested and executed. Terror changes sides ; prison guards begin to fear the detainees. Finally, Lubomir Bakchev is amnestied.

In 1990, Lubomir Bakchev is 20. Summoned to complete his military service, he decides to flee again. He takes the train to Yugoslavia, and then sneakily hitchhikes across several borders – into Serbia, into Austria, into Germany. He finally reaches France (more specifically, the city of Toulouse) where his brother has already applied for political asylum.
Try and visualize him, as, for the first time in his life, he is happy, confident in the future, driven by an indestructible optimism forged by months – years ! - of flights, prison, hard labor, and never-ending loneliness.
He knows there is no going back ; he knows he is now safe in France.

He is soon placed in a workers’ hostel and right away, spots a photo lab in his immediate neighborhood. As it happens, he has had a devouring passion for photography since the age of 10. A passion that spurred him, just before he left Bulgaria, to mail all his negatives – all 12 lbs of them – to “General Delivery, France”.
At the time, perhaps overly confident that some day, he will be successful – ah, youth ! - He has no idea it will take him more than two years to reach France… and that he will never recover his early pictures - a loss he still bemoans today.

With a Bulgarian-French dictionary in each pocket, he works frantically and, though starting literally from scratch, soon skyrockets to the position of timer in the Photo Lab “Pro” Department. By the end of his contract, he speaks French almost fluently. When he hears of the ESAV, a film Academy in Toulouse, he decides to go for the competitive entrance exam - and fails miserably, for his knowledge of “France’s Great Film Works” is limited to the movies that met a modicum of success behind the Iron Curtain : films starring Louis de Funès or Pierre Richard, or films made by Luc Besson.
Does that failure affect him ? Not a chance. Having befriended almost everyone around, he soon becomes the ESAV’s most notorious "clandestine student". He participates in all of his year group’s films, and truly begins to learn the trade.

Fairly quickly, he decides to move to Paris. Alternating between assistant camera operator and best boy, he is, sooner than most, elevated to the position of main camera operator – in a large part, no doubt, because his experience and knowledge of still photography and lab work (exposure, development) give him an undeniable head start.
Three years later, he shoots David Oelhoffen’s first medium-length film followed, just as he turns 28, by a first feature ...that will never be commercially released, and by another one that will only come out in the Basque Country, where it was shot !

Despite which, luckily, he has been spotted by a lady producer who passes his name on to whomever is ‘casting’ cinematographers for Abdellatif Kechiche’s next film, L’Esquive (Games of Love and Chance, 2004). This is the first of four films he will make with that director who can do up to ninety takes of a single shot over three days in a row, leaving all his actors and crew totally exhausted.

All but Lubomir Bakchev. Hanging in against all odds, he quickly learns that "staging is all about acting, not lighting". Yet, how could he imagine that within a year, the film will be a runaway hit in Cannes, truly launch his career and, a few months later, be awarded no less than four Césars, thereby signifying unanimous recognition from the profession.

In the meantime, just to make ends meet, he goes back to being assistant camera operator and even asks the chief electrician to take him on as best boy on Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers.
How fascinating it is to see the physically impaired Maestro suddenly drop his two canes to grab the camera ! Nothing short of a miracle – or is it ? Young Lubomir realizes that what keeps one truly going – in films perhaps more than in anything else – is a boundless desire that drives one to excel.

In film circles, Lubomir Bakchev is now nicknamed “the man with the camera”. A hand-held camera ace, he likes to shoot in natural light at the sole service of the actors that he stays as close to as possible – to wit, his work on Jonathan Nossiter’s Rio Sex Comedy, and on David Oelhoffen’s first (and magnificent) feature film, Nos retrouvailles (In Your Wake, 2007).

After Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Graine et le mulet (The Secret of The Grain, 2007) - again a great success - he joins the director on Vénus noire (Black Venus, 2010) - which will mark their definitive break. The shooting is a nightmare, a dogfight, to the kill.
Bakchev had initially warned the production that his first child’s birth was imminent. A reason he uses one day to jump on his motorcycle, flee the set and head for the maternity ward without even saying goodbye.
"Liberating" is his one-word comment.

After a while, he happens to meet actor-director Agnès Jaoui who hires him as cinematographer on her film Au bout du conte (Under the Rainbow, 2013). A job ? More like a life belt. With Jaoui, he gets back both the desire and the pleasure of making films. As he started doing when he shot no less than three film helmed by actor-director Julie Delpy, including Two Days in Paris (2007) and Two Days in New York (2012).
"Free women, women who enchant me and keep my love of cinema alive."

And what a brilliant idea the producers of Eric Rochant’s cult series "Le Bureau des légendes" (“The Bureau”) had to entrust Lubomir Bakchev with all the location shoots for seasons 3 and 4 !
Who else could have shown, the way he did, the cells that imprison Malotru (the double agent played by Mathieu Kassovitz) in Syria, Ukraine or Azerbaijan ?
After all, he probably is the only cinematographer in France to have had a direct experience of jailbreaks, life on the lam as well as life in prisons under the Soviets’ yoke.

For “The Bureau”’s Seasons 3 and 4, Lubomir Bakchev immediately selects the Summilux-C series from Leitz Cine. For the last 25 years, he has had a love affair with Leica, ever since he bought his first still camera with the salary he got on his debut job. Over time, he has hoarded no less than four Leicas and fourteen R lenses.
"My own, personal treasure !"
For “The Bureau”, he affixes the Summilux-C lenses to the Arri Alexa Mini, thereby coming up with a light, mobile combination. "You can shoot everywhere, day or night, with and without light. The quality of the Summilux-Cs is that exceptional".

Call it serendipitous symmetry : Lubomir Bakchev spent fourteen years in France as a political refugee and for the last fourteen years, he has been a French citizen. He also got married (to a script supervisor) and they have two children. The time has come for him to remember the freedom-loving young man he once was and tell his story.
In collaboration with Arnaud Desplechin, he is preparing his first film as a director, dealing with his youth, his dark years of prison and his escape to France as the Berlin wall was coming down.
He always swore he would never go back, right ? Well, as a famous English novelist once wrote, “Never say never again”. Right ?

(Translated from French by Henri Behar)