Rainbows, Candles, Bulgarian Music & Dennis Rodman

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Saw a double rainbow in Bulgaria today. It was only there for a few minutes taunting me from our window but I ran to get my camera and managed to get a few shots before it disappeared. What does it mean? Wish I knew. Check out the photos.

Last night, at midnight, I went to a Bulgarian Orthodox Easter service in our city. Seems like everyone in Blagoevgrad was there to get a candle lit from the “holy flame.” The faithful wait patiently for a chance to get a light directly from the flame that has special powers. Some walk around the outside of the church for extra good luck from 3 to 7 times while shielding their candlewicks from the wind. Then they rush home–on feet, in cars- with the candle that will keep them blessed for the following year. The church and the city were glowing. Even though I am not a believer, I really enjoyed the experience. Beautiful stuff. Check out the photos.

Last weekend, when we were in Sofia with our daughter Jenna (who had surprised me for my birthday by coming all the way from Chicago for 4 days, which was the best birthday present ever–you can read more about it on Mark’s blog), we went to see an All-Star basketball game. The big draw was Dennis Rodman, who didn’t seem too interested in the proceedings and spent most of the time slumped in a leather recliner. Even the cheerleaders couldn’t get his attention. But he did manage to dye his hair and paint his eyebrows the colors of the Bulgarian flag. Check out the photos.

Today I finished editing a short documentary about a Bulgarian female singing group called Svetlina. These fourteen women from the school where I teach (www.aubg.bg) sing traditional female folk songs. Did I mention that they sing acapella and that the group was founded by an American student who is from the Midwest and has not even an ounce of Bulgarian blood in her? Check out the video here:

A few other things of interest that we’ve done since I last blogged (or before):

– We reconnected with our Bulgarian “daughter” Ekaterina Petrova (Kate) from Macalester in Sofia when Jenna was here. She’s been living in France for much of the past year, so it was good timing. What fun to see them together. They really are like sisters. And now Kate and I will be doing some work together on the Documentary Boot Camp Master Class that I’ll be teaching in Sofia next weekend (sponsored by the American Embassy).

– Watched an amazing production of “Grease” that was put on AUBG students. It was really something special. Now they are off on a tour around Bulgaria. These students never cease to amaze me.

– Went to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, and saw an old amphitheater from the, oh, 2nd century. We were alone there. Virtually no tourists. A guy asked us for 3 leva (about $1.50) to get in and we weren’t even sure he worked there. This is a special place. Forget Rome. Come to Plovdiv.

– I spoke to film students at “NATFIZ” (the National Academy for Theater and Film Arts) in Sofia a few weeks ago. The students were great and one of them took a picture of me while I was showing them some shooting techniques.  I am pointing (see pic).  I hope I didn’t scare them too much.

-Had a great screening of NUMB, the documentary I am executive producing, at the Sofia International Film Festival. (Read about it here ). I also taught a workshop on “backpack filmmaking.” Had a great time there. The Q and A was fantastic.

-Did I mention that we went to Zagreb for ZagrebDox film fest and then to Greece for spring break to the Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival with AUBG Documentary Movie Club members? I brought 16 students there to see how the film festival world really works and we had an amazing time. Life-changing stuff, meeting with filmmakers and distributors, etc.  Here is a nice story written by a freshman from Georgia (the country) who had her passport and wallet stolen on the first day but still loved the festival.

– For the honors ceremony last week,  all faculty had to be present so Mark put on a cap and gown for the first time in, oh, 30 years.  There is  group picture of our journalism colleagues (hint: they have nicer regalia than us).

– We went to annual meeting of Blagoevgrad officials and AUBG faculty and administration.  It was a very serious meeting with mostly men in suits that wrapped up fairly early. When it did, the guy who was in charge of the microphones all of a sudden threw off his blazer and morphed into a D.J. and started blasting traditional Bulgarian music.  Barely a minute passed before the cafeteria and cleaning ladies all stopped what they were doing and started dancing along with the few people who were still there.  Of course I had to jump in, but more interesting is that Mark did, too! There is a blurry pic for proof in the slide show.  Now, whenever we see the cafeteria ladies, we have a special bond with them from this night.

Whew. So I started out this post only to talk about the double rainbow. Here it is a few hours later but now I realize that I have many adventures, stories and news to share!  Every day it’s something new, but I don’t always think that it’s blog-worthy.  But today I think it’s probably good to remember and reflect more often, at least when I have the time 🙂

There are just a few more weeks left of school. My students are working hard to finish the MISS AUBG documentary that I mentioned in the previous post.  The top 3 short documentaries  from that class will soon be broadcast on Bulgarian National Television.  The last multimedia journalism blog posts are due in less than two weeks ( I will post links later so you can check out their blogs – many are very interesting!).  The TV News class will soon have its last show of AUBG-TV. .  After graduation, we will be back to the U.S. for the summer. It’s hard to believe that this school year, our first year in Bulgaria, is almost done. I’ve still got more videos to shoot and edit and more pictures to take, but I feel like I’m the luckiest girl in the world to see the things I’ve seen and do the things I’ve done. Lucille Ball once said, “I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than the things I haven’t done.” Agreed.

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Sex, Brains and Videotape: How Feminism Missed the Balkans

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When I accepted a job teaching at the prestigious American University in Bulgaria, I never (never!) thought I’d be watching my students parading around on a stage in bikinis and evening gowns in front of a large crowd at a nightclub in a beauty pageant.   These AUBG (www.aubg.bg) students are some of the best and brightest from 44 countries around the world that come to the Blagoevgrad to get an American-style education. They are a hard-working bunch of high-achieving students. Many of them work summer jobs as dishwashers or maids in resort towns such as Martha’s Vineyard or Myrtle Beach to pay their own tuition to attend this private school because their parents in Albania, Russia or Turkmenistan can’t afford it.  They want to be politicians, journalists and business owners. And, surprisingly, some of them actually want to be “Miss AUBG.”

When I was a kid, I remember being excited to watch the annual “Miss America” pageant. My father owned a chain of women’s clothing stores and he would sometimes sponsor the local “Miss Maryland” contest by donating clothes to contestants (he said it was great publicity for the stories).  When it came time for the “Miss America” pageant, my family would gather round the TV set in our living room and watch the live event together. We all had a great time trying to guess who would win. We each had our own ballots and took notes and it was always exciting when “Miss Maryland” would place in some category (usually talent, to my father’s disappointment).  So I certainly understand the pleasure of watching a pageant.

But when I got old enough to really understand what was really going on, I started refusing to watch the pageants. I argued with my parents about this because I didn’t think it was a good idea to objectify women like that.   Why should women be judged on beauty and not on brains?  I also wondered about these women.  Why would they even want to be judged like that?  I haven’t watched a pageant since.

So when I heard about the Miss AUBG pageant, I immediately thought it had to be a joke or a spoof of some kind.  Yes, we are in the Balkans where women are very beautiful and beauty is valued, but we are also at an American University with American values. If this were a pageant happening at university in the States, I would imagine there would be huge protests against such a thing.  I couldn’t imagine anyone here would want be involved. Boy, was I wrong.  It appears that feminism skipped the Balkans.   Here is the official description of the event:

<<Miss AUBG Beauty Pageant is a magnificent annual event where beautiful AUBG girls present themselves in front of the audience wearing various styles, dancing and demonstrating their individual talents. All the contestants are evaluated by the professional jury members on the basis of their charm and talent. The girls undergo extensive training in catwalk, dance and other skills in order to present themselves the best way. At the end of the Miss AUBG show, jury announces Miss AUBG of the year, Miss Audience, Miss Charm, Miss Talent and other awards granted by our sponsors and honorable guests>>

After reading this synopsis, I decided that I wanted to make a documentary about this subject.  I thought it would be interesting to select a couple of the contestants and find out more about them (click here to see the contestants  .http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.292408380833052.68504.287315831342307&type=1 . What was their motivation for participating? How did they think this would change their lives? What do their families and friends think about this?

As luck would have it, I’m also teaching a documentary production class this semester so I asked my students if they wanted to work with me as a team to make this documentary as a class project. They agreed (some reluctantly) and they spent the week leading up to the pageant doing interviews with students, faculty, administration, previous participants and founders as well as documenting 5 contestants as they prepared for the competition (see the class blog about the making of the documentary here: http://missaubgdoc.wordpress.com ). From rehearsals to classes to hanging out with boyfriends and friends to selecting their gowns and getting their hair done, my students were there every step of the way with the university’s trusty Nikon, Sony and Kodak cameras along with a couple of brand new wireless microphones.  Some secrets were revealed… stories were shared…and many hours of footage was captured and backed up on a hard drive.  One universal truth came from these interviews: these girls are not ashamed of their beauty or their sexuality and they don’t see a problem with sharing both on a stage for the world to see.

The night of the pageant, Club Xtreme was packed with men and women at 11 p.m. waiting for the show to start.  My students were in position in several locations (including the dressing room) ready to capture all the action. The pageant opened with previous Miss AUBG participants, called “AUBG Angels,” doing a sexy dance in white short shorts and pink tank tops that said “I heart Miss AUBG.”  (see video from that dance here:  http://bit.ly/HFMybp ). From there, things got more outrageous as the contestants sashayed down the runway in skimpy bathing suits and showcased their talent (ballet, singing, dancing) and modeled skin-tight gowns.  It was honestly shocking for me and it was the biggest culture shock I’ve experienced since moving to Bulgaria last year. But clearly I was in the minority because the rest of the audience was enjoying it.

Groups of guys drinking heavily chanted and cheered for their favorite contestants. Judges (ie; sponsors) with serious faces kept track of scores on their ballots (one was even snapping pictures of each girl as he “judged” them).  And the show hosts kept the action going by asking questions to contestants like “what would you do if you had a million dollars?”

In the end, the “Miss This” and “Miss That” was announced while the previous “Miss AUBG” stood waiting in the wings to give her crown to the new winner.  The room was filled with anticipation as the new Miss AUBG was announced.  Cheers erupted and there were hugs all around when the winner was crowned.  That moment felt like a loss for feminism, but a win for the documentary because one of the girls we were following is now wearing that crown.

The “Miss AUBG Beauty Pageant” exposes the vast gulf between what would be unacceptable at an American school and what is generally acceptable at the American University in Bulgaria.  But filming the contestants also forced me to look at this competition from a new perspective within the cultural context of this region.  These young women are not even a little bit ashamed as I would have expected. In fact, they are actually proud to participate in a beauty pageant. I hope our film will explore the complexities of this issue and reveal the inner beauty and brains of the contestants, something that was lost in the alcohol-fueled proceedings on pageant night.